Tumultuous history of Punjab
Aradhika Sharma

The Long Walk Home
By Manreet Sodhi Someshwar.
Pages 272. Rs 295.

SoMe things don’t change Anant, you are the son, Neymat tells her brother as the three siblings (Anant, Neymat and Noor) gather to mourn the death of their father, the protagonist of the story. The Long Walk Home is the journey of Baksh, the man who had lived through the holocaust of Partition. It’s an ambitious panorama that she undertakes to paint but her technique of telling the story of the life of one man and about the life of two nations through his experiences pulls the story through.

Someshwar, as a matter of fact, has taken quite a risk because she not only seeks to portray the troubled pre-Partition and Partition times but also tries to straddle two-time frames, thus integrating history into the modern-day scenario. This could have resulted in rather confusing reading, but Someshwar, with consummate skill, manages to give the book a linearity that makes it seemingly easy. She uses what she calls "the device of layering the intimate with the epic to make history accessible".

An award-winning writer (Commonwealth Broadcasting Association), Someshwar is a book critic for the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, and writes a regular column for a leading Indian newspaper. The Long Walk Home is not Someshwar’s first novel. In fact, she debuted the literary scene with Earning the Laundry Stripes, which was released in 2006 to critical acclaim.

Noor, the youngest daughter of Baksh Bhalla, is the sassy heroine of her first book, which in fact is her second book. Earning the Laundry Stripes was published first because Someshwar wanted to take a break from writing The Long Walk Home. She wrote seven drafts of the book in five years. Earning The Laundry Stripes, she says was "much easier to write".

The story is of 71-year-old Harbaksh Singh Bhalla who wakes up one night in pain and ventures out in search of a doctor. Wandering through the streets of Ferozpur, in the throes of a heart attack, he re-lives his life at every painful step. However, by the time he reaches the hospital, his heart is damaged irreversibly and he succumbs to it. The long journey to the hospital symbolises the long journey of his life and spans the history of an era—not just the pre-Partitioned India, independent India and the turbulence that followed in the Punjab but also the Green Revolution, Operation Bluestar and the rise of religious extremism.

He re-visits his growing-up years in Lahore, the "Paris of the Orient", and his life in the border town of Ferozepur in Punjab. Baksh has lived in Punjab through the 80s, when there was a rise of religious extremism and phrases like curfews, encounters and hit lists were common. He suffers through his personal crises as well as the crises of the nation. The author shows how the times will impact relationships and attitudes.

Baksh finds to his dismay that his wife has fallen under the influence of a rabid fundamentalist preacher. His best friend flees town and the Bar council (Baksh is a lawyer) is divided into two religious factions. Someshwar, highly influenced by Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, which she says "taught me more about the partition of Punjab than my accumulated history lessons", determined to write a book based on the days of the Sikh militancy much in the manner that Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan did with Partition.
Someshwar draws from her own experiences for the basis, background and characters of the book. She was born and spent a lot of time in Ferozpur, the dusty border town of Punjab. "The book sprang from both oral history and a ton of research. It is not possible to grow up in a border town and not be imbued with the stories circulating through it: of Partition, its aftermath, the Indo-Pak wars, etc.," she says.

The character of Baksh, which she says was the most difficult to write, is based on that of her father, also a criminal lawyer and a man who had lived through the times that form the background of the book. Baksh’s is an interesting character. He is the liberal who is horrified by the progressively more fundamentalism that he is witnessing. He is the father who has dreams for his children in a traditional Punjabi milieu.

A charming thing about the book is the use of the Punjabi phrase with no attempt to paraphrase them for the reader. This adds to the authentic flavour of The Long Walk Home. Someshwar’s endeavour was to make the book "humane" and not a "history lesson", and she succeeds in this.

Someshwar’s third book is a literary thriller which is complete.