An uneventful journey

Last Updated 19 September 2009, 14:31 IST

Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
HarperCollins, 2009,
pp 272 , Rs 295

The title of Someshwar’s book brought back two unconnected memories. One was of a book of the same title which gained popularity in the mid 1950s as it was based on Martin Luther King’s famous Bus Boycott in Alabama. The other was of the real long walk in the 1960s film Lawrence of Arabia. The former created a remarkable impact by its theme while in the film Lawrence’s long walk through the Arabian desert tired me out by its sheer seeming endlessness.

Someshwar’s book was closer to the T E Lawrence film in its impact on me. The walk was too long and Someshwar’s theme struck me as an ordinary one. She has said the book is a work of fiction and she has tried to enhance it along an unusual route — Harbaksh Singh Bhalla’s long walk filled with old memories, while his heart was struggling and moving towards total arrest.

Without commenting on the real-life unlikelihood of the long walk in Baksh’s condition, the flash-back itself was a string of happenings in his moribund life in which his preoccupation with drinks and problem with obesity had a huge role.

A flash-back, in my view, is a good route to adopt if the ending is wrapped in some suspense and the memories  have an exciting or evocative content. I did not find either in Baksh’s story but then it is an ordinary man’s story narrated as a tribute from a loving daughter. His life appeared to be a pedestrian one, a mediocre advocate dealing with life and its problems in his own inept way and with events which are common knowledge by now.

The story at one point did catch my interest. This was his arrival at the door of Dr Arora’s home and clinic only to find the front door locked. His thoughts go back to previous visits in which his doctor had alerted him to the need to exercise moderation in his drinking habit and to deal with overweight. “A good drink was guaranteed to cast the world into a fine kaleidoscope: fragments of dreams, shards of bitter love, shavings of hostility, scraps of disappointment, all tumbling together in a comforting blur” — a twisted bit of philosophy brilliantly portraying Baksh’s attitude to life.

Thereafter the train of Baksh’s thought takes in various encounters with life, its people and places. Balwant and her prescient advice on the merit of buying land and building where Chandigarh was to take shape, 1965, the clamour for a separate Punjabi state, Pakistani paratroopers hiding in the fields, war. He recalled his self-effacing efforts to do the best by his children, selling inherited acres to finance their education which turned out two doctors and an MBA-engineer. I971 and Bangladesh followed soon. Then came the Emergency and its excesses.

Soon after, Bhindranwale was raised to the sky and then dashed to the ground causing a phase of friction between Baksh and his religiously inclined wife who understandably decried the desecration of the Golden Temple in Operation Blue Star. Not much later Indira Gandhi faced revenge and retribution.

The whole story tapers off as one life ends and others make a new beginning. The book does not claim to be anything other than “an attempt to illuminate the twentieth century history of Punjab, refracting it through the invented life of one ordinary Punjabi” — a readable effort.

(Published 19 September 2009, 14:31 IST)

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