SUNDARĪ, by Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh first published in 1898, is commonly acknowledged to be the first novel written in the Punjabi language. The story, set in the eighteenth century, depicts the trials and heroism of an imaginary character, Sundar Kaur (Sundarī for short) who, born in a Punjabi Khatrī Hindu family, embraces the Sikh faith in unusual circumstances and spends her short, eventful life in prayer and service of the crusading Khālsā.
Sundarī's tribulations begin with her catching the local Mughal chief's attention as the latter, out hunting with a body of retainers one day, passes through her village. She is seized and carried off. All entreaties for her release are unavailing. Just then, her elder brother, Balvant Siṅgh, who had embraced the Sikh faith and joined a Sikh guerrilla band against the parents' wishes some years earlier, visits the village and comes to know of the family's misfortune. He follows the chief's party, finds Sundarī reciting the Japu (jī), the Sikh morning prayer, sitting on a pyre, just lit, snatches her off and gallops away with her. Sundarī, who had imbibed the Sikh spirit of defiance from the accounts of Sikh valour which she had heard from her mother and nursed secretly esteem for the Sikhs' ways after her brother had joined them, had sent the chief and his men away by a stratagem, to be able to burn herself alive.
The family refusing to take Sundarī back for fear the chief should vent his ire upon them, Balvant Siṅgh decides to take her to his band's forest hideout. The two are, however, captured by the chief's men while attempting to rescue a wounded Sikh. Intent on inducing Sundarī to marry him willingly, the chief decides to spare her brother's life, convert him to Islam somehow, and then to seek reconciliation with him. A month later, Sundarī and Balvant Siṅgh are brought to a mosque in the chief's principality, on a Friday, for forcible conversion, but are rescued by a lightning raid on the town by Balvant Siṅgh's chief, Sardār Shām Siṅgh.
Amidst her brother's guerrilla companions at last Sundarī joins the Khālsā brotherhood through the rites of initiation and decides to lead a life of celibacy in the service of the Sikh jathā. She now looks after its kitchen and tends the wounded, occasionally venturing out to the village on the fringe of the forest to buy provisions. During one such sally, she comes upon a grief-stricken Khatrī, whose wife had been seized by the Mughal officials of his hometown, and takes him to the hideout. After checking on his credentials, Sardār Shām Siṅgh's men mount a rescue operation, and redeem the Khatrī's wife and confiscated property. Upon the Hindu priest's refusal to accept the Khatrī's wife back into the Hindu fold, the couple embrace Sikhism and are christened Dharam Siṅgh and Dharam Kaur.
During a later sally to the village, Sundarī and Dharam Kaur come upon a badly wounded Mughal soldier. They give him first aid and bring him blindfolded to their hideout for treatment. After the Mughal regains health, he is taken blindfolded to the village and released. This Mughal is a retainer of the chief who had taken a fancy to Sundarī and recognizes her. He lays a trap for Sundarī a few days later. She is captured and carried off tied hand and foot in a palanquin.
Bijlā Siṅgh, the ace Sikh spy, disguised as a wandering Sūfī faqīr tracks the Mughal party and helps Sundarī attack her captor and flee. She is again captured by the chief, who is out duck-shooting, but is providentially rescued by her brother, and soon joins the guerrilla company which is marching towards the foothills to join the main body of the Khālsā.
As Ahmad Shāh Durrānī comes out in April 1752 on his third invasion, thirty thousand Sikhs, including Sundarī's band fight for Mīr Mannū, the Governor of Lahore. Sundarī, whose injured pony ambles back slowly as Mannū's forces disperse, is left far behind Dharam Siṅgh and his wife. Spotting a wounded Mughal soldier, she dismounts to help him. Restored to consciousness and discovering her identity, the Mughal inflicts a severe wound on Sundarī and she falls down unconscious, but not before inflicting a fatal wound on the assailant.
She is spotted and picked up by the same old chief who also had participated in the battle. Under the diligent care of the chief's physician, Sundarī's wound heals, though her fever continues. The chief, who wants her to marry him willingly, engages a Hindu maid, Rādhā, for her and removes her, on the suggestion of the physician, to an open spot on the bank of the river. Both Rādhā (who is in reality Dharam Kaur in disguise) and the physician have been planted by the Sikhs to secure Sundarī's removal to a place from where she could be easily rescued.
Sundarī is rescued and joins her brethren in their old hideout. But her health deteriorates. Realizing that her end is near, Sundarī gets an unbroken recitation of the Gurū Granth Sāhib arranged. On the service following the conclusion of the recitation coming to a close, Sundarī, in a valedictory address to the assembly, exhorts them to maintain their high moral standards, hold women in high regard and never to stray from their faith in one God into superstition in search of transitory worldly joys. She then makes obeisance to the Gurū Granth Sāhib and does not raise her head again. Her death plunges the entire Sikh people into gloom.
Sundarī is both a social and literary phenomenon. The prime motivation behind its writing was avowedly reformist. It was the product of the late nineteenth-century Sikh fears and aspirations-fears that Sikhism might die out if corruption and decadence which had, overtaken Sikh church and society were not remedied; and aspirations that Sikhism should take the place of pride to which it was entitled by reason of the excellence of its doctrine and the virility of its tradition. This novel, according to its author, who was one of the principal protagonists of the reform movement, was a small attempt to rebuild "the crumbled Panthic edifice" by rousing the Sikhs to an awareness of the glory of their epic past through a graphic representation of their not too distant forebears' dedication, stamina, and spirit of self-sacrifice.
The representation turned out to be a historical romance of unusual power and beauty, notwithstanding several literary flaws. Bhāī Vīr Siṅgh's knowledge of the history of the times, which Sundarī depicts, is sure and intense; his imagination, sensitive and profound. His conception of the social conditions obtaining in those hard times is vivid. The result is that in Sundarī as in his other two historical romances, Bijay Siṅgh and Satvant Kaur, a dead age comes alive and this notwithstanding the fact that his characters are mostly ideal types and their conduct, very often, too lofty or too degraded to carry conviction. Major historical figures such as Dīwān Kauṛā Mall, Sardār Shām Siṅgh, Sardār Jassā Siṅgh, Lakhpat Rāi and Mīr Mannū who figure in the tale tend it a keener sense of historical verisimilitude. Quite often history is presented through direct narration or through discussion among the characters. Such excursions into the history sometimes jar and appear to be irrelevant. But the story, on the whole, is deftly told in crisp and suggestive prose. The story makes liberal use of coincidence, but never illogical. On several occasions, the narration is interrupted by homilies and sermons. In spite of its technical short comings as a novel Sundarī has continued to sway the mass of Punjabi readers. No other Punjabi novel has been read more or influenced more lives.