Book review: Troubled Pilgrimage - the strange and the familiar

Nostalgia for his homeland forces Balwant Bhaneja to pursue a journey in search of his roots

Teenaz Javat October 26, 2014

Troubled Pilgrimage — Passage to Pakistan is a travel memoir by retired Canadian diplomat Balwant Bhaneja, who returns to Pakistan after 60 years in search of his roots. As he journeys through Punjab and parts of upper Sindh, he weaves together a narrative that tries to reconcile the image of a post 9/11 Pakistan sold by the media with the reality he saw on the ground.

Bhaneja, of Sindhi-Hindu descent, was born in Lahore. He was five years old when his parents and extended family chose India over Pakistan at the time of Partition. Bhaneja and his siblings grew up in New Delhi among the exiled Hindu community with biased notions of his ancestral home. Hence, the book delves into the universal theme of displacement, searching for one’s roots and how that impacts the minds of those involved.

This short novel, set in the spring of 2006, takes the reader through the swanky capital of Islamabad, the back streets of Lahore, the author’s birthplace, and the sandy towns of Sukkur, Rohri and Shikarpur in upper Sindh. Bhaneja, who left India at the age of 24, had many stops on the way before he decided to settle in Canada. He alternated between various countries and careers after completing his studies in journalism and international relations and finally decided on a career as a diplomat. It was only after his retirement that he stumbled upon The Sindh Story, a book his late father had been reading in his final days, that the itch to trace his roots caught momentum.

Whilst leaving Pakistan during the chaos of Partition, the older generation had hoped to return home one day but never got a chance to do so. For Bhaneja, the trip was undertaken as much for himself as it was for his parents and extended family. The author likens the visit to his mother’s hometown of Shikarpur or the visit to the traders in Sukkur to that of an epiphany where he realises that the people there are no different than the ones across the border.

The book encapsulates Bhaneja’s nostalgia and the lengths to which a person goes to find their way home. Overall, it is an insightful look into the lives of those displaced by the 1947 Partition, as well as those who immigrated in the years after.

Teenaz Javat writes headlines, news alerts, tickers and tweets for a living. She tweets @TeenazFromTo

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 26th, 2014.


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