Marhi da Diva (The Last Flicker)
‘Marhi da Diva’ by Gurdial Singh (translated as ‘The Last Flicker’ by Ajmer S. Rode) focuses on the psychological tensions and social misgivings of a much neglected class. The novel is the life story of Jagseer - a low caste farmer living in a typical rural Punjabi village. Through Jagseer, Gurdial Singh shows us (or actually makes us feel) the tragedy of an economically and socially challenged common man. The image of the village is sketched out in great detail. The mention of bullocks ploughing fields, water canals, marriage customs like Jago, small huts with cots etc gives us the feel of a simple typical village. The dispute over land (a major event in the novel) is also typical to a rural village.
The protagonist Jagseer leads a life of deprivation not only of a social identity but also of the pleasures of marriage, a wife or children of his own. Dharam Singh’s son hates the fact that Jagseer being an untouchable low caste man has right over half acre of land his grandfather had gifted Jagseer’s father and keeps mocking him and creating problems for him. He takes him to be a tenant and thus believes he shouldn’t act like the owner of the field. Jagseer’s mother is a runaway gypsy girl who had been disowned by her own community and parents and the whole village gossips about her and laughs at her antics. Against the background of all this external pressure Jagseer’s own quiet and shy nature and awareness of the fact that he is a low caste intensifies his pitiable condition. To top all this he falls in love with the bride (Bhani) of his newly married friend. This secret love soon becomes public and knowing that she could never be his, Jagseer starts falling down a path of self pity and existential destruction.
The tragedy of the novel is not confined to just Jagseer. His mother has been cast out from her community for marrying a man of her choice. She is mocked by all as a low caste and witch and after her husband’s death spends a lonely and deprived life continuously coaxing her husband for not getting her son married and worrying whether he would ever find a wife. Dharam Singh’s son and wife side against him when he sympathizes with Jagseer and helps him financially. They call him insensitive and family destroyer and ask him to leave the house and have no relation with them. Raunki’s wife who he loves dearly suddenly leaves him without any warning or reason and he is left alone in his house with his grief and intense longing for her. He survives a fruitless and painful life and gets addicted to opium. Bhani herself fancies Jagseer but leads a monotonous life with Nikka who had once even thrashed her badly. Her longing for Jagseer is never fulfilled both because of social restrictions and Jagseer’s shyness. In all, the novel depicts the miseries of characters at all economic and social levels and a very realistic portrait of the people forming an integral part of the rural landscape.
The helpless situation of the protagonist, his dispute with Bhanta over land, the miseries of other characters who are struggling to make ends meet and trying to find meaning and essence in life all this gives structure to the novel. However this misery is never the focus of the author. He never laments about the situation the characters are. He just tells us their story in a very simple and short manner and we ourselves get the feel of the pitiable existence they have especially Jagseer and his mother. What gives essence and depth to the story is Jagseer’s and Bhani’s largely unexpressed love for each other. Its intensity and purity is felt when at the end of the novel Bhani is shown to be lighting a lamp on Jagseer’s marhi.
The novel makes attempt to show us that the caste hierarchy that exists and is clearly acknowledged by all is not really very intuitive. It is very conveniently violated at many places. Dharam Singh’s father though of higher caste looks upon Jagseer’s father as a brother. He respects him and they work together all their lives. Similarly Jagseer’s friends do not care about the fact that he is the son of a runaway gipsy. The distance that they maintain is by taking care of pity things like not eating from the same plate etc is only because they have been always taught to do so and is never instinctive. Similarly when the heartbroken Raunki washes his friend Jagseer’s dishes it is as if the novel is trying to show us that these discriminations based on birth, race, occupation etc become really insignificant when we are concentrating on important things in life.
The novel does not progress much plot wise and even disappoints us towards the end as it shows its main character loitering around pillar to post, not doing much but waddling in self pity, submitting himself completely to drugs (opium) and wasting away till his death. He couldn’t even muster courage enough to express his feelings to Bhani. He sure cannot be blamed completely as the situations he faced could break anyone, but still his complete submission and inaction is disappointing.