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COVER:Furies past and present: Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari

August 09, 2015


Photo from White Star photo archives 

Illustration by Abro
Photo from White Star photo archives Illustration by Abro
Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition

By Nisid Hajari
Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition By Nisid Hajari

HISTORY may be the story of the past, but it is written for the present, to explain its oddities and idiosyncrasies and to trace trajectories of the present into the tangents of what has come before. So it is with Nisid Hajari’s book, Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, a book that gives us a blow-by-blow account of the last year before Partition and the characters that played major roles in the bloodletting that preceded and accompanied the creation of Pakistan.

Tracing the roots of the present inevitably involves making judgements about what it is. Influenced perhaps by the divisive and often differing accounts of Partition that have been produced by the nationalist cadres of both India and Pakistan, Hajari never states these judgements explicitly, but his readers do not have to work too hard to glean them. In the first few pages of the book, Hajari says: “The story features no easy villains and few heroes. The very same men who led their peoples to independence — India’s dashing first leader, Nehru and his irascible Pakistani counterpart, Jinnah — would play a central part in creating the rift between the two nations.”

Sandwiched between an apparent qualifier which denounces the historical predilection for edification is in fact just that Nehru is “dashing” and Jinnah is well … “irascible.” The sleight of hand is noticeable; for through much of the book Hajari conflates the characters of the two leaders at the centre of the drama as premonitions of the countries that exist today. India is dashing, persevering despite the hacking of the subcontinent due to Partition; Pakistan, like the man who founded it, is quick to anger and irascible. It is an engaging literary technique aimed at humanising the history of a region that often appears, to much of the rest of the world, too riven to understand. Hajari is an accomplished writer and certainly up to the formidable literary task he sets himself.

However, while successful in the cumulative task of transforming history into literary narrative, Hajari does not stop himself from picking favourites from the cast of characters that he must work with. What initially appears as an incidental derision of Pakistan’s founder becomes a theme as the book progresses, the diminishing of Jinnah accomplished via a varied array of jibes and aspersions. In the first chapter, for instance, we get the following: “Jinnah was as frail as his rival [Nehru] was vigorous. A life-long two-pack-a day cigarette habit left him gasping for breath and at times he had to take to his bed for weeks at a stretch on doctor’s orders.” Further down the page we are told that Jinnah’s “frigid demeanour was as legendary as Nehru’s charm” and one of his friends had joked about needing a fur coat to be around him. How someone could be both irascible and frigid, I guess, just doesn’t matter.

Included in Jinnah’s failures is his marriage to Ruttie, the charming daughter of the man who was then Bombay’s richest Parsi industrialist. Here, the raspy chain-smoking Jinnah becomes the sneaky, even sleazy Jinnah. His question to Ruttie’s father regarding his view of inter-religious marriage becomes a trick question. Sir Dinshaw Petit first says that he supports such marriages but on finding out that the 40-year-old Jinnah wants to wed his 16-year-old daughter, he becomes livid. Ruttie is disowned and a ‘restraining order’ issued preventing Jinnah from seeing her. The love perseveres, however, and two years later, when she is 18 the two run off and marry. For Hajari, the fact that the marriage doesn’t succeed is only further proof of what he seems so committed to proving — that Jinnah was cold and calculating, scheming and heartless.

If you accept the premise that history is written for the present, then there is a central contradiction of Hajari’s critiques of Jinnah and even other Muslim leaders. Take for instance what he says about H.S. Suhrawardy, whom he describes as Bengal’s “corpulent and ruthless” chief minister who “was a Bengali boss tweed” with tastes for “champagne, Polish blondes and power (not necessarily in that order)”. It is in the choice of habits that Hajari picks for his critiques of the Muslim League leaders that there are curious and even contradictory choices. Jinnah’s inter-religious marriage, the smoking and drinking of others, their love of well-cut suits or, in the above case, Polish blondes, seems in Hajari’s eyes to disqualify them as Muslim leaders or prove some foundational hypocrisy in their claims to power.

It is a tricky argument and an odd one, coming as it does from someone who avows a secular perspective. The demand for Muslim perfection, the distilling of faith to public display and a devout disavowal of everything Western, suits or otherwise, would be a better fit for the religious right in Pakistan. Here it appears in the creation story told by India’s secular centre, revealing a central contradiction that Hajari never quite addresses. On the one hand is the aversion to Jinnah and other secular leaders; on the other the effort to prove that there is something inherent in Pakistan’s creation that makes it disposed to the rogue militancy that now rages within it. An interesting side note: one of the very first mentions Hajari makes of the tribesmen of the North West Frontier Province is as the “forbears of the Taliban”.

Hajari’s seeming dissatisfaction with the imperfect Muslims of the time, the too suave and too Western Jinnah, the womanising Suhrawardy, suggests that a Muslim state would require all Muslims to conform to a literal and distilled Islam to verify their authenticity with constant public performances of religious devotion. As a reader, one can’t help but wonder whether this sort of critique of the inadequate ‘Muslimness’ of Pakistan’s original leaders by a secular Indian has helped forge an increasingly constrained Pakistani Muslim identity, indeed one that today cannot even accommodate the reality of its founder. In his consistent pointing out of Jinnah’s lack of ‘Muslimness’, Hajari fails to notice that it is the failure of combining the idea of a Muslim state with the actuality of imperfect Muslims that is contemporary Pakistan’s most formidable ideological challenge.

To be fair, in several instances, while certainly not as frequently, Hajari does point out the faults of Gandhi and Nehru. Far-right Hindus, including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are also not spared, and the book presents accounts of pogroms initiated by Hindus and Sikhs (in addition to Muslims). In underscoring his antipathy to all religiously motivated violence, Hajari attempts to be as even-handed as possible; a commendable effort given a context where both sides have converted the claiming of Partition casualties as testaments of which religion is more bloodthirsty and whose followers more evil and ruthless. On this crucial issue, Hajari makes his most impressive contribution; revealing the complicity of all involved in killing on a tremendous scale.

There is, however, another point of contemporary relevance in this that relates not to pogroms past but the reality of Hindu nationalism in India today. Secular Indians make a big show of denouncing the politics (and pogroms) that originate in a politicised religious identity. In this way they position themselves in opposition to both those that identify as Indian Hindu and Indian Muslim as opposed to solely Indian. The glitch in this plan is that Indian Hindus, by virtue of their larger numbers and their political organisation under the now ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, can withstand and scoff at secular disdain but Indian Muslims, several million of them, can’t do so.

As a variety of reviewers have pointed out, Hajari’s book is a fast-paced, highly readable account that brings flavour and fire to a body of work that has too often been reduced to dry and unwieldy tomes that lie untouched on library shelves. His narrative is engaging and possesses an incipient urgency that grips the reader in a historical drama whose scale remains unprecedented in modern history. In doing this, Hajari is able to underscore how the actuality of Partition — bloody, crazy and painful — differed from the idea of Partition; the neatness of the theoretical formula of dividing up a colony differing wildly from the messy reality of two newly born countries. The failing of Midnight’s Furies is in its stolid playing to its audience, which the author ostensibly imagines to be largely Indian and supposedly pleased at his deft derision of Jinnah, or largely Western and hence ignorant of slights and obfuscations. The India of now, after all, is eager to position itself as an emerging superpower, and a gripping history that points at problematic Pakistan being inherently flawed and genetically vulnerable to militancy matches. Midnight’s Furies, hence, is a history that wants to match India’s present longings, its earnest aspirations to prove itself better than China, almost as good as America, and far superior to Pakistan. In being so, it tells the story not so much of the subcontinent’s once united past but her still tragically divided and mutually suspicious present.

Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition


By Nisid Hajari

Houghton Mifflin, US

ISBN 978-0547669212