Book Title: The Past Is Never Dead
Author: Ujjal Dosanjh
Around 87 years ago, Dr BR Ambedkar prophetically stated in his essay ‘Annihilation of Caste’ that casteism is a notion, a state of mind. It still holds true. It is a social evil, a disease of the mind that was prevalent centuries ago and still exists in 21st century India. The belief that one is superior to another by virtue of taking birth in a particular family or gotra refuses to leave, be it India or any other country in the world. No matter where you go, it sticks to your identity and lingers on with your surname.
“Not only past, Papa. It’s our present too,” says Angad, the son of protagonist Prof Kahla Singh Badhan, in the novel ‘The Past Is Never Dead’ by Ujjal Dosanjh.
The 75-year-old Canadian Liberal Party politician-turned-author narrates a story of the flight of a family from Banjhan Kalan in Hoshiarpur to Bedford in British Midlands, England, in the hope of leaving their caste indignation behind and working their way up in life. Teenager Kalu, the protagonist, by sheer dint of his hard work, rises to become Prof Kahla Singh Badhan in Bedford. But here, too, he is confronted by the bitter reality of his caste, day in and day out.
His wife, Simran, becomes a victim of honour killing. Kalu’s father, Udham Singh, aka Udho, who had left Banjhan Kalan after facing physical violence, which gave him a permanent limp, at the hands of upper castes, again gets pushed around in Bedford. Grandson Angad is bullied in school as the ‘son of a Chamar’.
All this injustice and ostracisation was perpetuated not by native foreigners, but his own Sikh immigrant brethren in Britain.
Born in Dosanjh Kalan, Jalandhar, in 1946, Ujjal Dosanjh migrated to the UK in 1964 and then to Canada in 1968 where he became health minister and premier of British Columbia. The author has set his story in a village of Punjab in the 1930s; it culminates in Britain of the 1970s. Dosanjh recently said that casteism is still a reality among the diaspora. His debut 254-page novel is an expression of the personal experiences and incidents he has witnessed abroad.
The novel is also a critique of the distorted reality of Sikh immigrants who revere their sacred text, but conveniently forget the tenets of Bhagat Ravidas enshrined therein.
Being diasporic literature, the narrative is a quest for identity, nostalgia and conflict but also comes through as the voice of a Dalit facing vilification by his own in an alien land.
“One could confront poverty and win. But for caste, if I fought, I was sure to lose. The only other option was flight,” the protagonist says.
The title, ‘The Past Is Never Dead’, reminds one of American novelist and short-story writer William Faulkner’s words — “As the past is never dead, it is never the past” — in ‘Requiem for a Nun’ (1950). The beginning of the novel reminds of the travails of Mulk Raj Anand’s iconic characters of scavenger father-son duo Lakha and Bakha in ‘Untouchable’ (1935). The mention of Dalit-related texts — ‘Annihilation of Caste’ (1936) by BR Ambedkar and ‘Untouchable: The Autobiography of an Indian Outcaste’ (1969) by Hazari — during the course of the story is on expected lines.
Towards the end, Kalu is bundled in a van and his head, beard and eyebrows are shorn of hair by upper-caste youths. Kalu, however, finds contentment as he is nominated as the Labour Party candidate from Bedford and finally emerges as Dr Kalu Chamar, the new Member of Parliament.