Q: Would you say that your (artistic) practice is political?
A: Yes, it is. For me, the unspoken personal is political. I write to give voice to subjects our society likes to brush under the carpet – give voice to the marginalized. My intention is to find ways to restore human dignity through language.
Q: If so, how would you describe its political dimension?
A: I believe writing is a space where it is possible to honestly dissect the self and the violence of the society around us. My books are coming-of-age testimonial fiction.
Sepia Leaves is the story is about a family living under the shadow of schizophrenia from a young boy’s point of view, based in a steel town during the Emergency in India during the 1970s.
Roll of Honour is a story of the split loyalties of a Sikh adolescent in a military school during the years of a separatist phase in India – the Khalistan movement. It depicts the internal and external cycles of violence in a community caught in a double bind: its own radicals and a hostile nation state.
I am now working on a travelogue on the Punjab region called Journeys Through Fault Lines. In this book I am drawing out the huge disconnect between the issues the society faces and how political parties try to manipulate the discourse to serve their own needs.
Excerpt from Journeys Through Fault Lines:
From a space shuttle you can see the 150,000 floodlights on 50,000 poles along the 550 kilometers of the Indo-Pakistan border that cut across Punjab in both countries. One of the most militarized zones in the world is this line drawn by the British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe, who had never seen India before he drew the line and who never returned to India after he drew it. The line caused one million deaths and displaced ten million people.
What you can’t see from the space shuttle is a tiny little village Ghanike Bet within Indian territory with 75 houses between the border and the transborder river Ravi. In summer months the only way to cross the dried-up Ravi is a pontoon bridge about 300 meters long. Sand stretches out for kilometers before and after the bridge. In the monsoon, when the waters stretch kilometers in this shallow river, the military dismantles the bridge and boats take over.
We are going to visit a school in Ghanike Bet. My guide wants to interview the teacher for a local newspaper. The school shares its premises with the Sikh place of worship the Gurdwara – education downstairs and Godliness upstairs. We are late. The teacher has left for the day. To teach the 11 children of different ages in her school, each day she travels 200 kilometers up and down all the way from Pathankot. »The government job gives her security and the next posting won’t be a punishment,« says one of the older boys.
»Punishment?« I ask.
»What else is our village?« Asks the boy rhetorically. Then he adds, »I cross the Ravi every day. To study at Dera Baba Nanak.« I can spot the military bunkers across the fields – a mere 300 meters behind the village.
While talking to the villagers about their issues – lack of potable water, lack of doctors for both humans and cattle – I spot an old man looking at us intently. Seventy-five year-old Gurmail Singh, the oldest man in the village, is tending to a pigeon’s wings. He leaves the bird on the ground and brings me water from his ramshackle hut with mud walls and straw roof. I ask him if he came from the other side of the border?
»Then why did you stop at the first village to India?«
»My sister was married here. She kept me.«
»Do you want to visit Pakistan?«
»Have you tried?«
»The military said they could allow me to cross over.«
»Why didn’t you cross?«
»They would have allowed – twice.« He smiles vacantly, his soda glasses slipping down his nose. Then he says, »I know them. The third time they would have shot me.«
He turns serious, »They want to keep up their numbers.«
»Of smugglers killed.«
I gulp the water in my hand. »How does it feel Baba? To be here? The military watching you all the time? All your life?«
»I don’t think even God watches me as much.« There is a long pause. »Naked. It feels naked.« He gets up to leave the pigeon back in its cage but leaves the doors open. He knows they won’t fly. They are homing pigeons.