Fact-based fiction
Amrik Singh

Black Thunder: Dark Nights of Terrorism in Punjab
by M. K. Dhar. Har-Anand Publications. Pages 371. Rs 495.

Black Thunder: Dark Nights of Terrorism in PunjabIN 2005, Maloy Krishna Dhar, a retired senior official of the Intelligence Bureau, brought out a book entitled Open Secrets: India’s Intelligence Unveiled. As it was more or less the first book of its kind, it was quite a sensation. Since then, a couple of other books by persons who have been connected with the Intelligence Bureau have been written. Apart from everything else, the Bureau wanted to put a stop to the unveiling of its secrets. It did not want more and more secrets to be made public. In a couple of cases, some action has been taken so as to stop more people from writing about intelligence matters.

All these details have been given so as to the make the point that Dhar had perhaps anticipated the long-range reaction of the Intelligence Bureau. Quite a bit of the Punjab situation had been covered in that 2005 book, though a good deal more remained to be written. Instead of writing a straightforward account, as was done in the earlier book, what Dhar has done now is to write a novel about the decade of terrorism in Punjab. The question to ask is how successful Dhar is as a novelist. The broad answer is that he has succeeded but only up to a point and no more. Had he chosen to write a straightforward book and said more than what he had said in his earlier book, that would have been a solid contribution.

The book under review graphically brings out what was happening during those disturbed years. But nobody can say that this is exactly how it had happened. This is not to decry Dhar’s attempt at fiction writing but to say that, more than anything else, what we need is an historical account of what was happening. To what extent things were motivated by genuine concern and to what extent other considerations would prevail remain undefined. In this connection, a statement made by the author before the novel begins deserves to be quoted:

"A fiction is not always a fictitious and fantasias rendition of reality. Black Thunder, wrapped in the skin of fiction, tells the true story of cathartic culmination of follies that fanned competitive religious fundamentalism and pushed the people to the path of ethno-religious insurgency.

"Power debauchery had dissected the governing tools into contradictory opinions that immobilised the nation. Political expediency created mass-hysteria and terrorism. Pakistan exploited the fault-lines and pushed the country to cataclysmic fratricidal crimes. Black Thunder is the story of the national crime.

"The nation has paid the wages of sin of the governing classes and tools. Black Thunder is a reminder to them and all of us—lest we forget our combined sins."

To come to the novel itself, there is something that rings false about it. The basic story revolves about a middle-rank Army officer who comes home in response to summons by his wife. The local police thinks that if the army officer can be projected as a deserter who has turned against the government, this would go to its credit. In building up a case against him, all kinds of excesses are committed in the process and torture is resorted to liberally.

The Army officer’s son is a student in Delhi. When he comes home and catches up with what has happened to his father, he is both outraged and upset at the injustice of it all. He is equally outraged at the selfish motives of the local police boss who wants recognition for his phoney achievement and thereby to earn a decoration for himself. The greater part of the novel is taken up by how the son wants to take revenge on those who victimised his father. He does so successfully. It must be said to the credit of the author that he keeps the story going through its various ups and downs that constitutes the bulk of the novel.

It is the climax of the novel, however, which strains the credulity of the reader.

The son is honest, upright and motivated by the best of motives. Towards the end, it is given out that the ISI of Pakistan is planning to blow up the Golden Temple so as to cause consternation among the Sikhs. Despite all that has happened to the family, he wishes to defeat this conspiracy. He feels strongly that this was not the right thing to do. However, he cannot put an end to this conspiracy without the cooperation of the Indian state. The proposal to do so is cleared by the Prime Minister himself. Even then, it takes time to get moving in the matter. Eventually, he is able to do what is required to be done.

As should be evident, it all becomes melodramatic towards the end. To that extent, therefore, this piece of fiction does not carry much conviction. In the process, however, several people who were playing a double role are exposed and a good deal of chicanery and double-dealing is exposed.

While all this is narrated, the shady goings-on of both the police and the terrorists are projected ruthlessly. Altogether the feeling left at the end is one of disgust and outrage and little more than that. The problem is that the fictional part remains on the whole unconvincing. Dhar is knowledgeable, competent and a good writer. But how true he is to the facts on the ground is another matter.