Toon Ghar Chala Ja [You Should Go Home] marks the return to short-story writing by Maqsood Saqib, co-editor of the Punjabi-language monthly magazine Puncham. Saqib is a veteran language activist whose intellectual inspiration remains grounded in a revolutionary Marxist framework. The 20 short stories in his latest collection reveal his reflections on literary form and a quest to place marginalised subjectivities and forgotten histories at the heart of narrative construction.

As his pen sketches quirky, memorable characters, a core idea encircles them like a centripetal force, with everyday encounters offering a doorway into an unseen, invisibilised past. Most forcefully, Partition confronts us in story after story, a spectre that haunts tales such as ‘Muradan’ [Desires], ‘Te Pakistan Bann Gaya Si’ [And Pakistan Had Been Made] and ‘Ralli’ [Intermeshed].

‘Te Pakistan Bann Gaya Si’ unfolds in the aftermath of the ravages of Partition in Punjab. A year has gone by, roads have reopened and some semblance of terse normalcy returns to life. Yet a cloud hangs over the passengers in a small bus making its way to Lahore. The writer constructs an ominous mood through an olfactory metaphor: “Piles and piles [of bodies], drenched in drumfuls of kerosene were burned. Yet the smell of these burning corpses would not leave the city. A few hundred tubs of phenyl had been emptied, and unlimited amounts of DDT sprayed everywhere.”

A new collection of Punjabi short stories provides an opening to explore how Partition has lived on as an active memory, shaping the self and the body politic in Punjab

This pungent, enveloping smell becomes a lurking presence in Saqib’s story. It morphs into the clouds of bitter tobacco that fill the van, emanating from a single, forbidding character and settling over the others as a paralysing mist. The smell becomes a sensory embodiment of collective complicity as the passengers quietly watch a “Hindu in hiding” be taken off the bus and butchered in the fields. The story draws to a close with the passengers congratulating each other, leaving us with a sobering, yet terrifying realisation that, in many ways, a new Muslim homeland has stoked afresh the very contradictions of communalism it had sought to resolve.

The author’s critique of religious nationalism is also developed in other stories through another narrative device: the mode of oral storytelling. The stories ‘Lafzan Di Taaqat’ [The Power of Words], ‘Ralli’ and ‘Muradan’ bring to the fore marginalised voices from low-caste, working-class characters, presenting a snapshot into experiences that find no place in the grand narratives of nationalist histories, yet live on in the everyday lives and popular wisdom of ordinary people.

‘Lafzan Di Taaqat’ is knitted around an affectionate exchange between a young man and his ageing grandmother, in whose bespectacled eyes he finds the spark of a forgotten anticolonial resistance. Using the resilience of a bright-eyed, ageing woman as a narrative vehicle, this short story introduces us to the historical figures of Jabru and Nizam, two men identified as ‘bandits’ by the British, but extolled as heroes by the people for their militant anticolonialism: “Son, they were dacoits in the eyes of the British… but actually, the British were the real thieves… [Jabru] was born into a barber family, he was Hindu by religion and Nizam was a Muslim. Really though, they were neither Muslim nor Hindu. They were the same class…”

Although the story falls into a didactic ideological structure at certain points, it joins ‘Ralli’, ‘Muradan’ and ‘Toon Ghar Chala Ja’ in revealing surviving fragments of an alternative cultural paradigm of popular resistance across the communal divide.

The collection’s first story, ‘Muradan’, is the heart-warming tale of a Muslim woman’s parental attachment to a young calf rescued from a gao shala [cow shelter] during Partition. Their subsequent separation steps in for the deep sense of loss and cultural destruction, made poignant by the potent symbol of an innocent animal that must endure the ugly excesses of Hindu nationalism committed in its name. Reminiscent of the techniques of Magic Realism, an element of the fantastic surfaces in this story, as Muradan, childless and middle-aged, finds milk flowing from her breasts. This transformation is effected by her love for the unpresuming calf, Bhola Nath, and is a narrative mode that echoes local forms of folklore, creating an affinity between Saqib’s modern short story and Punjabi oral culture. This is further reinforced by the colloquial and direct tone in all the stories, embodying a conversational style that brings the intonations of orality into the textual form of the short story. However, at times, the author’s voice dictates the narrative and impinges on the autonomy of individual characters. For instance, in ‘Paagal’ [The Madman], the religious preacher’s decision to publicly shave his beard off remains a somewhat unconvincing transformation, pushed through by authorial intervention.

In many stories in Toon Ghar Chala Ja, we encounter the cultural and political afterlives of Partition, a facet under-explored in Punjabi fiction and scholarly work alike. As historian Vazira Zamindar has shown in her book The Long Partition and the Making of South Asia, Partition needs to be viewed as a process that unfolded over the decades following 1947, rather than a single, tumultuous event. While Amrita Pritam’s iconic poem, ‘Ajj Aakhan Waris Shah Nu’ [Today I Call on Waris Shah] sought to piece together the socio-psychological ruptures framing the actual transfer of populations and the spread of violence, more attention is needed to explore how Partition has lived on as an active memory, shaping the self and the body politic in Punjab.

In Saqib’s writing we can find a meaningful opening to this much-needed project. His stories explore the everyday recesses in which the memory of Partition endures, leading to reflections often at variance with, or critical of, the nationalist narrative. Compared to the recent proliferation of various oral history and archiving projects that over-represent state-approved, elite experiences of Partition, Saqib’s stories aim to capture perspectives from the margins, set mostly in peri-urban or rural landscapes, with characters defined by their subalternity — women, peasants and low-caste workers. Seventy-one years on, Toon Ghar Chala Ja probes an important reflection on contemporary history and cultural transformation in Punjab, through the lens of its most marginalised inhabitants.

The reviewer teaches Punjabi poetry at the Lahore University of Management Sciences

Toon Ghar Chala Ja
By Maqsood Saqib
Suchet Kitab Ghar, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9352312825

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 13th, 2019