By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi, Nov 19 (IANS) At the last minute, we decide to change the venue of the interview and have a conversation walking the serpentine lanes of Nizamuddin basti. After all, for writer Amandeep Sandhu, it is important to touch the heart of a place, to go to its soul.
In the capital to release his latest book “Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines” (Westland Publications), he smiles when asked the reason behind spelling Punjab as “Panjab” in the title. Stressing that in order to reclaim Punjab’s narrative, even if they were diverse and to find their spine, it was important to start with words, he says the term — Panjab — is a combination of the Persian words ‘Panj’ — the number 5 and ‘Ab’ — which means waters.
Panjab thus means the land of five rivers, which is what Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveller, called it when he visited the land in the fourteenth century. “If we are really being honest with ourselves, then we must admit that after the Partition of 1947, at least East Panjab, that is part of the Indian union of states, is no longer the land of five rivers. In fact, the river Indus itself is no longer a primary river of India or Hindustan. So, I ask, what do we do with history? Small things can raise big questions and that has been my attempt with the book – to problematize the issues of Panjab and free the fault lines from the labels pasted on them.”
Sandhu has a unique position considering the fact that he has never lived in Punjab and yet never remained distanced from it. He is both an insider and an outsider. “I was born in Odisha, I live in Bangalore, I have no authentication documents like Aadhar card, bank statements, or land to my name in Punjab. Yet, the blood that flows in my veins is from the state. I am subliminally Panjabi. My connect to the state is through impressions.”
For the writer, attempt with the exploration and journeys that created this book were to find the texture of his blood. “They say the blood does not lie. I ventured to understand if I could find any essential truths in Panjab. In order to achieve that. I mixed reportage with memoir and contextual history. Doing that made sense to me and I hope it does so to the readers as will,” he adds.
“Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines” is a portrayal of the distance between the reality and the representation of Punjab — the green fields, the hyper-jingoistic lowering of the flags ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border post, tandoori food, Punjabi music etc. While most good writing is about presenting the familiar as unfamiliar and raising questions, this book takes that aspect a bit further.
“I peeled off the facade of Punjab’s greenery, the discourse of religion, the chicanery of politicians and political parties. I did this to present the struggles of human beings dealing with multiple lacerations of their lands, their lives and their values. I also did this to locate them in their own stories, narrated by themselves, and not by those who seek to appropriate them.”
Talk to him about his experience of writing non-fiction after two works of fiction — ‘Sepia Leaves’ and ‘Roll of Honour’, and he says, “Tricky, to say the least. The issue is, while in fiction, the truth is experiential and can differ from person to person, in non-fiction the facts need to be established through solidity of specification — data and testimonies. It is here that the state’s narrative — no or poor data — is in massive conflict with people’s narratives. Wading through that was really hard and when I acknowledged the horror of what has happened to the people post-Partition, post-Green Revolution and post-Khalistan militancy, I crumbled into depression. Writing the book helped me climb out of those dark recesses of my mind.
While writing the book, which I almost gave up many times, I, was sure I do not want to write another non-fiction again. I felt my own style of autobiographical fiction was good enough. Yet, once I finished and once the final book came into my hands, I felt perhaps I could write another non-fiction. It is addictive.”
Optimistic that people in west Punjab (Pakistan) will also relate to the book, he adds, “Why only them? I hope everyone in the world relates with the book because all that differs are external markers — identity, religion, culture, politics, social formations — but at the core the sub-text of the book is our human struggle for dignity.”