ਪੰਜਾਬੀ ਲਈ ਕਲਿੱਕ ਕਰੋ
A long time ago, as long-time-ago as 1973. I was in college—in the second year of my B. Sc. at the Punjab Agricultural University Ludhiana. There were many more, thousands more, like me, pursuing various degrees. Many were rough on the edges, villagers, others the cultured urban. Many were singularly focused on their goal – ‘get your degree and get out,’ kind and the others— prolong the wondrous college life as far as possible’ type, loafers. Many were gregarious–the hearts of the parties, and many— the reticent daydreamers. Many came from faraway places to inhabit the hostels and many locals—‘the day-scholars’. It was a colorful atmosphere, the kind one would expect in a university. The memories of those days: of the long-walks through the fields, of running through the grounds, of being bashfulness in the company of the opposite sex; of toiling through the nights before exams; and many others, are the memories I am hoarding as treasures for the company, in the old days.
When the mind wanders back to that life, to the half-a-century-ago life, it walks along the lanes by the colleges we took classes in, by the hostels we lived in, by the sports grounds we played on and the bleachers we sat on, to clap, to whistle, to cheer our teams. I reminisce about special events, and my thoughts stop at one. We, under the guidance of the Punjab Students Union, were on strike, God knows about what. We had abandoned our classes and had fortified ourselves on top of a hostel roof, with piles of stones gathered beside us, to ward off the police, should they try to come close and subdue us. But something extraordinary happened. Dr. M. S. Randhawa, the person responsible for putting the university on its track to be an excellent university, walked towards the building and up the stairs to the top of our ‘fortified roof.’ Alone. I don’t remember what he said, but we must have revered him enough that, in a matter of minutes, we abandoned our posts, and followed him to the ground, leaving behind the piles of rocks. We were back in our classes the next morning. I do not recall what we were trying to achieve, but to this day, I carry a pleasant feeling of having pursued a bigger purpose.
This article starts with the year 1973. Not with 1972 when I started my B.Sc. or with 1977 when I exited the university with an M.Sc. in my pocket. That year, the movie ‘Achanak’ was released. It was not a typical Bollywood movie that celebrated Jubilees. Instead, it appeared to be a commercial failure, at least in Ludhiana. To the best of my recollection, it stayed in the theaters for just a few weeks, attracting meager audiences. The movie was directed by Gulzar, who received a Filmfare nomination as ‘Best Director’ of this film. I loved the movie and felt being special about ‘loving it.’ I dubbed it as an ‘Art drama,’ as opposed to the commercial, jubilee-seeking love-stories, and mystery thrillers where, no matter what, the hero wins in the end. In my mind, I was one of a small minority who ‘understood’ art, hence specially qualified to endorse it to anyone who seeks ‘Art.’ I carried and relished that ‘Art-loving-specialist’ feeling past my youth, into my middle age, and into the waning years of my being. And that was – until about a week ago.
The movie is a ninety-minute long, song-less narrative, delivered with flashbacks within flashbacks. Major Ranjit Singh (Vinod Khanna), who is madly in love with his wife, kills both his wife and his best friend after he finds them in an illicit relationship, during his unannounced visit home. He is sentenced to death. He manages to run away from the police to fulfill a promise he had made to his wife—in case Ranjit Singh outlived his wife, he would immerse her ‘Mangal-Sutra,’ the wedding necklace in the Ganges River. He is shot by the police and brought to a hospital to be healed, so he can be ‘properly’ hanged. Ranjit Singh is a loving person whose behavior wins the hearts of the hospital staff. He is adored even by the father of the wife he had murdered. The audience empathizes with him, understands his rage, and rationalizes the murders he committed. Towards the end, another condemned person shot by the police is brought to the hospital. The doctor questions why he should heal people if they are to be hanged in the end. The beautiful portrayal of this moral conundrum stuck with me all these years.
However, last week, touting it to be one of the best movies ever made, I proposed to re-watch it with my daughter. The result? She was disgusted. “Were these murders committed by a person out of control with rage? If so, why didn’t he do it when he saw them together?” was my daughter’s question. “He killed them in a pre-meditated, planned manner, butchering them individually, without confronting them, without giving them a chance to explain. He stabbed his friend in the back and broke his wife’s neck in the bed. How is it different from that farmer from that honor killing you told me about, where a man killed his daughter by burying her under the sacks of wheat?” she asked me point-blank. “Would it create the same emotional response from the audience if the roles were reversed, if the cheating husband was killed by the wife in a similar calculated manner?” In her mind, there were no moral conundrums here—he was ‘a cold-blooded murder, guilty like hell,’ and deserved no sympathy.
I had no answer to her questions. Watching the movie again with her had deeply hurt my feelings of being an ‘art-understanding-specialist.’ I wondered about the reasons for carrying this story along and yet forgetting the critical scenes that would contradict my judgment years later. Was the doctor’s moral-conundrum so emotionally overpowering that I paid no attention to the cold-blooded murders, or was it my own mind set up, cultivated by a dominant male society that accepted a woman’s killing with ease? I really do not know. But the social tradition and values can make us heartless, I’m sure of that. I remember my cousin, a farmer from a village. “What else do you expect when a woman of loose character (being alone, with a male friend!) roams at night?” he had said when I mentioned him about the cruelty of the people who committed the brutal Nirbhaya rape-murder—the infamous Delhi incident.
I wonder how high the purpose of our strike, called by the student union, could be if I do not even recall the reason for it. Who was pulling our strings and manipulating our emotions? What if the police had come close to the building? Could one of our hurled stones have killed an innocent, duty-bound policeman? Who would have described our ‘high-purpose’ to his grieving parents, orphaned children, or explained our logic to his wife why she would be living as a widow, henceforth?
Are not our memories too selective and judgments, too emotion-controlled? How easily we pass through our lives, clinging to the better sides of our stories, without ever realizing there are other sides to these tales, different characters to our dramas, that we never confront or like to.