TALKING TO THE NAVEL

Ask Murad Toppers’ answers

By This above all - Khushwant Singh
  • Published 9.05.09
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I have not come across a work of fiction that told the story of Indian Punjab from its blood-soaked birth in 1947 to the present day till I chanced upon Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s The Long Walk Home. It is in fact a saga of one Sikh family uprooted from Lahore and settled in a border town of Ferozepore along the dividing line of the river Sutlej. The family happens to be of one Harbaksh Singh Bhalla, a prominent criminal lawyer, his Jatni wife, Preet Sidho, and their three children — two daughters and a son. It all takes place in ten days starting from the night when Bhalla Sahib “woke up early (3. 00 am) because he slept quite early and his tippling started early.” He was obese, over-weight, diabetic and had heart trouble. He walked through the bazaar in the dead of night to look for a doctor. He could not find one. So he continued walking through wheat fields he once owned along the banks of the Sutlej. He collapsed on his way back home, was picked up by a rickshawwallah and taken to hospital, where he expired. The story goes back and forth, reviving events in Punjab, and on the tenth day there is the antimardas (last prayer) for Harbaksh Bhalla’s soul.

There is a lot to be said in favour of encapsulating the 63-year-old history of the state in this medium-sized novel. The pace of Someshwar’s narrative varies from the leisurely to the frenetic. She tells you about the demand for a Punjabi state made by Master Tara Singh and Sant Fateh Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru’s reluctance to concede it, and the Hindu-Sikh tensions that ensue. In between, comes the 1965 Indo-Pak war in which Pakistanis assumed that disgruntled Sikhs would side with them. They did not. The Sikh peasantry rallied round to help the Indian Army repel the attack. Indira Gandhi then conceded the Punjabi suba with a Sikh-majority. Not content with what they got, rose Bhindranwale and his Khalistani terrorists. Police repression, fake encounters and arrests of innocent young men on cooked-up charges followed. Bhalla Sahib is suspected to have been a sympathizer. There was Operation Blue Star, which took hundreds of lives, and then came the desecration of the Akal Takht. It was followed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the massacre of thousands of innocent Sikhs. And so on. To hold the readers’ interest, the author introduces some highly improbable anecdotes. Young Harbaksh Singh Bhalla sleeping in the open in his wheat field is straddled by a woman unknown to him. They have torrid sex without exchanging a word. She disappears in the darkness of the night carrying Harbaksh’s lungi with her. It is the stuff a young man’s wet dreams are made of. How did the poor fellow get home without the lungi? The amount of material Someshwar tried to pack in her novel required a large cabin trunk; she has tried to squeeze it into a small suitcase.

Someshwar is a writer of great promise. I have a gut feeling we have a new star rising in Punjab’s literary horizon. She has excellent command over English and a sly sense of humour. Her dialogues, with their Punjabi mutilations of English, choice of Punjabi and Urdu proverbs, quotations from the Gurbani, from Ghalib, Tagore and Gulzar go down very well. Being young and gifted, she is unable to resist showing off what she knows. Readers may know words like moniker, morph and recce, but how many would know ‘omphalokelepsis’? I had to look up the dictionary. It means talking to one’s navel — a form of meditation. She would do better if she tried it herself.

Ask Murad

Murad Ali Baig is of the same age as my son, but I regard him as a kindred spirit. He is Muslim, but I doubt if he ever goes to a mosque to pray. Like me, he enjoys his evenings with Scotch whiskey. I am Sikh but I do not go to gurdwaras to pray, eat halaal meat, beef and drink. However, both of us share a common passion — the study of religions. He does it dispassionately and writes about them. I have translated a lot of the Gurbani into English, and have written on matters concerning my community.

It was time Murad Baig answered the many questions his readers and admirers keep asking him. He has done precisely that in his Reflections in a Sacred Pond : An inquiry into India’s history, mythology and religion through 80 questions. The range of the questions is baffling. Starting from India as one of the oldest civilizations and where human beings come from, he goes on to Jainism, Buddhism, Hindusim, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism. Then he comes to recent times. Did the British exploit India? Did free Indian leaders fail their country? Why was India’s progress so slow? And so on down to communalism in present-day India — all packed in 200 pages. It is veritably an abridged encyclopaedia of India.

Toppers’ answers

Q: How can you drop a raw egg into a concrete floor without cracking it?

A: Concrete floors are very hard to crack! (UPSC topper)

Q: If it took eight men 10 hours to build a wall, how long would it take four men to build it?

A: No time at all, it is already built. (UPSC rank 23, opted for IFS)

Q: If you have three apples and four oranges in one hand, and four apples and three oranges in the other, what would you have?

A: Very large hands.

Q: How can you lift an elephant with one hand?

A: It is not a problem, since you will never find an elephant with one hand.

Q: How can a man go eight days without sleep?

A: No problem. He sleeps at night.

Q: What can you never eat for breakfast?

A: Dinner.

Q: Bay of Bengal is in which state?

A: Liquid.

(Contributed by Vipin Buckshey, Delhi)