Panjab – Journeys Through Fault Lines
By Amandeep Sandhu
Book Review No. 1, March 2020
This book has taken me a very long time to read. 540 pages is not a small number, but the reason for my lingering through its pages is not just the quantum. It is the nature of the story being told in them. It is a story I feel I know, and do know, yet have been blind to. I didn’t feel I could do justice to the epic nature of the book but here I am attempting a summary and a very personal review.
Amandeep has journeyed through Panjab over many years, collecting testimonies and facts, researching history and context, meeting numerous people in villages and towns, learning anew about a place that was almost – but never really – home.
He is an outsider, because he doesn’t live in Panjab, and he is also an eternal insider because of his roots. The story he pieces together is a journey of a deeply personal nature for him. I found that it is also a very personal journey for me. As I read the book, I was travelling through my own family history, paying renewed attention to the stories I have heard growing up, replaying my own memories and encounters with Panjab in my time there, and reexamining my experience of being a Panjabi who is mostly outside Panjab.
Panjab’s story in the world’s popular imagination is a collage of stereotypes. It is a flimsy palimpsest of impressions and feelings about the place, infused with smug indulgence, ignorance and indifference. Amandeep’s book comes as a reality check, and fills many gaps in knowledge about Panjab. It was at times impossibly harrowing to read, because denial and forgetting comes easy to us, specially when it is about things no one questions us about. But I feel I am in a better place to speak as and be a Panjabi, having read this book.
But looking at this book as just an exploration and a narrative about Panjab would be too narrow a reading. If it tells us anything at all, this book tells us about so much that is typical of our times, of our way of government and politics and economics and systems of justice. It tells us that the story of Panjab is far more than the story of just one state. It is the story of India and its past and its future.
Panjab has been and is a physical frontier – for India as an ancient geographic location, and for India as a modern nation state. It is the place where armies clashed, and races mingled. Syncretic and subversive socio-cultural and political movements have emerged and sustained in this shifting soil of a marginal borderland. Change and resistance mark the region and its people. No borders have stayed fixed here for long, not even its most marked physical features – the rivers.
What happens in Panjab is both an experiment and a lesson for all of India, in so many ways. In that sense, this is a book for all of India, and also a manifesto for all its dreamers. Will we learn from the tragedies of Panjab?
Amandeep classifies his stories of exploration and discovery under fifteen heads, using Panjabi terms. Each of these sections become the lens through which the current situation regarding a key issue is viewed, and its historic context and unravelling is understood. I will list these heads here, with a short explanation, because they evoke the mood and the content of the book very well. Each section is like tributary that flows into the others and together all these strands of stories make up a complex narrative of Punjab now, and in the recent past, with a lot of insight into an earlier history as well. Throughout the narration. Amandeep weaves in his own memories and his personal stories into the flow, and we join him on the rediscovery of his roots and his forging a new connection with, and understanding of, Panjab.
Here is a brief overview of the sections of the book. These may look like a litany of wrongs, but the only way forward through a knotty place is to face the tangled web. Easy explanations will not do for Panjab. Nor will treating it as an isolated and idiosyncratic case all of its own kind. Panjab holds lessons that are universal. I am sure readers of this book will have many an enlightening, insightful moment as they go through the book.
- Satt – Wound; The author’s memory of Panjab, and the gaps in his connection to it, is a personal wound. Panjab is itself wounded. The phantoms in the room are unacknowledged, unaccounted for.
- Berukhi – Indifference. Follows from the idea of a wounded people, a wounded land. Agrarian mishaps are tools in political games, with grievances rarely addressed. The state and its farmers and workers in a face-off cannot bode well for sustained wellness for anyone.
- Rosh – Anger. Along with old wounds that religious minority holds, anger builds up over new incidents of religious sacrilege. Beadbi becomes yet another arena for political manipulation and scheming, which has plagued electoral democracy and the issue of religious purity, identity and representation. Hurt turns to anger, and finds no resolution, no hearing, no closure.
- Rog – Illness. Anxiety, depression and despair, addiction and denial. Panjab is not well, but it put on a brave face and pretends, or it goes into punishment mode. What is not done is a facing of the traumas of the past that feed the present.
- Astha – Faith. One of the most complex chapters of the book for me personally, this is where the author tries to untangle to knot of the phase of militancy in Panjab, and the links between politics and religious identity in a modern secular federal nation state that is India. How did a faith based on universal brotherhood and fraternity and service become a cornerstone of a violent movement? What led to the violent reprisals from the state? How was the political economy of Panjab and India linked to these developments? And then, it goes on examine the erosion of democratic institutions that all of this is a sign of. Where and how is one to have faith in the promises that underpin the nation, when there is a lack of accountability and no reckoning for bias, betrayals and memoricide?
- Mardangi – Masculinity. The macho male ideal persists in Panjab’s imagination even as it withers in a reality. Violence to women, children, those at the margins and to the land persists. Sexual dysfunction plagues men with big moustaches and bigger cars. Humiliation and shame shadow marriage and sexual relations. The degradation of the land, livestock and diet with pesticides and fertilisers and hormones, the change in a physical culture and the use of medications for bodybuilding have all taken a toll on the virility of the land and its people.
- Dawa – Medicine. Drug Addiction in Panjab has made news in the post-militancy years, but the issue is not a sudden scourge on an otherwise pristine canvass. Amandeep goes into the maze of old cultural practices and modern twists in the tale of alcohol and narcotics use in Panjab and shows us how the punishment model in use is self-defeating.
- Paani – Water. The water problem in the land of five rivers is a tragedy of geo-politics and rapacious economics played by hegemonic powers- the imperialists first and then the national government. The people of Panjab have been reduced to litigation and protests that lead nowhere.
- Zameen – Land. In a region that is the country’s breadbasket and has always been agrarian, land means more than just a place to build a home. Land rights have been a matter of death and wars since forever in Panjab. The modern nation state promised economic justice and land rights but has struggled to implement the same.
- Karza – Loan. Farmer loans and farmer suicides are linked to bigger issues of industrial agrarian economics, caste, politics and human rights and justice. Panjab with its culture of bravado and show of self-reliance suffers acutely when faced with no way out of financial insufficiency.
- Jaat – Caste. Punjab, the land where egalitarian Sikhism originated, has the largest percentage of Dalits among all Indian states, and practices blatant caste-based discrimination. This is a caste conundrum that contradicts every tenet of Sikh religion.
- Patit – Apostate. A fascinating section on the growth and consolidation of Sikh practices and texts and their interpretations, and the growth of organisations that are seats of control and direction for the faithful. Organised religion naturally faces divergence and factions, and there are followers who find their own unconventional paths not strictly as per the norms of a centralised and organised creed and its gatekeepers. Then there is the fear of appropriation and loss of a special, unique identity due to the forces of the other, external dynamics of politics and culture. There is also the decadence of those who claim to represent the true religion and corporates style control of the faithful and their institutions.
- Bardr – Border. The people of Panjab are truly caught in the pincer – literally and otherwise – in the event of a war on the western border. Not only are the Indian armed forces supplied by many men and women from Panjab, it is also the state with a continuous land border with Pakistan where border skirmishes and past wars have caused much death and dislocation and disruption of life in every way. And yet, these people and their land and livelihood scarce seem to figure in national security calculations as worthy of care and precaution.
- Sikhya – Education. I grew up hearing many jokes about the genial but unlettered Sikh bumpkin who had no brain power. In reality, I have only found most Panjabis of modest or poor means – like most such Indians – desperate for economic and social mobility through education. But education remains a messy affair in Panjab, where unemployment remains high, and the exodus to foreign shores causes immense loss of human resources. Universities – bar one – have had no elections since decades and can scarcely be the training ground for democracy or constitutional values. English is all the rage, though badly spoken and barely understood by most.
- Lashaan – Corpses. Hindi films and Punjabi pop culture showcase exuberant bonhomie and joie de vivre as hallmarks of life in Panjab. Panjabis are known as brave and resilient and Sikhs in particular revere the tradition of martyrs, where death is a moral victory. Yet, for the last many decades, a pall of death has fallen over Panjab and with it, a shroud of silence too. These violent humiliating, unjust deaths and disappeared bodies have marked millions of homes across Panjab.
- Janamdin – Birthday. This last section before the Epilogue is about the last assembly elections and the near lack of fresh vision and alternatives that is electoral contest in Panjab. This chapter also serves as a conclusion to the journey the author has traversed. It is a sobering expose and an affirmation of faith in Panjab’s resistance to power and hegemony.
Amandeep’s book is a work of immense depth and reach, and superbly researched. Written with painstaking detail, I am sure it will soon be known as a classic of documentation and serve as a valuable archive. All of us – no matter what our identity or roots or geographic lineage and location – will have much to learn and resolve, after reading this book. I also look forward to many more such in-depth books being commissioned about other states.