Each August, and not only on Independence Day, there are reminders of another August many years ago. August, 1947.
A documentary being broadcast on television, an article in a magazine or an ad about friends reunited after fifty years, a commentator judging once again the ambitions of men like Gandhi and Jinnah, a new film, a tear-jerker about love blooming like a flower among the gravestones.
It is the same each year. We remember, and in remembering one thing or another,
we also forget everything else.
I wasn’t alive then and my memories are made up mostly of what I have read in books. The unforgettable first line of Khushwant Singh’s classic novel, Train to Pakistan, is one way I remember the past as a rupture: "The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers."
The novel quickly plunges into a description of the violence of the riots spreading across the subcontinent. The forced migration of millions, the brutal murders and rapes.
But all this is summarily covered in a paragraph because what the writer is really interested in dwelling upon is ordinary culture, the way of life, that survives in his imagination.
So, in the pages that follow, we are given a portrait of the village of Mano Majra, the rhythms of daily rituals guided by the passage of trains at the small railway station. The horror of the Partition will visit the village too but the readers and, one suspects, the writer, cherish the humanity that endures. In the famous story Toba Tek Singh by Urdu writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, we get a brilliant, biting commentary on the arbitrariness of borders.
Manto’s protagonist, Bishan Singh, lives in a lunatic asylum. He doesn’t know whether his village Toba Tek Singh is located in India or the newly created nation called Pakistan. As much as the depiction of the madness of that time, what interests me in the story is the persistence of the ordinary.
My throat catches as I hear what Bishan Singh’s old friend Fazal Din says to him during a visit to the asylum: "Soon you will be moving to India. What can I say, except that you should remember me to bhai Balbir Singh, bhai Vadhawa Singh and behen Amrit Kaur. Tell bhai Balbir Singh that Fazal Din is well by the grace of God. The two brown buffaloes he left behind are well too. Both of them gave birth to calves, but, unfortunately, one of them died after six days. Say I think of them often and to write to me if there is anything I can do."
It is literature’s task to record with an unblinking, democratic eye, both our triumphs and failures as individuals as well as a collective. Manto was a soldier in the war on error and hypocritical illusions about the human heart, but I have always nursed a slight suspicion about him.
Like tabloid journalism, Manto seemed to enjoy the violence a little too much. I appreciate more the questioning stance adopted by Amrit Rai in his Hindi story Kichar (Filth) where what is mocked is the "pleasurable attention" with which four men on Toofan Mail reminisce about the riots and the abduction of women: "Lakhs of men had died, lakhs of children had been orphaned, lakhs of women had lost their homes and honour. Now all that remained were their stories, stories which were told and heard by people as they smacked their lips with an epicurean’s delight." Everyone will have his or her own favourite among the documents about August, 1947 and its ugly aftermath. Mine is MS Sathyu’s film Garm Hava (1974).
The film starts with the shot of a train leaving for Pakistan, and we hear the puffing of its engines again and again. In the Mirza family, people are leaving India.
The fate of a Muslim family in Agra, immediately after Independence, is criss-crossed by large historical forces beyond their control. But here’s the small voice of the ordinary: during a meal, a little boy wants to know, "Do they fly kites in Pakistan?"
Garm Hava was based on an Urdu story by Ismat Chughtai, a writer sensitive to social currents but also alert to individual destinies, especially of women in homes.
When I began writing this, I found Garm Hava on YouTube and stopped at a scene that captures my point about civilisational continuities that defy the creation of nations.
The old granny is told that they must move to another house. The haveli is no longer theirs. But her husband was buried there.
The granny refuses and hides in the woodshed. When her grandson forcibly carries her to the tonga waiting outside, she cries: "Leave me here, leave me here. How can I face my husband
on Judgment Day?"
The Bookist is a monthly column
From HT Brunch, August 9
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