October 2002

Roohi Choudhry

south asian bookslut

Perplexity, Silence and Despair: Three Books on Partition

How does one begin to start writing a column about the Partition? It was without a doubt the most cataclysmic, life-changing event for South Asians in this century. Not only did it mean freedom from the British, not only did it mean borders slitting through what were once neighbors to make these fledgling enemies: India, Pakistan. Not only did it mean upheaval of every aspect of life for those migrating from one enemy to the other. It also meant something else: something dark and raw and potent. It meant everyday people ripping through their everyday clothing and becoming the worst part of themselves.

What was it about an essentially political event that caused people to turn on each other like savage, fantastic beasts? And most chilling of all: Were they so different from us today? Fifty-five years later, many people are still looking for answers to that crucial "why?" But perhaps what distinguishes the best authors dealing with Partition from the rest is that they do not promote their own answers to an unanswerable question. Instead, like us, they just do their best to wade through the sticky sludge of human depravity. They neither explain nor rationalize it but merely do what storytellers do: they tell the stories.

Because among all the official and unofficial numbers of how-many-hundred-thousand dead and how-many-more raped, mutilated, robbed - there are stories that make you want to wake up a different person, if only to try to end the horror in some small way. Those are the stories worth reading.

Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa

Cracking India artfully blends the personal and the societal by providing us an eyeful of Partition Lahore through Lenny, a young Parsee girl whose interactions with her Hindu ayah and Muslim ice-candy-man set the stage for the turmoil erupting around her. Interestingly, Sidhwa generally holds the carnage and violence at a distance as vague events that flicker in the background. But this bewildered, hazy child's view is very appropriate - capturing the perplexity of the times.

Lenny's ayah comes to symbolize for us the proud, earthy beauty of India: worshipped, hunted, blasphemed and finally defeated into submission. Lenny's helplessness as she watches it all unravel before her eyes is all the more poignant because, through her, we realize our incapacity at controlling our own actions.

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

No discussion about Partition literature would be complete without touching upon Train to Pakistan. Hailed by Indian and Western critics alike as a masterpiece, it could stand on its own as a 20th century novel of great ability. Its calculated story line, brilliantly crafted characters, lyricism and musings all render it the status of a modern classic. But it's more. It's also a treatise on a time by one of its participating experts.

Singh's prominence as a politician suggests that his work might read as a patriotic jumble of jingoism and stereotypes. Yet, with this book, he manages both to shame and appease his audience.

Train to Pakistan is a straightforward, slim novel: perhaps a reflection of its na´ve villagers or the contained, direct anger of its premise. Here, events are not filtered through a privileged child's eye as they are in Cracking India. This novel reveals instead a reality wedged, like its setting Mano Majra, deep in the heart of the madness.

A motley assortment of characters, each more precisely sculpted than the last, come together in this fictitious village in India near the newly formed border with Pakistan. Mano Majra is important because of its railway station, the villagers setting their schedules by its comings and goings. Until their idyllic lives are disrupted by the arrival of a silent, unexpected train. An innocent topic, it would seem. But anyone who knows the horror wreaked aboard trains during Partition will know what a silent, unlit train means. Through Singh's measured telling, you will feel the ominous rumblings of what is to come long before the train rolls into Mano Majra.

His matter of fact descriptions of stomach-churning brutality are no surprise after a while as we too become numb accomplices, turning our cheeks. The cries and the bloodshed simply become too numerous to mourn. But there are still some moments in the book that stick in your throat. As you shake your head in sure disbelief, you remember that a Punjabi wrote this, in 1957, and he of all people should know.

Mottled Dawn: 50 Sketches and Stories of Partition by Saadat Hasan Manto, Translated by Khalid Hasan

Widely regarded as the greatest Urdu short story writer to come out of South Asia, Manto concentrated a lot of his writing on the event that broke him. Forced to migrate from his beloved Bombay to Lahore during Partition, he spent a few short years afterward writing and drinking before dying of liver disease and despair at age 47. He has written some of the most memorable, and most disturbing, works on Partition. The short story Toba Tek Singh is perhaps the best read of these.

It takes place in a lunatic asylum in Lahore, where news of Partition has just seeped in and sparked hysteria among the inmates. When plans are announced to ship Hindu and Sikh inmates to an asylum in India, and bring in Muslims from India, pandemonium breaks loose. One inmate in particular is frantic about where his village, Toba Tek Singh of the title, is now located. And this inquiry brings the absurdity of the brand new border and ensuing migration to a head. This is a fairly recent collection of some of Manto's greatest work. Most of his stories begin deceptively simply, soon whipping around to deliver a kick in the groin ending. In all of them, his part-derisive, part-desolate voice rings true despite the lack luster translation.

With these selections, I attempted to represent as varied a scale as possible of styles and approaches. Cracking India affords one the most intimate look into one family's private grappling with the turmoil. Train to Pakistan, political fable and social drama in turns, paints the ravaged Partition Punjab in particular and inhumanity in general. While Manto the cynic leans back, observes it all with his keen, despairing eye and tells us each unbearable story, drop by drop.