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FICTION: THE MAKING OF A TRAITOR

December 17, 2017

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‘Separation’ by Edvard Munch | Public Domain
‘Separation’ by Edvard Munch | Public Domain

For many years, Krishan Chander was a bete noire for me — the writer I loved to hate. I could never entirely stop reading him, but gradually developed a distaste for his cloying sentimentality and idealism that was close to sermonising. Then his writing seemed to be everywhere; a story or two for every event, trite to a fault and seemingly made to order. In spite of intense dislike for his latter-day productions, I remained an avid admirer of his earlier work. Could it be otherwise? There was a muted lyricism, a shimmering elegance bestowing a haunting quality that made me remember the stories long after I had finished reading. How I wished Chander would revert to his early style and how sorry I was that he had to keep churning out such stuff because of commercial pressures and confined by an ideological straitjacket. The worst offenders seemed to be those gathered in Hum Wehshi Hain and such dime-a-dozen Partition collections. His contemporary — and contender for the crown of best short story writer in Urdu — Saadat Hasan Manto stole the thunder with searing stories exploring the psyche of brutalised and horror-struck people in ways that leave other writers far behind. Even Ismat Chughtai seemed to fare relatively better as she wrote sparingly on these subjects.

More than a decade after Partition, Chander published his major work on this theme, but somehow it was too late to make amends, as his reputation kept slipping down. This intense and heartfelt novel, Ghaddaar, has just appeared in a fine English translation by the indefatigable scholar and writer Rakhshanda Jalil. The glaring faults are obvious, but it is also a reminder of the unforgettable qualities of Chander’s best writing. It is also timely and relevant in the politically charged atmosphere of the day, a grim reminder of painful realities that persist long after the events in the book unfolded, which manage to keep the two countries ready to spring at each other’s throats.

The novel opens in the voice of Baijnath, a young Hindu businessman, married and settled in Lahore, but visiting his ancestral village where he spends long afternoons meeting his paramour in the tall sarkanda grass. Her name is Shadaan and it does not take an intelligent guess to realise that this is a sure recipe for disaster in a Punjab fraught with communal tension. In the opening pages the protagonist appears rather shallow, almost a mouthpiece for the author, but begins to acquire poignancy as he flees from the village to the city, trying to find refuge and realising that he has few friends.

A fine new translation of Krishan Chander’s magnum opus on Partition is timely and makes for compulsive reading

These rustic lovers, who find themselves on the wrong side of the communal divide, share the same fate as the characters of Khushwant Singh’s emotionally charged novel on the same theme, Train to Pakistan. However, as Baijnath finds himself trapped in a difficult situation, he acquires a life of his own. He first succumbs to the communal identity prevalent all around him, adding fuel to the fire of hatred. It is a moment of transformation and vividly recaptured: “All my life I had regarded myself as a balanced, tolerant and completely non-communal sort of Hindu who had more Muslims than any others among his acquaintances...”

Equally lucid is the moment when Baijnath sees the futility of bloody revenge and throws away the dagger in his hand — he is swept off his feet to become part of a murderous mob, but as his spear points to a helpless old man, in a moment of painful anguish he regains his humanity: “That picture of that single moment still swims before my eyes. The old man’s mouth was agape with terror, his slightly raised hand was trembling with fear and entreaty, and his chest was visible through his tattered vest. The point on which my spear rested on his chest, I could see some white hairs — the white hairs were exactly like the ones on my father’s chest. The old man’s eyebrows were white too, just as my father’s were. And the softness and entreaty with which he said, ‘No, no, son, don’t kill me’, the tone of his voice reminded me of my father.”

This fatherly image undergoes another transformation as the old man seems to take on the contours of Punjab incarnate: “I felt as though all of Punjab was an old man — an old farmer with white hair whose beard had been set on fire by the communalist. He was burning in the fire of hatred and with him the honour and reputation of Punjab was also on fire.”

It is moments like these that give a compelling power to the novel. However, the overall effect is marred by instances when the death of Rumi, the dog who had become Baijnath’s companion, dissipates into rhetoric: “Rumi died and with her, possibly, an age died too. A civilisation died. A story was wiped out. A page in history was turned. And tears began to pour from my eyes.”

Such moments are mercifully few and the book as a whole has a powerful impact. The end has Baijnath literally walk towards the rising sun with hope in his heart and an abandoned child on his shoulders. Perhaps inspired by Western movies and prefiguring Chander’s story ‘Kachra Baba’, but how one wishes that such idealism turned out to be the truth. The major casualty in Partition was this hope and idealism.

In her introduction, Jalil contextualises the book in present circumstances, highlighting the debate about who is a traitor and who is not in Indian politics. The book seems even more relevant and topical in view of these debates. The not-so-gentle exercise of branding as traitors those who have different opinions is equally common this side of the border and we have continuously seen the label ‘ghaddaar’ applied to far too many politicians and non-politicians.

A few minor points. The cover of the book seems more in keeping with calendar art and the note on page 54 about a Native American story probably refers to Jack London. The one bone of contention I have to pick is with the last part of the introduction. After a fine discussion on the branding of people, which makes the novel all the more relevant, the introduction provides a brief sketch of Chander and his work. The critical framework seems rather outmoded as the reference is mainly Khalilur Rahman Azmi’s analytical study of Progressive writers. It is also referred to in Suresh Kohli’s translation The Dark River and Other Stories, the only other recent translation of Chander I could find. Chander has not lacked critics and diverse hands from Hasan Askari to Waris Alvi have written about the various aspects of his oeuvre. Intizar Husain wrote sensitive, but dismissive pieces on him, but late in life empathised with the neglect of the writer. It may have been more befitting to outline the chequered course his reputation has run and why it is in need of rehabilitation and reassessment now. I recall that the original Naya Idara edition from Lahore also included a heartfelt afterword by Chander giving a spirited defence of why he wrote the novel when the publisher asked him to put behind the bitter memories of religious rioting. Including this afterword would have added to the value of a book which, in the words of the introduction, needs to be read to understand its full import. Many years after its original publication, the novel has not lost its appeal and this fine new translation makes compulsive reading.

The reviewer is teaching a course on reading the Partition in fiction and film at a university in Karachi

Traitor
By Krishan Chander
Introduction and Translation
by Rakhshanda Jalil
Tranquebar Press, India
ISBN: 978-9386850256
138pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 17th, 2017