Updated: November 10, 2019 8:05:51 am
In 2015, Amandeep Sandhu began a journey that strived to “resolve his emptiness about matters of Punjab”, an investigation that lasted for three years. In the process, Sandhu, whose first two books were autobiographical fiction, Sepia Leaves (2008) and Roll of Honour (2012), discovered that the land was far from what he had imagined. The result is Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines (Westland; Rs 899), his first non-fiction book. Excerpts from an interview:
What inspired you to write Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines, for which you spent three years travelling across the state, striving to understand its many ‘horrors’. Why fault lines?
I mention many reasons in the book but primary is bewilderment at what has happened to Punjab, since the Partition, since the Green Revolution, since the trifurcation of the state, since Operation Blue Star and militancy, and now through the narratives of drugs and migration.
‘Fault lines’ stands for a crack on a rock surface or the ground that traces a geological fault. Sometimes rivers flow in the fault lines. Here the implication is social, economic and political. While the Greater Punjab is a land of five rivers, I learnt that eastern Punjab, this side of the Radcliffe Line, has religious, caste, gender, economic, human rights and other fault lines as discussed in the book.
You say you do not have a direct connection with Punjab, then why was it important for you to come back and view it with a new perspective?
I was born in Odisha, I live in Bengaluru. Yet, the blood that flows in my veins is from Punjab. I wrote this book to understand the texture of my blood.
I did my schooling in Punjab in the 1980s and including research for this book, I have spent a decade of my life there. In some ways, I am an insider, but also an outsider. I let insider-outsider play out as a theme in the book. But the fact is that until I started work on the book, I was bewildered by the many messages, often contradictory, that Punjab sends out to the world. For example, how does the institution of langar, or the central Sikh tenet Sarbat da Bhala, sit with the era of militancy in which thousands of innocents were killed? My quest was to understand the connections between many such binaries through which Punjab is understood outside the region.
When you began researching for the book, there must be a definite ‘plan’ of what you wanted to say. Did it change along the way?
Yes, there was a plan. I submitted a proposal, neatly identifying the fault lines. Yet, it changed sharply when I started exploring the land and its people. When it came to ground issues, I realised how the people’s narrative — replete with data and examples — contradicted the state narrative, which had either no or very faulty data. Ideologically, Punjab is a labyrinth with its various self-important narratives contradicting each other — one can get lost in them. Textually, my difficulty was taking my readers from one issue to another while following a timeline because all of Punjab’s issues keep getting entangled, creating a Gordian knot. The literal timeline I followed was late 2015 White Fly and incidents of sacrilege of holy texts up to the 2017 Assembly elections. Yet, through the chapters, I have mixed reportage with memoir and contextual history to provide a more holistic understanding of Panjab’s issues. Thus, if the proposal was milestones, the final book is a spinning top.
You spent time traversing the state, meeting people, understanding the ‘new’ Punjab. What did you discover that forms a major part of the book?
I came to Punjab a quarter-century after militancy had ended, a half-century after the new state was formed, almost three quarters of a century after independence and the Partition, a century after the Gurdwara Reform Movement, birth of SGPC and Akali Dal, a century and a half after the Singh Sabha was created, and a century and three quarters after the British annexed Punjab. My question was only one: has peace returned? I realised no. Peace has not returned. Peace has never returned. The current Punjab I witnessed is frothing over with disquiet.
What do you hope the readers will discover through this book?
I hope by acknowledging Punjab’s various fault lines, readers will look at the state as a post-conflict society. That, I feel will help us start a conversation on its real-politik. Until we do that, I feel that Punjab, instead of being a land of five rivers, will remain an eddy.
For many writers, a book is a personal journey. Is your book a search for a home here, one that you never had, but wished to?
Absolutely. I realised that home is perhaps a one-acre land in village Munawan, near Moga, from where powerful landlords had ejected my grandfather because he had taken the side of serfs and tenant labour during the Muzara movement. That home is also now in language, in this book.
The book, you say, was meant to resolve the ‘hole in your heart’ and ‘emptiness about matters of Punjab’. Has the book helped you come full circle or left you with more questions and doubts?
Both. As I say towards the end of the book, my journeys have taught me empathy which now fills the hole in my heart. They have also given me many insights which will help me engage with Punjab in the future. Finally, friends, warmth, love. So much of it, I am humbled.
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