Dark Star by Ranbir Sidhu is narrated by an old, old woman who moved across continents time and again because of her husband’s volition – as a good, married Punjabi village girl must. Now, in her twilight years, she has returned home to Punjab with him, decades after the Radcliffe Line changed the course of many histories. But it’s not her childhood house that they moved back into, it’s his. Where he was born. And it’s where, he has decided, they shall now both die.
At the heart of this novella are these decisions that she did not make, decisions that were made for her by men first her father and then her husband – decisions that she was told were for her own good – decisions that she has now begun to question. Taught to believe that men are right even when they are wrong, she now wrestles with the thought, what if they and their decisions have always been just plain wrong?
The language of trauma
Sidhu composes the rhythm and tenor of the narrator’s voice so masterfully that reading the book reminds me of the times I lay by my grandmother in bed, listening to her recite stories that grew more repetitive and circular as she fell into a drowsy daze. But time and again, she would catch hold of herself, clarity washing over her and seeping into her tale. This run-on narrative style overlaps with the language of trauma itself: choruses of words and memories crescendo until they break through the walls of mythical recollections, unlocking painful pasts.
These moments of awakening intertwine the protagonist’s story with those of the women around her, like her husband’s niece – no, her own niece, just as her sister’s daughter was her own too – who have been compelled to view themselves as lesser beings.
Even as the protagonist finds herself agreeing with her own rationales, she lets go, holding steadfast to the belief that men always know more. But there are times when the protagonist flirts with freedom of thought and starts a row. Or is it that she merely remains locked in an endless dilemma about whether or not to start a row? This infinite tussle that Sidhu portrays between the long-married couple, the temptation to irk the other with the fierce clicking of needles or the banging of crockery, devoid of the coherence of language, nags the reader too.
Every time the novella unravels intermittently with longer sentences, pivoted around numerous commas, and then eventually leaves behind the sensibilities of punctuation, one wonders, perhaps yearns for the protagonist to give in and exercise her lungs to give in and start a row with her husband with the man with all men to give in and finally actually breathe.
The monopoly of men
Some of my most cherished soliloquies in Dark Star are to do with photographs. The protagonist talks about a world of photographs. Photographs that were never taken, though they would have proved that the world is not all that the people claim. Photographs that are captured, that do prove a person’s identity, framed by the box of a passport. Photographs that do nothing but distort reality, and yet, they are sent across miles to forge new relationships based on falsified truths.
The reliability of photographs is a myth perpetrated by the sciences under the monopoly of men. They say, photographs tell the truth, it is the women who lie, every time, all the time. Photographs show the fixity of the past, it is the women who remember the past differently at different times. It is against the grain of these photographs that the protagonist must march to tell her story. Because once men control the media of photographs and establish the past, they must not be questioned.
So, as it turns out, Dark Star is not just about a row with this man that our protagonist remains tied to out of wedlock, but all men. Men with the power to build divisions between two countries that divides them forevermore, or with the power to pick up arms and build another known as Khalistan. All decisions are taken without the consideration of women. But they affect women everywhere with greater intensity. Sidhu brings the story home in the truest sense of the phrase, be it narrativising the policies and movements that have constituted and resisted a new India, or portraying his protagonist’s desire to pick a row with the man of all men – the one who leads her country.
Everything co-exists in the folds of this novella, not in the way that a book must talk about everything all at once but in how the smallest aspects of our lives find their way to the biggest issues that plague our countries and the world at large. Conversations that have run their courses so much so that we know what we talk of without taking any names. At times aided by an unexpected friend in a blue box who has forgotten his roots, the protagonist reminds us of the importance of refusing to forget ours. She talks of bodies that come alive through human connection even in times when the pendulum swings between indifference and blind hatred. And that is the challenge set out by an old, frail woman: will you remember her story even if you don’t remember her name just as she remembers the stories of her daughters and nieces? Because in a world where history is written by men who forget, to remember in spite of everything is an act of both courage and power.
Dark Star, Ranbir Sidhu, Context.