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Saturday, Dec 14, 2019

Review: The Year of the Hawks by Kanwaljit Deol

The Year of the Hawks, set in a time of great tumult in Punjab, provokes thoughts, discussions and memories

books Updated: Jan 26, 2018 20:48 IST
Prerna Madan
Prerna Madan
Hindustan Times

In times of uncertainty, the transgressions of the past are lessons to remember. The Year of the Hawks is a reminder of how easily passions are inflamed and can wreak violence.

The story begins with teenagers measuring their strength against each other and competing over girls at the Moranwale village in Punjab. The politics of religion simmers under their simple lives. Fareed can’t ignore the stray killings of Hindus and Sikhs that will eventually lead to more bloodshed. He doesn’t understand what his religion has to do with politics and Khalistan isn’t a word he ever utters in the novel. His choice, as Punjab succumbs to militancy, is self-preservation in joining Bhindranwale’s ‘cause’. The alternative is being called a traitor by the bullies. Kanwaljit Deol’s novel introduces a journalist, Sikand, who fulfills the role of an outsider, similar to the witness who detachedly observes events like a textbook example of impartial reporting.

Frequent attempts have been made to understand the causes and effects of militancy. Popular culture has done this with great sensitivity. Gulzar’s Maachis, with its iconic soundtrack, played on this theme to near perfection in 1996. There is no dearth of serious scholarship on the subject either. Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the subsequent pogrom of 1984 have all been documented.

So why should you read The Year of the Hawks?

Author Kanwaljit Deol (Courtesy Speaking Tiger)

The answer’s simple, really. There is no better time than today to grasp at history. We must take the past seriously when people are being lynched for their religion, when ordinary folk are being beaten up over their names, and when the political system stops acting as a safeguard of democracy.

A novel’s greatest achievement is to provoke thoughts, discussions and memories. And an author’s greatest accomplishment is to do this with candour. The Year of the Hawks brought back a conversation I had with my family long ago. They have been in Punjab since Partition and saw insurgency from the perspective of the ‘other’ side. Deol’s story zeroes in on the Sikh community’s original identity as warriors, and there is an earnest effort to portray fiction as being as close to reality as possible. All agents – the government, the army, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his followers – have been critiqued. This is possibly why neither of the leading characters is heroic. Both Fareed and Sikand lack the conviction and bravery to inspire admiration. They are both lost and are seething in internal agony without a sense of purpose. They live in greys and deplore their failings that have played a part in their stories. Their destinies are entwined with the conflict in Punjab.

Read more: The army mishandled Operation Blue Star: KPS Gill

The Year of the Hawks got most things right – a chequered history, a complicated cast, and tangled stories with no relief in sight. All of its virtues make for a successful tragedy although there’s no way to ignore the novel’s lack of originality.