‘Friendship is a two-way street’: Review of The Homecoming Gods by Gurbir Singh

The Homecoming Gods
Author: Gurbir Singh
Publisher: Zonton Books, India.
pp.302. Kindle Price: ₹ 199.00 INR

Reviewed by: Nandini Sahu

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Historians and political forecasters have not paid enough consideration to the essential connection between India’s partition and the complexities of human relationships in a postcolonial India, which writers like Gurbir Singh have pondered over in their fiction and otherwise. With a queer understanding that Indian nationalists would not play the games that the heart must play, of course by using Islam as a political tool in the detection of their objectives, Singh took up his pen and in his debut novel The Homecoming Gods exposed the dark secrets and the religious and political agendas of a class. The novel is set in the small town of Mardan in the North-west Frontier Province of British India in March 1947, just before the Independence. The ‘dark comedy’ handles elemental stories of daily lives of a family, and the protagonist’s juvenile delinquencies and his deep understanding of life during the turbulent times.

Nandini Sahu
I would recommend, novel should be read from a New Historicist’s point of view, for better cultural, historical and anthropological interpretations. Parallel reading of Indian history and The Homecoming Gods during and after British India would open up layers.For the scholars of Partition Literature and the New Historicists, the novel offers lucrative research areas. 'Equal weighting' is suggested in the definition of New Historicism by the American critic Louis Montrose; he defines it as a combined interest in 'the textuality of history, the historicity of texts'. Researchers may also read the novel from a Cultural Materialist’s perspective, comparing the tangible and intangible cultural forums of the period with Singh’s narrative.  A lot of research has gone into the novel—I register my deep sense of appreciation for Gurbir Singh for that. The conviction to write down one’s history, historiography, personal/familial and cultural past needs some audacity, and Singh has that. Precisely, unquestionably, that.

Last month I received the novel as a pleasant surprise; on the first reading, more than one elucidation occurred to me. I put the novel into the genre of ‘Partition Literature’ if I am obligated to. Anyway, I read it from different standpoints – critiquing religion and the misinterpretations thereof; patriarchy; the hypocrisy of a society; border issues; cultural practices of the two countries vis-à-vis the Two-Nation Theory; and psychoanalysis. One can write pages on all these sensitive issues carefully chosen and diligently highlighted by Singh. Autobiographical elements are very much there, Singh uses those delicately, sensitively, emotionally. In fact, at one point I was green with the narrative of the male child welcomed into the household of Sucha Singh with such aplomb. The novel is such engaging. Singh is that subjectively objective!

I think there is some Arundhati Roy kind of tonal quality in Singh when he too talks as the ‘God of small things’.For instance, the enmity and the bonding between the chickens and the pigeons is the metaphor for human destiny and intricate relationships.  Small things make a real big deal for Singh. I came across some interesting pigeon episodes and narratives:

I did not know if pigeons could bite fingers like parrots did. Pigeons are the Gandhis of all avian species..”(p. 270).

“The captive pigeon rolled its head in my hand. Other pigeons made no hue and cry. Love has gone cheap today, I said loudly for everyone indoor to hear.”(P. 266)

For Singh, the personal is political.  The motto of the student movement and second-wave feminism from the late 1960s accentuated the links between personal experience and larger social and political structures of a given society, calling the practice as the ‘personal is political’. Singh nowhere takes the luxury of claiming that he is apolitical; in fact, one cannot be apolitical once s/he is on a public platform. Just that, one’s political agendas need to be clear and unbiased—and Singh masters this art. Here are a few striking lines:

 

“ The kings will shake hands while the minnows will kill each other.’ A shrill voice, faceless, hiding from behind the gathering of the men, women, and children, was at it, wisecracking.”( p. 191)

“ You know King Ashoka, his grandson, he ruled this place from the Magadha—the modern day Bihar in India.  Lately the Afghans, the Mughals, the Sikhs under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the British, and now the people themselves are to rule us. The very democracy that murdered Socrates for opposing it,’ Manharsinh said.”(p.191)

The concluding lines of the novel create an elevated emotional panorama.  The existential issues of a people victimized by the partition are narrated as, “The lesser gods of survival. The spirits hardened by suffering, loss and grief.”(Singh, 293) The racial hatred is critiqued thus, “It was embarrassing to belong to a place like this at a time when British India was disintegrating. The time that had caught many a noble-hearted Salahuddin who might in future gather outside the police station to bid farewell to the offended people and extend a welcome to the arriving batches of migrants from India at the same time and in the same breath. The Ishar Singh-Bachittar Singh Pakistani counterparts form the other side.I recalled how Shafiquddin had once crooned in praise of revolution. He had quoted William Wordsworth’s line in the context of the French Revolution, ‘Bliss was that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!’. The poet had famously sung in the context.”(Singh, 250) Predictability in his characterizations, Singh assumes that something is inescapable, regardless of human dependability and procedures. Apart from being fallacious in the context of India's partition, this is completely divergent to a political narrator's way of judgment, where his/her interest perpetually focuses on the realm of political possibility and the choices made by human beings. 


The partition of India was, in fact, the partition of the two main Muslim-majority provinces, Punjab and Bengal. There was nothing foreseeable or programmed about this. Until the harsh end, Mohammad Ali Jinnah emphasized that it was incorrect to associate the theory of Pakistan with the partition of Punjab and Bengal. The viewpoint of a cohesive and sovereign Bengal remained a leeway and was scotched very late. Insofar as nations are predictable communities, the two-nation theory was based on a prejudiced conviction in the right of the minorities, despite their in-house divisions, to obtain a considerable share of power in a self-governing India. Such an action-packed history of the two-nation theory underscores the degree to which there can be a quick disparity between the arguments of nationhood and the concrete accomplishments of statehood as and when there is a need of a dialogue between identity and province—basically between Desha, Nadu and Rajya as political-cultural concepts. Gurbir Singh problematizes these abstract and linear concepts which have been interchangeably, conveniently, convincingly used by the politically prevailing sections for their benefits.

 

Gurbir Singh is a storyteller, an interesting and conversationalist tale-teller. Wit and humour are things that he uses in his stride. Love being a prime theme of the novel, Bachittar Singh is kind of a martyr in love, platonic love beyond marriage. He encourages his son too to get into a love story that will never ever materialize. There is this love poem from Ms Wishpreet to the narrator:

“if moun-tain can fe-lie

If rivar can dirai

You can for-gate me

But, how can I?”

A cursory look at the poem might create a few questions in the reader’s mind on the desperate attempts of freshly independent India to use English as the language of superior, enhanced communication. The author echoes the ideas of the poem,‘Very Indian Poem in Indian English’ by Nissim Ezekiel. Gurbir Singh has written this poem in a deceptively lighter vein as an Indian poem, looking at the people around him through the eyes of a characteristic middle-class Indian.

‘Friendship is a two-way street’—who understands this better than Singh who has lost so much to providence, and accomplished his life-blood from relationships? (read friendships) The characters in the novel sing the saga of perpetual friendships—that is my take away from the story.

Singh has some catchy lines on love. The characters sound lovelorn in an attention-grabbing etiquette:

“The earth here had showered all its love on us. Until yesterday, the wind that blew here was sweeter than anywhere else”. (p. 259)

“A stolen kiss left no trace of touch behind, unlike our love letters, which always threatened us those might fall into the wrong hands.” (p.211)

“I observed the hurt that was within us, in the flesh and in the soul. Our true mettle was in the shadows outside, and not in the physical bodies.” (p.290)

“Gents with goatees had no time to complement the shy ladies with goatees for their sheer good looks. They appeared like knowing in advance their end was only a few days in wait. “( p. 126)

 

The Homecoming Gods is a good read, worth the time spent on a 300 pages book. The novel can leave an indelible, deep-seated mark on the reader for sure. Gurbir Singh is here to stay. He has confirmed that in his maiden novel itself that he belongs. That, he takes the trade sincerely. And he creates hope in us that there are more promising books coming from his power-packed pen.

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 Prof. Nandini Sahu, Director, School of Foreign Languages, IGNOU, New Delhi, is a major voice in contemporary Indian English literature. Apart from numerous other literary awards, she is a triple gold medalist in English literature; she has received the Gold Medal from the hon'ble Vice-President of India for her contributions to English Studies in India in the year 2019. She is the author and editor of fourteen books .Her areas of research interest cover Indian Literature, New Literatures, Folklore and Culture Studies, American Literature, Children’s Literature and Critical Theory.

E-mail:  kavinandini@gmail.com

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