The first Punjabi author of fictional works is held to be Nanak Singh (1897-73). Most of the characters in his novels came from the people he knew well- the lower middle class in the urban setting of Punjab. He also depicted the struggle of the worker against the capitalistic order, the decaying feudalistic aristocracy, and the rising intellectual. He depicted the life of the Punjabi lower middle class faithfully and with great sympathy; his novels have well-constructed plots. In his reformist zeal, he tended to sentimentalize Punjabi society, but with growing maturity he became more detached and critical, and his writing gained considerably in power. He wrote during the period when Marxist criticism had the foremost place, and, in the misguided belief that "progressive" writing necessarily meant writing about the militant worker, his writing at one point got reduced to mere communist propaganda. He consciously tried to free himself of this impeding influence in his later works.
Nanak Singh is, perhaps, the first writer who made the medium of the novel an instrument of social reform, and, over his long career of more than 50 years, he reflected on the pressing problems of the growing Punjabi society. He wrote around 50 novels. A few of them became very popular with Punjabi readers. Many of his works have been translated into other Indian languages. In his first phase of writing, he brought to the fore the problems of communalism, religious hypocrisy, untouchability, widow marriage, illiteracy, and social and economic backwardness. Some of his most popular novels are China Lahu (The White Blood, 1932), Kagtan di Beri (The Paper Boat), Pavitter Papi (The Pious Sinner), Agg di Khed (The Play of Fire), and Chiterkar (The Painter). After partition, he took up the problems of the independence of women. He has depicted woman fighting for her rights and gaining economic self-reliance. Katti Hoi Patang (The Kite with Cut String) and Adam Khor (Cannibals) represent this period of his writing. Nanak Singh remained active till the mid-1960s, mostly repeating the same themes. In brief, Nanak Singh is a giant among novelists. He is realistic and has portrayed the anguish of the downtrodden throughout his life. He has given voice to those who could not express their feelings and invested them with the grandeur of simple humanity.
After Nanak Singh, the Punjab novel developed under the impact of movements of socialist realism. Surinder Singh Narula (1919) is the most consistent advocate of Marxist ideology in his fiction. His first novel, Peo Putter (Father and Son, 1946), accepted as a major work of fiction, narrates the story of the city of Amritsar and its significant phases of development in the first two decades of the twentieth century, bringing into focus successive religious and political movements in the Punjab. Narula has also written a historical novel, Nili Bar (1956), depicting the life of the people in one of the canal colonies developed by the British in West Punjab. It reproduces with sympathy and sensitivity the life of the tribes inhabiting the areas between Chenab River and Jhelum River and foreshadows the sufferings and exploitation they were likely to undergo from the local aristocracy with the help of the rulers. Narula, is responsible for introducing intellectual realism in Punjabi fiction supported by documentation of facts.
Sant Singh Sekhon with his Lahu Mitci (Blood and Soil) narrates the story of a Punjab peasant with a background of vast agricultural and economic changes. Sekhon's major contribution to Punjabi fiction is in the field of the short story. Jaswant Singh Kanwal, who wrote profusely, like Nanak Singh, is very sentimental in his storytelling and is a committed Marxist. Kanwal moved the scenario to rural settings in which his heroes and heroines are involved in romance. Narinderpal Singh, who wrote on the lines of Nanak Singh, attempted some novels based on Sikh history. His works include Et Marg Jana, Ik Sarkar Bajhon, Tria Jal, Shakti, Aman de Rab etc.
Kartar Singh Duggal started writing novels soon after independence. Before the beginning of the 1960's he wrote three novels, namely Andran (Intestines, 1949), Naunh te Mas (The Nails and the Flesh, 1957), and Eh Dil Vikau Hai (This Heart Is for Sale, 1959). His Hal Muridan Da (The Poor Plight of the Pupil), came after almost 10 years. Duggal primarily wrote short stories, but after partition his interest switched to novels.
Dalip Kaur Tiwana, who started writing in the early 1960s, has published more than half a dozen novels, but her most outstanding work till now remains Eh Hamara Jiwana, a very moving tale of a poor peasant girl who becomes a victim of reckless human lust. She wielded the regional dialect of Malwa in this novel for the expression of deep inner feelings with minimum use of words. Another novel, Rin Pittran Da (Ancestral Debts), is the depiction of suffering undergone by the Punjabis in the wake of Operation Blue Star.
Gurdial Singh is a leading figure of the new Punjabi novel. The publication of his Marhi da Diva (The Earthen Lamp of a Tomb, 1962) marks the beginning of a new era of the Punjabi novel. It brings out in a significant manner the rural cultural ethos of a region of the Malwa area of Punjab. It, therefore, establishes an altogether different identity of the Punjabi novel, assigning it the features of both a regional novel and a pastoral parable. His other two novels, Anhoye (Nonbeings) and Adh Chanai Rat (Midnight Lit with Moon), written successively after Marhi da Diva, also portray effectively the fate of the non-person "hero" in different settings. There are a number of other novelists in Punjabi literature such as Sohan Singh Sittal, Mohan Kahlon etc. Mohan Kahlon is known for portraying tribal life on the bank of the river Ravi on the border of Punjab and Jammu. He also focuses on the life of Gujjars living on the Himalayan hills in the same area. Some of his well-known works include Ret te Breta, Machhli Ik Dariya Di, Ret te Breta, Kali Mitti etc.
Thus discussed above is the Punjabi novel and its various streams of focus as it developed down the ages.