Straddling the old and the new

Provincial, yet not parochial, Punjabi, yet not stereotypical, and painful, yet not acrimonious — this is Sakoon Singh’s debut novel, In the Land of the Lovers: A Punjab Qissa. The book that begins with an epigraph of Toni Morrison appealing for recognition of pain and yet not succumbing to rancour becomes a scaffold propping up wounds of Partition and other painful projects. A Punjab Qissa is like an oral storytelling tradition of love, social values and a common man’s revolt against systems, but Sakoon Singh gives it a modern twirl.

The novel covers locales like pre-Partition Okara, Chandigarh, Kasauli, Mohali and Jalandhar, wherein nuance of description has been worked into the fabric, like Joginder Singh’s needlework. Art, its recognition and cultural permanence, become tropes, and stories of disparate people and places interlace, with Nanaki finally turning alchemist.

Three generations of a family are tied together with wounds of Partition and premature deaths. Three women, Maanji, Beeji and Nanaki, from different generations, yet so tethered in love and desperation, weave the tale: beginning with Gurbaaz Singh’s murder, the long trudge of a pregnant Beeji and a stoic Maanji to Amritsar and thereafter rebuilding lives. From there, the tale moves to Nanaki’s childhood, army cantonments, and life in Chandigarh. All the while, Punjab is showcased in all its ugliness and beauty: female foeticide through Navneet, drug addiction through Pali, feudal patriarchy in Himmat’s father, the nouveau riche mocking art, and amidst this, the creation of Chandigarh, every day Punjabi life, the burgeoning of love and the gentle influence of Nanak. The final victory, however, belongs to Nanaki, who challenges officialdom and helps select as official artist, Joginder Singh, a former subedar, over the Chief Secretary’s wife. The love that blossoms between Nanaki and Himmat on the Royal Enfield and beyond, their cradling of love and art and the story of lost childhood makes love and lovemaking natural progressions.

The subtlety with which Sakoon unfolds the story, the mastery shown in character-creation and mellifluous lines will make the reader not wait for something to happen; something is happening in every word. The book has much to reveal within its folds of hard truths and beauty, and true to the dedication that Sakoon makes to her father in the book; he truly made her fathom the unfathomable.