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Vaulting ambition & idealism

Anjana Basu |

This year there have been several books on the Punjab uprising of the 1980s. Kanwaljit Deol’s is a slim book that tries to simplify the issue and make it identifiable for readers. Deol worked in the police forces and hence may have a deeper insight on issues affecting that time of chaos. Certainly she tries to pen it down, while making it very clear that the book is a work of fiction from the cover. However, given the complexity of the situation the broad canvas that she works with may not always be the answer because there is a certain patchiness in places, especially in the character of the journalist from Delhi, Sikand who, despite having a Sikh mother, seems to be out of step with what is actually happening in Punjab and who tries to put it down in purple prose and theories that sound good but miss the ground realities. To be fair to Deol, this could be a comment on the vagaries of the Indian media, which works in its own cycle of theorising, though Sikand does on occasion confront Bhindranwale and points out the fatality of his actions.

Deol’s main character is a boy from a village in Punjab, Fareed, who has an abusive father and whose family owns cattle and land.

Fareed is a representative of the grassroots folk of the state who responded enthusiastically to Bhindranwale’s call to action.

The revolution in Punjab was in the end about humble peasants and farmers who, feeling ignored by the Centre, were manipulated by the quest for an identity that rose to the level of an addiction. Deol sketches Bhindranwale’s rise deftly and charts his course of action that would inevitably lead to violence. Despite being a police official she does throw in a scene or two of police brutality to explain how power mechanics operate at the state level. Fareed and his friend, Jeeta, encounter the local police and that is one of the turning points of the book. However, she also describes the killing of an unarmed DIG in the Golden Temple to balance the scales. As in most of these cases there are faults on both sides; the media of course would put more blame on the police who have the big guns on their side.

It is quite clear that what Deol wants to do is tell a good story, sometimes at the expense of what she is describing. Though the attack on Harmandir Sahib was the defining moment of destruction, she tends to gloss over it, focussing instead on how an abused young boy looking for a hero finds himself drawn to Bhindrawale’s magnetism and gives him his soul and, ultimately, his life. Much in the way many young people dissatisfied with their way of life join in lost causes hoping to rise above the mundanity of everyday existence and join something that is bigger than they are. Unfortunately, because they don’t clearly understand what they are getting into, in most case it leads to death and destruction. That part of Deol’s message is very clear. The rest is silence.