This story set in a Punjab recovering from terrorism doesn’t quite take off.
In the early 1990s, the assassination of the Punjab Chief Minister Beant Singh marked the end of terrorism in the State. It also led to the salvaging of what remained of a society that had been preying upon itself for the last decade. A society in restoration makes for an excellent fictional space and Neel Kamal Puri locates her novel Remember to Forget in this period in Ludhiana, Punjab.
As the novel starts, we learn that the rich are used to throwing elaborate parties and Mr. Bakshi is hosting one such at his home near Sirhind Canal. After a few drinks, Tejpal realises that the party is being held in November, the month when many years ago the anti-Sikh riots had taken place in Delhi and other areas. Being a survivor, he is haunted by the memories and questions Mr. Bakshi, himself a Partition refugee, on the merits of hosting a celebratory party when the State is still mourning the violence it has recently witnessed. Mr. Bakshi elaborates on the virtues of forgetting the sadness, drowning the pain, and finding happiness. It is a grand theme but, as Puri builds the storyline, the plot is frittered away. She moves to a sub-plot in which the serious Tejpal is trying to help his friend Balli get laid. Later even that sub-plot disintegrates when Mr. Bakshi is abducted by failed terrorist Gurjant Singh who does not know what ransom to seek for the hostage and makes a mess of things.
The first five chapters are a sort of roll call in which Puri introduces one character after another. She peppers the narrative with vignettes: how the city got its name from Sikandar Lodhi, how Kashmiri shawl-makers and the refugees of 1947 gave the city its tag as the Manchester of India, how the business men and women from the erstwhile USSR helped the hosiery business, how the rich farmers and industrialists are locked in unhealthy competition over subsidies and tax exemptions and how the urban land prices have sky rocketed. She details how the Bihari migrants came in the Kisan Express in the last two decades, how the Chinese caterers have turned Punjabi. Her views on gender are poignant: how the girl child is killed and female foeticide is rampant, how men have mistresses tucked away in hill stations, how dance bars flourish, how prostitutes teach young men about sex. She also remarks on religion and its many sides: how the missionaries converted the populace and how historically the Sikhs have been at war with each other.
Remember to Forget could have been a dark comedy if it had respected its characters. For instance, the way Puri pokes fun at Gurjant’s physical limitation to run down his ideological underpinnings, as a separatist and a fighter for Khalistan, makes for a sad commentary on how the writer has judged her characters instead of giving them space to play out their destinies. The biggest miss, to me, was Kailla’s story. It is traced back to how he was called Shafi when a leader was put to death in the prison in Ludhiana Fort in 1921 but how a community had chosen to stay with the Indian National Congress. Shafi’s loyalty to a Sikh household and not to a newly formed nation, his learning the art of weaving and his quiet and unexpressed love for the daughter of the family where he was a mere servant make for excellent characterisation. How he daydreams, converts to Sikhism, Karnail Singh aka Kailla, and then adapts his life to the Bihari migrants make for fascinating reading.
That this old man is the prime suspect in the kidnapping of Mr. Bakshi makes for the irony on which the entire novel could have been built, but Puri squanders the opportunity. The problem with Remember to Forget is that it lacks the gravity or the treatment that would have lifted the story to becoming a text of the reality of what the State has been through in the past few decades.