A part of history

January 30, 2014

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THE suicide attack on a bus carrying pilgrims from Iran to Pakistan has deeply saddened me not because I was born in a Shia home, but because tolerance and decency have given way to hate crime. Hate crimes are as old as history itself, though concern and action over the violence has yet to show results. Many alibis are put forth for such happenings.

Hate crime in the subcontinent raised its ugly head when the British colonialists declared freedom and divided the country into two new states: a majority Hindu India and a predominantly Muslim Pakistan.

Partition caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in riots that broke out in the months leading to and following independence. Millions were turned out of their homes in the largest transfer of population of the times; their homes burned down or residents forcibly evicted.

It inspired many creative works — novels, short stories, poems, visuals and films from a large cross-section of people in India, Pakistan and the world. Notable among them are Khushwant Singh, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Saadat Hasan Manto, Bhisham Sahni, Bapsi Sidhwa, Manohar Malgaonkar and Larry Collins. The sorrows and tragedies of partition continue to inspire creative presentation.

A little known but controversial short-story, titled Ek Insaan ki Mauti is my favourite. It stirred my mind for its bold and non-compromising presentation of the burning issue. Writers like Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Ramanand Sagar were ‘guilty’ of similar dilation of events. “It is a true story,” the writer Khwaja Ahmad Abbas told an interviewer many years later.

A Muslim officer in Delhi was asked to leave for home early as religious extremists were expected to attack his house. He did so as he was concerned about the safety of his wife, a seven-year-old daughter, a three-year-old son and two orphaned nieces.

On reaching home he saw the old sardarji and his grown up sons standing outside the house as though they had already done their ‘deed’. “Ya Allah, am I too late?” thought the Muslim. The Muslim was no friend of his neighbour and made fun of his dishevelled beard and long hair under a smelly turban. That day his tall and hefty sons looked equally fierce.

“O, tusi fikar na karo. Your family is inside my house and safe.” Saying this, the sardarji escorted the Muslim to his house. He ordered his sons to go to ‘uncle’s’ house and collect whatever belongings they could salvage.

Once inside, the sardarji took out his kirpan. So that was the game? To kill all of us inside so that our shrieks will go un-noticed and no one will come to our rescue, mused the Muslim. The sardarji placed the kirpan at the feet of the Muslim saying, “My sons and I will protect you to the very end but if we are killed you should be able to protect yourself and your family.”

Soon enough there was a commotion outside. The Sikh and his sons were arguing with the raiders. Loud voices were replaced by the sounds of abuse and fist fights. Then there was dead silence followed by the sound of a large body falling on the floor and of people running away.

When the Muslim came out of the house he found the sardarji lying motionless on the floor. That day his beard and hair were not dishevelled nor his turban dirty and smelly.

Both were dyed with his own blood. Red like the henna in maulvi sahib’s hair, the sardarji had sacrificed his life to save another human being and the honour of his women and children. Even though they did not profess the same faith.

It is a simple story of human goodness, compassion and sacrifice at the time of need and distress.

Last year when I was in Delhi in connection with the Abbas Centenary to be celebrated in 2014 my classmates hosted a lunch. The surprise package was an email from a classmate settled in the US:

“I have a story that I would like to share with you. While departing for a school trip in 1958, my father as well as Anwar’s father had come to see us off at the railway station. The two elders first looked at one another intently and then held each other in a tight embrace as tears rolled down their cheeks.

The two families were neighbours. During the partition riots in 1947 the family of Anwar was taken to our house for protection. Their belongings were at our house for collection but were never taken away. The belongings are still there as is the memory and friendship that has survived the riots, the killings and the separation. Surender Khoka.”

But for Surender’s family I would not have been enjoying the lunch with friends that day.

The writer is a freelance contributor.