Despite the deep hurt, Amrinder Bajaj’s novel, When a Mighty Tree Falls, remained objective. In the novel, she described how some Hindus, risking their lives and limbs, saved their suffering brethren. Her thorough research and journalistic acumen did not cloud her narrative. An exclusive Book Review by Arindam, in Different Truths.
Discrimination, deception, and stratification are the tools of war and politics. Truth is a casualty when perceptions are packaged as truths. This is what had happened during the evil anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Two Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, had assassinated her. Nothing could have been sadder.
The lumpen elements in the Congress party took it on them to ‘teach’ the Sikhs a lesson. A carnage followed. Many others were killed. The politics of revenge was at its peak.
A deep scar in the socio-political and secular psyche of the country that perished many Sikhs deepened, forever.
But, why am I saying all this?
I have just finished reading a brilliant political novel, When a Mighty Tree Falls, by Amrinder Bajaj, a practising gynaecologist and Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, in a corporate hospital, in Delhi. The novel has been aptly dedicated to the ‘victims of racial discrimination’.
During a telephonic talk with Amrinder, referring to the 1984 carnage, she said, “They robbed the rich and killed the poor. The middle class was somewhat spared.”
Sadly, the state had turned into a killer in a democracy.
It’s worth pointing out that the title of the book is a statement of Rajiv Gandhi, who made this inhuman statement when asked what steps his government had taken to punish the culprits, whose names were in the public domian. Later, in the novel, Amrinder, through her protagonist, asks why there was no similar carnage following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi? Why this selective shaking of the earth? She is relieved that there was no unleashing on revenge politics in the southern states – which too is stated in her novel.
Despite the deep hurt, she remained objective. In the novel, she described how some Hindus, risking their lives and limbs, saved their suffering brethren. Her thorough research and journalistic acumen did not cloud her narrative.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference,” said Elie Wiesel, which is oft quoted. This is the fulcrum of Amrinder’s novel – the love-hate dynamics. We observe it twice. Once, when Lajo meets Vikram, many moons later. Secondly, in the resolution of her son at the end of the novel.
Her characterisation is real. We meet people we have known, in flesh and blood, all our lives. The complexities of the plot remain firmly rooted in the ugly reality that creates monsters. In the cesspool of blood, gore, lust, hatred and doubt, the pristine lotus of love blooms.
The erotic and sensual are beautifully braided with its exact opposite. And this makes When a Mighty Tree Falls a powerful story, reminding us of the bundle of contradictions that life has. It’s intense, brave, bold, weak, vulnerable and sensual, very much like its protagonist, Lajo.
Amrinder tells us about the aftermath and the effect of the anti-Sikh riot on an obscure Sikh couple Lajo and Kujlit, residing in the resettlement colony of Tirlokpuri. The only cloud on their horizon is the lack of a child. Lajo gives in to the advances of her landlord Vikram who lusts after her. To her wonder, she conceives, when for years she had blamed herself for being barren. Her husband is delighted and Vikram, she vows, would never know.
31st Oct to 2nd Nov 1984 are the three days written in fire and smoke in the history of Delhi and tears and blood in the history of Sikhs.
She shows how the police were instrumental in spreading false rumours and were actively involved in the carnage – something that is in cognizance with the investigations of two respected civil rights organisations, Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR).
Three days were branded on the souls of Sikhs with a red-hot iron, changing their lives forever.
Then news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination triggers premature labour pains and Lajo delivers a baby boy in the eighth month of her pregnancy. In the ensuing riots, her husband is brutally murdered. While the others in the colony flee, she remains incarcerated in that hellhole for days with her newborn baby. When she can no longer bear the stench of burning flesh, the sight of dogs feasting on corpses she decides, that it was far better to die amongst the living, than live amongst the dead and makes good her escape.
Along with the survivors of the carnage, she is taken to a camp where the slow, painful process of rehabilitation begins. The camp revives hope without offering the means to sustain it. In due course, many in the camp are reunited with their families but no one comes for her, though she has a thriving maternal family in Punjab. Eventually, she is allotted a house in Tilak Vihar, colloquially called Vidhwa Vihar (Widow’s Colony), perhaps the only one of its kind in the world. Here, the destitute Sikh widows and their children are asked to start a new life with the Rs.10,000/- they got in lieu of a husband. Lajo gathers the shards of her shattered life and attempts to build a future. Her son Sharan, grows up in the shadow of the ’84 riots for in this ghetto of wailing widows he is not allowed to forget and move on. The angst against Hindus remains a palpable presence colouring Sharan’s outlook, as do his mother’s teachings that verge on fanatic.
Years later, Lajo meets Vikram, albeit in a filmy way. To the physical attraction that existed between them, is added a deep abiding love. They meet clandestinely once a week and Lajo learns that his wife died and a few years back and he was bringing up his three daughters single-handedly. The eldest has fallen in love with a boy from another caste and he has no objection to their marriage. Lajo is appalled at the way she has brought up Sharan and tries to undo the wrong she has perpetrated but the damage done is irrevocable. The inevitable follows – Sharan learns about his mother’s perfidy and suffers an acute identity crisis. How did Lajo create feed hatred and poisoned the mind of her son – a wrong that she could never set right?
But, what did Sharan do? How was he to rectify the wrong?
During the telephonic interview, Amrinder said that her father was a freedom fighter, and a staunch Congressman, who received the Tamara Patra from Indira Gandhi. During that ceremony, her younger son had accompanied them to Indira ji’s home. She also has a photograph of her son in the late Prime Minister’s lap. The carnage broke her from within. This novel, in a sense, is her personal story too. With Lajo and Sharan, it’s her catharsis and resolution.
Photos from the Internet
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Arindam Roy has 37 years experience in various newsrooms. He was the Managing Editor of a reputed Gurgaon-based Citizen Journalist portal and has held senior positions in several publications. As Correspondent and Bureau Chief, he has written extensively for Associated Press, Times of India, Hindustan Times and multiple news outlets. He has contributed 13 chapters to various publications. Of these, seven chapters were published in two Coffee Table Books, published by the Times Group. He is a co-author of a novel, Rivers Run Back that he penned with Joyce Yarrow. The novel was launched at the American Centre, New Delhi, on January 2015. He lives in Allahabad.