Author of nine books, including Chiragh-i-Shab-i-Afsana
Come August and there was no mass jubilation like now, but in the days when I was growing up, it was called Independence. ‘Partition’ is a word not fully rehabilitated, yet it is back in current usage. But I wonder if Partition has gotten its azadi? How complex and nuanced Partition can be hit me real hard when I started teaching a chapter from Vazira Zamindar’s book The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories and it changed my perception of the way the entire narrative is written up.
As I began to read and examine again, Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story ‘Khol Do’ was the place to begin with, but not to end. Each time, I felt like the doctor in the text, drenched in sweat as he watches the father give a shout of joy and the nearly dead girl undo her shalwar. It connects with Bhisham Sahni’s novel Tamas [Darkness] — made into a telefilm of the same name — opening with a slaughtered pig thrown into a mosque and climaxing on the Sikh women jumping into the village well to save their honour from the Muslims of neighbouring villages. Connect the dots and it takes you to the final scene in Qurratulain Hyder’s monumental Aag Ka Dariya as Kamal returns to Pakistan, now his adopted country, without meeting his friends who are left wondering how a man with a similar name entered India a thousand years ago and how he left it. Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s lines, “Yeh woh sehar tau nahin...” have been quoted much too often, but I am still confronted with the question: is this the morning everybody was waiting for?
Author of three novels, including the upcoming Red Birds
Udaas Naslain by Abdullah Hussein is not quite the Partition novel, but it’s the greatest what-led-to-the-Partition novel. Partition is described in the last section. One scene has stayed with me since I read it as a teenager: abandoned cows and buffaloes roam around Punjab’s fields; they are very scared because they have witnessed all the ways a man can slaughter his fellow men. A few years ago it was the 50th anniversary of Udaas Naslain’s publication and Hussein used to moan that nobody bothered to have a little celebration about his book. And then he would explain to himself, why should anybody celebrate — after all, the bloody thing is called Udaas Naslain [Sad Generations]! And then he would add that during these 50 years, all the naslain have become more udaas than the last one.
Hussein did write a Partition novel, which didn’t become as famous as Udaas Naslain. The first 200 pages of Nadaar Loag are set around the time of Partition. I have never read such stunning prose in Urdu or any other language.
In this book, a young man goes to a ripe wheat field to meet his girl in secret. Just before the harvest, wheat is like a powder keg. There is a minor accident and the field goes up in fire. The whole village comes out and the lovers are caught. The boy’s uncle thrashes him and asks him what the hell just happened. The boy says that he lit a match because he wanted to see the girl’s face. Uncle keeps thrashing the boy and keeps asking why he needed to see her face. That’s the kind of illumination Hussein brought to our literature.
Shazaf Fatima Haider
Author of two novels, including A Firefly in the Dark
There’s a lot of writing on Partition out there, but the one story that, for me, stands out in terms of poignancy and tragedy is Saadat Hasan Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’.
I have grown up seeing my parents yearn for their childhood home in Khujwan, Bihar — my father died before he could think of visiting it. My mother recently met her brother after 30 years here in England. Each wept at being reunited for a few short hours and wept again at being parted once more.
The India of my parents’ childhood was accessible only through light blue-coloured air mail letters in which my aunts wrote in tiny handwriting… so much to tell and so little space to tell it in. When my nani and nana died, the news reached us late, on a 30-second phone call.
I have grown up in this shadow of loss that my mother felt whenever she spoke of her family. And ‘Toba Tek Singh’ captures the loss of place and identity and the ludicrousness of the situation by depicting the situation through the inmates of a mental asylum. The confusion of displacement is evident, as is the injustice felt by the Hindu lawyer whose beloved must stay in Pakistan while he must go to India. My mother’s family — my family — is Indian and I am Pakistani and the divide, over the years, has deepened.
It is unfair, it is tragic and it is madness. And in ‘Toba Tek Singh’ Manto captures the sentiments of an entire generation in a short, dark and incredibly moving short story.
Author of four books, including Rafina
I don’t remember when I first read it, but Saadat Hasan Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is a master class in the short story. The form allows both writer and reader to survive prolonged exposure to a psychic brutality that would have been unendurable in a novel and false in poetry.
Craft-wise, there are many reasons to admire ‘Toba Tek Singh’. It uses simple language to explore prescient themes. Bishan Singh is vividly and fully sketched — we know his family, his beliefs, the state of his calves — but there is also nuanced characterisation accomplished in three sentences (Anglo Indians concerned with the possible abolishing of the European ward, and the prospect of bread versus chapattis) or a few lines of dialogue (Fazaldin). The reader’s perspective is so skillfully inverted that by the end we know absurdity lies outside the paagal khana [mental asylum], not inside it. The clever use of seemingly nonsensical Punjabi, Urdu and English doesn’t just break down our conditioned responses; the charm of the repetitive rhythmic nonsense itself undercuts the awfulness of what Manto is exposing, enough to make it palatable.
The biggest reason for my admiration, though, is that fiction is meant to question, not to answer and this story, first published in 1955, raised several questions we continue to grapple with today: What shapes identity? What is nationality? What is home? And, finally, if all the lunatics were safe in their asylums, who killed a million people?
Author of Karachi, You’re Killing Me
In a scene in Meera Syal’s fantastic novel Anita and Me, the narrator Anita is eavesdropping on a mehfil [musical gathering] hosted by her parents in England. The guests — familiar aunties and uncles, all immigrants like them — shift to mournful ghazals and then tearfully recount stories of Partition: a sister kidnapped, a dead father, trains carrying corpses. Anita’s father shifts the mood by saying that had he never gone to Delhi, he wouldn’t have met his wife. The group laughs, but Anita is deeply unsettled, having seen a layer stripped bare from the people in her life. “I wanted to know so much more, but now I was afraid to ask. I realised that the past was not a mere sentimental journey for my parents, like the song told its English listeners. It was a murky bottomless pool full of monsters and the odd shining coin, with a deceptively still surface and a deadly undercurrent. And me, how could I jump in before I had learned to swim?”
I’ve often thought about this scene — not so much in the context of Partition, but in the stories people don’t tell about the past and why. The past is murky for so many. It’s marked by the atrocities of Partition, but also what happened afterwards; people forging new lives in homes that had belonged to someone else, refashioning their identities. I often think about war and prolonged conflict when people complain about political crises: if you’ve seen war and death and upheaval so up close, where’s your perspective? Surely this isn’t as bad? But perhaps it is easier to not jump in, and to just form a revisionist version of your identity and history, and change the music.
The line that sums up Partition for me comes when Anita’s mother, unable to cope with life with two children, is desperately missing India and the comforts of familial life: “She looked up at us listlessly and then turned back to the window. ‘It’s the same sky,’ she said finally. ‘The same sky in India. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?’”
Author of Surkhaab
Tamas by Bhisham Sahni is a novel on the subcontinent’s partition that left indelible imprints on my mind. It delicately portrays the savage side of human behaviour which, in times of chaos, is governed by impulse and not reason. The opening scene of the novel, where the low-caste tanner Nathu is struggling to overpower and slaughter a feral boar, sets the tone of the novel; an orgy of bloodshed and dissolution of personal bonds follows. While a young girl is raped and strangled to death, an old man is stabbed to death by a minor and communal violence builds up, Richard, the British Deputy Commissioner, oversees the situation with frigid indifference.
The novel is a mosaic of multiple stories which acquires its originality from the real-life events experienced by the writer during Partition. On a larger scale, the novel is not only a reflection of a fragment of history, but is also a document depicting the complexities and foibles of human behaviour in tumultuous times.
The novel Raakh by Mustansar Hussain Tarrar also touched my heart and soul with its poignant chronicalisation of Partition. It’s written in a rich literary style with a glimmer of poetic diction. The short story ‘Khol Do’ on the same subject by Saadat Hasan Manto always evokes a shock and feeling of shame whenever I read it.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 12th, 2018