Book Title: The Song of Distant Bulbuls
Author: Simrita Dhir
SET in the turbulent time of World War-II, shortly after the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the demand of Quit India gaining force closer home, ‘The Song of the Distant Bulbuls’ is a love story steeped in yearning and separation.
The saga begins in 1939, when the beautiful 17-year-old Sammi is married to Hari Singh, a dashing and accomplished officer in the British Indian Army. For 21 days, the couple celebrate their love and rejoice in the songs of the bulbuls. But all too soon, Hari Singh is summoned to the warfront to fight for the Allies in WW-II in the distant Southeast Asian theatre of Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Seven years pass without any news of Hari Singh. Sammi is left to spend endless days and lonely nights waiting for her husband in her maternal village, Aliwala, in the hinterland of Punjab. Surrounded by her loving clan, Sammi busies herself by embroidering phulkaris and dreaming of reuniting with her husband.
Initially, there are long letters from Hari to Sammi, but gradually they stop. The family loses hope of his return, especially when there is no news from him even after the war ends. Slowly, he is eliminated from their daily conversations. Against Sammi’s wishes, they contemplate getting her remarried, this time to Bachan Singh, a rich landlord from Rajasthan. However, she finds the courage to carve a different destiny for herself.
Simrita Dhir has elevated a simple, linear story by capturing the essence of the rural landscape of Punjab and the lives of the farmers connected with the rhythm of nature. While the men spend their days tending to their fields and cattle, reveling in the bountiful crops of golden wheat, the women stay at home — cooking, cleaning, making pinnis in winter, knitting and embroidering. She describes the robust celebrations of Vaisakhi and the carnivals of Teej, where “vendors sold bangles, kites, trinkets, earthen vessels, mangoes and wild berries”, and girls did kikli dances, singing and swinging on trees.
Year 1947 finally brings the long-awaited announcement of the Independence of India. A new generation of nation-builders is ready to take over the country. Sammi’s brother, Jasjit, dreams of joining the Indian Civil Service and carving out a glorious destiny for India.
However, what should have been a moment of crowning victory after years of anti-colonial struggle is forever tainted by the unimaginable violence and bloodshed that ensue. Communal riots erupt and the communities that had coexisted for centuries turn against each other with savage violence. Families are forced to quit their ancestral land and move to an alien land designated ‘home’ country.
“Oh India, whatever will become of you? Who could have thought that the much-awaited Independence would entail splitting the nation into two?” grieves Jasjit, as he parts from his childhood friend, Zulfi.
Dhir draws a parallel between the pangs of Partition that India suffered and the gnawing grief that Sammi feels because of her separation from her husband.