Blood and belief on the Soan

September 4, 2022

An addition to partition literature in translation

Blood and belief on the Soan


anak Singh (1897-1971) needs no introduction among Punjabi readers. He established himself in the 20th Century Punjabi literary landscape with a staggering output of more than 50 novels, short fiction, poetic collections, plays, essays and translations.

Recognition has, however, eluded the prolific writer in his birthplace, Chak Hamid which now falls in Jhelum district in the Soan River valley Singh’s grandson Navdeep Suri, a distinguished diplomat, has translated some of his works into English.

The novel under review, Khoon De Sohile (translated as Hymns In Blood), takes its title from a verse in the Guru Granth Sahib written at the time of Mughal emperor Babur’s invasion of India in the 16th Century. The full import of the title registers only towards the conclusion of the novel. The novel is set in Chakri village of the picturesque Soan valley of the Pothohar. The narrative begins amid the backdrop of a budding teenage romance between Naseem, the major female protagonist of the novel, and Yusuf, a somewhat wayward lad who often manages to get his way with the former. The relationship is peppered by fits of violent anger.

Before the readers get to the novel itself, a polemical foreword by the author grabs their attention. He raises the question whether the British or the natives of the Punjab should be blamed for the Partition.

It may be tempting to read the book merely as the story of a doomed village romance rather than a Partition novel. Naseem, hopelessly in love with Yusuf, realises that because of Yusuf’s wanton ways the two cannot be together. More than half of the narrative is dedicated to the love story. Apart from Naseem, the only other well-fleshedout character is the Sikh sage Baba Bhana, the oldest man in the village who had promised the girl’s dying father to act like a father to her.

Basing the plot on a romance between two Muslim characters allows Nanak Singh to make recurring parallels with Heer Ranjha and Yusuf Zulekha. Later in the novel, two Muslim characters, the munshi and the maulvi of the village, instigate communal tensions. Nanak Singh’s thesis appears to be that it was the Muslim League that broke away from India. Meanwhile, the novelist deserves credit for creating believable Muslim characters.

Basing the plot on a romance between two Muslim characters allows Nanak Singh to make recurring parallels with Heer Ranjha and Yusuf Zulekha.

There is more than the disappointments of a doomed romance and the political vicissitudes to sustain the reader’s interest. With the conclusion of winter and the arrival of Lohri, there is a pleasant interlude. There are delicate passages describing a common ethos in celebrating Lohri, a secular festival heralding the arrival of spring. The novel’s portrayal of scenes of rivalry and revelry between groups of boys and girls is quite effective. This reader has read very few examples of joyful extempore tappas and mahiyas better composed in riposte. In this effort, Singh is paralleled only by Qasmi’s descriptions in the original Pothohari. Here is a sample:

Like a pomegranate flower,

I am most handsome among the boys.

Now, who’s the loveliest among the


Draws the response:

Stand in the corner, miserable pervert

I’m like your sister, don’t forget

Go find a harlot if you want to flirt!

As communal tensions reach this quiet corner of the Punjab, the norms of civilised behavior are relegated in the onrush towards the inevitable – the expulsion of the village’s tiny non-Muslim population by hordes of Muslim vigilantes and retribution for the members of the majority who try to protect the former. Baba Bhana, whose eyesight is failing, and Naseem are forced to flee Chakri amid scenes of loot, plunder and wanton bloodshed familiar to the readers of Saadat Hasan Manto, Krishan Chander, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Abdullah Hussein, Bhisham Sahni, Qasmi and Pritam. Nanak Singh also documents some exceptions among the Muslims who put themselves in harm’s way to ensure safe passage for Baba Bhana and Naseem:

Such incidents weren’t confined to a village or two. Every village in the area had its own story of Muslims who provided shelter to Hindu and Sikh families and either saved them from certain death or tried valiantly to shield them... The Muslim population of Chakri was widely regarded as the most tolerant and trustworthy in this part of Pothohar.

Unsurprisingly, Singh helped save many Muslims fleeing from Amritsar to Pakistan from Hindu and Sikh hordes.

Hymns In Blood is a significant addition to Partition literature in translation. It will bolster Nanak Singh’s reputation in his native land, where none of his works has been widely read or reviewed even in translation. Navdeep Suri has kept the spirit of the Punjabi intact in his translation. The book is delightfully peppered with Punjabi and Hindi words for flora and fauna. One wishes that the tappas and mahiyas should have been included in the original Punjabi to give a flavour of the language to the curious reader. One waits for the promised translation by Suri of the sequel to this novel titled Agg di Khed (A Game of Fire) that will take up the love story in the post-Partition Amritsar.

Hymns in Blood

Author: Nanak Singh (Translated by Navdeep Suri)

Publisher: Harper Perennial, India, 2022

Pages: 234

The author, a Lahore-based writer, critic, translator and researcher, can be reached at:  He tweets at

Blood and belief on the Soan