Coming to terms with history
KEKI N. DARUWALLA
This is a splendid book, a must-read for anyone interested in the Partition.
Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, Alok Bhalla, OUP, hardback, p.244, Rs. 395.
HINDUS have been poor historians. Hence our rather meagre documentation of the past. How our historians gloat over the "historiographical efflorescence" of the second half of the 16th century Badayuni's Muntakhab al-Tawarikh, Firishta's Gulshan-i Ibrahimi, Abu Fazl' Akbar Nama, not to talk of Ain-i Akbari. Compared to this, imagine the surfeit of information on the Partition. This is a happy augury for future historians and sociologists. Among recent publications we have Urvashi Butalia's graphic recording of women involved in the Partition, and now Alok Bhalla takes on a select group of novelists.
I am no fan of Partition fiction. I find much of it stilted and artificial. As Krishan Baldev Vaid says, each writer wants to be correct and impartial, too busy showing the good, bad and the ugly in both Hindus and Muslims, to get down to writing a decent novel. Bapsi Sidhwa is an exception. No frills, no whitewash. I attended a talk by Chaman Nahal and Kartar Singh Duggal once where both gloried in having shown Hindus and Sikhs perpetrating abominable atrocities on Muslims. (Look, how fair we are, they seemed to say.) God save us from such aesthetic yardsticks!
Alok Bhalla has taken the finest Indian and Pakistani novelists who portray the Partition Krishna Sobti, Intizar Husain, Kamleshwar, Bapsi Sidhwa, Krishna Baldev Vaid and Bhisham Sahni. (I miss Chaman Nahal here.) Through detailed dialogues he jogs their memories, and how they crafted their fiction, wrestling with the Partition's moral, social and spiritual dimensions. For, the Partition spilled over into our souls.
For Intizar Husain Partition proved a profound rupture in the civilisation of the sub-continent. A Shia, his childhood was spent in Bulandshahr, Hapur and Meerut. Life before 1947 is sylvan, bucolic, or, in modern lingo, hunky dory. Intizar is as "secular" as you can be. Be it teachers or halwais, he admires the Hindus amongst them. He prefers Jataka tales and Katha Sarit Sagar to Alif Laila. He took part in Holi and Deepavali celebrations. He sees the event through the sieve of Muhajir experience, in his semi-autobiographical novel Basti. In Intizar's fiction "people mourn for lost genealogies, ancestral graveyards, crumbling homes" (Bhalla). We get illuminating passages on Pakistani and Muhajir identity. He talks of the Muslim migrant's experience as hijrat ( Prophet Muhammad's exile to Medina). How can such a brutal political event be transformed into a religious experience, asks Bhalla. Intizar keeps talking of Muslim migration and suffering. I could remind him of the Muslim war cry of 1947: "Has ke liya Pakistan, Lad ke lenge Hindustan."
A different take
Nostalgia is not Bhisham Sahni's forte. He had Muslim friends but was discouraged by parents to play with them. He saw the "sky light up with flames" in a 1926 riot in Rawalpindi, when he was 11. He took part in prabhat pheries and was present at the stone throwing depicted in his novel Tamas. But he wrote Tamas, after witnessing the Bhiwandi riots. Bhalla sometimes puts leading questions (subconscious agenda?), as if to prove that writers had a "communally shared childhood". Sahni's views on Arya Samaj as anti-Muslim and Manto, who concluded that Hindus and Muslims were basically bloodthirsty, are interesting. He talks of the Hindu consciousness that most Indian Muslims are converts. Oddly enough, he says that since the British "were not interested in the culture of the country", "they were responsible for communal tensions". Sahni can't answer Bhalla's question about the Communist Party's support to the Muslim League and the demand for Pakistan.
Bhalla asks Krishna Sobti, of Zindaginama, and Sikka Badal Gaya fame, how one writes "about something indescribable", or which "escapes language". So "how are memories used or manipulated?" Sobti answers that the Partition was "a collision between a political agenda and a long tradition of pluralism". Years before Partition, when she was riding home to her village, an insolent man patted her horse and said "Go drop her home today. Later she'll have to leave behind her bangles and earrings." She also tells a bizarrely oracular tale told in 1910 which foreshadowed the Partition.
Peasants (Muslims) were slaves of Hindu landlords, she says. "They were known as muzare and kammis." Dhabas used separate crockery for Hindus and Muslims. "In the 1940s the atmosphere was vitiated by the entire business of separate electorates." Yet, if one may ask, what about the Tiwanas and Kalabaghs of Punjab, the Wadehras of Sind, Bugtis of Baluchistan? These landlords were Muslim.
Krishna Baldev Vaid's comments are very insightful. He migrated in a refugee train. "I left my childhood behind in the town of my birth." The Partition left in him "a permanent feeling of dislocation." His novel Guzra Hua Zamana is "really Proustian in structure." The events of 1946-47 were not freakish. "I would still maintain that the Pakistan Movement had to happen."
The dialogue with Kamleshwar is odd. A novelist can play around with historical characters. Kamleshwar has every right to speculate about the inner conflicts of Aurangzeb or Jinnah, as Girish Karnad handled Tuglaq. It is when he almost posits this as a sort of alternate history, that Kamleshwar's stance sounds bizarre. Come to think of it, is it fair to ask him or Bapsi Sidhwa why Partition was caused or ask them to comment on Bhalla's statement "Given the civilisational history of the subcontinent, the partition was an absurdity."
Bapsi Sidhwa is more down to earth. Lahore was a mosaic of many communities. She emphasises greed. "The feeling in my part of Punjab was that if we got rid of the Hindu shopkeepers and the Sikhs, we could take over their businesses and their lands." Of Parsis, she says their biggest fear was their girls would marry Muslim boys. She states, "I hate to impose a political polemic on a novel." Unlike Kamleshwar, she frankly states that Aurangzeb carried out "genocidal policies towards Hindus and Sikhs." And she shows Jinnah in a good light in Ice-Candy Man. And why not?
Bhalla's scholarship and erudition come through in a fine introduction. This is a splendid book, a must-read for anyone interested in the Partition. The print is small, and for 244 pages, the price is high.
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