Sharmila Tagore reflects on the place of storytelling in the shared past and future of India and Pakistan
What is storytelling if not a mirror of our day-to-day lives, of society, of home and the idea of home? The very idea of home today has become fragmented, an illusion. Sometimes it is a shadow of home. The great Russian writer Dostoevsky envisaged hell not as a place full of fiery hooks, but as one full of the shadows of fiery hooks. At an emotional and psychological level, having a shadow of home is worse than having no home.
So if by home we mean a place where we get to know ourselves truthfully and intimately, literature is the one vehicle that can take us home. It widens our horizon by making ourselves familiar with what we feared or did not quite understand before. This requires empathy and it is empathy that lies behind the power of storytelling. This itself is a peace-making mission.
As Indians and Pakistanis, we need not look far to see the commonalities that remain alive between our two countries: think of the surge of very talented Pakistani writers in English, names like H.M. Naqvi and Mohammed Hanif, which Indian publishers have brought to readers in the subcontinent and beyond.
Think of poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ahmed Faraz and Gulzar, who have transcended boundaries. Think of Pakistani music, from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to Coke Studio, stalwarts like Mehdi Hasan and Farida Khanum, inspiring whole generations of musicians to seek a language outside the realm of words to express and communicate.
When I hear the melodious notes of Mehdi Hasan singing ‘Ranjish Hi Sahi’ or Farida Khanum’s ‘Na Rava Kahiye Na Saza Kahiye’, I never think of borders and nationalities — it is only the emotional connection that matters.
And of course, there’s our shared love of Indian cinema – every child in the subcontinent grows up to the music and world of Bollywood. Pakistani television series have also been a craze in India right from Dhoop Kinare in the 1980s to today’s Zindagi channel. Think of fashion designers, here and there, taking inspiration from our centuries-old traditions of textile designs.
India and Pakistan have a common history, if a complex one. We have a common cultural heritage – literature, film, music, fashion, language, food, architecture – the list of shared influences goes on. By disseminating this common cultural heritage, could we get to know and understand each other better? Develop a common world view? Can stories and storytelling draw us closer?
Stories, on the page, on a stage and on the screen, have the power to rise above partisanship because stories are personal. In other words, they give a voice to those who are not adequately or truthfully represented in mainstream discourses. Stories empower people, and I have seen the role they have played over the years in impacting the lives of women in particular.
Literature is an older discipline. Rabindranath Tagore, for example, has strong, complex female characters at the heart of many of his bestselling work, including Binodini in Chokher Bali, Nastanirh’s Charulata, Labanya in Shesher Kabita and Chitrangada. His stories introduced the idea that these were real women who belonged to the world as much as men did, even if the notion might have disturbed some of his readers.
Manto’s prostitutes in his Bombay Stories, for example, showed them not as ‘fallen women’, who needed to be either judged or patronised, but as self-aware and often free-spirited human beings. From Ismat Chughtai’s stories, ‘Lihaaf’ is perhaps her most famous. In Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and countless other recent literary examples, women characters continue to be written fearlessly into our literature.
In cinema, though its reach is wider than that of literature, things get a little complicated. The process of filmmaking is expensive and popular cinema often privileges commerce over art. Cinema involves collaboration and sometimes this fact inhibits an honest and credible reflection of social realties. This is a limitation the writer or poet does not encounter. Writers are freer to rely on their imagination and abilities to reflect the world into their work if they so chose.
That said, Indian cinema has also been at the service of literature, and has brought literary works to a wider audience. In Bengal, Satyajit Ray’s first inspirations were from literature, starting with the Apu Trilogy and his adaptations of the Tagore novels. In Hindi-Urdu cinema, Devdas has been particularly popular – it has 15 film versions, including a new film in production titled Aur Devdas by Sudhir Mishra.
The era from the late ’40s to the early ’60s became known as the golden era of cinema precisely because it depended on writers and poets whose stories and lyrics gave films a social edge and poetic expression. The marriage of the sister languages, Hindi and Urdu, is at the heart of what made this era of cinema golden, a cinema with something to say. The fusion of those kinds of minds is now long past. And the history of a shared culture seems to be fading as well.
In the absence of sustained engagement, histories become obscured, twisted, erased or forgotten. The burden of re-familiarising us with those histories often falls to storytelling.
Memories are short and can die between one generation and the next, but telling these stories reminds us of the progress we still have to make.That’s why there can never be enough stories, especially about controversial or unpalatable events in the past. I am convinced that literature and cinema can explore those histories and probe these shared spaces, to lay bare their entanglements and contradictions and give voice where there is silence.
It follows quite easily then, that a continuous and thriving literary tradition is crucial for a sane relationship with one’s history and for building a balanced and informed future.
I fear with all the traumas of Partition, Urdu also suffered. Once Delhi’s principal language, Urdu is no longer dominant there. It has become the official language of Pakistan, even though it originated outside of today’s Pakistan. The politics of language meant that we suddenly lost a tradition of reading and writing in languages that were used locally for many centuries. For better or worse, the only unbroken tradition we seem to now have is linked to our shared colonial past. Today we know a 16th century Elizabethan playwright, while we struggle to remember the names of the bard’s contemporaries in our own countries.
What can keep our collective memory and shared heritage alive? We can’t remember something that we never knew existed in the first place. What does it take now to remember and “to come to terms with”, in the sense of trying to put to rest, a historical event of the magnitude of Partition?
Memory of that time is dying out generationally yet it continues to haunt us. Can literature really be a motor for remembering, or is it primarily an academic and scholarly task? With no public museums or comprehensive archives concerning Partition, these stories will soon be lost.
I’m convinced that the subcontinent can once again become a place that shares ideas above everything else. Dialogue is such an important part of that process because communication reflects our relationships with the world outside. With so many local traditions disappearing and vernacular languages being pushed aside in favour of English, we run the risk of finding ourselves in the impoverished situation of having to express our thoughts and feelings in a language in which we are not fluent.
I myself am ashamed that I have very little awareness of vernacular literature outside of Bangla, my mother tongue. So much of my life is dealt with in the English language. It does not help that so little Hindi cinema, of which I have been a part, is based any longer on vernacular works of literature. The evolution of language is inextricably linked to cinema and television, advertising, publishing, fashion and music – and we must ensure that, besides these large arcs, there remain spheres of local and regional exchange.
If this sounds nostalgic, that’s intentional. Sometimes cynicism and sarcasm seem to be the new popular virtues. I believe nostalgia has its uses, not as a sentimental and passive harking back, but as a cry for creating a better future. When you look up its etymology in the dictionary, you’ll find that it comes from the Greek, and means something like ‘the pain of returning home’.
Let us foster our own languages through such exchanges; let us be more aware of our shortcomings if we cannot fully understand the Hindi or Urdu newsreader on television and switch to the English channel instead. Let us always contribute in our daily lives, even in the smallest way, to building a shared language that is inclusive rather than exclusive, and let us together work through the pain of returning home.
Sharmila Tagore is an acclaimed actress.
This article has been adapted from the talk, ‘Cultures beyond borders: The power of storytelling’, the author gave at the Lahore Literature Festival 2016.