Saturday, May 9, 2009

This Above all
Literary star on the horizon

I have not come across a work of fiction that told the story of Indian Punjab from its blood-soaked birth in 1947 to the present times till I chanced upon Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s The Long Walk Home (Harper Collins). It is, in fact, a saga of one Sikh family uprooted from Lahore and settled in the border town of Ferozepore along the dividing lines of the Sutlej.

The family in her case happens to be of one Harbaksh Singh Bhalla, a prominent criminal lawyer, his wife Preet Sidhu and their three children—two daughters and a son. It all takes place in 10 days starting from the night when Bhalla sahib "woke up early (3 am) because he slept quite early and his tippling started early". He was obese, diabetic and had heart trouble.

The pace of Manreet Someshwar’s narrative in The Long Walk Home varies from the leisurely to the frenetic

He walked through the bazaar in the dead of night to look for a doctor. He could not find one. So he continued walking through wheat fields he once owned to the banks of the Sutlej. He collapsed on his way back home, was picked up by a rickshaw-wallah and taken to a hospital, where he expired. The story goes back and forth — reviving events in Punjab.

There is a lot to be said in favour of encapsulating the 63-year-old history of the state in the medium-sized novel. It also has bazaars. The pace of her narrative varies from the leisurely to the frenetic.

She tells you about the demand for a Punjabi Suba made by Master Tara Singh and Sant Fateh Singh, Pandit Nehru’s reluctance to concede it and Hindu-Sikh tensions that ensue. In between comes the 1965 Indo-Pak war in which Pakistanis assumed that disgruntled Sikhs would side with them. They did not. The Sikh peasantry rallied round to help the Indian Army repel the attack. Indira Gandhi then conceded the Punjabi Suba with a Sikh majority. Not content with what it got, rose Bhindranwale and his Khalistani terrorists.

Police repression, fake encounters, arrests of innocent young men on cooked-up charges — which Bhalla sahib managed to have conveyed, and in turn was suspected to be a sympathiser. There was Operation Bluestar which took hundreds of lives, and the desecration of the Akal Takht. It was followed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi, followed by the massacre of thousands of innocent Sikhs. And so on.

To hold the readers’ interest, the author introduces some titillating, highly improbable anecdotes. It is the stuff a young man’s dreams are made of. What she wanted to pack in her novel required a large cabin trunk. She has tried to squeeze it into a small suitcase.

Manreet Someshwar is a gifted writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab's literary horizon. She has an excellent command of English and a sly sense of humour. Her dialogues with Punjabi mutilations of English, choice of Punjabi and Urdu proverbs, quotations from the Gurbani, Ghalib, Tagore and Gulzar go down very well.

Being young and gifted, she is able to resist showing off what she has known. Readers may know words like moniker, morph and recce, but how many would know omphaloskepsis? I had to look up the dictionary. It means talking to one’s navel, a form of meditation. She would do better if she tried it herself.

Ask Murad

Murad Ali Baig is the same age as my son but I regard him as a kindred spirit. He is a Muslim, but I doubt if he ever goes to a mosque to pray or observes fast during Ramzan. Like me he enjoys his evening having Scotch. I am a Sikh. I do not go to gurdwaras to pray. I eat halaal meat and beef and I drink. However, both of us share a common passion — to study religions. He does it dispassionately and writes about them. I have translated a lot of the Gurbani into English and written on matters concerning my community.

It was time Murad Baig replied to the many questions that his readers and admirers keep putting to him. He has done precisely that in his 80 Questions to Understand India: History, Mythology and Religion (Tara). The range of questions is baffling. Starting from when was India one of the oldest civilisations, and where did human beings come from, he goes on to Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. Then he comes to recent times: Did the British exploit India? Did free Indian leaders fail their country? Why was Indian progress so slow? Down to communalism in present-day India — all packed in 200 pages. It is a veritably abridged encyclopaedia of India.

Questions and answers

IAS topper — Q: How can you drop a raw egg onto a concrete floor without cracking it?

A: Concrete floors are very hard to crack.

UPSC topper — Q: If it took eight men 10 hours to build a wall, how long would it take four men to build it?

A: No time at all. It is already built.

UPSC 23rd rank, opted for IFS — Q: If you have three apples and four oranges in one hand and four apples and three oranges in the other hand, what would you have?

A: Very large hands .

Q: How can you lift an elephant with one hand?

A: It is not a problem, since you will never find an elephant with one hand.

Q: How can a man go eight days without sleep?

A: No problem. He sleeps at night.

Q: What can you never eat for breakfast?

A: Dinner.

Q: Bay of Bengal is in which state?

A: Liquid.

— Contributed by Vipin Buckshey, Delhi