8 August marked the birth centenary of Bhisham Sahni, one of the most remarkable and versatile men India has ever produced. Sahni was, at various points in his life, a lecturer in English literature, a playwright, a novelist, an actor (for both stage and screen), a director and a translator (he was a polyglot, fluent in Punjabi, English, Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit). He was closely associated with two influential cultural organisations: the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) and the AIPWA (All India Progressive Writers’ Association) and founded a third: SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial and Trust). And yet, Sahni is mostly remembered for Tamas, his great Partition novel, later adapted into a Govind Nihalani mini-series of the same name. Such is the hold that the Partition of India still has on the psyche of the layperson; publishers know this better than most people. This year has seen an avalanche of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that recreate the Partition in one way or another.
Leading the way here is Nisid Hajari’s Midnight Furies, a history of the genocide more than the political process, although of course, the two are deeply related. Hajari’s book has all the virtues of a fast-paced political thriller: the characterisation is cinematic (sometimes a little too cinematic, as in his loving descriptions of Nehru and Jinnah’s facial features), the ego clashes are brilliantly exposed and the aftermath of history is given at least as much space as the history itself. And yes, as with any book covering a large-scale tragedy, there are passages that make you sick to the stomach.
“Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”
Hajari’s is a history that is interested in rumours and distortions as much as the speeches made by leaders and the book’s own literary predecessors. It may not be the most exhaustive or most rigorous exploration of the topic, but for a person looking to absorb the essential facts about Partition, it’s as entertaining a way to do it as any.
A Pakistani writer, Ikramullah, paints a vivid picture of Partition in his book Regret, a pair of Urdu novellas translated by Faruq Hassan and Muhammad Umar Menon. The author is a recluse, not particularly well-known even in Pakistan.
Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence (1998) is rightly considered a landmark Partition text: it is a collection of interviews that the author conducted with survivors. The book shows us how violence against is not only a leitmotif of genocides like the Partition, it is also something that both perpetrators and victims do (faced with the imminent prospect of their wives/sisters being raped, there were many Sikh men who killed them before committing suicide). Earlier this year, Butalia edited a new anthology of Partition essays called Partition: The Long Shadow. This collection has a mixture of scholarly articles, memoirs and even a short fiction piece, written by novelist Amiya Sen and illustrated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh.
A long journalistic essay by Andrew Whitehead, is however, the most talked-about piece of the lot, about the genesis of a remarkable people’s militia set up in response to an invasion by Pakistani tribesmen. Another notable essay is by Prajna Paramita Parasher, who remembers the life and works of her father, the artist S.L. Parasher, who was once in charge of a refugee camp in Ambala.
Butalia writes the front cover blurb for another recent Partition book, The Footprints of Partition, by Anam Zakaria. And fittingly, because Zakaria’s book seeks to be the Pakistani analogue to Butalia’s own magnum opus The Other Side of Silence. The author previously worked with Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), the organisation that started the Exchange for Change initiative: Partition narratives were exchanged between the citizens of India and Pakistan and more importantly, a conversation began between the schoolkids of both countries. Zakaria’s book is a collection of oral narratives that she contextualises using the work of historians and theoreticians like Rajmohan Gandhi and Ashis Nandy. Although it is dominated by Pakistani narratives, there are some Indian stories as well. The author is only 27, so it’s a little unfair to expect her work to match the elegance of Butalia’s prose, but this is a very competently assembled book nonetheless.
Another Pakistani writer, Ikramullah, paints a vivid picture of Partition in his book Regret, a pair of Urdu novellas translated by Faruq Hassan and Muhammad Umar Menon. The author is a recluse, not particularly well-known even in Pakistan. When Penguin (and the translators) requested him for a photograph for the back cover of the book, he wrote back saying that he was not in favour of using his face to sell his book. In Regret, two old friends meet for the first time since being separated by Partition and they speak about everything that they missed out on. Out of Sight is a more focussed narrative, about the strife between Ahmadiyyas, a Pakistani minority, and other Muslims. Together, they provide an oblique but very touching commentary on the ways that people manage to stir up trouble despite having a thousand and one things in common.
Menon’s other translation project this year is an ambitious new anthology: the massive My Name Is Radha, a 470-page smorgasbord of stories by Sadat Hasan Manto, perhaps the most revered short story writer from the subcontinent. With such a wide selection from Manto’s oeuvre, you can be sure to find your favourites here, including his famous Partition stories like Toba Tek Singh and Thanda Gosht.