Speak, Memory

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Where the political is the personal

Memories of Fire | Ashok Chopra | Viking | 420 Pages | Rs 599

A HISTORICAL NOVEL WITH a sprawling canvas, Memories of Fire is publishing veteran Ashok Chopra’s first foray into fiction. Set in Shimla and Punjab, the story revolves around five friends who bond at St Edward’s School, Shimla and stay connected for over 50 years. Their stories, told in a series of flashbacks, unfold against the backdrop of political storms including the rise of Sikh nationalism and Operation Blue Star in Punjab, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and the anti-Sikh riots in the blood-splattered 80s. Political developments in Pakistan are also woven into the novel’s rich tapestry.

The five friends—Vijay Thakur, Radhey Shyam Upadhyay, Reza Ahmed, Deepak Kumar, and Balbir Singh— come across as distinct individuals. Vijay, the black sheep of the group who is attracted to the theatre, is ‘an impenetrable carapace’ to some. Academically gifted Deepak has a lifelong affair with literature. Reza (from Pakistan) has an abiding interest in art and goes on to become an art historian and political analyst. Balbir and Radhe Shyam are natives of Rasoolpur, a small town in Punjab. Their careers are dictated by their parents, unlike their love lives. Balbir’s destiny is to earn a medical degree like his successful father. Radhe Shyam’s father, a chartered accountant, dreams of seeing ‘the letters CA, ACA and FCA suffixed after the name of his only child’.

The bonds between members of the older generation are evocatively sketched. Balbir’s father, Dr Waryam Singh, ‘a fanatic Jat Sikh’, and Radhe Shyam’s father, Seth Raja Ram Upadhyay, ‘a rabid Brahmin’ live in Rasoolpur like brothers. Later, the two friends are forced to watch the flames of separatism singe their peaceful town. With a keen eye for emotional detail, the author captures the devastating impact of political forces on personal lives as Rasoolpur descends into chaos.

Religion clashes with an individual’s right to make personal choices once Radhe Shyam, a Hindu, marries Aneeze, a Muslim and the love of his life. Balbir too goes against the dictates of the Sikh faith and settles down in London with his Chinese girlfriend who he goes on to marry. Love comes at a cost for these characters. They are forced to brave their families’ disapproval to build a life together.

Vivid descriptions of lived experience make the story come alive. Sights, sounds, colour and dashes of earthy humour all spice up the mix. The author draws the reader into the heart of the story and offers generous doses of insight into art, music, and literature along the way. Memories of the gentle rhythms of life in Rasoolpur are as clearly etched as the storming of the Golden Temple and the brutal violence unleashed on members of the Sikh community in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

Beauty and gore, art and aggression, lust and love, fealty and rebellion—all find a place in the pages of this ambitiously plotted novel.

Brevity is not the author’s strongpoint. Extensive tracts of information strewn around on the pages interrupt the smooth flow of the narrative. For instance, the five pages devoted to the birth of the Shimla-Kalka railway, Reza’s long letters to his friends, and the characters’ frequent monologues on politics, art and literature could all have done with some pruning to serve the narrative better.

The author’s impulse to rake up the past springs from his concern for a fractured nation. Motivated by the belief that memory is the ‘great healer… the balm that soothes many a wound,’ he invites the reader to look back at and reflect upon the past.

Memories of Fire is as much an ode to love, friendship, religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence as it is a warning against repeating the deadly and violent mistakes of the past.