13
May

PANJAB: The Book Review

   Posted by: aman   in Other

Dear Friends,

The Book Review, Volume XLIV, Number 5, May 2020, carried a review of PANJAB: Journeys Through Fault Lines by novelist Radhika Oberoi. Thanks to Adnan Farooqui for allowing me to share the review.

Chronicles of a Resilient State

The tenor of Amandeep Sandhu’s Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines is established in the very first chapter titled Satt–Wound. The author, born in Rourkela, admits to only a fragile link with Punjab (spelt Panjab)–his family once belonged to the State. He then provides images that are intimate and distant, uniquely personal and universally familiar all at once: brass vessels with either of his parents’ name engraved on them in Gurmukhi, a whiff of desi ghee in a frying pan, photos of Guru Nanak, Guru Gobind Singh and Bhagat Singh in the living room, his father’s (Baba) turban and his mother’s (Mama) salwar kameez.

The author’s gaze is that of many different people—son of the soil, curious traveller, hard-nosed journalist; his portrait of his Panjab is also gleaned from each of the people he becomes, as he embarks upon his three-year-long journey into the State. His schizophrenic Mama could never offer him a lucid narrative of the Panjab she had left behind: ‘The Panjab I heard in her lap came out rambling. Its love and war legends splintered and turned into a volley of abuse.’

Sandhu, whose narrative often meanders into history, dwells on mythology, and pauses to search his memory for flashes of childhood, never rambles, or loses coherence. This, perhaps, is what is most admirable about the book. While each of the sixteen chapters is titled with clinical precision (Berukhi—Apathy, Rosh—Anger, Rog—Illness etc.) and foretells the author’s journalistic preoccupations; there are deeply personal anecdotes that turn the harsh terrain of Sandhu’s investigations into landscapes of beauty, and even profundity. For instance, he embarks upon a road trip to his ancestral village, Manawan, together with his wife Lakshmi and his cousin Minnie, because his wife reminds him of his Baba’s last wish. Before passing away in Bangalore in 2003, Baba had wanted to go to Anandpur Sahib, Amritsar, and Manawan. While he had visited the former two sacred sites of the Sikhs, he was unable to travel to Manawan, his birthplace. ‘As a tribute to Baba, Lakshmi wanted to start life with me from his village by completing his story.’

Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines is strewn with personal histories that amplify the collective troubles of the State. In the chapter Dawa—Medicine, Sandhu recalls a handsome grand-uncle whom everyone called Rumiwale Mamaji. Green-eyed and muscular, he was in the habit of pulling out a bottle of liquor and pouring himself a Patiala peg in the early hours of the evening. Sandhu, who was barley seven or eight years old, was assigned the task of filling the glass with water, and supplying his uncle with a variety of nuts, and chicken, as accompaniments to the alcohol. In the mornings, Sandhu would bring him a concoction of milky tea, which he would consume with a small black paste, rolled into a ball. ‘A cousin said it was afeem.’

The chapter is an exploration of Panjab’s addiction to intoxicants like opium and poppy husk, as well as home-brewed alcohol, but it isn’t a mere enumeration of dismal statistics. In fact, Sandhu attempts to debunk a remark made by Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Panjab University in 2012. Gandhi is believed to have said: ‘What is happening to human resources in Panjab? Seven out of ten youths have the problem of drugs.’ Sandhu undertakes an investigation of the route for opium exports in the 1980s, and its infiltration into Panjab. He meets smugglers in Gurdaspur, Dera Baba Nanak and Tarn Taran and delineates the problem of drugs with facts garnered from a variety of studies.

There are no conclusive findings, or satisfactory solutions to the malaise of drugs and addiction, or to any of the other socioeconomic-political predicaments that Panjab has dealt with. But in Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines, Sandhu sets up an apparatus that probes, with a rare attention to the topography of the land, its myths, folk traditions and songs, the State’s many quandaries. His narrative is also dappled with the light of oil lamps at tube wells and ancient graves. The sound of the ‘moolmantar’ from the Granth Sahib wafts through his prose like a soft breeze, even when he traverses hostile landscapes. There are meals of sarson ka saag and rotis that nourish more than just his weary body at the end of a long day. Fragments of a legend—the doomed love of Sohni and Mahiwal—scatter across an otherwise dispassionate analysis of the politics of water. And memories warm the pages of cold-eyed chronicling: ‘During my childhood I could spot hand pumps everywhere in Panjab, including one right opposite the home where Baba’s extended family lived. In our fields, three in the city market, more in the old town, one between the railway station and the bus stand, hand pumps were a part of the locality. Not anymore.’

The Panjab that emerges from Sandhu’s observations is tantalizingly different from the Panjab of his childhood. It is also one that does not conform to popular images peddled by Bollywood—sprawling mustard fields, and hyper-masculine men leaping to the beats of a dhol. Sandhu’s Panjab is as distinct as the spelling the author has picked for his chronicles. Rihla, the Arabic travel memoir of the fourteenth-century wanderer, Ibn Battuta, mentions a land called Panj Ab—the land of five waters. Sandhu borrows from Ibn Battuta, even as he knows that the land of five rivers is not the glimmering and bountiful one that fascinated the ancient traveller.

Radhika Oberoi works in advertising and moonlights as a journalist. She is the author of Stillborn Season. She has a postgraduate degree in Creative Writing, Prose Fiction from the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.

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