Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Partition's ghosts

Batwara. Division. Distribution. Parcelling out. Partition. A sundering of a people, of almost a continent, that still haunts us.

My family -- all central Gujarati Hindus from the Vadodara and Ahmedabad areas, were not directly affected. No one had come across from the other side. Yet there were tales of horror of the birthing time of two new nations. Trains in Bombay filled with corpses. Reports of slaughters in Calcutta. Gandhiji's hunger fast. Always told hurriedly. Change the topic please.

My first real encounter with the stories of partition was in the form of a television series from the mid-80s, Tamas. Darkness. Based on the novel by Hindi writer Bhishma Sahani (who also acted in the series. Along with amazing performances by Om Puri and the then relatively unknown Deepa Sahi). The scenes from the episodes are crisp and fresh in my memory. In the very first episode, we encounter Om Puri trying with frantic, desperate energy, to kill a pig. It's this pig that will be placed in front of a mosque to provoke the "other community." In another episode, much later, Sikh women and children jump into a well behind a gurudwara, committing suicide, rather than fall into the hands of the attacking "Turks."

One of my favorites, and one of the few things that really had an impact from the school curriculum and the terrifying Hindi classes of Mr. Bhal (a strict disciplinarian who made even the toughest kid quake), was Sadat Hassan Manto's Toba Tek Singh. A short story set in a lunatic asylum, after the Indian and Pakistani governments have decied to exchange inmates. The Sikhs and Hindus to go to India, the Muslims to Pakistan. The nonsense verse that is recited by one of the inmates, Bashan Sing, who has remained standing for fifteen years, still rings in my head.
Upar di gur gur di. Annexe di bhe-diyana di. Moong di daal of di lalten.
Oh how we laughed at that! It became part of the argot of the playground, the insults we flung at each other. Now, over fifteen years later myself, I read it over. First in English, and then in the original Urdu. Insanity. It's the only way to talk about that time, it seems. It's an inherited insanity. A family malady. The ghosts are still alive.

Finally, Suketu Mehta has a beautiful piece on Partition, Fatal Love. Go read it.


assiniboine said...

A bit of background for you (from a highly literate and cosmopolitan Pakistani friend):

"Manto is old hat in the sense of his having been done to death by the trendy lefties here. He was taboo in the 40s, but has become the darling of the anti establishment. (Zia banned much of his stuff from appearing on television) this is a new translation – Richard Murphy (I think) lived in Lahore for years and was an editor at the Friday Times.)"

Gashwin said...

Hmm. Most interesting. My connection to Manto is really through this short-story, which we read in school in the 9th standard, I think, in Hindi. Or rather, in Hindustani in the Devnagiri script. I'm laboring through the nastliq now, which is a lot of fun. It's a poignant story ... whatever the trendy lefties might have made of its author ... :)