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Against all odds

ZEENAB ANEEZ
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Chat John D. Balian’s novel is about suffering, survival and forgiveness. The author talks about his past and how writing about it has brought him closure.

Through it allJohn D. BalianPHOTO: NAGARA GOPAL
Through it allJohn D. BalianPHOTO: NAGARA GOPAL

We've all heard of the 'American Dream'. Some have dreamt it themselves, others have criticized it, and some have been carried away by its illusion, others too cautious to try. John D. Balian, writer of Gray Wolves and White Doves has lived it. Yet, that is not what his autobiographical debut novel is about.

Instead his story starts in a little village in Turkish Anatolia, only ‘half a day’s donkey ride from Syria’, where Hanna a young Armenian boy is accompanies his Uncle to church. The events of that Sunday alter his life forever, snatching away his family and all that he knew. Uprooted from his homeland, he is sent to a seminary in Jerusalem where, renamed Jonah he begins to heal and search for a new identity. Just as he begins to make the seminary his home he is caught, yet again in the crossfire of Jerusalem’s ‘unholy’ wars. Having suffered immensely, he decides to seek revenge against what led him to his circumstances. The story ends with him immigrating to America.

Gray wolves and white doves is at its heart the story of survival and search for identity, but taking place at a time when the Middle-east is still reeling from the tragedy caused by the Armenian genocide, it is also a historical document of life in those countries during a time of mass unrest. “The book is a story not just about the main character but about the people he was up against and the strangers that offered him help when he needed it,” says Balian at the launch of the book in Landmark, Somajiguda. “Till date, the government of Turkey has not completely accepted responsibility of the past but they are getting closer so I do see a change happening in the last five years.”

As mentioned earlier, the book is autobiographical. Balian was born in a remote village near the historical Armenian city of Diyarbekir. Dispossessed from his homeland and distanced from his family he spent most of his childhood and adolescence fighting for survival. “I wouldn’t say it is completely autobiographical in the sense that I have taken poetic license with a few events in the book and left out a few things, but everything mentioned in the story actually happened, it is a first-hand account.” says Balian. When he was seventeen, he immigrated to the United States with some help.

Listening to him talk, one cannot help but notice subtle remnants of a middle-eastern accent. “To this day I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere; that I don’t belong to any particular country. I spent most of my childhood wandering the middle-east but now I have made a life for myself in the United States. I have a job and a family there,” says the writer. After immigration, Balian completed his schooling, attended Columbia University on a full scholarship and went on to receive a medical degree from Tufts University School of Medicine. Having completed his medical residency, Balian worked for the United States Food and Drug Administration prior to moving into the healthcare industry where he now holds a senior executive position with a US-based corporation.

Does he have plans of visiting his homeland soon? “No, not anytime soon,” he says with a hint of remorse,” I would like to go but not yet, there is a lot to think about before making such a visit to a place where you have suffered a great deal.” Penning a novel about one’s struggles is therapeutic to many; in Balian’s case too, writing has helped not just to attain a closure but to forgive. “Writing about these events has been so liberating not just because it helped me accept my past and forgive those responsible. It could have easily been a book about revenge but it was more about looking at these events from a child’s perspective and self-discovery.”

ZEENAB ANEEZ

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