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The Curse of '84
A review of Dreams After Darkness: A Search for a Life Ordinary Under the Shadow of 1984 by Manraj Grewal (Delhi: Rupa); January 2004; pp. 224.

Urvashi Butalia's comment about the book's title seems to miss the point completely. This is the story of ten men who, having led extraordinary lives during the 'dark decade,' are now, along with their families, searching for ordinary lives.

Outlook, Jul. 12, 2004

Photo: Indira Gandhi's assassins, Beant Singh (right) and Satwant Singh

A more appropriate title for this book would have been 'Search for a Life Extraordinary' for each of the 10 stories in it is a story of a man or men whose ordinary lives exploded into extraordinary dimensions, sometimes intentionally, at other times by accident. In each case the common factor remains 1984. What happened during Operation Bluestar catapults these men into paths they might otherwise not have taken. Whether it is Beant Singh, Indira Gandhi's assassin, or Karamjit Singh [Sunam], who tried unsuccessfully to kill Rajiv Gandhi, or Gian Singh who made an attempt on the life of [Harchand Singh] Longowal, all these men take their inspiration from religion and believe that they are acting in defence of their faith.

Although not always well told, these stories provide some telling insights - how the slide into terrorism, often an individual isolated act, ends up involving the whole family, with parents, siblings, others being exposed to pain and humiliation. They show that no matter how heroic the martyr may have been, no matter how much he believed himself to be acting in defence of the faith, or a cause, he was nonetheless deeply selfish and deeply self-centred. They show how, for those who spent long years in jail, prison became like a home, and the outside world something fearful. And they show how yesterday's heroes and martyrs become people to be shunned when they return to ordinary lives, or cultivated if they enter the ugly world of politics. Both these aspects reveal themselves tellingly in the life of Bimal Kaur Khalsa, the wife of Beant Singh, and her children.

These are stories worth reading, though the absence of women, scores of them, who took amrit in the name of the panth (wrongly translated here as baptism), and gave birth to its martyrs, is jarring.