The BS Column: Independence Day

(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, August 15, 2006)

As we celebrate Independence Day, it is worth remembering that the great literary works from that time concern Partition and mourning, not Independence and celebration. Here are four extraordinary works that go deep into the heart of Partition.

Saadat Hasan Manto, Collected Short Stories : Manto lived in Bombay at the time of Partition, and had a nervous breakdown in its aftermath. The violence he had witnessed was remembered in his stories in precise, unflinching detail; what was more serious for the writer was that his sense of identity had been brutally reshuffled. He was Manto, the Muslim, suddenly, for people who had known him for years as Saadat, the writer. Manto moved back to Lahore, where he wrote his perfect stories, often in one swift draft, in between tending to the serious business of being a full-time alcoholic.

The man who captured the psychic agony of Partition more completely than any other writer is claimed by both India and Pakistan, fittingly. Today, his story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is an iconic classic; to Manto, it was natural to set the drama of Partition in a lunatic asylum, and have its main protagonist inhabiting the no-man’s-land of insanity rather than make an impossible choice between the two countries he could claim. There are other stories, stories only Manto could tell, like the chilling ‘Thanda Gosht’ (Cold Meat), where a man stabbed for his suspected infidelity by his lover confesses that he has indeed been unfaithful—in the heat of the riots, with a corpse.

Khushwant Singh, Train to Pakistan : Published nine years after Partition, Train to Pakistan introduced a young, sensitive writer called Khushwant Singh. Singh set his story in the small Punjab village of Mano Majra, where the rhythms of daily life are set by the trains that rattle by at regular hours.

Then one day, a ghost train arrives at the village station. No one gets off; the villagers can make nothing of the train until they are asked to collect wood and kerosene, for no apparent reason.

“A soft breeze began to blow towards the village. It brought the smell of burning kerosene, then of wood. And then—a faint acrid smell of searing flesh.’

‘The village was stilled in a deathly silence. No one asked anyone else what the odour was. They all knew. They had known it all the time. The answer was implicit in the fact that the train had come from Pakistan.’ Khushwant Singh has since become the Grand Old Man of Indian letters, and is famous for his bestsellers; but he never wrote anything to equal that early novel. This year, Roli Books released a new edition of Train to Pakistan with Margaret Bourke-White’s unrelenting, agonizing photographs of the year of Partition.

(N.B. Also read Somini Sengupta’s piece on the new edition of Train to Pakistan.)

Rahi Masoom Reza, A Village Divided : In 1966, Rahi Masoom Reza published Adha Gaon, perhaps the novel that was closest to his heart. The novel is divided into ten chapters, mirroring the ten days of Moharram, and set in a lightly fictionalized version of the village of Gangauli, where Reza grew up.

Reza offers an insight into the world of a largely Shia Muslim village in India, which survives World War Two, is heavily scarred by Partition, but limps into Independence with the rest of India. The life of the village and the relationships between the various characters are disrupted by Partition in the same way that Reza interrupts the flow of the story to insert an ‘Introduction’ on page 272. “I, Saiyid Masson Reza Abidi… am deeply worried. I am constantly asking myself where I belong—Azamgarh or Ghazipur?” says the narrator. He knows only Gangauli, in Ghazipur; he will not let anyone have the right to tell him to leave for elsewhere, and because he must lay claim to a concept called ‘home’, he interrupts the story, with an Introduction.

Kamleshwar, Partitions : In May 1990, Kamleshwar began work on Kitne Pakistan , an ambitious attempt to understand Partition through allegory and realism. Hope, tragedy and suffering have equal roles in the India of 1947, as Buta Singh and Zainab find and lose each other, separated by refugee camps, religion, national policies and ultimately, death. But Partition is only another defendant in a long-running trial, where an anonymous adeeb, a man of literature, presides over the testimony from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nazi Germany, East Timor, the Aztec civilization and mythological Greece. From Toba Tek Singh to Babur, Ignatius Loyola to the Ganga (present as a witness), Qurrutulain Hyder to Mountbatten and Ravana, a cast of thousands wades through blood towards a tenuous peace in this extraordinary novel.





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