It’s as if i’m a passed away author, fifty or so years have gone by, and now my work is in the public domain. Some writers and publishers are crazy about my Punjabi novel ‘Skeena’, so they go ahead and convert it from Shahmukhi script to Gurmukhi, edit it, get someone to create a brand new cover page, dtp it, print it, and send it to a bookstore near where i live.
I’m not kidding.
Gurmukhi edition of novel ‘Skeena’ now available in India and Canada
Last month, Rajwant Chilana, an author and the owner of India Bookworld in Surrey, contacted me to say that Skeena’s Punjabi edition had arrived and he invited me to come and see it. First, i thought, the bookstore has acquired the Shahmukhi edition from Sanjh Publications in Lahore but then I remembered that when someone from a Sikh cultural background says ‘Punjabi’, they mean Punjabi in Gurmukhi script, just like when someone from Muslim cultural background says ‘Punjabi’ they mean Punjabi in Shahmukhi or Arabo-Persian script.
I went and saw it, it was in Gurmukhi. Skeena’s Punjabi edition got published in India after twelve years of being published in Pakistan and its Gurmukhi edition got published after eight years of getting published in Canada (script conversion and editing by Surjeet Kalsey, limited edition, Libros Libertad 2011). It took so long because as an author i was unwilling to pay the printing costs as is still customary in Punjabi publishing. Indeed, it is a compliment to me and my work that a group of people invested their time and money to bring out a nice edition, and now it is finally available to all Punjabi readers, and that makes me very happy.
Yet there is this feeling of taken-aback-ness, curiosity, and i must admit- some amusement. In this scenario of un-asked permissions, un-authorised script conversions and un-acknowledged royalty rights, the aspect that intrigues me the most is the brand new cover art. Indeed, the woman on the cover is sitting in a much favored pose for women on book covers in South Asia, the popular ‘waiting-bride’ pose.
Below is the original cover art of Skeena: a stylized depiction of a woman lying on a bed with an open book, her body tattooed with decorative shapes and newsprint, with a background of minarets and moon.
Painting by Ahmad Zoay, Cover design by Sadaf Chughtai
At the back, to point to the possibilities of how a woman’s person may flower, and, to counter the male gaze, the figure is turned upright- thanks to graphic designer Sadaf Chughtai in Lahore.
I am grateful to publisher Amjad Saleem Minhas for giving me the right to choose the cover art for the debut edition in 2007, and later to Manolis Aligizakis for keeping it for the English edition in 2011. I had chosen it after going over hundreds of paintings and drawings. This was important to me because my novel Skeena traverses a delicate line- it is based on the cliche plot of a young Muslim woman who is brought up in a Punjabi village and she arrives in Canada via an arranged marriage- in this cliche plot original real life characters breathe, reside and flourish changing the nature of the plot and its situations. The cover art expresses a part of Skeena’s essence, and it serves as a caution to people of a conservative traditional mindset to not pick it up. I was also aware that it can alienate a portion of Skeena’s ‘natural’ readership of women who may find it hard to pick up the novel, buy it and read it in public- but, there always is a first time.
What we have on the cover of Gurmukhi edition now is a realistic projection of a Muslim woman from lower middle class or from the more conservative sections of middle class. Nice art work, i especially like the thoughtful expression on the woman’s face where she seems determined to figure things out for herself, the soft colors and contours of the image provide a palpable base for her efforts. It depicts the apparent or outward mannerism of Skeena at least as it is in the first three sections of the novel. But Wow! Catch me if i fall, what a transformation. If the original was a caution because of a woman’s sprawling non-pornographic nudity, than this is an invitation because of the harmlessness of the fully-clothed safely-sexy ‘girly-book’ look. Indeed, based on the cover, it can easily pass for an A. R. Khatoon or a Razia Butt kind of novel that feeds into and perpetuates most of the entrenched systemic myths and prejudices about women and people in general.
A few years back, a friend in Lahore who had immensely enjoyed reading Skeena, asked a woman who was studying it for her research, to encapsulate Skeena and she had instantly responded with ‘She is a rebel’. View it here:
Given that it is the same novel, let’s see if the ‘invitation’ works better than the ‘caution’, as we know that Skeena’s Shahmukhi edition is Pakistan’s all-time best-selling Punjabi novel since 2008.
October 15, 2019
Script Conversion & Editing: Harbans Singh Dhiman
India Bookworld, $15
Sangam Publications, India