Read an excerpt from Arjun Raj Gaind's The Anatomy of Scars, based on the aftermath of Operation Blue Star
Amidst mounting conflict, when the protagonist of Gaind's narrative, a young boy named Himmat, visits his grandparents in Amritsar he becomes witness not only to the acts of dissidents fighting for a free Khalistan but also the violence brought on in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's death.
In The Anatomy of Scars, author Arjun Raj Gaind narrates a story that stems as much from his childhood experience of living through a tumultuous Punjab as from the political storm that engulfed India in 1984. The controversial Operation Blue Star, followed by the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi would lead to shockwaves reverberating through an entire nation.
Amidst mounting conflict, when the protagonist of Gaind's narrative, a young boy named Himmat, visits his grandparents in Amritsar he becomes witness not only to the acts of dissidents fighting for a free Khalistan but also the violence brought on in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's death. In the middle of this conflagration, he witnesses an act of sheer cowardice that leaves him shaken and estranged from his grandfather. Gaind, who has previously authored The Maharaja Mysteries, a series of whodunnits set during the British Raj and created several graphic novels including Empire of Blood and Project: Kalki, now writes a contemporary prose that takes readers through Himmat's life: as a lad in Amritsar, as an adult in London struggling with alcoholism and as a disgruntled grandchild bound homeward in search of redemption.
The excerpt that follows is a glimpse into the bond between Himmat and his grandfather and how he would listen awestruck to the stories that his Nana would narrate to him about the bravery of the Sikhs.
Once, a long time ago, Nana had been a Professor and had been a very important man, a famous poet and storyteller, but he had long since retired from that life.
Now, he spent most of his time in his cluttered study, drinking cup after cup of Darjeeling tea, reading book after book after book. In fact, I don’t think I ever actually saw him without a book of some sort clutched in his bony hands, not once in all those years that I spent at his farm.
Nana worshipped books, and they surrounded him, like squat, square faced companions. They lined the walls of the bungalow, so numerous that he had long since run out of shelf space, and piles of books had started to accumulate on the cracked stone floor, tall towers of musty volumes whose dusty pages made me sneeze each time I cracked open their covers.
He would spend hours, sometimes even days, sitting in his favourite easy chair, leafing through one of his books with a tiny, contented smile on his shaggy face. Sometimes, absent-mindedly, he would tear one corner from the page he was reading and roll it up into a tiny ball, which he then proceeded to pop into his mouth, without even noticing that he had done so. Nana would chew on this fragment of paper silently, as long as he was reading, until all that remained was a sour wet pulp, which he spat out into a spittoon like a stream of black tobacco. In fact, as I watched him, it would seem to me that he was eating words, the way most people ate snacks, as if he was absorbing them and making them a part of his own broad body.
Normally I had strict instructions not to disturb him when he was in his study. That was what Nani called his imagination time, and I was always afraid that if I intruded, I would disturb some arcane ritual, as if Nana was like Dr. Strange, hallucinating reality out of nothingness, knitting it with a pencil the way Nina wove her sweaters out of filaments of wool.
This one time though, caution lost out to curiosity.
"Do you believe in God, Nana?" I exclaimed, marching into his sanctum brashly.
I don't know if it was me, or this question which surprised him more, but the look of consternation which flickered across his face, an annoyance at being disturbed. It lasted only a moment, before metamorphosing to an amused smile, his eyes dancing with delight as he contemplated my inquiry.
"Sometimes, especially when it rains, I do believe in god,' he replied, pursing his lips. "Other times, I find it difficult to believe that an all-powerful deity would create something quite as irritating as humankind."
Putting down his book, he shook his head, giving me his undivided attention.
"Why do you ask, puttar? Why this sudden interest in ecclesiastical matters?"
"I'm so confused, Nana," I said, and it all came gushing out, the depths of the dilemma that was consuming me.
Nana listened patiently while I poured my heart out, waiting until I was done before he sniffed, and said,
"Have you ever wondered, puttar, why there are no lions in Punjab?"
This abrupt change in direction left me quite discombobulated. What on earth was he talking about? What did lions have to do with anything? Was Nana making fun of me?
As it turned out, he wasn't. It was the beginning of one of his legendary stories, and as Nana sat back, taking a deep breath, I settled down on the floor at his feet, cradling my chin on my knees.
"Once upon a long time ago," he explained, "Punjab was teeming with lions. You could find them everywhere, around every corner and in every garden, inside cupboards and beneath beds, and even in the trees, like birds, fast asleep atop the branches."
This made me laugh. He was being mad on purpose, of course. Lions in trees, hah, that was impossible. Even I knew that.
Still, I decided to play along.
"What happened to them, Nana? Where did all the lions go?"
"Well, it so happened that one day, when Nanak was a young man, he was walking home when the meanest, biggest lion in Punjab sprang out from behind a bush and roared at him."
"Grawwr," Nana growled, imitating the lion so perfectly I nearly jumped out of my skin, "I am going to eat you, boy."
Now most people would have screamed and tried to run away, but even as a boy, Nanak was very special. Instead of panicking, he gave the lion a kind-hearted smile, and said,
"Why would you want to do that, my friend?"
"Why?" The lion echoed, bewildered by such a calm reaction. "After all, his fangs were as long as scimitars, and he was accustomed to inspiring nothing but fear. "Why? Because I am famished of course, and you look very edible."
Nanak laughed. "Do you realise, my friend, that if you eat me, then you eat all my sorrows and my woes and my problems as well? Surely that will give you some serious indigestion."
This declaration left the lion even more quite confused. This was the first time he had met prey that had dared to talk back to him, and frankly, when he gave it some thought, he realised that what Nanak was saying to him made complete sense, and the last thing he wanted was an aching tummy.
Frowning, he said, "If I do not eat you, boy, then how am I to fill my stomach?"
"Well," Nanak said, "if you are really that hungry, you could share my lunch."
He opened his bundle and offered the lion his food, which was a rough farmer's meal, just sarson da saag and makki di roti, but it had been cooked by his mother with a lot of love, and as a result, smelled so heavenly that it made the lion's mouth begin to water.
Even though he was a staunch non vegetarian, the lion decided, Why not give it a try? Rather reluctantly, he took one tiny bite. Much to his surprise, it tasted fantastic, and so he took another bite and then two and finally, gulped it all down.
When everything was gone, he sat back and let out a satisfied belch, before noticing that he had left Nanak nothing but crumbs.
"Oh no," he purred, "What have I done? Forgive me, my friend, for you will go hungry now."
"That's fine," Nanak replied with a smile. "I may be hungry but at least, I am still alive."
When he heard that, the lion gave a vast laugh.
"I like you," he said, "you are both generous and wise. I think that from this day, I shall be your chela, your follower, as shall my sons, and their sons after them."
With that declaration, he stood up on his hind legs and pulled back his mane and tied it firmly into a topknot.
"From this day onwards," he announced, "I shall be known as Sher Singh, and I will be your most faithful follower."
Nana grinned, and patted my head.
"And that, my boy, is why there are no lions in Punjab, because they have all risen up on their hind legs and become Sikhs. And that is also why we call ourselves Singh, because once, when the world was young, we were all lions."
It was a pretty wonderful story. If I shut my eyes, I thought I could imagine that lion standing upright and tottering about like a baby taking its first steps. I could see him pulling back his mane to leave his face bare, except for a beard of course, that was every bit as bushy as my grandfather's. In fact, that was what he looked like in my mind's eye, just like Nana, exactly as imperious, as proud.
"Do you understand what I am trying to say, puttar?" Nana said. "Don't look for answers out there." Leaning forward, he tapped my chest with one blunt knuckle. "If there is a god, he is in here, inside you. Remember, it does not matter if you worship the Granth or the Koran or the Gita. All that matters is what you choose to believe. Just follow your heart, because that is what it truly means to be Punjabi."
I thought about it. It made so much sense, such simple, elegant eloquence, that I could not help but nod in agreement.
"I have made up my mind, Nana," I said. "When I grow up I am going to be a Sikh, because I want a beard exactly like yours."
This announcement made Nana chuckle.
"Well," he responded, "I suppose that is as good a reason as any to be a Sikh."
"Will it take very long, Nana? When will my beard begin to grow?"
Stifling a grin, my grandfather kissed me lightly on my forehead. The stiff coir of his moustache tickled my skin, and I sighed, gripped by that effortless happiness that only a child can comprehend.
“Soon, puttar,” he said softly.
“Soon, when you are ready to be a man.”
The above excerpt from Arjun Raj Gaind's The Anatomy of Scars has been reproduced here with permission.
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