An old man, suffering from severe chest pain, steps out of his house at 3:00 am in search of a doctor, but he keeps on wandering for 3-4 hours, traveling almost five-six miles in a daze and is finally brought to hospital by a rickshaw puller, to embrace a certain death. Within a few hours of his demise, the man is suspected to be involved with militants. Did he die a natural death or was there a conspiracy behind? Why did the old man avoid a doctor, preferring to wander alone in the last few hours of his life? Was he suffering from guilt?
As I had a quick glance at the blurb, and read a few pages of ‘The Long Walk Home’ by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, I found myself juggling with the above questions, and the intrigue struck me vehemently, fanning my curiosity to know everything about Harbaksh Singh Bhalla, the old man and an odd protagonist of the present novel.
A Khatri Sikh by birth, a direct descendent of one of the Sikh gurus, a lawyer by profession, and a tippler by choice, who exactly was Harbaksh Singh Bhalla? Was he a sinner, or a lonely crusader of unfaltering faith in humanity? Was he a militant sympathizer or simply a victim of troubled times? Just like me, these and many such questions troubled Neymat, Noor and Anant- children of Harbaksh Singh Bhalla aka Baksh.
The novel ‘The Long Walk Home’ began with an engaging prologue, depicting an old man, who is joyous to see his children growing, content with his ordinary life, and yet somewhat depressed with the harsh reality of his motherland – Ferozepur – a border district of Punjab.
However, as the story progressed, the promise of life is soon transformed into travails of death. As Anant tries to dig deeper into the long last walk his father undertook, and the kind of life he lived, more and more skeletons tumbled out of the cupboard, all pointing towards a greater secret hidden beneath the pretended normalcy. Forcing the children to learn the story of their father, by putting up a complex jigsaw puzzle, forms the basic framework of this multilayer novel.
As I read, I discovered that the novel is actually much deeper than the story of just one man. In fact through Baksh, the entire history of Punjab was played through, right from the good old days of Lahore to the present day Pak infiltration. The novel is a fruitful attempt to lay bare the reality of an ordinary man living in extraordinary times. The intricate story progresses at three levels-
1. A Ghost story told by Baksh, titled as “The Last Walk”
2. Baksh’s memoirs traced from 1947 to 2008 in a conventional story telling manner
3. The present story of emotional upheavals and chaos created in the lives of Baksh’s children post his death.
And, I must say that Manreet assimilated the three plots brilliantly and succeeded in creating a well executed historical fiction, almost on the lines of “The Great Indian Novel” minus the voluminous sensuality of Tharoor. Though, it is not advisable to learn history through fiction, and whenever I read a historical fiction, I prefer to accept the events as fictional history, forgiving the poetic license. But, while reading ‘The Long Walk Home’, I was amazed with the easy explanations, Manreet offered for creation of Khalistan aficionados and the double faced ness of some of the well known politicians.
Though, I am not satisfied with the climax, as it appeared a bit too detached and hastily put up, hinging on preternatural. But, a few pages should not be allowed to spoil the effective drama the author successful presented in the present novel. And, to give the author due credit, in ‘The Long Walk Home’, an exotic potpourri is fantastically created by Sodhi, assimilating the grandeur of Lahore, blood stained partition of Punjab, burning sensation of Khalistan, and lame half hearted attempts of reconciliation by the Governments of India and Pakistan, all told through the ghost story of a dead man.
Moreover, I found the novel quite rich in paradoxes. The grievous atmosphere of Baksh’s household is lightened by the friendly banter between Noor and Anant; the devastation of Punjab by militants is effectively balanced by the candle light vigils of Jinder; the treachery of Prince is offset by the sincerity of Baksh. Here, Tagore’s poetry resonated with Shakespeare’s sonnets, and Gray’s Anatomy jingled with melodious strains of Rabindra Sangeet. In “The Long Walk Home” I found a perfect cultural bonhomie. After a long time, I have read a novel based in Punjab, against the backdrop of Partition, that has impressed me. The last novel, I remember reading on a similar theme was “Difficult Daughters” by Manju Kapoor, which left me unsatisfied.
However the current read dispelled whatever doubts I had about the versatility and literary acumen of present day writers. In a plethora of romantic thrills, here is a novel that evokes deepest of emotions while being solidly based on real life. Definitely a worthy read!