Freedom at a price

14 Jan 2020


Harinder S. Sikka is currently the group director, strategic business, Piramal Group. After graduating from Delhi University, he was commissioned in the Indian Navy in January 1981. He served till 1993 before taking premature retirement as a Lieutenant Commander in 1993. He recently produced a film, Nanak Shah Fakir, which won acclaim at the Cannes, Toronto and Los Angeles international film festivals. The film won three national awards including the Nargis Dutt Award for best feature film on national integration. Calling Sehmat is his second book and has been made into the hit film, Raazi, by Meghna Gulzar.

In this interview with Swetha Amit, Sikka talks about the idea behind his book and touches upon topics of freedom and spirituality.

What inspired Vichhoda? How did the idea come about? 

I strongly believe that in a patriarchal society like ours, we have long underrated women who are in almost every way at par with men. For far too long, we have brushed their strength, bravery, achievements and laurels under the carpet and the sadly, have only demeaned and belittled them using every possible platform.

While the trend of reading books is going down dramatically, the silver screen has further added insult to injury by portraying women as sex symbols in item numbers; and show them playing second fiddle to the hero. In reality, women play an equal if not more powerful part than men. In fact, their role as a mother (creator) raises them to an elevated pedestal in society.

Vichhoda therefore covers all these aspects and more, where a beautiful, petite next-door girl transforms herself to stand up to every situation thrust on her. She fights in self- defence like a soldier yet shows an extreme level of compassion and love for her children. It therefore makes a unique story, which will help in generating values in the minds of those who have long treated women as a weaker section of society.

After the success of Calling Sehmat,I realised that stories such as this make a deep impact on the minds of the younger generation.

The very fact that Calling Sehmat has been published in six languages and has been appreciated in India and overseas shows that if we make a sincere effort to convey the strength and attributes of women, society will start looking at them with greater respect. 

Since  Vichhoda is based on a true story set during the 1947 riots, what kind of research was involved while writing this book?

I learnt about the story of  Vichhoda   when I visited Pakistan in 2007. At that time, I was working on Calling Sehmat. I was moved by Bibi Amrit Kaur’s story, and decided to take it up as my next project. My first aim was to connect with the Sikh gentleman who had helped Bibi (the lady on whom the story of Vichhoda  is based) to meet her children. 

That took time, energy and of course, resources; but once that was done, the rest was fairly simple. However, working on areas where this gentleman was not connected, such as the visa process, parts of Bibi’s stay at Muzaffarabad, 

digging out old newspapers and clippings showcasing her reunion and connecting with people who were in touch with Bibi, both in Pakistan and Kashmir, was a tedious process.

Both your books have strong women protagonists. The character of Bibi Amrit Kaur especially showcases a lot of resilience when she’s molested. Considering how molestation of women continues to occur at an alarming rate, what message would you like to convey to society through your works?

The very fact that we treat women as a burden and do not celebrate the birth of a daughter, sets a black mark of comparison and an unseen dividing line =between a boy and a girl right from birth. When a bride enters the house, she is expected to bring dowry as if she is bringing an amount in barter for her being a burden to her new family; whereas in reality, it is this bride who is the raison d’etre of the family’s future growth and fortunes. The fact that she is demeaned by her parents in the first place ensures that the stigma stays with her wherever she goes.

Molestation of women basically showcases the sick minds of people in general and polity in particular. How often have we seen politicians using obsceneremarks against women, not only in public but also shockingly, inside Parliaments. It is therefore, of utmost necessity to bring out the true essence, deep-rooted values and unending sacrifices women make in binding a family together. Unless we talk about this publicly, there is no hope of changing this mindset. In villages, even today, girls are made to work in fields while boys are sent to school. An uneducated girl is therefore forced to become a burden and brutalized for the rest of her life. Vichhoda intends to break this stereotype of a woman in society.

Education was considered a bane especially by fundamentalists. Do you see a change in attitude today?

Not having their women educated has served the narrow purposes of the fundamentalists for long. This way they have complete control over thoughts and actions of their women folk. However, society is changing. No thanks to the fundamentalists though, women are realising the value of education and awareness in their lives. I have picked up stories of women who have broken out of the mould and shaped their lives and those of the others. And I strongly believe that the one who gives birth should be the first to be educated.

There is an interesting line in your book about how entrepreneurs earned respect and jealousy in equal proportions. Can one exist without another in the world?

Knowledge gives you a good acumen to gauge and judge others, but when knowledge is shrouded in ego, your judgement of others is inflicted with insecurities and jealousy. Our pride blinds us, and we see only negatives in a person. A simple mind with lower needs result in a happier existence, with love and sharing. I truly believe in the popular adage, “Life is beautiful when it is simple, but it is so difficult to be simple.”

The character Bibi Amrit goes through traumatic experiences. It is said that time is the best healer. What are your thoughts on this? Can an individual move on in life without being haunted by the ghosts of the past as time elapses?

In cases such as these where scars run so deep, I have seen that the trauma runs through generations. My own mother still carries the brunt of partition whereas my grandmother carried the pain till her last breath. Though I have personally not experienced the trauma of 1947, I have closely observed aged people still struggling with the horrific memories. I was however, witness to the 1984 carnage. I was a Naval officer then and saw how polity-led goons carried out the carnage. My own course mate Capt Upender Singh Jassal was burnt alive as a consequence of which his entire family — his parents, brother and sister — died of the shock and grief.

In the case of partition, the damage was much more severe. Around one million families were displaced. People saw trains loaded with dead bodies arriving in India. Hundreds of people were forcibly converted or displaced in Pakistan too. The memories are traumatic on both sides. We cannot expect time to heal such wounds.

More importantly, I have met dozens of people in Lahore who were forced to convert to Islam but still practice their own religion while they continue to live there. I am not sure their future generations will do the same due to the hostile environment in Pakistan.

7. It’s clearly seen that spirituality forms an integral part in your book. What is your take on spirituality? Do you see it as a form of healing? 

Spirituality was the mainstay for Sehmat after she returned from Pakistan in a state of depression. It is indeed not the easiest of routes to take. However, if practiced with strict discipline, it is the best way forward.

Women have this strength in abundance as part of their make-up. Men are different and can be viciously vengeful. Women have always brought compassion and balance to society. Spirituality was strongly embedded in both Sehmat and Bibi, which that came from their positivity and faith in goodness.

Bibi knew while the world around her did not, that she would one day re-unite with her children. Her faith exuded calm to the otherwise chaotic sequences in her life. I hope her story will provide that calming effect to readers as well. That is possibly why the book is a success.

Another interesting line is your book states "A bird born in a cage often thinks that freedom is a crime." What does freedom mean to you?

I feel truly honored to answer this. Over a decade ago, a man carrying birds in a cage passed by our home. He had dozens of parrots and humming birds on display. I made him open the cage and free them, though he cautioned me against doing so, saying the birds were safer in the cage, as when freed they were at the risk of being attacked and killed by other larger birds. The bird seller had a point, but my answer was simple  – “Even a moment of complete freedom is better than decades in a golden cage.”

Do you have any more books in the pipeline?

Five more books are in the pipeline and all are based on true stories. It’s a promise to my readers that the other books will also have deep-rooted messages and will compel us to think and evolve.

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