I remember when I was posted in Bhatinda, a friendly chemist there near Birla Mill colony told me that he sells tons of Dulcolax.
So many cases of severe constipation? I asked.
Addicts actually, he replied, and so I realized that drug addiction was rampant in those parts of Malwa region in Punjab. This happened in the mid-eighties. This book too takes me back to the eighties and the nineties and has some surprising insights into not just opium and drug consumption but also the way terror mindsets may have got their birth certificate. ‘The Opium Toffee’ by Khushwant Singh (no, not the one who I admired because of his inputs in The Illustrated Weekly of India during my school and college years, but equally talented) is a strange story of love where fanaticism, politics, patriarchy, and drugs converge and through Shabnam and Ajit we get a fair glimpse of the way everything happened.
Shabnam, the female lead character in this tale, leads a life of ‘choices and not compromises; she could burn bridges if they didn’t lead anywhere’ as compared to the male lead character who comes alive more through the pages of his diary where he tells us a lot about Punjab that ‘had become a hotbed of communal politics.’ The plot revolves around the circumstances in which these two characters meet, fall in love, have a few years of not knowing where the other is, and then finally coming together again. The story gets its kinetic energy as Shabnam reads his diary on a flight from the UK to Mumbai. If the storyboard says meet – move apart – meet again, it is the transitions between the boards that have multiple plots popping out in a bid to accelerate the story. At this stage I must add that the author has an awful lot to tell the readers and goes ahead with plenty of researched factoids though John Grisham might have asked him to show more and tell as little as possible. Research is the hands-down winner in this case which can be useful for those writers and bloggers searching for information to include in their articles.
This author-driven research has made it possible for a few brilliant cultural fragments to meander through the narrative and are not just relevant but reader-winners. For instance, the habit of people in the Malwa region to ruin their shareeka or kith and kin by encouraging them to use drugs, alcohol, or commit crimes. This is the region where ‘farm owners even mixed opium in the tea provided to labourers’ and we are primed to know why opiated psyches ran amuck. Absolutely coordinated with the story and, in fact, this is the kind of stuff that keeps readers hooked. Like the part where we are told about The Bhatindias amongst the students in Chandigarh and the reader gets to know what the Malwa boys thought was swagger was actually the ‘beginning of a rapid decline of a rich culture and the advent of a neo-Punjabi’ with a future that was inundated with ‘cheap lyrics, obtuse attitudes, solidified patriarchy, religious warring, and, of course, Kalashnikovs’… there now, we know for sure at least one probable path to the terror woes that plagued Punjab in the eighties.
Coming back to the areas where storytelling went into a meditative trance include the sheer number of pages dedicated to factors that do little other than give a cursory idea of what the volatile situation in Punjab was like. Barring the horrifying incident of Shabnam’s father offering Ajit one opium-laced toffee that gets him hooked and leads to his decline, almost every other time one plows through toned-down factual commentaries. The maze of information makes the story elements feel like exiles itching to get back into the mainstream and this simply means that attention is often diverted to things other than a focus on the strength of a relationship that impels Shabnam to risk her professional existence by trying to get an undocumented immigrant out of UK. Instead, we have large chunks of texts talking about ‘these radicals were of the opinion that Punjab was only for the Sikhs’ and that they were ‘falling prey to the emerging thought of minority persecution’ but that ‘it was nothing but rhetoric to keep the political boiler heated’ and that it is better to believe ‘this was a deliberate attempt to humiliate a prosperous community’… and there is just so much of all this that one feels at times as if one were going through a summary of news reports. And then to decelerate the story further, we have mentions of Anandpur Sahib resolution, Land Ceiling Act of 1976, Bluestar Operation, and fellows gone astray who went around with guns to shoot people down willy-nilly. Such noisy newsy bits of those vitriolic times over-shadow the story and the reader wonders if the narrative will ever get back to Shabnam and Ajit. Not that I am complaining but then every reader is not looking for factoids and just wants the story to go on at a clipping pace.
The cover informs me that the book will soon be adapted as a web series and that is when someone in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs might be left cold watching a High Commissioner (at least once this fellow was addressed as an Ambassador) doing an excellent job in getting a forged passport for someone whose activity with terrorists remains hazy at best. Kapil Seth, the High Commissioner, undoubtedly does a slick job and would not have ever wanted the beneficiaries to go on and blurt out sordid details about his going out of the way to facilitate his deception in a novel. Besides this, most readers would have loved to read more about backpacking through the snow and not just a one-liner about it being called Donkey Lana. They would want to know how Ajit finally makes it to the UK and how he ends up busking in London than a mere entry in a diary telling them of what happened. There are plenty of instances where the drama could have been upgraded than remain constricted, for instance, I was curious to know how Shabnam made it to the top in modelling despite her handicaps and all we get to read is that ‘one lost part of life’s jigsaw puzzle never lets you celebrate what you achieve’ or that her father ‘was also a sort of terrorist because he would force his ideas on me’. A father being protective in a vicious social scenario is certainly not to be defined as him forcing his ideas on his ward. Shabnam sheltering pots of residual emotional connect with a person who has been missing throughout her action-packed rise in modelling seems as unreal as her stoic acceptance of being told that Ajit knew the killer of her father… and the book has unlimited scope for nuances to be shown. The story could have been far more gripping only if the focus had remained on the plot and did not go hopping across the landscape of multiple plot points appearing and disappearing with unnerving regularity.
There is no doubt that the issues raised in the story are just as relevant today as they were in the decade when these two lovers met, parted, and met again. Punjab is still in the grip of drug addiction, patriarchy may still not have completely vanished from rural areas, and there are mentions of Khalistani flags still being raised. Credit goes to the author for raising them all, but I missed being shown all this through incidents. Therefore, I insist that the drama quotient did have a huge scope for commanding the entire narrative where factoids conveniently enter and smugly glare at you. One of the redeeming features in the novel is that the preaching bits are kept subdued but are not completely absent.
‘The Opium Toffee’ has sparked within me an urge to go and read more about the decade of terror uncertainties in Punjab as some of the issues have not been obliterated yet. Drugs, fanaticism, politics, and patriarchy dominate, and love just happens to fill-in the spaces left for it. But yes, the book does lead a reader on to a path to read and discover more… and this is the purpose of meaningful fiction writing.
Title: The Opium Toffee
Author: Khushwant Singh
19 May 2022