In Search of a Home

Lead Review

In Search of a Home

Amarjit Sidhu’s atmospheric novel, the book under review, despite its shots of brilliance and evocativeness, filled me with a sense of a bit despairing déjà vu. Because many of the privileged class of diasporic writers, who can afford to migrate to the US, England or for that matter to Europe often as a matter of choice and not as compulsion, and who habitually revel in the frisson effect of staying apart from the grime and grovel that is India, take it as their onerous duty to saddle us with their litany of dislocation and rootlessness in an alien land.

Those who have been condemned to stay back, mostly because of their lack of wherewithal or resources, cannot, as a rule, be seen to suffer from a kind of smug elitism that a ‘rootless’ diaspora suffer. If one notices some angst here, I beg to be excused because rootedness, which often means wallowing in the mores of a hidebound society, can barely hold a candle to the snob appeal of rootlessness.

 Sidhu’s novel has been set in Punjab of the turbulent 1980s, but the setting is only incidental to the plot. The violence of the Khalistan movement, the counter—insurgency leading to the Operation Blue Star, the deviousness of using religious sectarianism, the killing of Indira Gandhi and the gory aftermath that led to the killing of nearly 4,000 Sikhs are fairly well documented but in the novel they seem to serve no direct role in the physical impairment of Sidhu’s protagonist called Dave, a young Sikh. Khushwant Singh told the Nanavati Commission that typified the predicament of the victims. “I felt like a refugee in my country.

In fact, I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany.”  Dave’s predicament is not that of Nirpreet Kaur, who haunted by the horror of anti-Sikh riots, had no means to run away from the gross injustice meted out to her family. 

Sidhu’s protagonist led a fairly cushioned life from his well-heeled parents. He can hardly make a claim to the victimhood. Dave leaves his PhD in the US halfway (and being a student of English literature in a US varsity was never earth-shatteringly contingent on the need to move to the US) and comes back to India without a green card to get caught up in the communally-surcharged atmosphere of the times.

Even if Sidhu wants us to feel that Dave had enough psychological churn-out by the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, he failed to pull it off convincingly. Dave was not persecuted enough to seek repatriation elsewhere. If he did, the choice was entirely due to his hyper-sensitive nature. It is exactly where Sidhu succeeds in making a curious character out of Dave.

 The title draws upon Buddy Giovinazzo’s 1996 film No Way Home in that as for Joey in the film, a false charge of murder changes his life interminably, the violence of the anti-Sikh riots does the same for Dave. As is the wont of a debut novel, it is not completely out of place as well to consider that Sidhu has poured enough of himself into his protagonist.

Both Sidhu and Dave were born in a Punjab village, both grew up in Chandigarh, both studied literature and both charted diverse career paths and both settled in Toronto. Sidhu, by temperament, reminds one of John Banville, who as an aesthete and educated pessimist believes that — apart from art itself — nothing redeems the mess, littleness and unhappiness of life. 

Dave’s life seems to have been all along the life of a tourist struck by the germ of wanderlust right from his academic life in America. In America Dave perceives that “poverty and deprivation are the same all over the world” and tartly questions: “how many of us would be willing to come into actual physical contact with ugliness and filth?”  He does not fail to see the nuanced difference between things in the West and in India. Dave also feels that “majority community chauvinism was inescapable in any part of the world”. 

Dave is functionally religious, traditional at the core (staving off chances of sexual escapades in America, yearning for “demure, traditional Sikh woman”), has great feeling for the oral tradition of Punjabi literature, for Sufism, philosophy, poetry and art. He is troubled by the element of dry functionality in American relationships. He is also reductionist in making generalisations and sounds cynical, as even in America where he came seeking academic growth that would have been “inconceivable” in India he feels that “at the end of any journey (there) was an ultimate ordinariness of people and places”. To Dave, Western classical music appeared random and arbitrary compared to the structured, “almost scientific symmetry” of Indian classical music.

Back in Chandigarh, Corbusier’s city, too, Dave sees India from a westerner’s perspective. He is wily enough to get into the desire for upward mobility among Indians who seek an entry into the US at an aspirational level. But his association with Dalijeet — a poet, with Rani — a feminist socialite, with Satish — a freelance photographer, and with Iqbal — a painter add to the human dimension of his character that comes off rather well.
His encounter with fanatic anti-Sikh mobs and interrogation by the CRPF men — shock him but Sidhu stops short of exploring the psychological impact on him.

An itinerant soul like Dave combines reflections on the changing face of India with the puzzles and discoveries of childhood. A brilliant effort though the progress towards enlightenment is clogged by stylistic excess.

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