Surjit Hans (1931-2020)
By Sukhdev Singh Sohal
Professor Surjit Hans defined the boundaries of Punjabi language, literature, academics and scholarship. His demise on Friday morning, January 17 in Mohali after a prolonged illness has left a wide void, difficult to fill in the coming times. Whatever field he decided to choose, he set parameters for himself and for his students and worked with near perfection and profundity. With a literary bent of mind, he would prefer to go into the complexity of a situation with statistical precision. His preferred areas of activity and thinking were language, literature, history, philosophy and psychology. Prof. Hans was bestowed with the Punjab Sahitya Akademi and Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi awards for his contribution to Punjabi language and literature.
Prof. Hans was born on October 31, 1931 in a middle-class peasant family in the Doaba region of Punjab. He traversed many a path in life, both charming and challenging. His humour, often with a literary tinge, defined his metal processes and disarmed the recipients. In 1953, he studied English and Philosophy in Punjab University, Hoshiarpur campus. He was taught by Professor Dinah Stock and his love for Shakespeare began here, when he played the role of Seyton in Macbeth and Laertes in Hamlet and even translated Macbeth into Punjabi in 1955. In 1965, he moved to Southall and worked at the Heathrow Airport as a customs official. His passion in Shakespeare got revived and despite hard times, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre Club.
Prof. Hans returned to Punjab in 1973 and joined the Department of Guru Nanak Studies in the Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar as a Lecturer. In 1981, he joined the Department of History and was head of the Department during 1986-89 and 1990-91. He encouraged his students to work on the editing of historical classics. A word for him was a concept and worldview, which he wanted his student to explore and expose. His own doctoral work published as 'A Reconstruction of Sikh History from Sikh Literature', remains a path-breaking work in the fields of literature and Sikh history. He was inspired by meticulous work and methodology of Professor W.H. McLeod and command of Punjabi language paid him profusely. He was equally interested in the colonial and contemporary Punjab. His paper on 'Jallianwala Bagh: The Construction of a Nationalist Symbol', is a statistical way of proving the emergence of a national symbol involving all the communities of the Punjab. Prof. Hans was also interested in understanding anthropology of the violence in Punjab.
A creative and prolific Punjabi writer by passion and commitment, his writings, both novels and poetry, revolve around psychic recesses of an individual trapped in social quagmire. He was a post-modern even before the onset of postmodernism as an ideology. His study of Shakespeare helped him the most and his important works include 'Mitti Di Dheri; Pushtan; Loon Di Dali; Imtihan; Harijan; Sikh Ki Karan; Gallo; Apsara'. With more than 25 works to his credit, Prof. Hans was fond of introducing new words out of translation and with a view to explain the complex context. He performed the task of enriching the language both in literary output and improving its lexicon and vocabulary.
However, the monumental work of Prof. Hans remains his translation of the complete works of Shakespeare into Punjabi. He began this work on January 1, 1993 as a Fellow at the Punjabi University, Patiala. In 2013, at the age of 82, he completed the project of translation with Henry VIII. The task took 20 years and resulted in the publication of 43 titles and he was paid Rs. 8,000 per play and translating two plays a year made it about Rs. 40 a day! Prof. Hans was honoured for his achievement when a bust of Shakespeare was presented to him by the Mayor of Ealing (London Borough) in 2013. On August 31 2014 he recovered from a heart attack and his passion to work continued. Recently, he was working on the translation of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species and took a bigger challenge to turn to science at this advanced stage of life. Prof. Hans was a frank and down-to-earth man who cared his students and friends well. Professor Amandeep Bal, his research student and present head of the Department of History and a close family member remembers the hospitality and love of Prof. Hans. I personally enjoyed his company at his home, where he would direct my orientation and urge to know. He was my mentor and I owe much of my work as a supervisor and historian to him. His departure will remain painful for all his friends, students and readers. He was a Professor Extraordinaire as a person and as a scholar.