NOVEMBER 10, 2016
SIKH CHARACTERS often appear in Anglophone South Asian novels, but mostly on the fringes. They crop up in stories about the partition of the subcontinent or the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards after Operation Blue Star, the prime minister’s sanctioned attack in 1984 on the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib, the holiest Gurdwara of Sikhism) in Amritsar. One can think of the taxi driver toward the end of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, who cannot remove his kara (a steel or iron bracelet worn by observant Sikhs) because it’s tightly fitted around his wrists, and which may easily make him a target of an enraged Hindu population demanding retribution for the death of Indira Gandhi. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, published in 1956, is perhaps the canonical novel in English about the Indian partition, and also one of the most significant novels featuring a Sikh protagonist. One should also mention the less canonical novel The Rape published in 1974, by Raj Gill. More recently, South Asian Canadian writer Shauna Singh Baldwin’s Commonwealth Prize–winning book What the Body Remembers (1999) is the rare novel that features a cast of Sikh characters. South Asian Canadian writers in general have made some attempt to imagine the Kanishka tragedy, the 1985 crash of Air India flight 182 believed by Canadian authorities to be the work of members belonging to the Sikh militant group, Babbar Khalsa. The explosion of the plane on its flight from Toronto to London resulted in the death of everyone on board and was thought to be a retaliation for the attack on the Golden Temple the year before. Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? (2007) is one of the first fictional accounts of the event. However, given the ubiquitous presence in the US imagination of the turbaned Sikh after 9/11, after which Sikhs were often confused with Muslims, and were often associated with terrorism, the continued paucity of representations of Sikhs in South Asian Anglophone fiction is surprising. Thus my delight at encountering three novels depicting the lives of Sikhs in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States published in the US in 2016.
Of the three, Deep Singh Blue by Ranabir Singh Sidhu (The Unnamed Press, 2016) most closely follows the path of a traditional bildungsroman, a poignant narrative of a young boy’s sexual awakening with an older Chinese-American woman, Lily, even as his older brother suffers from acute schizophrenia. The novel depicts the excruciating effect of schizophrenia on the brother, Jag, who retreats into implacable silence broken only by his muttered, imagined conversations on the phone. Deep, the narrator and protagonist, comes to fear and hate his brother for his violent tendencies and becomes increasingly alienated from his parents because they refuse to recognize Jag’s mental breakdown. Caught between madness, a psychologically abusive father, and a mother who pretends that all is well, Deep tries to find refuge in the Spinoza of Ethics, a philosophy he only barely grasps; in Lily, who is also trying to separate herself from her Chinese family; and in Chuck, his 26-year-old gay friend, a virgin, who takes up a career as a porn star.
The small towns dotting the California valley to which Deep’s father compulsively drags his family, moving from one precarious job to another, depicts a geography and a life of working-class immigrants in the 1980s not represented in works by South Asian American writers. While the events in the novel happen in the Reagan era, the novel unpacks the lives of the parents and Uncle Gur who migrated to California from the Punjab in the 1950s, a place we are told where nothing much happened. By the end of the novel, much has happened in the Singh family and to Deep, perhaps a bit too much for two hundred pages to sing full-throatedly and with grace. Were the last three pages where Deep and his parents come to a sort of understanding necessary? Perhaps the novel’s insistence that family is family, however dysfunctional, is both trite and true for an immigrant. The conclusion does have a deeply witty moment, one that shifts the tone of the novel from deep desperation to hope. Deep’s uncle shows him his beehives, one of which is named KHALISTAN, the name of the desired Sikh nation, a desire that ran deep in India in the 1980s and unleashed terror and a government counterattack of unimaginable proportions. Khalistan appears in the novel via Uncle Gur, the blustering salesman who longs for a nation he imagines he will return to; who spends his time listening to accounts on the radio of his people rising in revolution against an oppressive Hindu nation. A beehive named Khalistan, written in capital letters, is an apt metaphor for an immigrant family trying to make sense of their lives in a new nation they don’t seem to understand or wish to be a part of.
Khalistan also appears in Marriage Material, a novel that plots a different trajectory in Wolverhampton, England. While author Sathnam Sanghera gleefully admits to have “shoplifted characters and elements of plot” from Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale, Marriage Material departs from it quite significantly. The protagonist of Sanghera’s novel, Arjan Banga, has tried to cultivate a life in London quite different from the life of his father, a shopkeeper who “could have been anyone. Or no one.” He is nothing like the protagonist of Bennett’s book, Cyril, a character who is never quite a character. Like The Old Wives’ Tale, Sanhgera’s novel is singularly realist, filled with details of the lives of Sikhs from the late ’60s to the riots of 2011. The divisions within the Sikh population are poignantly and comically captured in the protests against the Wolverhampton Transport Department’s ban on turbans — with both sides threatening to set themselves on fire if their demands are not met.
When his father’s death drags Arjan back to Wolverhampton, it becomes the occasion for the omniscient narrator and Arjan to recount the story of his grandparents, parents, his aunt, the rebellious daughter who runs away with — who else — but a lying, drunk salesman, and the Dhandas, the family supposedly closest to the Bangas. While the stories of Arjan’s mother and aunt are somewhat similar to those of Constance and Sophia in The Old Wives’ Tale, the character of Surinder is much more radical and witty than her counterpart, though both share an amazing capacity to love dogs, literal and metaphorical. The Old Wives’ Tale ends with an aging dog angling his body to reach his bowl of soup and the omniscient narrator bemoaning the fact that no one, including perhaps the reader, could imagine what “Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.” Marriage Material, because it is as much about Arjan as about the sisters, ends with an interracial marriage, performed in a marvelously funny rendition of a Sikh ceremony and a glimpse into a possible, bourgeois future in London. Arjan’s working-class father’s desire that his son grow up British is fully realized, even as Arjan imagines himself the owner of an art gallery “specializing in Indian art, catering for all the South Asians out there with more money than taste.”
The marriage and the inevitable departure is reserved for the epilogue. The novel ends on a violent note, an explosive confrontation between Ranjit and Arjan, a clash that reveals the deep rifts in a supposedly well-knit community. When Arjan initially returns to Wolverhampton, he is drawn to the hypermasculine Ranjit who evokes the virtues of Khalistan and Sikhism, even as he drinks, snorts cocaine, and fucks women in an apartment hidden from his family. Arjan admires Ranjit’s recklessness and envies the latter’s contentment till it all blows up in a bathroom in a bar. Arjan’s casual remark about applying for a liquor license reveals a secret that comes as a surprise to the reader as does the murderous beating Ranjit inflicts on Arjan for not realizing his place in the scheme of things. A chamar (a leather worker and thus of a lower caste) in England is still a chamar, and the proud Sikh drunk and stoned out of his mind must turn Wolverhampton to an Indian village where the price of stepping out of one’s caste line is to be beaten to death, or so Ranjit, himself a victim of British racism, believes. Arjan’s imminent death is interrupted by Surinder’s appearance, demanding that the bathroom be made available for her, and the novel concludes with two men on the floor of a dirty bar bathroom. The characters are cleaned and dressed up for the epilogue and the scene is set for us to leave Wolverhampton behind.
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is all about leaving places behind. The novel plots the journeys of four characters in the year 2003. The runaways are running from lives diminished by circumstances, by working-class everyday poverty, by caste, and by religion. In its relentless, harrowing description of lives in India besieged by poverty, corruption, violence, fear, and hatred, The Year of the Runaways partakes in a long legacy of Indian writing, including Indian Anglophone fiction. What is innovative about the book is the way in which it shows how such lives continue to be filled with desperation in England. The book features a range of characters: a middle-class son who tries to recapture a lost class position for his family; his friend who buys a student visa by selling his kidney and borrowing money so he can aspire to something better; and an illiterate Dalit who smuggles himself into England on a plane, a bus, and a truck, a journey that mimics his travels back and forth from Bihar to Punjab in search of work. His entire family burned and tortured at the hands of a fanatic Hindu crowd, Tochi is a character of few words. His only desire is to make money so that he can find a place in Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet. The other two are doing their duty “[a]nd its shit,” as Avtar tells Randeep.
Unlike the other two novels, movement does not equate to mobility. Spaces are constricted, bodies are huddled, 14 in three rooms; lives are rendered immobile, exhausted after 14 hours of hard labor, seven days a week. Construction work and cleaning up in greasy fried chicken places soon gives way to working underground, in sewers trapped among rats and feces. The claustrophobia is choking and the reader can smell the stench of immigrant labor unwashed and unrecognized as bodies are mangled, broken, stabbed, and crippled. Cramped rooms are a blessing when one finds oneself sleeping in the cold under a highway; friendships are a luxury one cannot afford when a body can no longer carry the weight of the work being demanded. A hand outstretched must be abandoned, money must be stolen from another worker because a father in India will be beaten if an immigrant broker doesn’t get paid. The seasons change — winter, spring, autumn, summer, also the titles of the four sections of the novel — but a chapter titled “Cabin Fever” best summarizes the tone and mood of the novel. The houses, flats, chawls and huts in small towns, as well as cities and villages provide a glimpse into the complex, human landscape of Punjab and Bihar in India. But England and Sheffield remain unsurprisingly absent, since all that the reader sees are the lives and spaces inhabited by Randeep, Avtar, and Tochi.
And then there is Narinder Kaur, a devout Sikh woman raised in East Croydon, England, whose journeys are absolutely circumscribed — from home to the gurdwara every day and from Croydon to the Anandpur Temple complex in Punjab every summer. She is an unusual character in Anglophone South Asian fiction: homeschooled and trained from an early age to be a model gursikh (basically someone who lives her life as a “true” Sikh), she cherishes wearing her turban and reads the Sikh holy text, the Guru Granth Sahib, in its entirety to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of her mother. She is a woman who firmly believes that the good life, the only life, is one ordained by God. The novel’s evocative depiction of “The Girl from God” is quietly beautiful, a reprieve from the vicissitudes and hellish lives of the male characters. The reader is introduced to Narinder in the second paragraph of the novel, and as the novel unfolds, slowly, like the unraveling and wrapping of a long turban, moving back and forth between narratives, we discover why a woman without any resources, who has never disobeyed her father, decides to be a visa wife for Randeep. Her lives touch others in significant ways, including Tochi, who, for the first time, meets a person who does not see caste. Their fragile relationship is deeply moving, and the novel refuses to romanticize it. Allowing himself to believe in her promise of a just God, Tochi is humiliated in the gurdwara, a place Narinder believes would help heal his wounds. The failure of that promise finally registers with Narinder and the only time she ever touches a man is when she strokes his head as he lays it in her lap while she removes her turban, allowing her hair to fall, for the first time for anyone.
These two characters, vividly etched by Sahota, are remarkable. And when a sick Avtar robs Tochi of all his savings to help pay the broker, Tochi beats him to a pulp. Refusing to apologize or feel any regret for what he has done, Tochi leaves for Spain, where he has been promised a job. The novel concludes with Avtar in hospital and Randeep calling the divorce lawyer to get the papers processed. And Narinder, joining her hands in prayer, realizes she doesn’t know “what to say, or to whom” and meditates instead on “who would be a man … in a world like this.”
The novel could have ended here, but there is an epilogue set 10 years later where things are not so neatly tied up. If the reader expects a successful immigrant story, she will be in for a surprise. There is a marriage and a house of sorts but Avtar the hard worker is quite content to spend his time in the community center with his bad leg while his wife Lakhpreet (Randeep’s sister and Avtar’s lover back in India) works as a nurse. Randeep doesn’t live in the house with his family. Used to cramped spaces, he finds shelter in a small studio where he lives alone. And a novel about migration actually ends up back in India, with Tochi in Kanyakumari selling trinkets to tourists. And unlike the conclusion, where the reader watches his back as he walks away to the station to get his tickets, in the epilogue, we see Narinder watching Tochi with his family, in the longest journey she takes in the novel. This is not so much a story of star-crossed lovers as that of strangers whose paths would never have crossed had it not been for what we see and read every day, the hope, more often futile than not, for a better future in lands oceans away.
Before Marriage Material, Sathnam Sanghera published The Boy with the Topknot: A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton. Interestingly, in the memoir Sanghera returns to Wolverhampton shocked at discovering that both his father and sister suffered from schizophrenia. When I read Deep Singh Blue, a novel about a young Sikh boy’s travails in California which included a brother whose schizophrenia is deliberately dismissed by his parents, I was struck by the refusal to acknowledge mental illness by a generation of immigrants who perhaps equate mental illness with a particular kind of failure. Partition novels — novels about the fight and need for the imagined nation, Khalistan, or the Air India Crash — allow for the representation of the rich tapestry of communities forged and separated by the violence of the birth of new nations or the possibility of one, however distant. But they perhaps prevent the representation of other stories, other narratives of communities caught between the persistent and relentless communal conflict of Hindus versus Muslims in the subcontinent. Recently, for example, we have seen the publication of two novels that grapple with the Naxalite movement in the 1960s in Bengal. A singular history, it has a particular resonance for a specific community. Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others is far more successful at intertwining the fading glory of an upper-middle-class Bengali family with the Maoist movement that attracted so many Bengali university students at the time. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Lowlands, a novel that fails to weave in any interesting fashion the Naxalite story with the story of immigration to the United States, is still to be lauded for trying to represent a less-charted path for her female protagonist. Perhaps the publication of the three novels taken up here allow us to imagine the possibility of stories yet to be told of Sikhs in India, in the United States, in India, in Pakistan, in Canada, and elsewhere.