There is a sweet melancholy that pervades The Anatomy of Loss – a suspended pain of childhood, an indescribable dull hammering that fetters the protagonist, Himmat Singh, for years on end.
The book opens with an intimate portrait of his nana-nani (maternal grandparents) who live on a secluded farm near Amritsar. The grandfather is a retired professor and a celebrated Punjabi poet whose books Himmat unexpectedly finds years later in a London bookstore.
The grandparents lead a quiet, bucolic life of private pursuits. Their eccentricities, their great love, their special interests are all evocatively drawn amidst reams of leisurely time that Himmat spends with them as a child. He understands their pain of dislocation during Partition, compounded many times over by the fact that it was an inter-religious marriage, his grandmother being Muslim. For this they had to undergo tremendous heartache and family opposition. But their love is a thick bond; a lifelong pledge of mutual commitment.
Somewhere, this love is what moves the protagonist as he partakes of this sweetness and understands it at a visceral level, sometimes appearing as gay kites, sometimes as freshly made rotis, sometimes as tree houses. In places, this portrayal does get a bit too conceited, emphasising the details of an aristocratic Bedi lineage living out of Harris tweed coats and red bows. So does the dialogue at times, with nana going to talk some sense (in pucca Queen’s English) into this “big oaf” and showing affection to “my wren.”
The breach in their placid lives comes with the assassination of Indira Gandhi, from which point, everything quickly degenerates. The familiar trope of the disappearance of young men brings to light the death of innocent Ranjit, called Rat, the affable grandson of their friend. The grandfather gets embroiled in an ugly wrangle with the police, riding high on extra-constitutional methods employed during the insurgency decade. And that became a huge malaise leading to human rights violations, along with the uncomfortable presence of hoards of central police personnel, converting Punjab into a virtual cantonment.
In the midst of all this, the grandmother shows a steely side in extricating her husband from the hands of the vile police force, which is drawn with a deserving abomination. She stands there, singing Heer, much to the consternation of the policemen. Perhaps that is the triumph of a spirit; one that soars above narrow adversity.
This is the Punjab of the 1980s; a Punjab that is getting disillusioned by the ill-effects of the Green Revolution but a terribly insular space where you can hear the cicadas after sunset. It is in this quiet space that the first growl of Kalashnikovs is heard, the separatist movement of Khalistan arrives riding on wave of alienation with the Centre and a perception of injustice meted to Punjab on account of trifurcation and water distribution when the gargantuan wound of Partition is still festering. Punjab’s emotive connect with waters is evident in its very etymology as the ‘Land of Five Rivers’ – of which now only a half remains.
The author delineates the figure of a terrorist they encounter in a fleeting twilight. He is out to rob them but lets them go unhurt upon recognising nana, who was his professor at one time. The conversation that follows shows the ideological chasm between the two. Though the expectation of delving a bit more into the ideological basis of the separatist movement, no matter how repugnant, remains. To reduce it all to the cardboard figure of Harpreet, indulging in naked violence, and years later the ludicrous Sikhboy in Hounslow, the ring leader of clandestine anarchic ‘Sons of Khalistan’, calls for a more-than-ringside view of the movement.
The narrator nurses a lifelong grudge against the grandfather for not helping a young Sikh boy caught in a melee. Things change as he is sent to Sanawar and the alienation deepens in his teenage years. This continues well into his youth and he lands at SOAS, London for further studies. There, a spat with a student from Lahore exposes more than his own folly. He goes through an existential crisis and nurses his first heartbreak, sinks into alcoholism while keeping the ancient grudge intact. In some ways, he is too puerile to accept some uncomfortable truths and work through his complex emotions, preferring to deflect blame.
When he hears the news of his grandfather’s sickness, he travels back to Amritsar but veers towards Harmandir Sahib where he has some moments of tranquillity and revelation. It is only after the nana’s death, the proverbial end of a chapter, that a few insights descend spontaneously, putting his life-long dilemmas into perspective. Eventually he feels some semblance of resolution to his long agitated spirit, not before he has evolved through a spectrum of varied experiences.
Arjun Raj Gaind writes flawless prose, in a classic idiom that is very gratifying. He has a sure sense of narrative and structure, which tends to flow. It is a bildungsroman that would speak to many because the pain he carries is often the familiar pain of self knowledge, blame and ingested violence. One thing that leaves a sense of dissatisfaction somewhere is his inability to go deeper into the ideological space of Punjab.
Sometimes we can’t save the people we love, not unless they want to be saved. It often takes an irrevocable loss to understand the value of people and things. But first things first, we all have to save ourselves from hatred. That is the only way.
Sakoon Singh is a novelist and academic based in Chandigarh.
Featured image: A refugee train in Punjab in 1947. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published on The Wire.