Thoughts this week are on ‘Nirvana’ but let it not be confused with the American Nirvana Rock Band formed by singer-guitarist Kurt Cobain in 1987 and a rage till it was disbanded in 1994. Here the focus is on Nirvana as the highest state of enlightenment in Buddhism. Cobain comes to the mind because he settled on this name after musing over more funky ones like Skid Row, Pen Cap Chew and Bliss. He finally settled for Nirvana because he wanted a ‘nice name’.
Come to writer-scholar Manmohan’s Punjabi novel ‘Nirvana’ which won the Sahitya Akademi award two years ago and one realises that it is far from being a nice name but rather a complex one when viewed in the context of the search for a profound peace of mind in the context of the conversions by Punjabi Dalits of Doaba on a wide canvas covering one thousand years’ of struggle.
Manmohan’s ‘Nirvana’ is in focus again because it has been nominated as the critic’s choice in the ongoing Chandigarh Literature Festival. Writer-editor Des Raj Kali nominated the novel that comes up for discussion on Sunday noon. Kali says: “It is a path-breaking Punjabi language in its philosophy, content and language moving away from the run-of-the-mill pastoral, romantic and glorifying historical fiction in Punjabi.”
The novel moves through several centuries from the decline of Buddhism from the 9th Century to the 21st century with its Maoist movements. Two parallel texts run alongside with two protagonists from the Doaba region, Milind and Anand, who opt for change at the spiritual and ideological levels of consciousness. The journey is to Bihar, a region Manmohan knows well because he is well-versed with the area as an IPS officer of that cadre although born and brought up in Amritsar.
On his magnum opus, Manmohan says, “It is a journey from Punjab to Bihar by the protagonists at different times following the path of the greater narrative and it could well be my story in quest of knowledge. Both Milind and Anand find disillusionment on the paths that they have chosen to tread through organised religion and politics in their respective times. However, this could well be my story in quest of knowledge. Both Milind and Anand find disillusionment on the paths that they have chosen to tread through organised religion and politics in their respective times. This results in negation of the super narrative and finding their peace in love, sharing and working for the community without promising ultimate redemption.”
Kali, in the critic’s role, says: “What is interesting is the interweaving of the two texts that the author has done with great skill, reminding one of the tapestry finely woven and integrated.” Interestingly, both Milind and Anand return to their native place in Punjab. But they do not come alone but with their loves. Milind gets attached to Kamla, a victim of domestic violence and sadly Anand’s soulmate is a battered woman called Pankuja. This is the reflection of the sad state of women in society even after a thousand years. The 10th Century couple returns to Punjab to set up a ‘matth’ for a more humane society. Similarly Anand and Pankuja return to set up a school free of caste and creed prejudices.
What led the writer to explore this subject and how did he do it? “I was always keen on myth and reality. My PhD was on Guru Gobind Singh’s Dasham Granth’, which is a storehouse of myth and aesthetics. This novel was preceded by a decade of research and there were young men leaving Punjab in the 9th century for Nalanda and as well as youths joining the Maoist People’s War Group in the 21st Century.”
As the story reaches its climax in the parallel texts much is gained even though the myth of the super-narrative of Nirvana is extinguished.