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  Books   22 Jul 2023  Book Review | Politician’s debut flags caste in Sikh diaspora

Book Review | Politician’s debut flags caste in Sikh diaspora

Published : Jul 23, 2023, 12:14 am IST
Updated : Jul 23, 2023, 12:14 am IST

The novel examines ways of configuring human relationships with empathy and kindness.

Cover photo of 'The Past is Never Dead' by Ujjal Dosanjh. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'The Past is Never Dead' by Ujjal Dosanjh. (Photo by arrangement)

The Canadian Liberal Party politician-turned-author Ujjal Dosanjh’s debut novel, The Past is Never Dead (Speaking Tiger 2023), is an act of agency provoking ‘release’ from the stranglehold of caste hierarchy over Sikh immigrants in Britain. The novel critiques the irreducible fact of caste hierarchy in the evolving dynamic about the transnational community of Canadian Sikhs.  It contests the politics of hatred and animosity induced by the blatant misappropriation of Sikhism’s tenet of equality and its grievous social engineering. It is committed to articulating what Homi Bhabha identifies as “the political force of minority” in reaffirming the value of human dignity and freedom against the tyranny of orthodoxy.

The novel examines ways of configuring human relationships with empathy and kindness. It depicts the existential angst of the Ravidasia Sikh Kalu, his inner exile in his struggle to shore up defences against the insuperable forces of ethnic cleavage fuelled by the pretences of marginalisation insidiously moulding the parochial ideology of power and exclusion. The focalisation of the novel is done through the protagonist Kalu, his victimhood, and the triumphal moment of political ascension that radically changes his social cartography. The epigraph alluding to William Faulkner’s contention “The past is never dead. It is not even past” evokes the ironic connotation of anarchy where the third-person omniscient narrator poses questions about the legitimacy of religious faith through a morbidly grotesque analogy “like nooses, they (Ravidas & Ambedkar) screamed death”. Kalu’s indignation about his stigmatised identity and the sense of injustice stem from the crisis of Sikhism in the hands of religious chauvinists whipping up the process of dehumanisation that perpetuate ‘otherness’ by its fictitious disguise of religious oneness.

The novel ends on a triumphant note with a tinge of paradox. Though Kalu is assaulted by upper-caste youths, he is applauded for being nominated as the Labour Party candidate from Bedford whose conquest by the new Member of Parliament, Dr Kalu Chamar, signals an epic victory. The journey from Kalu to Dr Kalu Chamar is one of torment and transgression. The marginalised Kalu constructs his identity by subverting the situation of marginality assigned to him by the mainstream. Kalu’s past becomes a signifier of his hard-earned identity and honour as he endures his interaction with caste hierarchy and its stigmatised manifestations by dint of his fierce tenacity, unalloyed hope, brave restlessness, and revolutionary zeal. Kalu, politically and existentially regenerated at the end of the novel, is optimistic and calls to mind the scientific metaphor used by the diplomat-historian K.M. Panikkar in Caste and Democracy to herald a new dawn of social inclusion: “The metal [caste], hardened by centuries of unreasoning obedience, may melt only under extraordinary heat. But it is melting caste and democracy and when the molten metal solidifies again, the contradiction between caste and democracy will not be there.” The ending, though emancipatory, is rather edgy due to the hurried narrative pace rushing to denouement. The ending validates Kalu’s denunciation of caste-ridden nightmare that hauntes him till he is politically redeemed and able to shuffle off the agonising burden of the ‘dead’ past.

Writing with the keen awareness of an ‘insider’, Ujjal’s novel warrants special attention for its potential in widening the domain of caste relations in Sikh Studies, recording diasporic sensibilities on the front of cultural essentialism, and forging a robust dialogue towards decentering the postcolonial doxa. The ‘purity’ the novel exudes as an act of writing recalls Jacques Rancière’s expression ‘politics of literature’ testifying the symbiotic relationship between literature and politics.

Though the use of vernacular Indian diction in the novel rings true in creating a radical upswing in linguistic mobility, it lacks the scenaristic grandeur of the premiere stylist Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchables. In invoking the nature of inner conflict, Dosanjh’s style is direct and spare unlike Anand’s language of interior communication. Compared to Bakha’s inner quest in Untouchables, Kalu’s is lacklustre. However, both Anand and Dosanjh summon a vision of a pluralistic world.

The Past is Never Dead, subversive in its use of cultural memory as a trope, is distinctive in leading readers and scholars into the growing debate about the implications of transnational mobilisation, plebeian democratisation and the Punjabi diaspora in problematising the notion of homeland.

The Past is Never Dead

By Ujjal Dosanjh

Speaking Tiger

pp.‎ 256; Rs. 499/-

Tags: sikhism, immigrants, book review