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COVER STORY: The dividing lines

December 08, 2013

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An illustration from ‘Noor Miyan' by Tina Rajan and Vidrohi
An illustration from ‘Noor Miyan' by Tina Rajan and Vidrohi

There is a new book out on Partition. If you’re thinking what Partition, you must not be from South Asia because around here the first thing that word brings to mind is the division of the subcontinent into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh after the British left. Pakistan and India came into being in 1947 and Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Both events occurred many decades ago and yet somehow we cannot stop writing books, filming movies and making art about them. No other event in modern Indian history — perhaps in all of Indian history, has been so well-documented. I wonder if that is because we are still struggling to make sense of it. We know the facts and the figures but there are things that still don’t add up. This new book is one more attempt to try and figure what is it that really happened to us when we were split into three different countries.

This Side, That Side: Restoring Partition is an anthology of graphic narratives, curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh. It is unique because it packs in art, craft, photography, reportage, essay, poetry, fiction and adaptations of video, multimedia art and oral storytelling into one volume. It brings together unlikely collaborators from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to construct a collage of chronicles. It is also unique because it looks at Partition not as political history but as personal histories; not as incidents that happened on the ground but as events that happened to individuals. Unique personal experiences cannot be circumscribed by dates on a historical calendar — because they continue to occur, continue to define lives even now.

The book begins with Tabish Khair and Priya Kurian’s retelling of ‘An Old Fable’ in which the King invokes Reason and Law to cut up a child who is being claimed by two women into three. It nails the absurdity and horror of Partition and the disconnect of the English from the human realities of the subcontinent. In Kaiser Haq and Hemant Puri’s ‘Border’ we find one of the most lasting images from the book — a little girl playing hopscotch across lines that run like borders between nations. Borders, described in the story as the “perfect knife that slices through the earth without the earth knowing, severs and joins at the same instant.”

None of the stories (barring Salman Rashid and Mohit Suneja’s ‘I Too Have Seen Lahore!’) directly address the communal violence that followed the creation of Pakistan and India. Instead, the book turns its gaze to what was lost to those who survived the carnage. In Tina Rajan and Vidrohi’s ‘Noor Miyan,’ a grandson remembers his grandmother’s kohl seller who migrated to Pakistan, leaving her eyes and some part of her life forever bare. In ‘The Last Circus,’ Priya Sen and Deewana profile Dashratha, aka Don Emamulelle Stanislav, who was born in a circus in Lahore and moved with it to India after Partition, leaving his brothers and the love of his life behind. In ‘An Afterlife’ by Sanjoy Chakraborty and Bhaswati Ghosh, a Hindu boy who grew up feeling like an outsider in Bangladesh finds love and compassion while in college in Calcutta with a girl whose family moved from Bangladesh to live in India but he must give it all up to go back to Bangladesh, which is “home”.

Where is home is a question that a great many were left with after India was divided. In the ‘Karachi-Delhi Katha,’ Archana Sreenivasan and Sonya Fatah consider the fate of a Hindu house help in Karachi who wants to travel to India and a Bangladeshi Muslim house help in Delhi who has been pretending she is an Indian Hindu to get by. In the final frame of the story the narrator asks, “Has home always been elsewhere?” For the characters in this book, yes. In ‘The Red Ledger,’ one of the most moving stories in the anthology, Ankur Ahuja reimagines the life of a grandfather who spent most of his time in his newly adopted city of Delhi poring over red ledgers, writing in Urdu, a language his descendants couldn’t read. The grandchild understood little of what went on in her grandfather’s mind. For her, his story ended on his final evening in Bahawalpur, just before he left Pakistan: “I didn’t have the courage to ask further; maybe I just didn’t want to see him cry.” Similarly, in Sukanya Ghosh and M. Hasan’s ‘Making of a Poet,’ an old poet longs for the Bangladesh he left behind, resurrecting it in his poetry; and in Appupen and Arundhati Ghosh’s ‘Water Stories,’ a daughter, like her father before her, learns to associate tragedy and grief with the river Padma that their family left behind in Bangladesh.

The book moves between metaphorical and actual homelessness, drawing out the plight of refugees in all three countries with stories like ‘A Good Education’ (Vishwajyoti Ghosh), ‘The Taboo’ (Malini Gupta and Dyuti Mittal), ‘Geneva Camp’ (Maria M. Litwa) and ‘Know Directions Home’ (Nina Sabnani). In ‘Tamasha-i-Tetwal,’ Arif Ayaz Parrey and Wasim Helal, taking off from Manto’s story ‘Tetwal Ka Kutta,’ compare Kashmir to an ill-fated dog stuck between India and Pakistan. ‘Fault Lines’ by Irfan Master and Prabha Mallya speaks of more literal prisons that house captives from one country in another.

The book strikes many chords. There is dark humour in Intizar Husain’s brilliantly bittersweet ‘A Letter From Home,’ translated by Mahmood Farooqui and illustrated by Fariha Rehman; strands of the esoteric in Mehreen Murtuza’s ‘Bastards Of Utopia’; farce in Rabbi Shergill and Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s ‘Cabaret Weimar’ and grim hopelessness in Syeda Farhana and Nitesh Mohanty’s ‘Little Women’. The only note of joy comes from Ahmad Rafay Alam and Martand Khosla’s ‘90 Upper Mall’ as the storytellers recount how they met in London, became the best of friends and eventually realised that Alam’s family home was Khosla’s family home before Partition.

What one friend had lost, another had found. Evidently, that is as far as redemption goes where narratives of Partition are concerned. For the rest of it, there is only loss. And the pointlessness of it as explained by Orijit Sen’s photographic cutouts — a simple but effective assertion that we are really the same people.

The reviewer is the editor-in-chief of The Big Indian Picture


This Side, That Side: Restoring Partition

(Graphic stories)

Yoda Press, India

ISBN 9789382579014

336pp.