In search of the lost milestone

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A father’s remarkable journey towards a memory that eludes him

Urvashi Butalia

IT’S RARE to come across a novel that is quiet and unassuming. A story that carries no surprises but whose subtext is gently nuanced and carefully layered, a small story against a large backdrop, the passing of a single life against a span of history that marks major events in the life of north India. The Long Walk Home begins with the death of Baksh, father of three — all ‘children’ (adults when we meet them) pursuing careers in other parts of the country or abroad — and the coming together of the family after the passing.

Early in the morning of the day he dies, Baksh wakes, restless, and walks out of his home seeking some relief, seeking his friend the doctor (whom he does not find) and seeking, perhaps without knowing it, some sense of home. Instinctively his feet take him towards his old home, a haveli close to a milestone that carries the legend ‘Lahore — 20 km’, and as he walks, stopping to gather breath, to calm his dying heart, his life passes before him: he remembers the journey to a new home after partition, the setting up of a new home in Indian Punjab, the cracks in the family structure because of property, the departure of his children from their home, and the new questions about a home for the Sikhs that the movement for Khalistan raises.

Baksh’s character is created for the reader almost entirely through this walk and the recall that accompanies it. There’s a sense of recognition — he’s a familiar figure, the gentle father, who is not moved by any grand issues, but who lives his life by his quiet beliefs, and finds himself, like so many people, caught in situations not of his own making.

 

THE LONG WALK HOME
Manreet Sodhi
Someshwar HarperCollins
288 pp; Rs 295

Baksh’s children — Ananth, Neymat, Noor — together try to reconstruct their father’s last walk, and little by little, elusive clues offer themselves up — a rickshaw puller who saw him, someone else who bumped into him — but the mystery never quite clears. And there are no surprises there either — for the dead take their stories with them, and all that remains are the regrets: why did we never ask them about this or that? What must they have felt in their last moments… for Baksh’s children, even the mystery of whether or not their father actually stepped out of the house at such an early hour of the morning is difficult to solve.

But this is not a mystery novel, so it is entirely fitting that the clues are elusive, that they provide some answers but not all. Rather, this is, as the title alerts us, a story about the search for home, and somewhere deep down, it is a quiet story about Partition and its long and enduring legacies, which are now being addressed by the second and third generation born after that traumatic history. For this generation, as this story demonstrates, the violence is never overt and brutal, but its impact is longlived and deeply internal. There is no clash of cymbals or beating of drums here, just an ordinary story, movingly told.

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