The interview for the original assignment has ended. It is time for coffee which his helper has done a miserable job of. He asks if we want to know the real reason why he returned the Sahitya Akademi award. His pauses are near perfect. He is a major playwright and director after all. "But you don't need to write it," he says, bending forward. We add to the drama by offering silence.
He whispers that for the past two days MM Kalburgi had become a character of a play he may never write. "He would keep standing near the wings. He forced me on the stage. From a playwright, he turned me into an actor. I felt exposed. Almost scared. After all, writers are never supposed to be seen. We have way too many secrets to give away. Now, how could I not return the award?"
A day before, another writer who returned the award was saddened because fanaticism threatened to destroy the very fabric of the country. But also because the unnamed characters from his works, were being hunted and killed. It was unbearable, he had said.
By Monday, nine Punjabi writers: Novelist Baldev Singh Sadaknama, poets Surjit Patar, Jaswinder, Darshan Buttar and translator Chaman Lal returned the honour. Four authors - Atamjit, Gurbachan Bhullar, Ajmer Aulakh, and Waryam Sandhu had already returned their awards on Sunday to protest against the murder of writer MM Kalburgi, rising intolerance in the country and failure of the Sahitya Akademi to mark a strong protest.
The unparalled number of award returnees, perhaps, the highest in the country from one state has surprised everyone. Poet Surjit Patar considered the most important name in contemporary Punjabi poetry, who received the prestigious honour in 1993 for Hanere Vich Sulghdi Varnmala insists that it is impossible for a writer to be quiet in face of injustice. He asks, "How fair is it to counter ideas with bullets? I don't mean to demean the Akademi, just want to wake it up so that it regains its voice. How can it afford to be silent in such times?" he asks.
Writers like Sadaknama, Jaswinder and Buttar say that if need be, they will cross all barriers to ensure that religious fanaticism does not eclipse the fundamental multiculturalism of this country. "There is an atmosphere of terror, our action is the protest against the well-orchestrated strategy to silence all dissent," they said.
Sadaknama, who received the Sahitya Akademi award in 2011 for his novel Dhaawaan Dilli De Kingrey, Jaswinder, who got the award in 2014 for his ghazal anthology Agarbatti and Buttar, who received the Sahitya Akademi award in 2012 for his poetry collection, Maha Kambani appealed to other writers to follow suit and stand up against religious intolerance. "This is the time to counter the massive attack on freedom of expression, the time to stand by fellow authors and society," they said.
Dr Chaman Lal, known for his superb translations including that of revolutionary Punjabi poet Pash said, "In solidarity with all writers of Indian languages, including English, I return my Sahitya Akademi Translation Prize, which was given to me in the year 2002 for Hindi translation of Punjabi poet "Pash's" collection Samay O Bhai Samay." He added that the insults heaped on writer Nayantara Seghal by the Sahitya Akademi president Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari were condemnable.