Books

'A Time of Madness': Memories of Partition

Salman Rashid in his slim memoir about a visit to his ancestral house, has also written about many more among the two million displaced by the Partition of 1947.

Partition

People migrating across the India-Pakistan border during partition in 1947. Credit: YouTube

As someone whose grandparents migrated to Indian Punjab from what became Pakistan, I grew up on a healthy dose of family recollections about Partition. All my relatives who I know made their way from places like Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Rawalpindi – to Delhi, Jalandhar and as far as Gwalior. In all those stories, the overall sentiment was that of having made it in life despite losing almost all material possessions. Consequently, I grew up without much sentimentalism or curiosity about the event.

The silence was not just mine; I noticed how in several films, references to the Partition were replaced by metaphors like an earthquake. Waqt and Ek thi Ladki come instantly to mind. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan is a rare exception. It was not until 1997, fifty years after the event, that the Outlook magazine carried a special issue on the Partition on August 15, which opened a floodgate of discussion on the topic. The online oral history initiative ‘1947 Partition Archive’ is of even more recent origin.

So when I chanced upon a review of Salman Rashid’s A Time of Madness, I would have moved on had my eyes not fallen on this sentence: “Rashid travels to the land of his forefathers armed with a grainy photograph of a house on Railway Road in Jalandhar.”

My heart skipped a beat.

Salman Rashid 
A Time of Madness
Aleph, 2017

Around the time Rashid’s family moved from Railway Road, Jalandhar to Lahore, my family made a reverse journey – from Lahore to Railway Road, Jalandhar, where they were allocated an evacuee property. My first thought was, could Rashid’s story be about the same house in which I had spent part of my childhood?

With nine books to his credit, Rashid is well-known as a travel writer from Pakistan. He has written extensively about his own country as well as about Afghanistan. This latest book, a memoir, is based on his quest to visit his house in India, about which he had heard from his father, uncles and a surviving aunt. His grandfather, Dr Badaruddin, two aunts and a few other relatives lived in that house when Partition violence engulfed the city. They were never heard of again.

Thanks to a Kindle version, I didn’t have to hold my breath too long. I speed read my way to the chapter where the author locates his family house – Rashid’s house turned out to be a few hundred feet from ours. I was both disappointed and relieved.

In this conflicted state of mind, I raced through the rest of the book. I could picture the houses and the people and almost hear the diction of their words.

Rashid made a journey to Jalandhar in 2008 and again in 2010 to see his house and find out what had become of his family. He not only found the house and got to see it from the inside, but more remarkably also met people who knew and remembered his grandfather, a well-known doctor in the city. He discovered aspects about his grandfather that his family was either not aware of or did not talk about. In Jalandhar, a person who had known his grandfather recounted how the secular doctor had veered towards the Muslim League in his later years, on one occasion even insisting that a cow be slaughtered for Eid.

Even more remarkably, he came face to face with the son of the man who led the mob that killed five members of his family, and seven members of their servant Eidu’s family. Eidu’s two-year-old son was tossed to death from the terrace to the courtyard below. Amazingly enough, the result of this meeting wasn’t a feeling of acrimony and revenge, but apology on the part of the rioter’s son and forgiveness on part of the writer. It is a deeply moving experience to read those pages.

There are other peoples’ stories that Rashid discovered as he talked to survivors of the partition in and around Jalandhar. It surprised him that while people in India refer to 1947 as “The Year of Partition” (Ujadey da saal). In Pakistan, it is referred to as “The Years of Plunder” (Loti da saal), because of – the writer avers – the property left behind by rich Hindus and Sikhs for Muslims to despoil.

Salman Rashid. Credit: alephbookcompany.com

A long last chapter goes into the history of how Pakistan was formed and has reached a point where it is almost non-governable. His disenchantment with the “State of the Pure” is complete when he refers to it as the “State of the Unclean,” as the present geographical area of Pakistan was once disparagingly referred to. He cynically notes the gradual Arabisation of Pakistan, where not only has “Khuda” has been replaced by “Allah” (as in the use of “Allah hafiz” instead of “Khuda hafiz”) but even the local flora – pipal, mango and banyan trees are being replaced by palm trees.

Rashid is careful enough to put a disclaimer that he’s not a historian or a political scientist. He does seem a little too harsh on the Muslim League and Pakistan, while looking at India with rose tinted glasses, overlooking India’s own worsening record of treating its minorities. However, this is more of a digression, and the book’s uniqueness lies in its view of the partition not in terms of statistics, but the way it impacted people and their subsequent generations.

Among the many incidents in the book, the one that stands out for me is where he describes his father’s lifelong reluctance to buy a house. Even when he could have afforded to buy a house in Pakistan, Rashid’s father philosophied that “fools build houses, the wise live in them.” Uncannily, this is the exact same sentiment I’ve heard my father express all through his life. My father was seven when he left his house in Krishna Nagar in Lahore, never to return to it. He never bought a house in his life.

There are other, less uncanny ways in which Rashid illustrates the memories of Partition. Even for me, who never gave much thought to it, it releases a flood of memories. I recall that my maternal grandparents never explained the exact circumstances of how my aunt, who was about a year old in 1947, died. I think of my mother’s life-long obsession to hide important papers and jewellery but in places from where they would be easy to retrieve, “‘if we have to leave in a hurry, like at the time of the Partition.”

With this slim memoir about a visit to his ancestral house, Rashid has also written about many more among the two million displaced by the Partition of 1947, the most catastrophic of the sub-continent’s persistent and continuing partitions. Memory need not always be painful, it can be cathartic too.

Bhupinder Singh is a blogger at a reader’s words.

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