It’s a typical winter evening in Delhi — the sun has set early, and a smoggy haze has descended on the city. Amandeep Sandhu, whose book Panjab: Journeys Through Fault Lines was recently released, coughs and sneezes. “Delhi’s pollution has got me,” he complains.
As far as small talk goes, it’s hard to avoid a comment on Delhi’s pollution, which many believe is caused by stubble burning in neighbouring states. Sandhu (46), however, insists that farmers who burn their crop residue are being unfairly hounded since the major offender is industrial pollution. “No one is speaking for the farmers,” he says.
The Bengaluru-based author, who is from Punjab, hopes to speak for his home state. He travelled extensively across the state to put together a hefty book of almost 600 pages. “Fiction has an internal narrative truth to it, and once the reader buys into that truth, you can take the reader anywhere. Non-fiction, on the other hand, has to represent the world it is talking about so that it can be compared to what is happening on the ground. It needs to be true to that. You have to be very careful to get the true voice and story of the place you are writing about,” he says.
His previous books, Sepia Leaves (2007) and Roll of Honour (2012), belonged to the auto-fiction genre, which builds a fictional narrative based on personal life events. Panjab evinces his desire to seek out stories of land and identity, leading him to shift his style and focus towards non-fiction. The book opens with lines from the 13th-century poet Fariuddin Ganjshakar: Uth Farida sutteya/ duniya wekhan ja/ Shayad koi mil jaye bakhsheya/ Tu vi bakhsheya jaen/ Turia turia ja Farida, turia turia ja (Wake up, O sleeping one/ go see the world/ You may find a blessed one/ And be blessed in return/ Keep walking, Farid, keep walking).
When Sandhu began writing the book, he was bewildered by the task ahead of him. “I wasn’t able to get a complete picture of Punjab. In fact, I wasn’t even travelling to write a book. I was just trying to understand the region,” he says.
He travelled through Punjab for more than three years. “The land is no longer the ‘Land of Five Rivers’. It is stuck in an eddy,” he notes. In fact, the image of Punjab being the ‘land of the Green Revolution’ is far from the truth, according to Sandhu, who writes in the book: “This non-listening, non-acknowledging violence of the state through colonial capitalist practices based on new-liberalism has paralyzed Panjab’s agriculture.”
The first chapter, titled Berukhi — Apathy , for instance, returns to the grim reality of agrarian distress. The subsequent chapters, 16 in all, each with a Punjabi word followed by its English translation, have telling titles: Rosh — Anger, Rog — Illness and so on. Was there a reason for such an ordering of chapters? “Not really,” Sandhu replies. “I didn’t plan the order. There were two things I kept thinking about: The name of the book and how to begin. When my editor suggested I begin with the photo [that is on the book’s front cover end leaf], I cried. I knew that I had found the beginning of my book.”
The photo is of people on top of the 156-ft Ramgarhia Bunga, a complex on the eastern side of Darbar Sahib in Amritsar. The photograph was taken right after Operation Bluestar — the 1984 army action to flush militants out of the Golden Temple complex — and the onlookers could look down and, as he writes, “see the blown-off crown of the supreme Sikh seat of justice, the Akal Takht”.
The book records in detail the prevailing ecological and socio-economic issues in Punjab. During Sandhu’s travels in 2015, the southern fields of Punjab were affected by a whitefly infestation and the farmers were agitating for compensation. He criss-crossed the state, covering these protests. Along the way, he met psychiatrists, farmers and student leaders.
What makes the book a compelling read is the non-linear style of writing and the interweaving of personal stories with the complex histories of the region. As he confirms, “Travel is always linear, but here, the issues are anything but linear. My challenge was: How do I talk about these issues in a linear fashion? The book is, therefore, a mix of reportage, memoir and contextual history.”
Sandhu ends the conversation on a note of hope and clarity: “This whole exercise was to be myself, and that is what this book is about. Home is language, language where you can be yourself, and this book, this journey, has given me this sense of homecoming.”
Jonaki Ray is a Delhi-based poet and writer; her poetry collection, Memory Talkies, will be out in 2020