The life and times of Afghan Sikhs
MANY novelists in the world have their favourite locales to situate their novels. Thomas Hardy had his native Wessex (South-west England) and Arnold Bennet and Sholokhov had the Potteries (Staffordshire) and the Don region, respectively. In Punjabi, among others, Gurumukh Singh Sehgal has emerged as a significant novelist writing about life in a particular region, the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, as it existed before partition.
His two earlier novels Nadion Vichhre Neer and Luarhgi are vivid narratives of the Pathan way of life in that region — their customs and traditions, their entertainments and eating habits, friendship and hostility, revulsion at civil society and faith in natural justice, etc. Now his third novel Hijrat (migration) published by Wellwish Publishers, Delhi, has appeared and it goes deeper into the region as it is located in Afghanistan, from 1947 up to the rise of the Taliban.
As the title indicates this novel is about the migration of a people (Sikhs), who in the wake of Partition preferred to go to Jalalabad and Kabul from Luarhgi in the NWFP to migrating to India. How did they come to grips with life there and how ultimately they had to migrate, in utter frustration, to India after the rise of the Taliban, is the theme of this novel. A joint family of frontier Sikhs, called Khatrans, is safely led across the Afghan border by Malik Annat Khan, a powerful Pathan chief, since he has very cordial relations with the family and does not want any communal killings by the Muslim League followers in his fiefdom. The family’s elder, Manak Singh, has his sister-in-law Pritam Kaur married to Kartar Singh, a powerful Sikh businessman of Jalalabad. So the entire family of four brothers and two cousins along with their wives and children land at the house of Kartar Singh, affectionately called Bhajaan. He is a man of generous disposition and is known for his extremely impressive appearance in the entire town.
The new arrivals soon rent a separate place and start doing their own business. After having surmounted the initial hurdles, they strike roots in the new soil, though a kind of insecurity persists. Two interesting incidents are indicative of it.
One pertains to a Sikh boy Balwant Singh and his bride Pasho, whom a Pathan boy Aslam carries off by force to his home in the distant hills. Balwant had been maltreating his wife. The Pathan boy is very handsome and virile and is passionately in love with her. The entire Pathan family likes Pasho and treats her very kindly. When a group of Sikhs led by Bhajaan goes to the hills to retrieve her with the help of some local middlemen, the girl refuses to oblige them. She prefers the Pathan way of life to living with a dud.
Another incident relates to Sakina, the beautiful wife of Hamid Parvez, an Afghan. Hamid usually remains away from the house for days together. Sakina is a little nymphomaniac and she tries to entice Sikh boys whenever they pass by her door. This she does on purpose so that she is not exposed in her own community. Two Sikh boys Jasbir and Dharam fall victim to her advances. When in the evening they go back to their homes through a narrow lane in Kabul, where Sakina lives, they are lured by her coquettish gestures and salacious smiles. They take the woman turn by turn for a few days, when they are caught and severely thrashed by the Afghans before being handed over to the police. Death is the punishment for such acts. Sakina also turns against them, imputing them of sexual molestation.
The Sikh community both in Jalalabad and Kabul is perturbed. They decide to save the boys whatever the means. So they bribe the Kazi who is to try them. But the Kazi digests the fat bribe and yet sentences them to death by hanging. The Sikhs feel crestfallen. If both the parties had been Afghans there would have been a different verdict. Though the Sikhs are financially well off in Afghanistan, yet they have to live a life of second-rate citizens. The Afghans dominate both physically and politically without any regard for the rule of law. The Sikhs remain a community of manipulative survivors.
Then in the nineties of the last century, the Taliban sweep the country and Islamic fundamentalism becomes the dominant state ideology. It becomes too hot for the Sikhs to sustain through the dogmatic environment. Ultimately, as a submissive minority, they are forced to migrate to India and those who stay behind lead a life of servile non-entities. After half a century, the terror and fear psychosis of the partition days revisit them.
Gurumukh Singh Sehgal has first-hand knowledge of the life patterns and cultural mores of the people in that region. The characters are made to speak their local dialect (Hindco) and at places Pashto and Persian. This adds to the verisimilitude of the narrative.