Re-reading 'Chalta Mussafir': How Pakistani Writers Whitewashed, Diluted History

Altaf Fatima's novel, written a decade after the Pakistan army surrendered in Dhaka, missed an opportunity to educate citizens about the issues that led Bengalis to demand independence.

When novelists take on historical events or embed their characters into watershed moments of history, they complicate narratives peddled by the state, and even historians, whose primary concern revolves around countering a popular narrative set in motion by state actors via textbooks, patriotic songs, popular media and compromised journalism.

A historian’s focus is on facts extracted from primary or secondary sources offering a counter-narrative. For example, in the US ‘the no taxation without representation’ narrative persists. Some historians have however argued that the fear of losing slaves caused the revolution. There were slave rebellions. Then, King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, forbidding white settlers from usurping more land from the natives.

Historian Gerald Horne argues that the revolution was, in fact, a counter-revolution spelling disaster for African Americans and Native Americans. When novelists enter the fray, they draw a narrative arc with ordinary humans at the centre. Altaf Fatima’s novel Chalta Mussafir was written about a decade after Pakistan army’s unconditional surrender in Dhaka.

Except for the weak ending, I loved her book Daskat Na Do (The One Who Did Not Knock, translated finely by Rukhsana Ahmed) for its diction and for situating two outsiders at the heart of the story. One would think that a decade was a long enough time to gain perspective about an emotionally charged moment in history, and weigh official and unofficial narratives and counter-narratives to offer an undidactic lens. An equal number of Hindus and Muslims don’t have to die and an equal number of perpetrators of violence should not also be lined up. Since no one has a complete grip on the truth, the author must look far and wide.

Also read: ‘Why Can’t a Muslim Woman Choose India as Her Home?’

Altaf Fatima
Chalta Mussafir

Chalta Mussafir has two narrative strands – a romantic or personal narrative and a historical or collective narrative. The unrequited love between Muzzamil and Naseeba, is overshadowed by the collective suffering of the Urdu speaking Muslims. Muzzamil, the second son, and Naseeba, a servant raised in the same household, fall in love with each other. While she had grown up being in love with him, Muzzamil couldn’t figure out why he always lashed out at her silliness.

Naseeba is married off but returns soon after, as a prelude to the partition genocide, her husband is killed by Hindus. Muzzamil overhears Naseeba sharing her romantic feelings for him to his cousin Naim, who will soon migrate to Karachi. Muzzamil, the enlightened young Indian Muslim, confronts his own feelings for Naseeba despite her apprehensions, but just when he makes up his mind to take on the class divide, he loses his father and married brother to the riots. Circumstances compel him to marry his sister-in-law and take on the role of the father figure for his niece and nephew before joining the exodus to East Pakistan.

Fast forward ahead to a few years and troubles brews for the Urdu speaking citizens of East Pakistan as they are perceived to be sympathetic to the army. Muzzamil’s brother’s children have gone abroad courtesy of their maternal uncle. His own son has grown up too. Muzzamil has gone from riches to rags but is still respected by those who seek knowledge and wisdom. The book also includes characters as diverse as Bazlul and Murlidhar, both of whom are pro-Pakistan.

As the situation in East Pakistan spins out of control and violence escalates, Muzzamil’s son Mudassar escapes to Pakistan via Nepal and Muzzamil is killed. Naseeba arrives, braving all kinds of dangers, in time to mourn the death of her beloved along with his wife. In Dhaka, Mudassar had befriended a young woman named Salsabeel in college. She is soon shipped back to Lahore due to safety concerns. The two had been romantically inclined towards each other.

Reminiscent of her earlier novel Dastak Na Do’s ending, Salsabeel, shocked, recognizes Mudassar amongst other young men as they are passing through a small town in what is now Pakistan, but she cannot bring herself to reach out to him because her husband is accompanying her. The novel ends on the same note it had opened with: unrequited love.

Also read: A Search for Identity: Pakistani Literature as a Lifeline

As I finished the novel, I kept wondering why Altaf Fatima missed an opportunity or shied away from delving deeper into political and cultural issues that had led Bengalis to demand independence. Why did she remain glued to a singular narrative? Either she was completely uninterested in the suffering of the Bengalis or chose to remain ignorant. Did she self-censor her work? Nonetheless, it’s a colossal failure. She could’ve seized the significance of the historical moment, hinting at the political make-up of pre-partition Bengal and help her readers understand why the Muslim League could not win there in 1937 and again lost heavily in 1954 to the United Front, lacking a grassroots movement. The Muslim League was heavily defeated in the western wing too. Praja Party, unlike the Unionist Party, was an anti-feudal party. Muslim League won in 1946 in Bengal because the Praja party knew that Jinnah needed their support to present himself as the sole spokesman.

In the novel, the protagonist is seen showing an interest even in the Punjabi language while reading and reciting Sultan Bahu. Muzzamil is also very taken in by Kashf ul Mahjub. Fatima could have used this moment to explore the Bengali language movement and how, by not taking it seriously and handling it sensitively, the Pakistani military and political establishment paid a heavy price.

Alongside the suffering of the Biharis, the author could have enlightened her Urdu readers as to what Operation Searchlight signified and how it resulted in a genocide of Bengalis. Instead of creating cardboard characters who are loyal to Pakistan, their religious or ethnic background notwithstanding, she could’ve probed with more seriousness into the Pakistani army’s deeply held anti-Hindu attitude and labelling them as the fifth column. Fatima could have weaved into the narrative the reasons why the Jamat-e Islami supported the military operation against its own fellow citizens.

Fatima could have also roped in the role played by the Razakars, al-Shams and al-Badr, militias created by the army comprising of both Bengalis and Biharis, in unleashing violence. Since our protagonist has been propped up as one in love with learning, Fatima could have dropped a hint about what has come to be known as the Dhaka University Massacre. But no, none of that disturbs the author’s conscience. She chooses to see the rupture, the break off as the fall of Dhaka instead of Bangladesh’s independence. And for that, she has to be held accountable for her choice.

Also read: The Women of 1971, on Either Side of the Bengal Border

It is, however, unfair to single her out. Her silence is in line with her fellow literary community’s self-censorship. I only know of two exceptions: Jeevan Aik Kahani by Ali Ahmed Khan and Padma Surkh by Anwer Shahid. A gap of ten years is a lot of time though. Bangladeshi authors have written extensively about this tragic event.

A few titles worth translating into Pakistani languages include Akhteruzzam Elias’ Chilekothar Sepai, set in the turbulent period of mass uprising of 1969. Mahmudul Haq’s Jibon Amar Bon is a seminal novel set in March 1971. Shaheen Akhtar’s Talash deals with the rape of Bengali women. Shahidul Zahir’s Jibana o Rajnaitik Bastabata is another excellent exploration of the different contours of the conflict.

A special mention must also be made of Syed Shamsul Haque’s Brishti o Bidrohi. The fact that not many of these books have been made available in Pakistan in translations reflects a collective failure. Altaf Fatima wasted a golden opportunity by maintaining silence on a crucial chapter of Pakistan’s history which its citizens must be made aware of. If our literary icons had written courageously about our history, the army generals might have thought twice before committing more blunders. But, as the wise advise us, it’s never too late.

Moazzam Sheikh is the author of Idol Lover and Other Stories and Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He edited A Letter From India: contemporary Pakistani Short Stories and guest-edited a special issue of Chicago Quarterly Review on South Asian American writing (2017).