Book review: Hymns in Blood by Nanak Singh
Trauma besides the Soan
Nanak Singh, widely regarded as the father of the Punjabi novel, needs no introduction to those familiar with Punjabi literature. The Sahitya Akademi winner had little formal education but went on to create a prodigious oeuvre of 59 works spanning novels, short stories, plays, poems, essays and translations; one of his works, Pavitra Paapi, was made into a film in 1968.
Nanak Singh has set this haunting story (first published in 1948 and titled Khoon de Sohile) in the hamlet of Chakri on the banks of the Soan river near Rawalpindi. It`s a near idyllic scenario with Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims living a peaceful life, celebrating festivals like Lohri and Diwali together, putting up with each others` idiosyncrasies, covering up small scandals, protecting people from the lash of public venom, holding a basic respect for everyone. Yes of course, small fissures crop up, the kind that are inevitable when human beings co-exist, but the author makes it clear that the will to pull as one is very much present in most of the villagers.
A 1947 story
But this story is set in 1947. Malign clouds have already amassed on the horizon and suddenly no one is impervious to disquiet, suspicion and an aggression which carries inside it fingers of savage violence. There are stalwarts like the village`s most respected elder Baba Bhana, trying his best to disseminate the idea of peaceful co-existence and though initially he is listened to with much affection and respect, slowly the outside world, the chaos of a country being rent apart, start to seep into this village, and the effect of the Baba`s wise words start eroding. Baba Bhana`s adopted family of a mother and her son and daughter, are Muslims and that relationship while never for a moment coming under any strain, does stretch the already taut fabric of tolerance in a country on the cusp of Partition. The village beauty Naseem (Seema) is Baba Bhana`s adopted daughter, and she gets into a fraught relationship with a young man, Yusuf. This relationship does not really go anywhere but gives the reader a look into Seema`s warm, loving heart.
Even as reports start rolling in of attacks on the minority communities of Sikhs and Hindus in villages around Chakri, their Muslim brethren vow to try their level best to protect them from the maelstrom; Chakri is reputed to have the most tolerant and trustworthy Muslim population in this these parts. But then, Chakri gets its own disruptor in the form of a lately arrived young malevolent munshi, Abdul Rahman, who openly scoffs at the notion of the villagers living quietly together, and starts to sow seeds of dissent.
Chakri, once a hamlet of much verdant beauty, with the Soan flowing swift and deep besides it, is quickly turned into a refugee camp where people flock together and try to make sense of the sudden tumult in their lives.
What follows next is predictable but heartbreaking for all that. Nanak Singh draws up a dismayingly horrifying picture of what happens when man turns against man, when politics plays a fell hand, when blood-letting becomes an act of vengeance. In it lies lessons for contemporary India, too, for those who would see, acknowledge and absorb those lessons.
The closing scenes of this story has the poignant picture of the eighteen-year-old Seema and the seventy- year- old Baba Bhana walking away from their broken lives, towards a horizon that has all the hues of fear, uncertainty, heartbreak, towards a future that holds more questions than answers.
Nanak Singh`s grandson Navdeep Suri does a fair job of translating this evocative tale. However, in the end the simple fact is that Nanak Singh`s story rises above everything, detailing the trauma of a land broken up, of relationships shattered, the sound of once hearty laughter dissipating into the roiling clouds, the abrupt stilling of folk songs, tappas, the giddha. This is a wail from the depths of my soul, writes Nanak Singh in the Foreword; and indeed, this raw passionate story immediately touches a chord in the reader`s heart.
Hymns in Blood By Nanak Singh, translated from the Punjabi by Navdeep Suri. HarperPerennial. 239 pages. Rs 499
This ran in the Sunday Express Magazine of 5 June 2022.