Sometimes it takes a bit of fiction to be able tell the whole truth. Especially when the truth is as complicated as telling the story of a strife, not so long ago.
"Tankhahye", the latest novel of journalist-turned-academic Varinder Singh Walia breaks new ground, tracing roots of Punjab terrorism in the creation of "Mukti Bahini" - the guerrilla force trained by the Indian Army during the Bangladesh Liberation War - the common link being Major General Shabeg Singh. An outstanding officer of the Indian Army, Amritsar-born Shabeg Singh went on to become the right-hand man of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
"Not much is known about Shabeg Singh even though he comes out to be a central character in situations that led to Operation Bluestar. He had played a key role in the division of Pakistan. For him, maps of countries could be redrawn and the possibility of the creation of Khalistan was as real as he had seen happening in case of Bangladesh. He had trained "Mukti Bahini" volunteers during the Bangladesh Liberation War and when he joined Bhindranwale, he knew exactly what he had to do," says Walia.
Despite being a fictionalised account of history, the book is able to touch the truth as it most likely was more human than academic. "Fiction is used to bridge the gaps and turn a series of events into a narrative," says Walia.
The names of the central characters have not been changed and other than Shabeg Singh, the novel brings Sam Manekshaw, Julio Francis Ribeiro and KPS Gill to life.
He said: "I have tried to look for some answers which are central to the Punjab problem. Were terrorists correct in converting religious places into their hideouts and fortifying these? Did the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC), Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and other leaders of Punjab play it right during those days? Could Operation Bluestar have been avoided? What role did the state intelligence, the ISI and the army play?"
And why is the novel called Tankhahye? "Shabeg Singh worked for a salary and so did Sirdar Kapur Singh," says Walia, drawing a parallel between the two. "Just like Shabeg Singh, Kapur Singh looked upon himself as a victim of the Indian state. He authored the first draft of the Anandpur Sahib resolution and the document continues to reverberate in the annals of Punjab's history even today. Both were in that sense tankhahye (salaried). But tankhahye also means the ones who have to serve penance for religious misconduct. It can be seen any which way," says Walia.
Walia chronicled the tumultuous events of Punjab in last three decades - first as a reporter in Amritsar and later as the editor of Punjabi Tribune.
Penned with flair, his racy narrative is imbued as much with an unsparing hard take on individuals and institutions that were at the centre of the dark era as it's with heart-tugging humanistic lessons from the momentous tragedy that consumed Punjab in the '80s.
Using an array of powerful metaphors and searing idioms, he delves into and delayers the most controversial and blood phase in Punjab's recent history with a refreshingly new perspective.
And like any good story, "Tankhahye" is not without a lesson, weaved into the book's dramatic ending.
Walia tries to redefine "dharam yudh" as it should have been, as it always should be. "The concept of the sant-sipahi, the miri piri was based on dharam yudh, but distortions crept in. The dialogue between terrorist Baaz Singh and the cop, who represent the state, brings out that deviation. Neither of the two were doing the right thing is the final realisation," says Walia.