A new novel on Partition reveals the breakdown of the state and the unleashing of violence
BY DR SANJEEV CHOPRA
If, as Milan Kundera says, the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, the role of the writer is to keep the narrative alive with multiple renditions across generations.
Why then were they forgetting the lesson at the heart of the Mahabharata, asks Someshwar in Lahore, the first novel of the Partition trilogy (which will also cover Hyderabad and Jammu & Kashmir). And she goes on to answer: “When the mighty Duryodhana, the last of the Kauravas, lay dying on the battlefield (of Kurukshetra), he turned to the eldest Pandava, his cousin, and bitterest enemy, Yudhishthira, and said, ‘Go take your Empire! What will it bring you but sorrow and tears’ “ To inherit a land and a people devastated by war was no victory. The bloody battle between brothers over a kingdom had led to complete annihilation. The tribal in Orissa knew this, as well as the peasant in Bengal as well as the Kathakali dancer in Kerala and the grandmother in Punjab.
Metaphorically speaking, Lahore is a tale which connects the two great epics of India—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The city of Lahore, founded by Loh, the son of Lord Rama, became like the battlefield of Kurukshetra, the fratricidal war which left behind wailing widows, mothers, sisters and daughters. However, in the Mahabharata, there were just a few instances when the rules of engagement were broken: in the case of Partition, humanity itself was under assault from frenzied mobs which vied with each other to dance an orgy of violence and bestiality.
Lahore, or Luar, as it is called colloquially, begins and ends with ‘run’. It starts with Mehmood urging his best friend and childhood buddy, Beli Ram, to run away from the riotous procession in February 1947, and ends with Beli Ram yelling out to the young boy in the kafila to run from the swirling waters gushing onto the river bed on the India-Pakistan border where the refugees were camping for the night before crossing the Radcliffe Line in September of the same year.
The story of Lahore is actually the tale of two narratives. The grand narrative is set in Lutyens’ Delhi—the Viceroy’s residence (now Rashtrapati Bhawan), York Road (now Motilal Nehru Road) and Aurangzeb Road (now Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road) with an interlude in Simla, the summer capital of India. The dramatis personae include historical figures like the Mountbattens, Dickie, Edwina and their daughter, Pamela, Nehru and his daughter (Indu), Sardar and his daughter (Maniben), V.P. Menon, M.A. Jinnah, Maulana Azad and Master Tara Singh, all of whom were key players in the Partition saga. Running along the same timeline is the little narrative, the story of Beli Ram and Mehmood who eke out a living as porters at Lahore Junction, and the ambitious but impossible love stories—between Sepoy Malik, a Muslim soldier who fought in the Jang-e-Azam (World War II) and Tara Malik, the daughter of a Sikh shopkeeper in Anarkali Bazaar, as well as between Parminder (Pammi), daughter of railway clerk Kishan Singh, and Asad Niazi, the son of their neighbour and her classmate in Dyal Singh College. Their conversations with each other, the chatter in the bazaar, as well as the shadow boxing in the office of Kishan Singh are reflective of the mood of the city from February 1947. The voices of reason and temperance were drowned as demobilised soldiers and lumpen elements took over the ‘protection’ of the city after the complete breakdown of the state apparatus with the police and fire brigade adding fuel to the fire.
Let us now move back to the grand narrative of the transfer of power, or ‘freedom at midnight’ as per the Raj and the nationalist chroniclers. Mountbatten and Radcliffe—greenhorns in the context of India—set out to vivisect an ancient land which was no longer the Jewel in the Crown but the curse of an albatross. Compared to Wavell who hated the Congress, the Mountbattens (Dickie and Edwina) had a softer corner for the saintly Mahatma and the erudite Jawahar. However, when it came to realpolitik, Mountbatten knew that it was the Sardar who had his ear to the ground and controlled the party organisation. He wanted a strong centre, but was willing to accommodate the princes. Jawahar, on the other hand, wanted to terminate the princely rulers with extreme prejudice. Maulana Azad was happy with a loose federation of Hindu and Muslim provinces but Jinnah was determined to get his Pakistan and the Sikhs were in a particularly difficult situation for they were a minority even in their erstwhile sovereign state of Punjab under Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Lahore was a classic case of state failure, aggravated by the refusal of Mountbatten to accommodate any deviation from his arbitrary date of division of Punjab and Bengal. Punjab Governor Jenkins, an old ICS hand, had expressed his premonitions of unprecedented violence quite clearly, especially on account of the presence of thousands of
demobilised soldiers. However, rather than a phased and planned resettlement—in which trains and lorries could have been requisitioned—including those of the Indian Army with camp commissioners assisted by revenue and police officials on both sides, the impending withdrawal of the British saw the complete breakdown of a fairly robust administrative system. An empire which could fight a war on three continents failed its own subjects at a critical juncture.
The stories connect when Pamela, the daughter of the Viceroy, meets Parminder, the survivor of multiple assaults at the shelter for women set up in the Viceroy’s camp at New Delhi. Treated as trophies for lust, they were not only assaulted brutally but also tattooed to leave the scars permanently etched. It is difficult not to break down at the poignant moment when Pammi is united with her uncle, a durwan at the Governor General’s mansion. Among her few worldly possessions is a copy of the Victorian tragedy, The Mill on the Floss!
The author is a historian, public policy analyst, and Festival Director at the Valley of Words, Dehradun. Until recently, he was the Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie.
@HarperCollins @HarperCollinsIndia @drsanjeevchopra @ManreetSodhiSomeshwar