Chauthi Koot by Waryam Singh Sandhu

Naureen Bhullar

- August 11, 2020

Review of a short story: Chauthi Koot [The Fourth Direction] by Waryam Singh Sandhu (2000)

(English translation available in the Anthology of short stories titled, “Tell me a long, long story: 12 memorable stories from India)- (Edited by Mini Krishnan)

(Major spoilers are in this review)

This is a short story based in the tumultuous times post-Operation Bluestar in Punjab in the 1980s when there was heightened fear, paranoia, and distrust among its major religious communities, Hindus and Sikhs. The protagonist of this story is a Hindu teacher, Rajkumar who works as a clerk in a government school close to the Indo-Pak border in Amritsar district. Rajkumar and his friend Jugal are returning home to Amritsar from Chandigarh and they want to get back to Amritsar before dark. Due to the uncertain security situation of those times, people feared venturing out after dark as there were incidents of extremists pulling people out of the bus and killing them, especially if they were Hindus. 

Rajkumar starts fretting as he realizes that they are going to miss the connecting train from Jalandhar to Amritsar as dusk descends and the bus he is travelling in, is moving at slow pace. He starts counting the number of people in the bus who could be from his religion and the others (who are Sikhs, defined by their turbans). As Rajkumar and Jugal reach the Jalandhar railway station, they realize that they have missed the train and they are terrified by the idea of spending their night outside as they cannot afford a hotel. Suddenly they realize that one of the trains is going to Amritsar, but it will not be carrying passengers. They manage to beg and cajole the guard to let them in. Once they board the train, they see two young Sikh men in turbans sitting quietly in the corner. Rajkumar is at once suspicious and keeps eyeing them furtively. The guard takes some money from them for the journey but refuses it from the two Sikh men, which heightens Rajkumar’s suspicion that they may have threatened the guard in some way earlier. As soon as they all get off the train on an isolated dark street, Rajkumar tells Jugal to move fast, as he is afraid that the two men would follow them and probably gun them down right there. As they start increasing their pace, they hear one of the Sikh men call out to them. They are petrified and stop in their tracks. One of the Sikh men requests them to walk with them. He says that his nephew (the other young Sikh man) lost his mother a few hours ago in Amritsar and that is why the guard was kind enough to let them on the train. They are afraid of moving around in the city streets after dark as they would be targeted by the CRPF or the police force may kill them in a false encounter. If these forces see clean-shaven Hindus with them, they would not be targeted. 

Rajkumar is astounded by their story and his heart melts. He decides to lead them in the fourth direction to safety. This concept of ‘fourth direction’ is alluded to earlier as Rajkumar reminisces about an old story his grandmother had told him, where a prince was told at a crossroad that he was free to take three routes but the fourth direction was full of danger and he may not survive. The prince still took the fourth direction and he did return home after battling all the dangers, and most importantly, he gained something priceless, which could be interpreted as either wisdom, courage, or material wealth. Hence Rajkumar probably gains wisdom and the insight that members of the ‘other’ community were probably feeling as scared as he was in the same scenario (after dark), even though it was from a different perspective. 

This story is a great reminder of the universality of basic emotions and the empathy that we can evoke in even dire circumstances. Throughout the story, Rajkumar expresses fear and mistrust for people around him, based on their religious affiliation. He believes that his religious compatriots would be more sympathetic to him as in his entreaty to the train guard, “we are your Hindu brothers and if you will not help us, who will”. In another scenario, he prods another Sikh man to plead to the Sikh policeman as he believes the latter will have a soft corner for the former. The fact that people tend to like people similar to them has been well-established in the research literature and in popular proverbs like “birds of feather flock together”. The same notion can also create barriers among people based on caste, class, or religion. But the fact that we have similar emotional reactions can also make us care for each other and show empathy for the ‘other’. People express sympathy for an individual who suffers from trauma like losing a parent in this story, whether it is the train guard or Rajkumar, irrespective of their other affiliations.

This story is a great demonstration of evocation of empathy in the protagonist during those tense and harrowing times in Punjab’s history. The writing is witty and depicts fear, frustration, hatred, and other emotions in a very believable manner. It is rooted in the cultural context authentically and does not strike a single false note. Waryam Singh Sandhu was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for his short story collection featuring this story. 

A part of this story was also made into a movie called, “Chauthi Koot” (The Fourth Direction) by Gurvinder Singh and screened at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. 

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