It remains a mystery why Krishan Chander has not received the respect his writing clearly deserves.
Krishan Chander was the fourth pillar of Urdu literature, along with Sa’adat Hassan Manto, Ismat Chughtai and Rajender Singh Bedi. He has been referred to as Asia’s supreme storyteller – ‘Asia ka azeem afsananigaar’ – from the 20th century, and so it is a delight when one of his books is translated into English, especially one as relevant to contemporary times as Ghaddaar.
Chander was born in 1914 in Bharatpur, Rajasthan. He grew up in Kashmir and then went to Lahore to study English literature. Despite his passion for writing, he studied law to fulfil his mother’s wishes. By far one of the most prolific bilingual Urdu writers, his oeuvre is remarkable – he has 60 novels, 30 collections of short stories, scores of radio plays and screenplays to his credit. His popularity is comparable to Premchand’s, the other great amongst the Progressive Writers’ Movement. Formed around 1936 in Lucknow, this progressive literary movement championed anti-imperialism and socialism, and gave rise to the golden era of Urdu literature, its membership including the likes of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Habib Tanvir, Ehteshaam Hussain, Kaifi Azmi and Amrita Pritam, Ismat Chughtai, Manto, Bedi and Premchand.
Chander started writing for Urdu journals in the 1930s. He then worked for All India Radio between 1939 and 1942, and ended up joining a film production house in Pune as a story and dialogue writer. His most popular short story, Annadaata, on the Bengal famine, was adapted as a well-known film by K.A. Abbas – Dharti Ke Lal (1946), and he continued to write screenplays for other Hindi films over the years. His birth centenary in 2014 saw the release of a documentary film on his life by Rekhta, interviews and discussions on him as well as features by magazines such as Irtiga, published in Karachi, his fame and value to Urdu breaching borders easily.
It remains a mystery why Chander has not received the respect his writing clearly deserves, but it is never too late to make amends. His novel Ghaddaar (1960; Naya Idara) has recently been translated into English for the first time by the well-known writer, historian and critic Rakhshanda Jalil, published as Traitor (2017; Tranquebar Press, Westland) at poet Javed Akhtar’s behest. The original by Chander can be found in the Urdu script on Rekhta and in the Devanagri script on Amazon.
In her introduction, Jalil points out that, “The word ‘traitor’ acquires a new meaning and a sharper edge in the deeply polarized times we live in… […] Some words, such as ‘traitor’, or ‘nationalist’ or, for that matter, even ‘secular’ have become the worst victims of the worst excesses of our times.” This novel is set against the backdrop of Partition, between August and September 1947. Its English translation marks 70 years of the horrors of Partition. The story traces the dilemmas and experiences of Bajinath, a Hindu businessman brought up in Lahore, who is no longer able to find a place to stay in Pakistan. He represents many millions who struggled to cope with Partition and the distance that had come between themselves and what they believed to be their ‘home’. Jalil is right – this story becomes even more relevant and telling given the times we live in now, and must be read in that context.
In the opening pages, set in August 1947, Baijnath is seen courting a young girl, while he has a wife and children waiting at home. When communal riots break out in the city, he runs to his hometown in Lahore, where he finds no refuge even among friends. A lone solider trudging along without any more roots to a home or a family, he ends up in an alien land (the new India), where he finds his loyalty to his fellow Hindus and to his own conscience at loggerheads. In a volatile environment such as this one, religious loyalty is expected to trump humanity. Baijnath’s decision in the face of his ultimate dilemma causes him to be labelled a ‘traitor’.
This novel is a bildungsroman for Baijnath as he comes to terms with and tames the different traitors living and growing inside him. It is an honest portrayal of a man dealing with lust, anger, revenge, hatred, displacement, shock, regret, sorrow – all at once. He starts with a denial of the rising communal hatred, continues to feel camaraderie with both Hindus and Muslims, then suddenly feels an acute anger at the Other when his family is attacked, and finally arrives at a personal resolution of all the harsh injustice.
Baijnath is no conventional hero: he is not brave, he is not morally sound, nor is he a consistently likeable character. He is so honest about his emotions and thoughts that he makes it difficult for readers to support him sometimes. There are moments in the novel where we feel the anger, helplessness and exhaustion as he runs endlessly from one city to another looking for a safe home, without any food or water, accompanied by a single companion, his faithful dog. But we are also incredulous about how he confronts situations. He may look selfish when he leaves a dying man who begs him to save him on his way to India, or when he lies to a group of Muslims to save his own life, but he is not beyond the pale, and finds he is unable to rape a Muslim woman along with the others of his community, even at the peak of his anger. The reader experiences his tragedies and losses with him, grows with him and ultimately cannot help but sympathise with him for all that he manages to stand for.
The novel builds up a constant fear of what is coming next, keeping the reader hooked, waiting for the revelation. Chander has a unique style as he keeps the reader hooked, waiting for the next revelation. Till the last minute, the reader has no idea about Baijnath’s final decision. Chander’s style of writing is captured skilfully in the current translation, which also contains circumstantial references and explanations of Urdu words and phrases and why they have been translated a certain way, along with an extremely comprehensive introduction. It might have been better to have left words like chhaach and kadhi and gur untranslated to provide an uninterrupted flavour of local words and sounds. While footnotes may help a global audience understand the text better, translations can read more smoothly and effortlessly at times when foreign words are left untouched and open to contextual understanding (or Googling, for the more curious ones).
Chander has often been criticised for escaping into the world of imagination instead of facing the harsh realities of his time. There is no doubt that he was influenced by Western literary traditions of the Romantics, but this novel debunks all these accusations because of its strong roots in the social and political background of Partition.
Mere paas aisa tilism hai; jo kai zamaano ka ism hai,
Use jab bhi socha, bula liya; use jo bhi chaaha, bana liya
Such a talisman I possess; it has existed for centuries,
I can summon it whenever I like; turn it into whatever I like
(quote by Chander taken from the Rekhta documentary; translation mine)
Despite this talisman, Chander’s writings have not managed to make their way into the minds of contemporary readers. Jalil mentioned to me how ironic this is, given that he was held up as the benchmark for progressive writing during his lifetime. Yet Manto and Chughtai, who came under a lot of flak from progressive ideologues in their times, are actually considered more progressive than him today.
It is worth reading this novel to question what the words ‘traitor’ or ‘progressive’ really mean to us today – and to ask ourselves whether we have moved on from 1947 at all.
Mohini Gupta works at the Vedica Scholars Programme for Women, a postgraduate programme designed to empower young women professionals based in New Delhi.