Sukhbir, (Punjabi: ਸੁਖਬੀਰ, Hindi: सुखबीर) (9 July 1925 – 22 February 2012), alias Balbir Singh is a Punjabi novelist, short-story writer, poet and an essayist. He was born on 9 July 1925 to S. Mansha Singh and Smt. Shiv Kaur in Mumbai, India. He was suffering from multiple complications after severe cardiac arrest and died on 22 February 2012.
Sukhbir has been writing and publishing for the last fifty years. He has authored 7 novels, 11 short story collections, 5 poetry collections among many translations of world literature, essays, letters and book reviews.
Sukhbir alias Balbir Singh was the eldest of all his siblings, who included 3 brothers and 3 sisters. He adopted the pen name Sukhbir after partition, when he was arrested during the student unrest in Mumbai in 1950. He had already started publishing in literary magazines and was a known name as a budding writer. While he was in jail in Nasik, one of his editor friends in whose magazine his poems were to be published, changed the name to Sukhbir, to avoid authorities attention. Subsequently, Sukhbir chose to retain Sukhbir as his pen name, as many other writers with the name of Balbir Singh had sprung up by then and were cashing in on his established name.
His father, S. Mansha Singh, was a civil engineer in Indian Railways. He was a religious man, but with rational and a liberal attitude. He was the first person to have opened Sukhbir up to rational interpretation of his own religion, and subsequently, to everything in life. He can safely be called the first influence in Sukhbir’s life which remained throughout.
Sukhbir’s early schooling was in his native village Beerampur in Punjab. His father being in the Railways, the family was always on the move. When he was in the 6th standard, the family shifted to Mumbai. He did his subsequent schooling in Podar High School, Mumbai. He completed his graduation from Khalsa College, Mumbai, after which he moved to Khalsa College, Amritsar to pursue his Masters in Punjabi in 1958, which earned him the rank of university topper and a gold medal. Much as he wanted to, he could not pursue a post-graduation in Psychology.
He had started publishing in the leading Punjabi journal of the time, Preet Lari edited by legendary Gurbaksh Singh Preetlari. Simultaneously, he had started taking interest in the activities of Communist Party of India, and had great regard for its founder Puran Chand Joshi or P. C. Joshi. This interest did not last long as he soon got disillusioned with the political tactics that led to the severe humiliation and expulsion of Puran Chand Joshi from the party. He reflected hard on the communist ideology and chose to step aside to find his own way, while remaining committed to the Marxist thought and philosophy.
Before taking up writing as a full-time career, Sukhbir took up different jobs of advertisement-writer, college lecturer, etc. to earn his livelihood. By this time, he had got married to Jasbir Kaur. Soon thereafter, he left his job of lecturer in Khalsa College, Mumbai to take up writing as a full-time career, which was unusual and a risky proposition at that time considering the fate of writers in the country.
Sukhbir’s major literary influences have been John Steinbeck, Anton Chekhov, Irving Stone, Sigmund Freud, T. S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Sardar Jafri, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi and he in turn, influenced a whole generation of writers after him.
He was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Gautama Buddha and Portuguese philosopher Baruch Spinoza. His writings depicted the inner travails of the human mind as a significant aspect of the life of the characters, and these thinkers dwelt upon the ambiguous nature of mental processes. He also studied the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to understand the inner workings of the mind to add psychological dimensions to the characters of his novels and short stories.Karl Marx’s life and works also had an everlasting influence on him, as Sukhbir identified with his empathy and concern for the underprivileged in society.
Sukhbir was an avid reader of biographies of great writers and other personalities because he believed that an understanding and appreciation of their work is not complete unless one has studied the background contexts in which they lived and worked.
Sukhbir is considered the pioneer of stream-of-consciousness writing in Punjabi. His novel Raat da Chehra (The Face of Night) published in 1961 is an out and out stream-of-consciousness novel depicting the story spanned over one night. Even in his short stories, he pioneered the stream-of-consciousness genre of writing. A noted example is the story Ruki Hoyi Raat (The Suspended Night) in which the narrator in his reminiscences is recalling his long lost childhood friend who has become a rebel and is evading the repressive authorities.
Sukhbir brought a new sensibility to the Punjabi novel by introducing lyrical beauty in prose and distributing his narrative material into pictorial scenes and adding dimensions to characters through exchange of dialogue. Sukhbir being essentially a poet wished his prose to vie with poetry for the virtues of precision, harmony and rhythm.
In Sukhbir’s writings, progressive, psychological and artistic strands are inter twined. His realistic literary vision got strength from the pragmatic approach of Marxism on the one hand and depths of psychology and intricacies of arts on the other.
Sukhbir had a good appreciation of painting and he occasionally did sketches. A painter’s perspective is seen in all his writings. The poems in Nain Naksh (The Features) are written specifically in techniques of modern painting like Portrait, Nude, Collage, Still Life, Landscape, Self-Portrait, etc. This is a unique experiment in Punjabi literature. Observing the environs and its life from the perspective of a painter, he brought in a new approach in all three genres – poetry, short story and novel.