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November 21, 2014

Book Review: Stolen Years

Text by Nittal Chandarana

Verve reviews Stolen Years by Pavit Kaur, a book documenting the unlawful imprisonment of her father and the resulting turmoil in her family

The Read: Stolen Years
Author: Pavit Kaur
Publisher: Random House India

Unravelling: A tale of grit and determination, the book traces the life of a family wronged by the Indian Government, an appeal for Khalistan and the solidarity of the Sikhs to bring their leader home. Pavit Kaur writes about the life of her father in prison, wrongly taken in for having a hand in Indira Gandhi’s assassination. An IPS officer, Simranjeet Singh Mann resigns protesting Operation Blue Star, which results in five nightmarish years for him and his family. Highly autobiographical, the book is essentially a narrative of Pavit Kaur’s life and later transcends into a diary Singh Mann maintains while in prison. Many newspaper cuttings and letters are presented in their actual format, making it quite surreal. Imagine a man sitting in prison who is made a candidate for the elections, and wins! Lakhs of supporters walk barefoot to support his cause and vote for him to get him out of prison.

What we loved: The portrayal of the protagonist. Singh Mann comes across as a highly cultural and modest man. He isn’t painted as a hero or someone larger than life but a soldier who maintained positivity throughout his term in jail. He not only didn’t lose heart but also kept his family’s hope alive.

Maybe not: The writing lacked a professional touch but maybe it doesn’t have to be entirely polished. It does, after all, render a satisfactory account of a fighter’s life. Also, the book jumps from one point to the other. We would love for it to be a little slower, to take in all the details.

Caught our eye: Two things. One, from Pavit Kaur’s point of view. You can feel the agony the family had to go through in those stolen years.

Recently we were having lunch together at Chhote Bhuaji’s when Papa got up to take his spaniel pup out for a wee. I asked, ‘Why don’t you let one of the staff take Abu out, you’re in the middle of your lunch?’
He’s my baby and I have to look after him,’ Papa replied.
‘I wish you’d done the same for us, you abandoned us for so many years,’ I said pettily.
I saw my father’s face fall and an uncomfortable silence descended on the table.

The second was by Singh Mann in a letter addressed to his son, Emaan, dated February 3, 1987. His ability to always keep calm and take matters lightly shines through.

I had a team of very senior doctors come to examine me…and finally produced me fit and said I was in very good health. That was a pleasing verdict for I haven’t had a very good verdict in my favour for a very long time.

Read it for: The story of a man who suffered years of torture plainly because he stood up for what’s right. This book documented one man’s journey. It is disheartening to know that there are many more who have suffered a similar fate.


Q&A with author Pavit Kaur 

1. Tell us a little about the process of writing the book. How easy or difficult was it? What memories did it evoke?
“I started writing Stolen Years while I was still in school, just after my father had been released from prison. At that time, it was more of a sort of therapy for myself because we had lived through a very difficult period of our lives. I wrote it then, to try and come to terms with the fact that papa had spent five years in solitary confinement. I just poured it all out on paper because I felt I needed to get it all out and then it lay in a notebook for years and years. About three years ago Random House commissioned me to write a book based on what I’d already written. So I started writing again. It finally got done this year. It’s been a difficult process writing the book because it brought back many unhappy memories for my family and me but I’m glad I have written it because it gives me a sense of closure.”

2. What happened after your father was brought back home? Did you question those who wronged you and tried to seek justice?
“I end my book with my father being released and coming home, because that was the story I wanted to tell. He had won the Parliamentary elections and entered a life of politics but at least he was home and safe. No, justice wasn’t done. He was imprisoned and then released on the whims of a biased Government.”

3. Who was the backbone of the family?
“The backbone of the family for me was my mother.”

4. Was there ever a time you lost hope?
“Yes, it was so difficult to meet papa in prison or court when one would see him in shackles and manacles surrounded by police and hear of all the trumped up charges. It was scary and one always came back home with a feeling of deep despair.”

5. What was the most difficult part about living without your father for those five years?
“Knowing that he was locked up in a tiny cell hundreds of miles away; not free and home with us.”

6. What changes would you propose in our government to prevent this kind of injustice?
“India is a Democratic country. Therefore, the Rights of every citizen should be upheld. The Right to Freedom of Speech should mean just that, whether it suits a particular Government or not. Also, being a secular country, the interests of minorities should be safeguarded to prevent repeats of 1984.”

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