The Death of A Passport
Author: Iqbal Ramoowalia
Publisher: Ajanta Books International
Price: Rs. 295/-
The Other World of Iqbal Ramoowalia
By Rajesh Kumar Sharma
This is the Punjabi poet Iqbal Ramoowalia’s first novel in English. As a Punjabi-Canadian male author’s woman-centric work in English, it is arguably a pioneering and signal achievement. Moreover, it is a contemporary social document that records an illegal Punjabi immigrant woman’s travails in Canada.
The novel has a gripping narrative that compels you to read it through in one or two sittings. But the fact that you can so effortlessly manage to read it indicates also its main weakness: it fails to hold you back and make you muse, and it fails to linger in the memory. For one thing, the language lacks felicity. The author gives the impression of walking the tightrope between composition and creative expression. Secondly, the narrative sequencing could have endured more ruthless editing.
As a social document, the novel should, of course, serve as a potent dream-killer, for what Ramoowalia puts together is almost a diasporic dystopia in which there are no heroes but only monstrous villains. And they all are Punjabis. It is a curiously empty but claustrophobic world, an ‘under-world’ of immigrant sub-human Punjabis under siege of an invisible ‘white’ world of exploitation and law. What is probably a failure in terms of fictional art (the failure to realize the spatial world of Toronto, Vancouver or Ludhiana) comes out, in effect, as a sinister, looming absence, closing in all the time on the “basement” world of the poor Seema, the novel’s protagonist.
The inner world of the characters is even emptier. The only insight we are given into it is provided in Seema’s case and that too in the form of whispered thinking. In fact, the grip of the stereotype is, for Ramoowalia, difficult to shake off. Even Seema teeters perilously on the edge of the stereotype: she is the eternally cold woman, suffering from pathological frigidity born out of a failed romance and unable to emerge from her teenager mindset in spite of many harrowing experiences. Her friend Veena, whose husband tries to rape her, is portrayed as an impossibly unintelligent woman who cannot guess the reason of her friend’s uncontrollable tears, silence and sudden departure. Patricia, the only important non-Punjabi character in the novel, is a “green-eyed” racial stereotype of the fair and compassionate white woman. And she is suitably deviant too: she is the perpetrator of a lesbian “rape” on Seema.
In addition to the lesbian “rape”, there are three heterosexual rape attempts on Seema. It is quite intriguing that all these are made by Punjabi men (one of them is a Gurdwara priest) and none is consummated. If it is a device to save the heroine from dishonour and the men from damnation, it is a rather improbable device. The author, it seems, would have his cake and eat it too: he must show the men as rapists and yet not as rapists enough. But he surely succeeds in showing the typical rapist as a cowardly and sick man. This is most evident in his treatment of the priest; unfortunately, though, the episode is artistically ruined by crude melodramatic symbolism that seems to exist for no reason other than the urge to shock the Punjabi sensibility. Perhaps Ramoowalia intended to shatter the stereotype of the Punjabi man as kindly, generous and protective but he has ended up replacing it with another stereotype: that of the ruthless exploiter, frustrated alcoholic and failed lecher.
Given their peculiar situation as lurkers and drifters, the suffering of the illegal immigrants from Punjab needs to be understood against the backdrop of the amoral universe of global corporatism and transcontinental migrations of desperate populations in search of work. The novel, however, tries to transpose the burden of guilt on to the shoulders of a crudely sketched and ghostly patriarchy, with the result that the scale of human suffering is diminished. In the event, the author also misses the opportunity to surgically rip open the insides of Punjab’s political economy that compels people to take a plunge into the abyss. The Greeks imagined the gods into existence and enabled their men and women to become more nobly and quintessentially human by contending with them. By imagining the gods of the new world economic order out of existence, one not only fails to situate the suffering of people in our times but also risks dehumanizing the people who suffer. In Ramoowalia’s novel, for example, the rampant dehumanization does not spare even Seema who becomes the efficient cause of Sodhi’s suicide. It is she who impairs his mind by a secret daily overdose of liquor, because she wants him to be just as much and as long alive as suits her purpose. The desire, and compulsion, to get the status of a legal immigrant brutalizes her utterly and makes her a killer. The brutalization is externalized in her self-quarrel in which she asks herself whether her exploiter-protector Sodhi is not really a mere “passport” for her. Indeed, the title of the novel derives from this dark illumination.
Ironically, however, the title also symbolically displaces Seema from her centrality to the narrative by putting Sodhi, as the “passport”, in her place. Perhaps it is the patriarchal unconscious trying to recuperate a woman-centric novel in a last-ditch effort?
Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Department of English
Punjabi University, Patiala – 147002