Historical fiction | Reviews

1984, the year that changed everything: review of ‘The Anatomy of Loss’ by Arjun Raj Gaind

It will soon be 40 years, yet the crucial events of 1984 — the attack on the Golden Temple that was codenamed Operational Bluestar, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the call for a pogrom by Rajiv Gandhi, and the Sikh riots — still remain amongst the pivotal moments that have shaped the history of independent India. For many of us now in our 40s-60s, there are many emotions involved: the horror of either losing loved ones or hearing the horrific stories of those who had; the feeling of abandonment of knowing that people elected to look after us had chosen to kill with impunity instead; and survivor’s guilt for those of us who heard the mobs braying on the roads of Delhi at night and woke each morning to a litany of deaths amongst their family and friends.

Perhaps why 1984 still resonates is because it wasn’t an isolated incident. It was the result of 300 years of history. The Sikhs were amongst the few enemies that the British respected enough to induct into the British Indian army. As a result, despite the annexation of Punjab in 1849, many Sikhs chose to fight on the British side in 1857 and helped them win WWII.

Read | A searing look into the 1984 anti-Sikh riots

While the Sikhs accepted both  keshdhari (with long hair) and  sahajdhari (slow converts) as Sikhs, the British started counting them separately in their censuses. After 1849, they also allowed Sikh religious property to be registered in the name of the managers. This misuse of revenues caused major concern and, by 1920, militant reformers took matters into their own hands and began the forcible takeover of Sikh shrines. This created conflict with the law, and after many deaths, finally culminated in 1925 with the Sikh Gurdwaras Act, which provided an institutional framework for the Sikh communal consciousness and separatism from the Hindus that still continues.

A photo exhibition on the 1984 Sikh genocide, at Palika Park in Connaught Place, New Delhi

A photo exhibition on the 1984 Sikh genocide, at Palika Park in Connaught Place, New Delhi | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The agitation also saw the formation of the SGPC (Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee) and its political wing, the Akali Dal. The former got access to the leadership of the Sikh community and the resources from religious properties, while the latter remained committed to the idea of a separate Sikh identity. This grew into the conflict that had one culmination in 1984.

Read |One Maharaja too many: a short story by Arjun Raj Gaind

The Anatomy of Loss is about this survivor’s guilt, as well as generational trauma — that of the narrator’s and his grandfather’s. It starts on October 31, 1984, when eight-year-old Himmat is visiting his maternal grandparents at their farm near Amritsar and Indira Gandhi’s death is announced. His grandfather, a well-known poet and professor named Gobind, immediately shaves his beard to hide his identity. That night, Gobind’s best friend asks him to save his son who has been taken away by the police. Gobind refuses, but then decides to go the next morning and is taken into custody and tortured.

 Anatomy of Loss
 Arjun Raj Gaind

Worried about Himmat and his own safety, he refuses to save another boy being tortured by the police, and this sours the grandfather’s and grandson’s relationship to the extent that Himmat refuses to meet him ever again. But it also alienates Himmat from all sense of connection.

The second part of the book, post-1984, is more narrative, self-indulgent, and frankly dramatic — like the parts where Himmat finds a copy of his grandfather’s book dedicated to him in a bookshop at Heathrow, which the bookseller hands to him for free. But the parts about 1984 are gut-wrenching. Many are true incidents that we remember, like Usha Albuquerque breaking down on All India Radio. Ironically, however, much of the second half is also real. Gaind studied at SOAS in London and was almost recruited by youngsters trying to revive the idea of Khalistan (the book is heavily anti-Khalistan), but for me, the author, and the publishing house, it’s interesting that the horror of 1984 hangs over us like a miasma that is never to be let go off. Other pogroms have come and gone, but all of us who survived 1984 are still to make our peace with it.

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Printable version | Sep 8, 2022 8:32:42 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/book-review-1984-pogrom-punjab-the-anatomy-of-loss-arjun-raj-gaind/article65657780.ece