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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

Roundabout | When harvest yielded wounds

On the surface it is a quite reticently told bus journey from Chandigarh to Jalandhar and then the predicament there as the last train to Amritsar has left.

punjab Updated: May 28, 2017 15:15 IST
Nirupama Dutt
Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times
A painting depicting Punjab’s dark times by Prem Singh.
A painting depicting Punjab’s dark times by Prem Singh.

At moments, time catches up with one strangely and very intensely. The past week I was transported to the turbulent 80s of Punjab as I translated Waryam Sandhu’s long short story ‘Chauthi Koot’ (The Fourth Direction) for an anthology of fiction from different Indian languages. Yes, the same story that inspired filmmaker Gurvinder Singh to make a poignant film of those times with the same names.

Not having seen the film or read this much-applauded story, although I had translated yet another story, I found myself wrapped up in those times and the times before those times and after of the Punjab story. On the surface it is a quite reticently told bus journey from Chandigarh to Jalandhar and then the predicament there as the last train to Amritsar has left. The hero of the story is a Brahmin called Raj Kumar who works as a clerk in a far flung school on the Indo-Pak border of Amritsar district. He is returning from Chandigarh with a fellow clerk Jugal, also a Brahmin returning after doing some work in the DPI’s office.

Now Brahmin Babus were never heroes in Punjab; in fact the kin of Gangu Bahman remained much scorned because of his betrayal of Guru Gobind Singh. It is Waryam’s subtle craft that he chooses to pick up the improbable characters to tell the story of those times when death seemed to be the inevitable end for the likes of them to be out after sunset. And it is his art that he creates such a vivid picture of fear and despair of those who may be pulled out of a bus killed and the majority would ask laughing the next morning on what was the score? And they were certainly not referring to cricket.

Here is the predicament of Rajkumar and Jugal told in the story, “Instead of continuing the conversation, I started counting the heads in the bus to see how many were turbaned and how many short-haired. To my dismay, the turbaned ones outnumbered the others by two. It was as though I had messed up the sum in hurry. So I started the counting exercise all over again. This time the two kinds of passengers were equal in numbers. It was almost as if I had saved myself from defeat. Heaving a sigh of relief, I reclined to rest my back and taking out a small comb from my pocket ran it through my hair”.

Having lived through those times which are recalled as the dark decade and a half in Punjab, I read the story and tried to recall how it was in those tense years when one saw terrorism, state repression, hurt sentiments, polarisation and targeted mass killings of innocent people of a community in November 1984. Many literary outpourings came out in those confused times when one did not know who was the enemy. But the lines of poetry that return to me readily in context of those times were penned by a poet-friend from Amritsar, late Parminderjit, who had said, ‘Bahut hoyi hai iss vaar zakhman di fasal, Saari umar wandade vi rahe taan nahi honi khatam...’ (We have yielded wounds aplenty this year; even if we keep distributing them a lifetime, they will not finish...).

Then before I had completed translating the last page or two of the story, a younger colleague called me to tell me that KPS Gill, the superhero cop of those times, had passed away of kidney failure. Once again a reel of another kind started playing in the mind of encounters and newspapers full of bhog announcements and pictures of young Sikh boys who had just about sprouted hair on their chins. Sad times, those times. In retrospect, one would like to assess who was the hero of those times? Well it would be someone like Raj Kumar who escorts two young Sikh boys, who are afraid that they be mistaken for terrorists. Actually, they are cousins trying to reach home because the younger boy’s mother has died. There were other heroes too like that brave old Nihang who embraced a clean-shaven boy, probably from Gangu’s clan and saved him from being killed by gun-wielding boys.

First Published: May 28, 2017 14:20 IST