Published in Books & Authors (Dawn) on April 26, 2009
Reviewed by Ayesha Hoda
Storm in Chandigarh, like Nayantara Sahgal’s other works, revolves around the political change, value systems and feminist ideas in India and how all these had an impact on the upper strata of Indian society.
A well-known political journalist and an Indian author writing in English, Sahgal has won several accolades for her work. Politics is the focus of her writings as it influenced her personal life from a very young age. She is the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who was also India’s first ambassador to the United Nations. Sahgal’s father was also an Indian freedom fighter.
Hence, an in-depth understanding of politics and history comes naturally to the author and her writing reflects the fact that she is strongly attached to her roots.
Storm in Chandigarh, her third novel, was first published in 1969. As the name implies, it is based in Chandigarh, the city that serves as the capital of two Indian states, Punjab and Haryana. The novel is set after 1966, when the state of Haryana had been newly created out of the eastern part of Punjab, dividing the Hindi-speaking population from the Punjabi-speakers.
‘It still seemed grotesque that a metaphoric line had been drawn through the Punjab, that millions who had till yesterday been Punjabis had suddenly become Haryanavis, sanctifying another language and spouting another nationalism.’
This division on the basis of language led to disputes over boundaries and water and electric power sharing between the two states. ‘The centre had allowed the Punjab to be re-divided 20 years after the gruelling Partition of 1947. Why had this new mess been created?’
This is what the protagonist Vishal Dubey wants to ask. A civil servant in Delhi, Dubey is assigned the task of relocating to the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana. His role is to act as a liaison officer between Delhi and the two state governments.
Gyan Singh is the chief minister of Punjab while Harpal Singh is the chief minister of Haryana. Throughout the novel Dubey endeavours to understand these two characters and to resolve their conflict.
‘Between Gyan and Harpal, he now realised, there was more than a political battle. It was a battle of philosophies. The juster but vaguer range of possibility could seldom hold out against violent immediate claims supported by the obvious.’
This main plot is interwoven with glimpses of Dubey’s married life and tales of the other characters linked to him: Gauri, Mara and Jit, Saroj and Inder. Their stories are primarily of unhappy marriages and dysfunctional relationships.
Dubey is inflicted by the lack of communication with his wife and then by her sudden death. Gauri has a comfortable arranged marriage which lacks excitement. Jit wants to discover the source of unhappiness in Mara’s life, while Saroj is haunted by her husband’s rigid thought patterns, his insecurities and unpredictability. Through the protagonist Sahgal questions the stereotypical roles eastern husbands and wives are expected to play. Dubey also expresses concern over inflexible beliefs in Indian society regarding morality, the caste system and gender equality:
‘What people called morality touched their oldest and most cherished prejudices.’
And he attempts to define higher morality: ‘It’s a search for value, and an attempt to choose the better value, the real value, in any situation, and not just do what’s done or what is expected. ’
Despite the account of the political rift and the turmoil all the characters are entangled in, the narrative generally gives a feeling of hope. Simply written, it leads readers to the conclusion that things can change for the better, for a country as well as for an individual.
Storm in Chandigrah
By Nayantara Sahgal
Penguin Books, India
ISBN 0-14-310276-2 222pp.