In a thorough exploration of the border State of Punjab, a writer goes looking for his roots and discovers an angst-ridden community
Following the opening of the Kartarpur corridor, there is cautious optimism in Punjab (or Panjab, as the writer Amandeep Sandhu calls it) and a promise of peace with our restless neighbour. But long before the euphoria ebbs away, and reality begins to bite, Sandhu’s book is like a wake-up call.
Legacy of Partition
Yes, the two Punjabs in India and Pakistan have a very tiny link through their joint spiritual heritage, but is there really anything we can truly be happy about? Sandhu has travelled along the fault lines of East Punjab — the Indian side — assiduously, bringing into this book the curious gaze of the outsider-who-belongs. Having lived outside the State for a long time, but with family connections, he can select the narratives which are most apparent, without getting too bogged down in detail, though he has clearly placed before us some fascinating facts. It is a brave examination of contemporary Punjab, within a historical context.
His central query is how Punjab’s development and political turbulence, over the years under various rulers including the British, impacted those who live here. How does the legacy of the past, such as the partition of Punjab, the events of 1984 and the militancy, continue to define it? It is a deeply pessimistic narrative as he finds a terrifying despair simmering under Punjabi pride.
The land of the five rivers is struggling with debt, casteism, unemployment, ecological degradation, loss of identity and much else — and most of this destruction has been a slow, historical erosion, possibly now reaching the tipping point.
For many of us who work in Punjab, the situation is not so relentlessly grim. But it is important to take heed when he discusses the haphazard construction, lack of civic facilities, a population bent over with debt in the rural areas, and the youth who are more often than not, experimenting with the latest chemical drug.
Perhaps the idea of Punjab is best envisioned by Sandhu’s friend, Satnam, who called it ‘claustrophobia’. Satnam’s “attempt to escape best describes this Panjab.” In fact, unable to escape the claustrophobia, Satnam eventually commits suicide, a final solution. Death lingers all over Sandhu’s book, whether it is in personal stories, about his mother’s cancer, or in the tales of suicides by farmers, or the prevalent caste violence, which resonates eerily with the recent brutal murder of Jagmail Singh at Sangrur.
This book is the antithesis of our popular view of Punjab: endless fields of mustard; a bountiful food provider; wealthy Sikhs with opulent homes and fancy cars. The soldier and the farmer are the stereotypes we connect with Punjab. But Sandhu rips down the personal and the political make-up of Punjab and its psyche through a series of lively, but often dire, anecdotes, as he travels the State. He concludes that what we take for granted in Punjab is a chimera and that the reality is often too cruel.
My only quibble with this disturbing book is that in a few places, allegations are made which could be personal grievances, based apparently on interviews or newspaper reports. And the other missing element is a more detailed analysis of the status of women in Punjab, as the State’s gender balance is among the worst in the country.
But overall his journey is credible and authentic as he tours the urban and rural landscape trying to discover the real Punjab. He examines the historic reasons for the decay, even tracing the impact of the canal colonies under the British or the Gurdwara movement.
Punjabiyat at stake
His analysis of the long usage of drugs, in the past and present, or the rise of the deras or so-called religious societies or groups adds much to our understanding of the discourse on present day Punjab. Through deconstructing those aspects of Punjabiyat that the community holds as essential and possibly unavoidable, such as astha (faith ), jaat (caste ), mardangi, (masculinity), zameen (land), Sandhu captures a community in turmoil. He is not convinced that the political leadership can find solutions and frankly rejects those who have been in power thus far.
Linking historical narratives to the contemporary enables us to further understand the troubled State. My view of Punjab may not be so dismal, but it is books like these which will ultimately help us to re-examine the fault lines.
Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines; Amandeep Sandhu, Tranquebar/Westland, ₹899.
The writer is an award-winning author and Chair of the Trust which set up the Partition Museum in Amritsar. Her latest book is Jallianwala Bagh, 1919, The Real Story.
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