Books

Revisiting Partition’s Little Red Book

Krishan Chander’s Hum Vehshi Hain is a humanist response to the trauma and tragedy of 1947, and presents points of view of various characters across class, gender and ideology in colonial India.

Among the short stories is one titled 'Peshawar Express,’ which is told from the point of view of a train, an inanimate object which was travelling from Peshawar in what became Pakistan to Bombay in what became India. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Among the short stories is one titled ‘Peshawar Express,’ which is told from the point of view of a train, an inanimate object which was travelling from Peshawar in what became Pakistan to Bombay in what became India. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content that will attempt to draw a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.


∼ The fire of civil war is raging in India and Pakistan, its flames threaten to burn humans, houses and libraries alongwith our life, freedom, culture and civilisation to ashes. Today after many months these flames have lessened but have not gone cold yet. There are several embers beneath the ash which can be inflamed with just a blow. Those who would fan these flames are also present.

∼ But there is no scarcity too of firefighters. The healthy and progressive elements of India and Pakistan are trying to stop this civil war and it can be said with certainty that they are the ones who will be victorious. Because time, history and the future are with them. The demands of life are strengthening them. The revolutionary forces are supporting them; and the best traditions of humanity are behind them.

The words above were not written in the current scarcely comforting times of demagogic populism and right-wing fundamentalism in the two largest states of the Indian subcontinent, but amid the chaos and confusion of the Partition of India, 70 years ago, when the prominent progressive poet Ali Sardar Jafri and many of his comrades on both sides of the partitioned divide were thinking not only about the implications of the calamity that had just taken place but also how best to combat it.

Jafri was writing these words as a preface to a searing collection of Partition stories by his progressive comrade Krishan Chander (1914-1977), titled Hum Vehshi Hain (We Are Savages) which came out in 1948, less than a year after the horrific events of 1947. As Jafri had also noted in the aforementioned preface, Chander was among a handful of writers who refused to be silenced by the sheer violence and brutality of the Partition; there were other notable interventions by Upendranath Ashk, Ismat Chughtai, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Kaifi Azmi, Yusuf Zafar and Fikr Taunsvi.

Urdu writer Krishan Chander

Urdu writer Krishan Chander

However, there was yet another notable or notorious literary intervention curiously omitted by Jafri in his preface within Partition literature in the same year that Hum Vehshi Hain came out; the equally biting sketches Siyah Hashiay (Black Margins) by none other than Saadat Hasan Manto. Whether Jafri omitted Manto’s intervention because he was unaware of it, or whether he had already begun to distance himself from Manto, owing to the latter’s perceived ‘un-progressiveness’ is a moot point.

Be that as it may, the year 1948 thus saw two notable literary interventions on the Partition of India, from Chander and Manto. Both these interventions received excoriating accolades from either side of the ideological divide. Manto’s intervention was criticised by Jafri, the doyen of progressive writers at that time. Muhammad Hasan Askari, a noted Pakistani literary critic, not only wrote the preface to Siyah Hashiay, he also made a veiled attempt to attack Chander’s contribution in the same preface, in the following words:

If in the beginning (of the short story), if five Hindus had been killed, then by the end of the story the calculation of five Muslims should balance it. Equally divide the blame on both sides of the scale.

Likewise, Chander’s intervention was supported by his progressive comrades like Chughtai and Abbas, but roundly criticised by Askari and other critics like Mumtaz Shirin and Anwar Sadeed. It is Chander’s volume which concerns me here, for two reasons: Firstly, since it is surprisingly not very well-known among the voluminous oeuvre of Chander; I have written elsewhere that though Chander wrote almost five thousand short stories, by far the largest number among his peers, most of his critics, editors and translators have seldom bothered to read his work beyond 1947, quietly distancing themselves from what they perceived to be his ‘romantic’ or socialist realist style.

Krishan Chander
Hum Vehshi Hain

The second reason I am interested in Chander’s aforementioned volume is that it is too often dismissed by even discerning literary critics. Observe a recent assessment by noted critic Asif Farrukhi, who in a piece on Chughtai, dismisses the aforementioned volume by Chander in a mere two lines: “Krishan Chander, wrote profusely, taking up Partition as his theme, but these stories contributed to a decline in his reputation.” He doesn’t go on to elaborate why these stories contributed to a decline in the writer’s reputation. Neither have the seven stories in Hum Vehshi Hain been widely translated into English (unlike Siyah Hashiay and other fictional work on Partition by other well-known writers) for the world to arrive at a more judicious judgement as to the artistic worth of the collection; and for us to convincingly bury one of the better-known creative endeavours on the Partition under such a sweeping ‘critical’ statement.

While sticking to the topic of critical opinions, the Pakistani critic and short-story writer Mobin Mirza differs with Askari on the evaluation of Siyah Hashiay. In his recent book on Manto, he says that Askari has overrated the pieces that, in fact, are purely journalistic in nature and lack any creative touch. So, in the light of this recent evaluation of Manto, shouldn’t we be seeing Chander’s intervention in a different light as well? For nothing less than a re-evaluation of Hum Vehshi Hain is the objective of this piece.

Controversy surrounding Hum Vehshi Hain

As noted above, Hum Vehshi Hain consists of seven stories depicting some memorable characters drawn from a wide strata of society in colonial India on the verge of freedom from British rule: there are middle-class, nominally religious Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, motivated by plain hysteria and revenge when ordered to do so by opportunistic leaders; Maratha goons parading about in colonial Bombay, for whom ‘peace’ during the frenzy of Partition means little more than a good opportunity to do business; peanut-sellers; nationalist prostitutes appealing to the better instincts of Hindu and Muslim leaders; racist Anglo-Indian administrative toadies in the twilight of their careers who out-English the English into believing that the sun would never set on the British Empire in the face of facts to the contrary; wine-drinking maulanas; martyrs to the cause in Jallianwala Bagh; Muhajireen and ‘Sharnarthis’; veteran Ghadarites and Congressmen taking part in the looting; a young girl reading up on socialist praxis and philosophy.

So what is controversial about these stories? What makes them so damnable in the eyes of a few critics from both sides of the border?

They try to understand the brutal tragedy which happened in the wake of the Partition of 1947, from the observations and points of view of various characters across class, gender and ideology in colonial India. Five of them are ‘conventional’ stories of 1947 and the other two namely ‘A Courtesan’s Letter’ and ‘Peshawar Express’ beautifully use creative license to tell the tale of Partition from relatively unconventional angles: a courtesan normally given to providing the pleasures of the flesh; and a locomotive, that monstrosity of steel, regarded as one of the indispensable but inanimate symbols of colonial and postcolonial modernity. In short, both the courtesan and the locomotive are unromantic, unsuspecting, unsuspected, even unsavory phenomena, shunned by polite bourgeois society.

Now to the stories themselves.

The first story, ‘Blinded’, is a satire on Muslim prejudices about Hindus on the eve of Partition and is set in a predominantly Muslim mohalla where two Hindu households stand out conspicuously. The narrator, himself a victim of such prejudice, is in love with a young woman from one of the Hindu households. Amid the frenzy of Partition, the narrator is shown to be part of a group of Muslim ruffians who ransack the two Hindu homes in their locality. While the wanton arson and murder is still going on, they come upon an infant lying peacefully in his cot; murderous instincts take the place of pity, but the child is saved when the narrator remembers his own child at home. However, in a masterful twist of irony, upon reaching his own home with the loot, he finds his whole family slaughtered by Hindu goons, including his own child. Blinded perhaps by linguistic and class prejudice (as well as the larger communal prejudice) and the loss of his beloved Pushpa in the riots, the narrator resolves to seek revenge for his slain family. Thus a miniscule moment of humanity and pity for the other is enveloped by a murderous communal passion where the group dictates to the individual.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The second story, ‘Lal Bagh’ (Red Garden), takes its name from the iconic landmark of colonial Bombay. Chander masterfully depicts the story’s main character Kamlakar, the criminal gangster dada. In Chander’s words, “It is easier to become the governor general of India and Pakistan, but to become the dada of Lal Bagh is not easy.” The Partition riots come as a huge opportunity for his opium, charas and cocaine racket. Though profit and capital do not distinguish between Hindu and Muslim, here Kamlakar encourages his henchmen to keep the order by killing Muslims, while also keen to protect the interests of poor Hindus. We are shown a scene where one of Kamlakar’s henchmen takes his boss to show him the murderous pickings of the day and Kamlakar filches a bottle of oil still clenched in the fist of a murdered youth, giving it to his deputy saying, Well done, take this bottle of oil, it will help some poor Hindu.” Then from Kamlakar and his heinous

patronage networks the focus shifts to the poor victims, all of them Muslims, one of them being poor Sheedu, a peanut seller from Bareilly who had sworn to remain in Lal Bagh expecting no retribution from his ‘brother Hindus’ but who eventually pays the price because “he was the only one (Muslim) left and I (the murderer) needed the fifty rupees.” Among the victims is also a working-class Kashmiri couple. Kamlakar may have forgotten, but here Chander reminds us of the real power behind such mannequins as the former:

“These accursed Hindu and Muslim politicians, these feudal landlords. With whose blood and destruction are these deceitful capitalists building the foundations of their governments?”

The third story in the collection, ‘A Courtesan’s Letter Addressed to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah’, is, in my opinion, the most striking story in the volume, rather than the more frequently anthologised and discussed ‘Peshawar Express’. One attraction is created by the very simple title of the story, the second being the assumption of unequal power inherent when a

‘courtesan’ dares to address the two eminent nationalist leaders of divided India, the two leaders of the huge Indian subcontinent, partly responsible for the bloodbath and tragedy which followed in its wake. However, any inequality of power soon disappears when the pleasantries addressed to both the politicians soon give way to anguish and raw anger. This is how she addresses the two at the outset:

“I hope that before this occasion you would never have received a letter from a courtesan. I also hope that you would never even have set your eyes on me and other women of my type. I also know that my writi1ng a letter is forbidden to yourselves and that too, such an open letter.”

The reader can be forgiven while reading this preamble for believing that a story fictionalising a prostitute’s travails in a collection on Partition would perhaps limit itself to just that, but Chander masterfully tailors the courtesan’s plea to the plight of two girls – Hindu and Muslim – from Rawalpindi and Jalandhar respectively whose fate will be dependent on the actions of Jinnah and Nehru. The writer’s fictional treatment of courtesans becomes all the more remarkable given that while the subject of prostitution and courtesanship has been treated in Urdu fiction since the days when Mirza Ruswa penned his famous Umrao Jan Ada, through Qazi Abdul Ghaffar’s Laila ke Khutoot and made into an art form by Manto’s various stories; Chander here departs from this mainstream by depicting his heroine as someone with political agency. The story is also a parable about the contemporary plight of women in both Pakistan and India. This un-named courtesan is easily the most powerful female character in the collection under review. I am tempted to cite a redeeming lyrical passage from the story, the final paragraph from the courtesan’s address to Jinnah and Nehru:

“I have said quite a lot being swept away by the river of emotion, perhaps I should not have said all this. Maybe this is akin to debasing you. Perhaps no one has yet told or narrated you more disagreeable things than these. Perhaps you cannot do all of this, not even a little bit, despite that we are free, in India and Pakistan. Perhaps it is even a courtesan’s right to at least ask her leaders what will become of Bela and Batool now?”

Bela and Batool are two girls, two nations, two civilizations, two temples and mosques. Nowadays they live at a prostitute’s in Faris Road, She conducts her business in a corner off the Chinese barber. Bela and Batool dislike this business. I have bought them. If I want, I can make them work for me, but I am thinking, I will not do what Rawalpindi and Jalandhar did to them. So far I have kept them apart from the world of Faris Road. But still when my clients begin washing up in the back room, Bela and Batool’s looks tell me something, something which I cannot bear. I can’t even convey their message to you properly, why don’t you yourselves read it? Pandit Ji I want that you adopt Batool as your daughter. Jinnah sahib I want that you think of Bela as your daughter. Just for once keep them in your home away from the grasp of Faris Road and listen to the dirges of thousands of those souls which are booming from Noakhali to Rawalpindi and from Bharatpur to Bombay. Can’t it be heard in Government House alone, will you listen to this voice?

Yours sincerely,

A courtesan of Faris Road

The fourth story titled ‘Jackson’ shows the plight of an arrogant Anglo-Indian deputy superintendent of police, the eponymous Jackson who is just four days away from the end of his ‘empire’ due to the Partition of colonial India and his investment in it. The way Chander has displayed the eventual crumbling away of the world of Anglo-Indian authority, hubris and its privileges is both subtle and understated. Jackson had already made plans to retire comfortably to England after the end of his ‘mandate’, divorce his Anglo-Indian wife and live like an English lord by marrying a ‘real’ English countess. His daughters were ‘reserved for England’ and shared his antipathy for their Anglo-Indian blood and fellow Indians. DSP Jackson also duly makes his contribution to colonial India by playing the politics of divide and rule, by arming the leaders of both the Hindu and Muslim communities. To the Hindu mahashe, he says:

“We are old friends. We will definitely help you and in all honesty, the Hindus have the right over Lahore. Lahore was built by Hindus. Its gardens, houses, colleges, cinemas, its entire hustle bustle is owed to Hindus. Only they should reside here. Fight like men, Mahasheji. We will help you.”

And to the whisky-drinking maulana he says:

“I don’t want to live in India, but in Pakistan. I have no love for the Hindu baniyaas. And then Islamic teachings resemble our Christian religion so much. Christians can unite with Muslims but we have no love lost with the Hindus.”

Krishan Chander
Hum Vehshi Hain

The real masterstroke in the story arrives unbeknownst to Jackson within his own house when his favourite daughter Rosie writes him a letter disowning whatever she had been led to believe about the purity of the Anglo-Indian world and deciding to elope with her Anglo-Indian boyfriend Anand. The come-uppance is too much for Jackson, who consequently commits suicide.

The story is also a prescient and valuable comment on the psychology and mentality of the Anglo-Indian, often seen as a fifth columnist who partly paved the way for British imperial consolidation in the Indian subcontinent.

The fifth and sixth stories in the collection ‘Amritsar: Pre-Independence’ and ‘Amritsar: Post-Independence’ depict the political and social situation in an insurgent city situated in the heart of Punjab, after one of the worst tragedies of colonial India, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 and what happened in the same city in 1947.

The fifth story is actually the shortest in the collection and serves to challenge what is taught as official history in Pakistan, about the united, peaceful struggle and sacrifice of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs against the might of the British empire in colonial India. There are moving accounts of Siddiq and Om Prakash, two friends who risked their lives for each other at the height of the massacre. However, the real heroes of the story are the valiant women of Amritsar: Begum, Zainab, Paro and Sham Kaur who took on the senseless clause of the infamous Rowlatt Act (enforced in the wake of the 1919 massacre) that everyone will have to salute the Union Jack and crawl on their knees to pass from one street to another. All four paid with their lives while resisting and becoming martyrs. This is a valuable social history of the Amritsar massacre, surprisingly lesser-known than other better-known fiction on the subject from other masters of Urdu fiction like Manto, Ghulam Abbas, Abdullah Hussein and Khawaja Ahmad Abbas.


Also read: Seeing Partition Through a Different Prism to Liberate Ourselves From Its Trauma


The story about post-independence Amritsar is a direct polar counterpoint to the heart-warming stories of sacrifice across the communal, class and gender divides in the previous story; in that communal passions were unleashed in all their fury in 1947 just under 30 years after the same city had shown itself to be above such prejudice. Horrifying accounts where a thirsty child aboard a train to Pakistan cannot have access to water because he is a Muslim; where a child disowns his own dead mother while taking away her blanket for fear of being robbed even of this last item still worth something. Even books were not spared and carted off by an unfortunate latecoming looter to be used as fuel for the night’s supper.

Those two stories on two of the seminal events of the history of united India taken together offer a chastening lesson in history which is usually not found in our history books. For example, in the private school where I teach, prescribing both these stories in the ‘O’ levels curriculum proved eye-opening for my students, a welcome counterfoil to official history.

The last story in the collection, ‘Peshawar Express’ is not only the most notorious but also one of the most frequently anthologised stories about the Partition. The story is told from the point of view of a train, an inanimate object which was travelling from Peshawar in what became Pakistan to Bombay in what became India. On its long journey, the express train – otherwise a symbol of modernity in most progressive literature – narrates scenes of recurring bloodbaths of Hindus, Muslims and Sikh refugees fleeing the violence.

The technique Chander has used in this story has been much criticised, and has been referred to above. The writer has shown the number of Muslim casualties to be exactly the same as the number of Hindu or Sikh casualties. This technique has mostly been lamented by right-wing critics on both sides of the divide; and by new critics writing many years after 1947. Of course critics are welcome to dislike any work of art or literature they wish, but to make a claim that one story contributed to damaging the reputation of the writer concerned and then use it as a bully pulpit to consign the entire volume to the dustbin does not behove them. Especially when Chander has written why he chose his fictional vigilantes to ‘balance’ the casualties in this way: “So that the balance of population should be maintained between India and Pakistan”.  I have not seen any so-called critic of Chander responding directly to this not-so-innocent line in the story. So I suspect that the criticism is directed more against the progressive, socialist philosophy espoused by Chander rather than the way he has depicted the atrocities of Partition.

Throughout the story, Chander displays his anguish at the barbarity which could result in mass killings and rapes across nationality, gender and confession. Hailing from a family in Wazirabad in Punjab and raised and educated in his beloved Lahore, this son of Punjab can hardly contain his anger when Taxila, Sirkap and Wazirabad, ancient centres of peace, learning, arts and crafts (cutlery in the case of Wazirabad) are re-christened with blood in the heat of 1947. He lets the ‘Peshawar Express’ express his own feelings:

“A thousand curses on these leaders, on their next seven generations, who destroyed this beautiful Punjab, this unique, pretty Punjab into pieces and eclipsed its pure soul and filled its strong body with the pus of hatred, today Punjab had died. Its songs had become muted, dead. Its melodies, dead. Its language, dead. Its fearless, courageous, innocent heart, dead. And without any feelings or eyes and ears, I witnessed the death of Punjab.”

For me, the most affecting incident in the story comes towards the end of the story where a beautiful and intelligent young woman, having endured the murder of her parents and younger siblings by a murderous mob, asks the ruffians to consider marrying and thus sparing her life. She was brutally murdered, and with her the lessons of the book she was carrying with her, The Theory and Practice of Socialism by John Strachey, a productive life snuffed out prematurely.

After 70 years of Partition, reading Chander’s stories anew, one gets the feeling that the women were affected much adversely than the men in what has also variously been described as a ‘holocaust’ and ‘genocide’ in the horrific events of 1947; but it is also the women who are the saving grace of a humanity which will be born anew, however dark and hopeless the situation. The heroines are there in most of the stories, rebelling against their plight and almost complimenting the brutalities of their men like Kamlakar and Jackson: the un-named courtesan as much as the two girls she wants to save from her own profession and the hate of the Other; the Anglo-Indian Rosie who breaks away from the artificial world created for her by her authoritarian father; the four doughty daughters of Amritsar drowned in the blood of martyrdom; even the unfortunate socialist activist who bore the assassin’s knife with scholarly grace.


Also read: After Partition, Trust was the Biggest Loss in Sindh


I will end with the redeeming words of Chander, once again, who writes, as if to refute the guilty charge of humans as savages in the dock:

“We are humans. We are the standard-bearers of creation in this whole universe, and nobody can kill creation. Nobody can rape or dishonour it. Because we are creation and you are destruction, you are savages, you are beasts, you will die; but we will not. Because humans never die. They are not beasts, they are the soul of kindness, the outcome of divinity, the pride of the universe. “

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are by the writer.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent publication is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic Partition novel The Weary Generations. He can be reached at: [email protected]