by: Dr Jaspal Singh
South Asia Post, Issue 48 Vol II, September 30, 2007
Rabinder Singh Atwal has been living in California for decades now. He has seen scores of Punjabi families moving to America, settling and disintegrating over a period of time. This process of alienation and integration of the Punjabi community in this part of the world has been waiting for a narrative treatment for a long time. No doubt, the tale of the migration of a community from its native environment to an alien set up is always full of trials and tribulations that in literature usually give birth to narratives of epic proportions. So thematically Atwal’s raw material has all the ingredients of being an epical novel, yet the end result slightly falls short of that. In spite of this, he has been able to spin extremely interesting yarn, weaving it into a mosaic of melodious modulations that engage the reader for hours together.
The story begins from a small hamlet Rajpur which is a family fief of Balram Singh, a feudal lord with direct link with the sovereign of the kingdom. Balram has three sons all of whom are officers in the state and comfortably settled in the capital city. The lands in the village are looked after by Balram himself who has scores of tenants as tillers.
There are about forty families of Gill Jatts who cultivate the land as tenants. In addition there are a few families of service providers like carpenters, barbers and weavers. Balram Singh is treated like God and only he owns a huge bricked fort-like structure visible from a distance in the village. All the other inhabitants have mud houses where they live like menials along with their animals. Balram Singh lives in his fort with his wife (Sardarni) and his daughter Harjinder (Beebaji) helped by dozens of servants and slaves. As bad luck would have it Harjinder grows up as an extremely heavy, tall and ugly woman whom nobody from the landed aristocracy would accept as a wife. Consequently, her marriage is proposed to a forty year old widower who looked sixty because of his bad habits and excessive drinking. Harjinder has heard of this scum of the landed aristocracy whom she decides never to marry. Instead she takes a fancy to the village Gurdwara priest’s son Mohan Singh, a tall handsome boy who works as a tailor and a harmonium player in the Gurdwara. She somehow manages to meet Mohan and against his will elopes with him. They reach Goa which at that time is a Portuguese territory and eventually they are able to secure jobs on a ship. Harjinder in the guise of Maria is employed as a cook and kitchens cleaner while Mohan as Salvador becomes a coolie. This ship carries cargo for Africa, Europe and even America depending on the assignment.
These are War days. After Pearl Harbor America also joins the Second World War against Axis Powers. Therefore, the movement of ships in the Pacific becomes extremely dangerous. By this time, Harjinder becomes pregnant and most of the sailors are laid off, since sailing is no longer viable. Both Mohan and Harjinder decide to get off the ship at San Francisco and get lost in the country. As soon as they get the landing permit and venture into the city they are sent to Yuba City by a sympathizer where they are employed as farm hands by an old Japanese couple. These Japanese farmers are very considerate and gentle towards them and when the US government hauls up in camps all the Japanese living in the US as a consequence of war against Japan, the old Japanese couple is forced to leave the farm in the care of Mohan and Harjinder who honestly deposit the due lease money in the bank account of their benefactors. After the War, the Japanese farmers return to their home, but soon the mistress of the house dies and the old farmer in disappointment too decides to go to Japan, his native land while leasing out the farm to Mohan Singh. After a couple of years, the farmer too dies and he wills the farm in the name of Mohan Singh if he pays a few thousand dollars to his legal heirs viz. his two doctor sons still working in the USA.
The real plot of the novel is scaffolded on this foundation. Mohan and Harjinder work hard and in course of time are blessed with two sons and two daughters. The elder son Gurbax works with his father in the farm while the younger one finds a job in a store owned by a whiteman where eventually he marries his only daughter. After the death of the whiteman, Harbax (the younger son) becomes the owner of a successful business, multiplying it as the time passes. The elder daughter of the family is married to a boy imported from India but this marriage proves to be a disaster in a couple of years. This girl goes astray and becomes a drug addict, loafing her life away in the city.
The chance meeting with Veena at San Francisco Airport intensifies the plot of the novel. Mohan Singh brings the hapless girl to his farm house that in course of time becomes intimate with him. As Veena finds a job in the city, Mohan Singh hires an apartment for her near her place of work and starts visiting her every other day. They fall in love with each other and the family at once gets the wind of it. Mohan Singh is rudely hauled over the coals and even thrashed by his elder son. As a consequence, he gets a stroke and becomes bedridden to be nursed by his younger daughter Rano. Rano is a university student where she falls in love with Harpreet, a boy from the Saini caste. The family outrightly rejects her proposal since they proudly declare that their Jatt caste pedigree is impeccable. But Rano is adamant.
Harjinder, her mother also sides with her elder son who is the worst opponent of an inter-caste marriage. Meanwhile Veena’s son Rohini by Mohan Singh arrives after the death of his mother in an accident. As a younger brother, Rano takes his responsibility. Now Rano has to take care of two helpless creatures in the house viz. Mohan Singh and his illegitimate son, Rohini. These developments become the cause of worst type of turbulence in the family. The elder daughter of the family has already gone far on the bad ways, the old man is scandalized for siring an illegitimate child at the age of sixty five, the younger son of the family marries a white girl and is totally indifferent to them and the younger daughter Rano is bent upon marrying a boy out of her own caste. No traditional family can quietly take such a turn of events. At this critical juncture, a new character is introduced in the family. It is Parmveer who actually is a nephew of Harjinder, the mistress of the house. He has taken admission in some University in California and by chance finds his paternal aunt here in Yuba City. Parmveer’s identity is revealed only to the old woman. She meticulously keeps it as a secret but is able to learn everything about her parental family from the boy. Her father and mother are dead long ago in utter humiliation after the elopement of their daughter with a low caste boy Mohan whose father, the village priest, they get mercilessly killed. The huge fort like mansion in the village is in ruins. After the independence of India in 1947, the family lands become the property of tenant tillers. Harjinder is rudely shaken by such a turn of events and is very repentant for causing so much pain to everybody. She now realizes about the plight of her husband and her daughter Rano. When she starts sympathizing with the sick old man, her younger daughter and Rohini, she is rudely pulled up and bad mouthed by her elder son Gurbax. In utter desperation she then decides to spill the family beans. She calls every member of the family and makes them sit beside her and narrates them her long tale of trials and tribulations which is full of unspeakable pain and pathos. When the family learns that they are sons and daughters of a “low caste” tailor and are born out of wedlock since Harjinder never formally married Mohan Singh, they are all shocked, most of all, the elder son who always carries the burden of a bloated ego of being a proud Jatt from a family of landed aristocrats. This denouement is followed by a long discourse by Parmveer on the irrelevance of caste and races in the modern world. This realization is followed by resolution and a harmonious family reunion.
The entire storyline takes the typical Proppian course. It begins with adversity and alienation, goes through settlement pangs followed by turmoil and interplay of opposing forces which are neutralized by a helper in the person of Parmveer. The immanent plot is laid bare by Harjinder and all the loose ends are deftly woven into a pattern leading to realization and resolution. The narrative style is engaging and one feels like finishing the novel in one sitting. Besides being a socially aware person, Atwal is a good story teller. On the whole, the entire discourse is a good sensitive yarn that may stoop to sentimentalism at places, yet evoking genuine emotions towards the end to which the reader responds with warm feelings about situations, events and characters. The publishers Parteek Publication, Patiala (India) have been a little careless in editing and proofreading.