The Partition of India was, in the words of Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, “the central historical event in the twentieth century South Asia”. It was a defining moment that has shaped, and continues to shape, the lives of the people living in this part of the world. The Partition was the most cataclysmic event of the 20th century as it caused the greatest transfer of population in human history and heaped unimaginable misery on people. No definitive estimates are available but it is generally accepted that no less than fifteen million people were uprooted from their homes, between one and two million people including men, women and children were massacred, and hundreds of thousands were physically and emotionally maimed for life. The event unleashed primordial forces of unprecedented intensity and barbarity displaced humanity. It not only divided the subcontinent but also the hearts of its people, tearing asunder the social and cultural fabric that had taken many centuries to acquire its assimilative character. For its survivors, the Partition was not an event. It was a process that is yet to cease unfolding.
Little wonder that just a few months ago Krishna Sobti, one of the tallest fiction writers in Hindi today, came out with her autobiographical novel Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan (From Gujarat Pakistan to Gujarat India) that deals with her experiences of getting uprooted from Gujarat in West Pakistan, arriving in Delhi as a “refugee”, and taking up an assignment as a governess in the ruling family of the erstwhile princely state of Sirohi in Gujarat in India. The novel evocatively opens with two maps showing India before and after the Partition and a long, heart-rending, wail-like soliloquy that expresses the limitless pain, suffering, anguish and grief. Sobti, now in her early nineties, is a witness to the events that can be compared only with the Holocaust. In her unique style, she delves deep into her memories and tries to express the essence of her experiences of those fateful years. For millions of people like her, the joy of becoming an independent nation was marred by the loss of home, life, dignity, honour and self. “Homes were turned into lunatic asylums,” Sobti says while quoting a disillusioned Sikandar Lal who sums up the situation in these words: “Jinnah let loose his Islamic horses while Gandhi and Jawahar used the elephants of Porus to counter them.”
Whereas most novels come with a disclaimer that all the events and characters are fictional, this one makes the unusual claim that all the events and characters depicted in it are real and historical. There is a strange parallelism between Krishna Sobti’s uprootedness and that of her ward, the child Tej Singh who was the adopted son of Sirohi’s erstwhile ruler. These were the days when the erstwhile rulers of princely states in India were dispossessed of their power and wealth but not of their royal titles and certain privileges. They too felt lost and uprooted – a special kind of refugees in their own palaces. On account of having been placed inside the royal household as a governess, Sobti got a chance to peep into the reality of this insulated life with all the attendant palace intrigues.
As the horrific events were unfolding themselves and the subcontinent was engulfed by the fires of communal violence with trains full of dead bodies moving to and fro between India and the newly created Muslim homeland Pakistan, Sachchidanand Hiranand Vatsyayan ‘Agyeya’ wrote a series of poems titled Sharanarthi (Refugee) between October 12, 1947 and November 12, 1947. By this time, he had established himself as a young writer of great promise whose two-volume novel Shekhar: Ek Jeevani (Shekhar: A Biography) had stunned the Hindi literary world by its sheer brilliance and freshness of style. Quite symbolically, most of the poems in this 11-part series were written in the waiting rooms or platforms of various railway stations – the first one was composed at the Allahabad railway station while the last one at the midnight hour at Moradabad railway station. It reflects rather poorly on Hindi literary criticism that critics have largely ignored these immediate poetic responses of an important poet to what was happening around him in the aftermath of the Partition.
Agyeya found the entire country in the throes of an epileptic fit. The sixth poem of this series is titled Samanantar Saanp (Parallel Serpents) and is divided into seven parts. It refers to the two long serpents of competing communalisms that have taken the people of India into their grip and spread their venom far and wide. Hatred is oozing out of the people’s eyes and the harvest of enmity is ripe. They are running for their lives because “rukenge to marenge” (We shall die if we stop running). One poem in this series makes a scathingly critical comment on the religious establishment too. Reading these immediate poetic responses to a developing situation is a rewarding experience even today.
Left-wing writer Yashpal, who had participated in the anti-British revolutionary movement as a close associate of Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev, wrote his epic novel Jhootha Sach (False Truth) on the Partition and portrayed its cataclysmic events in graphic detail. The first part of the novel titled Vatan aur Desh (Country and Nation) appeared in 1958 while the second part Desh ka Bhavishya (Future of the Nation) was published two years later. Unlike Krishna Sobti’s novel, it carried the usual disclaimer about all its characters being fictional, including the prime minister. While the first part was located in Lahore, events of the second part took place in post-Partition Delhi. This novel, often compared with Tolstoy’s War and Peace because of its panoramic view of the pre and post-Partition era and not because of its literary worth, was translated by the novelist’s son Anand into English in 2010 under the title This is not that Dawn, making a direct reference to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous line “Woh intezar tha jiskaa ye wo sahar to nahin” (This is not that dawn for which we had been waiting).
The novel covered the 15-year period between 1942 and 1957 and portrayed in great detail the political-historical processes at work that inexorably led to the subcontinent’s vivisection. The carnage, rape, looting, arson, migration of helpless people of both the sides and overnight turning of people into refugees in their own country have found a powerful description in the novel whose second part took the story forward to the post-1947 India where political idealism had soon made way for political opportunism and corruption. As a literary record of the Partition, Jhootha Sach has no peer in either Hindi or Urdu.
Bhisham Sahni wrote his novel Tamas (Darkness) much after the Partition. He was inspired to pen it when he visited Bhiwandi after communal riots had torn this town, along with Jalgaon and Mahad, in 1970. The novel unravels the dynamics of the production of communal violence and opens with a chapter in which a low-level government employee Murad Ali offers money to Natthu to kill a pig for a British official. The next day, Natthu finds that the slain pig was found on the stairs of a mosque, thus acting as a catalyst to start a full-fledged communal riot. By the way, this tactic of throwing the flesh of a cow into a temple and that of a pig into a mosque has not gone in disuse and is still employed very often by those who plan and instigate riots.
The Bhiwandi visit revived Sahni’s memories of his early years passed in Rawalpindi. He published the novel in 1972 and it became so inextricably associated with his name that it has eclipsed his other writings, some of which such as Mayyadas ki Maadi are of a higher literary value than Tamas. When Tamas was turned into a television serial in the late 1980s, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its front organisations fiercely opposed its telecast on Doordarshan – there were no private television channels those days – and the serial was shown to Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart K.R. Malkani for his approval, thus setting a bad precedent of yielding to political censorship. Tamas showed how imaginary fears, rumours and a deep sense of insecurity propel members of one community to hate and fear those belonging to the other community and how they lose their human essence in the process.
Rahi Masoom Raza’s equally iconic novel Aadha Gaon (Half Village) too deals with the tragedy of the Partition. In contrast with Jhoothaa Sach and Tamas, its events take place in eastern Uttar Pradesh where gullible villagers are gripped by communal propaganda. Having been closely associated with Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Raza describes in vivid detail how impassioned pleas by AMU students influenced the village folk of Gangauli in Ghazipur and tore the composite social and cultural fabric asunder. Published in 1966, Aadha Gaon too created quite a stir as its village characters spoke the natural, rustic language that was rather rich in the use of expletives. The novel is a must read for anybody who wants to understand how the Muslim psyche was transformed in a matter of a few years, making the Partition inevitable.
The latest novel to deal with the Partition is Kamaleshwar’s Kitne Pakistan (How Many Pakistans). He started writing it in 1990 and the novel was published in 2000. It is an experimental novel, reminding the reader of Quarraitulain Hyder’s Aag ka Dariya (River of Fire), and tries to trace the historical roots of the Partition in India’s hoary as well as immediate past. Although it does not directly deal with the events of those days, the shadow of the Partition constantly hovers on it.
While fiction writers visited the theme of Partition again and again, Hindi poets curiously remained more or less indifferent to it. Many of them wrote celebratory poems about the advent of freedom but fought shy of dealing with the painful experience of the division of the country. It is for researchers to find out the reasons behind this intriguing phenomenon.
Kuldeep Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on politics and culture.