Every year the month of August unleashes raw and untapped passions, memories and nostalgia in the Indian Subcontinent for it was around this time 71 years ago that one of Britain’s largest colonies was Partitioned into two states, namely India and Pakistan. August is also the month associated with the birthdays of some prominent members of the Progressive Writers Movement (PWM), who later on went on to write significant works on the Partition itself: BhishamSahni, born in Rawalpindi, who would later writer the novel Tamas based on his experiences; IsmatChughtai, who has written a memorable story Jarein and another play, DhaniBankein, on the Partition; the Punjabi legend Amrita Pritam, whose dirge for the division of her beloved Punjab, AjAkkhanWaris Shah Noon is still sung on both sides of the border, but who also wrote the memorable novel Pinjar, about the plight and eventual fate of those women who could not be repatriated in the chaos of the Partition, and were left behind in the new states which were carved from its debris. Khushwant Singh, born in Pakistan’s Khushab district, who was ironically born on the 15th of August, when India celebrates its independence from British rule, and who never subscribed to the PWM, has nevertheless left us with a memorable partition novel, Train to Pakistan. While Sahni, Chughtai, Pritam and Singh were contemporaries, there are two other distinguished names who were born much later than the former trio, but have devoted their own memorable artistic labours to the Partition of India: one of them is the late Abdullah Hussein, the author of the Partition epic UdasNaslein, born ironically on the 14th of August, the day when Pakistan celebrates its independence; and Gulzar, born in Dina, who turned 84 on the 18th of August last week, and whose Partition work is under review here.
Pakistan was created.
India was already there…so there was nothing to create!
For both, the age of snatching and grabbing was on in full swing.
‘I have given the inkpot; but I won’t give the pen!’
When the pen was given, the nib was snatched away. One broke the slate, while the other tore the schoolbag…just like schoolboys!
They had set out with hockey sticks. But they did not have a ball. And they could not see the goalposts. The umpire had retired and gone to England. So, what could they do? They began to fight…
Since his migration from his beloved Dina in Pakistani Punjab as a thirteen-year-old in 1947, Gulzar has gone on to carve a distinguished career in Urdu letters and literature, writing poems, short stories and most recently a novel; as well as achieving renown for his contributions to films, music and script-writing. He is truly India’s Renaissance Man, a man for all seasons, like his mentor the great Pakistani writer Ahmad NadeemQasmi, and perhaps India’s greatest living writer, and arguably the strongest candidate for succeeding Rabindranath Tagore (whom Gulzar has also translated from the Bengali) as India’s next Nobel Laureate in Literature. The work under review proves that he has not strayed too far from the zero line and his beloved Dina, as both the volumes are dedicated, respectively, to his birthplace and his parents ‘of Dina, Pakistan’. His abiding love for his birthplace and Pakistan evokes comparisons with that other, albeit naughtier Sikh, the great journalist, writer and historian Khushwant Singh, who was also born in Pakistan and passed away a few years ago. What is common to Gulzar sahib’s poems, stories and novel is the prevalence of ties that bind, irrespective of geographic location, status, religion, caste or nationality. These ties continue to provide stability, and a means to cope with the loss of home or loved ones.Be it Gulzar’s beloved Dina in poem after poem, from where his Abbu is still calling him from the zero line, or where he refers to playing Stapoo, or hobnobbing with a girl who took his clay and kissed him in return; or remembering Dhaiyya, the game he used to play as a schoolboy or his beloved bhameri. In other poems, he is seen indulging his memories of the river Ravi or the ubiquitous border, or some guests from across it who had come to visit, or the Ramzan fasting month during a recent visit to Pakistan, even conjuring up his memories of Karachi to perhaps compare with Mumbai where he now resides, noting “so much is common among the common people.” There are poems dedicated to, or mentioning some of his favourite Pakistanis like Ahmad Faraz, Mehdi Hasan and Faiz, whom he urges to pick up his pen anew, to pen a new Zindanama (story of a prison). But perhaps his most heartfelt poem is a tribute to SaadatHasanManto’s eternal character Toba Tek Singh in his eponymous short story. In unforgettable lines, Gulzar says:
When will he descend from his branch?
I have to tell him
That the job of dividing and cutting is still in progress
That Partition was the first one
Some more partitions remain!’
In his short stories, it is the twins shown given birth at the height of the rioting, or the young life being nurtured illegitimately even as one woman is raped; or the approval of a pir sahib who lies buried in distant Sialkot (now in Pakistan); or the appetising ‘bhunagosht’ that is still cooked on the others side of the border by a childhood friend’s mother in anticipation of a visit from her saheli. Gulzar sahib puts his hope in the ordinary people, who still possess humanity – rather than governments or politicians who have agendas and ‘proofs’; be they ordinary peasants, soldiers on the border, women, shopkeepers journalists, poets and intellectuals.
In the opening story in the first volume, Crossing the Ravi, a Sikh family is shown making its way out of the areas that were assigned to Pakistan at the height of the riots; the family’s only hope is vested in the safety of the twins born to the mother, as well as crossing the river Ravi, which is deemed to be “as good as reaching Hindustan.” One of the twins dies on the way, but the mother refuses to part with the corpse and insists on keeping it along with the living infant. In a chilling denouement worthy of Manto, as the caravan arrives at the Ravi, the protagonist flings out one of the twins, presuming it to be the dead one, but realising late that it was in fact the living one, to the chorus of ‘Wagah! Wagah!’ Hence Gulzar’s searing metaphor takes a life to begin a new life across the border.
Then there’s a moving story about the veteran journalist, the late KuldipNayar, born in Pakistan like Gulzar and the former’s ancestral ties to Sialkot, along with a pir who lay buried there and who used to appear in Nayar’s dreams for one premonition or the other. After successfully giving him the good news about his release from prison, one day the relationship with the pir also achieves closure when he quietly slips away never to appear again – like Nayar’s mother.
The story LoC depicts life on one of the most heavily militarised borders in the world, in the context of the war fought between Pakistan and India in 1965.It is a moving tale of friendships that came to fruition before Partition, and carried on beyond and across flags and borders, and even the hatreds that politicians on both sides continue to engender. While in Two Soldiers, it is Gulzar’s love for Punjab, his ancestral land, and its culture which shines through the story and creates a human bond between the two adversaries; like the two friends in the previous story making the choicest Punjabi their preferred language for swearing at each other.
Fear is a masterful story about the fear of the other at the height of paranoia generated by the Partition riots, so much so that the protagonist, a Muslim, throws his fellow Muslim off an otherwise empty train in order to save himself from an imagined enemy, in an environment where “hot gossips and hot blood flowed in a ceaseless stream”. It is a denouement worthy of Manto, and it is particularly relevant and prescient in the suspicious times of the present, fed by rumours, vigilante justice and crude surveillance, not totally out of place in a modern Mumbai or Karachi, the target this time being a hapless Muslim or Pakhtun.
Smoke, beautifully translated by RakhshandaJalil, does justice to its brevity, being a meditation on the meaning of faith and freedom, very relevant for the present times where “the Hindu had become more Hindu and the Musalman more Musalman”, and the clouds of fascism and fundamentalism hover over Pakistan and India; where ordinary people can be killed for even possessing a cow, much less a Muslim for consuming its meat; or be made a scapegoat in the name of blasphemy; become judge, jury and executioner and take the law into their own hands. This latter plays out gradually over the drama of whether to bury a charitable village Chaudhry as per Muslim or Hindu rites, leading to the chilling finale, where in Gulzar’s words “the living had been cremated. And the dead had been buried.”
Rams is a personal account of meeting a Pakistan army captain, who owns a restaurant in New York called ‘Kashmir’ because in the latter’s words, “Both sides lay a claim over Kashmir. And that is why our restaurant is doing so well.” He goes on to recount the story of an elderly Sikh who left his village on the Pakistani side in 1947 but now refuses to run away after his new home was overrun by Pakistani soldiers in the 1971 war. Then we meet a boy who had actually run away from the same village as the Sikh, but has arrived in Indian territory to see the fighting – a curious homecoming on the border which now cruelly defines home for the migrant and the absconding boy.
The Jamun Tree is about how from being the focus of the life of community, a life full of petty squabbles, but otherwise free of communal or religious tensions, the eponymous tree becomes a witness to the worst sort of communal riots and religious frenzy come 1947. One is reminded here of the eponymous story of KrishanChander, a satire where the jamun tree becomes a metaphor for excessive bureaucracy in the postcolonial milieu. Perhaps we needed to pass through Gulzar’s own jamun tree symbolising the pyrrhic ‘defeat of the goras’ to get to Krishan’s? The chilling denouement of the story narrates a mutilation of humanity in the form of burning of dead bodies along with a mutilation of nature in the form of the chopping of the tree itself.
The Scent of Man is a satire set in Kashmir on the utter absurdity of establishing the burden of ‘proof’ on both sides of the border; but it is the ordinary people who pay the price of establishing this ‘proof’. But it has its limits, as Gulzar shows towards the end of the story in the showdown between the soldiers of both sides. The Pakistani soldier asks his Indian counterpart permission to take his slain comrade’s body back to his village for burial. When asked for ‘proof’ by the India, the Pakistani says, “Look here, you are a sardar and I am a pathan. I have no greater proof to offer!”
Search is Gulzar’s love letter to Kashmir. Any journalist travelling to Kashmir has his or her work cut out, but for the inhabitants of this beautiful valley, conditions are sub-human and humiliating. Gulzar brings this into stark relief with his depiction of how the protagonist, who has returned from a visit to Srinagar is searched on her arrival at Delhi, and how a Kashmiri elderly woman who had been the former’s host was searched forcing her to wonder out aloud, “Which country have I come to? Is this my own country?” As the story reaches its end, the reader asks whether the search that the protagonist is subjected to at the airport not trivial compared to the one which is a daily staple of Kashmiri lives, and which compels a mother from Srinagar to come all the way to Delhi to hold onto some shred of hope for her missing son?
The final story in the collection, somewhat forebodingly Over also takes place on the border, amid the backdrop of a film shooting, something of which Gulzar sahib has vast experience. We are told that one of the crew members is a Sindhi who forced by the ties of his birth cannot resist going across the border, getting lost and in the process meeting another fellow Sindhi, who by an entirely different compulsion has escaped from the Pakistan side of the border; however despite his having settled here permanently and taking up with a local woman, the woman he loves and for the sake of whom he was forced to flee is still there. Thus the writer gently equates the forced migration which compelled the ancestors of the crew member across the border and the custom of honour killing which too elicited a forced migration to the border.
(RazaNaeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently teaching in Lahore).