In a new light
"I would not be surprised if this novel turns out to be his magnum opus eventually."
Partitions, Kamleshwar, translated by Ameena Kazi Ansari, Penguin India, 2006, p.369+xi, Rs.350.
KAMLESHWAR has a special place in the history of Hindi fiction. Ever since reading his Aandhi in Malayalam translation three decades ago, I have always remained on the lookout for his next contribution. I would not be surprised if his Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel, Kitne Pakistan, during the writing of which about a decade ago he "constantly felt as if this was my maiden literary venture", and was "all the while beset by an unvoiced restlessness and a perception of inadequacy", turns out to be his magnum opus, eventually. We have it now in English translation Partitions.
Kamleshwar, who lived through the trauma of Partition, states that, "This novel was born out of a constant ferment within my mind". It is not all about the Partition of India. It is about all kinds of violent epochs that thwarted the aspirations of the common people, as found in the vast expanse of recorded history. The main protagonist of the novel is Time, as the author felt that "in my mind there was no hero or villain".
The novel traces the various incidents in which a land and its people were partitioned on the basis of religious beliefs, giving centrality to the Partition of India, during which the decision-makers who were the representatives of the people, permitted the heart of the country to be sundered, causing the bloodshed of civilians on an unprecedented scale. A society in which ordinary Hindus and Muslims lived in perfect harmony and good-neighbourliness was smashed up following the political formula evolved by the departing colonisers and the colluding power-mongers at home. The novel takes the form of a long-drawn courtroom hearing, with the narrator, a nameless writer, the adeeb in sensitivity and in being a witness to the times, he could be the author's alter ego playing the roles of the chief prosecutor, judge and witness all rolled into one. Father Time, the main protagonist, is summoned by the adeeb to assist him in formulating his judgment. Each historical moment that is called into question is looked into in detail to arrive at the alternate views other than the official one to establish the point that the hero of conventional history was wrong.
Beginning with Gilgamesh, the narration proliferates, spanning several centuries of known history with Time and Space as the main characters: Other characters turn out to be rivers and dates like 1947, sharing space along with real and imaginary historic characters. Open the book at random and you are sure to find one shocking revelation or the other, tearing the mask off established history, or bringing to spotlight what has been dimmed or blurred through usage or prejudice. For instance, every Muslim-baiter in this country would harp on the theme of Muslim marauders like Chengiz Khan, Timur and Babur laying waste our motherland. But Chengiz Khan was not even a Muslim. He was a Mongol idol worshipper! Though this is known to historians, the layman has to be sensitised to this fact.
Another incident involves Aurangazeb's sacking of Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Kamleshwar borrows the authority of Pattabhi Sitaramaiah, President of Indian National Congress (1938) to assert that Aurangazeb did what he did to retrieve the wife of one of the Hindu Rajahs in his entourage who had visited the temple and whom some of the priests there had abducted and raped! Scores of such instances crop up in the book.
The brahminical partitioning of the body and soul based on the caste system, in which genuine religion and spirituality are subjugated to cast-iron structures, the Upanishads ending up as apologies for the upper castes all these come under the scanner in the court of human consciousness.
The common reader will be thrilled to see Mountbatten being badgered into admitting his nefarious role in the Partition, by the court peon Mahmood. Mountbatten is tongue-tied when asked to explain why Lord Ismay, "who had worked closely with Churchill during the War" came along with the Viceroy as his assistant to preside upon the Partition of the land.
Arun Prakash, noted Hindi fiction writer, critic and editor, Samakaleen Bharatiya Sahitya, Sahitya Akademi's Hindi bimonthly journal, who was with Kamleshwar throughout the period of the writing of the novel, feels that he has pushed back the boundaries of the Hindi novel through this work. "For the evolution of any genre, flexibility of structure is essential, and this work proves precisely that. Adopting the very Indian, time-tested narrative techniques like the ones used in the Kathasaritsagara, and improving upon them, Kamleshwar has accomplished a unique feat," he says.
The translator, Ameena Kazi Ansari, has achieved the almost-impossible: getting the flow of the narrative in perfect stream in spite of the prevalence of the general ambience of Hindi rhetoric, which can degenerate into verbosity in English, in the hands of a lesser artist. The English text is very much hers. I have no hesitation in asserting that the book deserves unabashed praise.
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