(January 26, 2007, Business Standard)
In the first few chapters of Kitne Pakistan, the nameless adeeb or writer who holds this mammoth novel together meets an old peasant who collects tears. “I have a laboratory… There, I collect the tears of the dispossessed, the oppressed and the tormented, and of those caught in the tentacles of death… I carry them away, cupped in my palm. I analyse them, seeking to understand the suffering, sorrow and despair from which they spring.”
The writer Kamleshwar, who died yesterday at the age of 75, wrote over 30 books, wrote numerous scripts for Hindi films and became one of the first and best-loved TV stars in India with Parikrama in the 1980s. He was a prolific screenplay writer and worked with directors like Gulzar, B R Chopra and Ramananda Sagar, but it was an odd marriage. He resented the need to write “commercially” and did much of this work for the money; but he had too much innate talent to be a successful commercial writer.
Far closer to his heart were his short stories—there are at least 10 collections by him, and he was one of the pioneers of the Nayi Kahani movement, along with the late Nirmal Verma, Mohan Rakesh and others. On a train journey from Jammu to Kanyakumari many years ago, I remember marking the point where North slid into South India by the station bookshops: there was a point where Kamleshwar’s short story collections gave way to Kalki’s novels and stories.
If there is one work he will be remembered by, though, it will be Kitne Pakistan, translated into English as the less searing Partitions. Kamleshwar had shown signs of ambition in works like Registan and Subah, Dopahar, Shaam, but Kitne Pakistan was unique, in terms of its concept. He began work on this in 1990. He was 15 years old when Partition happened and his memories of that time were searing, indelible. He could easily have taken the route traversed by writers like Chaman Nahal, whose Azaadi was an unblinking depiction of what happened to those who survived and had to remake their lives in alien territory, or Khushwant Singh, whose Train to Pakistan remains a rough-hewn classic.
On the only occasion I spoke to Kamleshwar, at a Sahitya Akademi gathering of writers, he repeated what he had often said: “My mind was in constant churning ferment, all my life those memories have demanded that I bear witness. But to what? There was no clear villain. There were no clear heroes. That was not how I remember that time.” This was several years ago, after he had finished Partitions. I was struck not by his words at the time so much as his voice—he had a deep, gravelly voice that assumed an inner, theatrical power when he spoke of things that moved him. It was a big voice for that neatly built, small man to carry around.
The great travel writer, Ryszard Kapuscinski, died just a few days before Kamleshwar. Kapuscinski covered, in a memorable phrase, 27 wars in 50 countries; he called his brand of writing “literature by foot”, a way of reportage where the author was always present, an essential witness to his times.
Kapuscinski had only this in common with Kamleshwar—that he had experienced extreme suffering and deprivation at an early age, in his case as a young boy growing up in wartime Poland. In an essay about that time, he writes: “We who went through the war know how difficult it is to convey the truth about it to those for whom that experience is, happily, unfamiliar. We know how language fails us, how often we feel helpless, how the experience is, finally, incommunicable. And yet, despite these difficulties and limitations, we should speak.…The dead admonish us. They bequeathed something important to us and now we must act responsibly.”
It is the dead who speak in Kamleshwar’s Partitions, in an endless, timeless trial where the only arbiter is the nameless adeeb, the anonymous writer. In order to understand Partition, Kamleshwar felt that we needed to hear from Gilgamesh, from Lord Mountbatten, from Aurangzeb and Chengiz Khan, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He and Kapuscinski never met. Kapuscinski traveled all across the world; Kamleshwar was born in Mainpuri, lived in Delhi and traveled chiefly in India. The two writers never met, but they had both heard the voices of the dead admonishing them. It was necessary for someone to be the collector of tears, or sweat, or dreams. In Partitions, Kamleshwar did all three.