Marked historically

Marked historically

"On the road to nowhere in particular, one comes across all manner of interesting things."

Ashok Chopra's Memories of Fire stands upright like a giant, straddling storytelling, politics, literature, poetry and more in what seems the puny world of fiction. It's a story of five childhood friends, their various journeys, and their reunion after five decades. Set in the restless Punjab of the 70s and 80s with its changing political climate, it's a clear-eyed exposition of how things happened, and why. Reza Ahmed, Deepak, Balbir, Radhey Shyam and Vijay meet at a boarding school and forge a bond. All of them, except for Vijay, are boarders.

Deepak, the most bookish among them, seems destined for Oxford, but in reality ends up as an ordinary college professor, teaching English literature. Vijay, the least academically inclined, turns out to be the most emotionally intelligent person. Balbir and Radhey Shyam, whose families are neighbours  and close friends, shatter the dreams their families have for them, each in his own way. And Reza provides incisive details of the politics of Pakistan.

Both in the smaller private world of family ties and in the larger world of politics, things seldom happen in the way they are envisioned. Dr Waryam Singh dreams of a foreign medical degree for his son Balbir, but when the degree and the accompanying success come, they are no longer on speaking terms.

The story is repeated for his friend and neighbour Seth Raja Ram and his son Radhey Shyam. Punjab, which is putting itself together after the trauma of Partition ­ ­ and finding its way into prosperity through the Green Revolution, is once again pulled apart by dirty, divisive politics. Sikhs and Hindus who lived as brothers ­ - who are brothers, for was it not the oldest son of a Hindu family who was given to Sikhism? - are now at each other's throats.

Bhindranwale, Akalis, Indira Gandhi and Zail Singh join hands to make Punjab a terrorist hotbed and could not have done better if they had categorically planned it. Pakistan is similarly affected. Muhammed Munir's "law of necessity" justifying martial law is a Frankenstein come alive and henceforth, Pakistan must suffer silently as terror exerted by the  junta becomes the order of the day.

The grittiness of the larger picture becomes clearly visible. Between the world of politics and the personal world, the author makes delightful digressions into almost everything else. We learn about the Pahari art of miniature painting, of paintbrushes made of the "inner down of a baby camel's tail" or the "ultra soft down from the ears of new-born asses," of colours laboriously ground and processed for months to give the desired effect.

We are afforded an insight into the sect of Bishnoi from the desert land of western Rajasthan that has learned to live in its sparse surroundings in harmony with nature by displaying immense compassion. There is a description of the baagh  embroidery and its different styles, and how even the most exquisite ones must contain a deliberate fault for no human being could or should purport to be God.

We learn that the Chambal river  is the only river not considered holy and is therefore not polluted, which makes it home to crocodiles and turtles, river dolphins and birds. We are told the story of Ravi Shanker's unfortunate marriage to Annapurna Devi, a musician par excellence, who stopped singing to appease her husband's insecurity, but was later flung aside for the dancer Kamala Shastri.

Again and again, there are forays into literature. Abelard and Heloise, the star-crossed lovers, get a mention,   and so does Henrik Ibsen. We are offered a choice of fine ghazals as if showcasing the beauty of the Urdu language.

On Saadat Hasan Manto, the brilliant though eccentric writer, we get to read a whole essay on his successes and difficulties with the bottle, which is heart-wringing just as it is exasperating. And we are told the final truth about Indian literature - that it is "mystic" and a fine balance of "spiritual with worldly happiness."  

To see the book purely as a novel would be to undermine its greatness. The plot is at best straggly. At times the storyline is so sketchy and the excursions into politics or literature so forceful that it requires an effort to pull oneself back into it.

Characters are flat and uninteresting except for Vijay who gains a little depth through love and loss. Radhey Shyam has no validity except as Aneeze's lover, Deepak only as a lover of literature, Balbir is the remorseful, estranged son, and Reza is nothing more than a political commentator. But what the book successfully does is to unfold the enormous political panorama, and the bleeding wound Punjab had become where Hindus, Sikhs,  and Muslims had once lived peacefully together.

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