Sunday, March 18, 2018

Reliving madness

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Asif Noorani reviews a Pakistani writer's travelogue  describing many silent yelling and self-pity of partition.

Salman Rashid, one of the prolific and erudite travel writers who has traversed some difficult terrains - both at home and in foreign lands - has been recording his visits in engrossing writings for three and a half decades.

 This time he recalls his 'pilgrimage' to his ancestral town of Jalandhar in India, as well as to the village of Ughi where the roots of his family are entrenched in the soil. His narration of this visit appears in a slim volume titled A Time of Madness: A Memoir of Partition. Rashid was 56 years old when he undertook the journey.

He wanted to do so earlier, but was denied a visa because of his seven-year stint with the Pakistan Army - his first job from which he had resigned in disgust because the country had been taken over by "the deceitful dictator" (you know who). However, the visa section of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad was considerate enough not to stamp 'visa denied' on his passport since that would have meant disqualification for good.

At a dinner held by the Indian High Commissioner Satyabrata Pal and his wife, sometime in February 2008, Rashid told his host that his was the only country to have denied him a visit visa. Rashid was not entirely unknown to Pal, who had read his columns on history in the Daily Times and his travel pieces that appeared in leading papers from time to time. The High Commissioner asked him to send a fresh application, which Rashid did on reaching his home town of Lahore.

The following month - 61 years after Partition - Rashid was able to cross the Wagah Border on foot. He was armed with a visa for Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ughi, Delhi and Solan and was spared the ordeal of reporting his arrival and departure at the police stations of these places - something that Pakistanis and Indians have to do while visiting each other's countries.

Like most Pakistanis stepping on Indian soil for the first time, Rashid was struck by the fact that females, young and not-so-young, drove two-wheelers and was most pleasantly surprised that men did not ogle at women in Amritsar (and elsewhere). From Amritsar he took the Shatabdi Express, a fast train, to Jalandhar which arrived exactly on time at his destination.

 Even the "slow trains," he discovered later, were on the dot. In his book, Rashid laments that back home, trains - and the railways as a whole - have made no progress and insists that while railways all over the world thrived on the transportation of goods, according to him, the National Logistics Cell in particular and trucks in general have snatched business from the Pakistan Railways.

Once in Jalandhar Rashid made a beeline for Habib Manzil, which had been built by his grandfather, Dr Badruddin, with the intention of leaving it behind for succeeding generations. Family members who migrated to Pakistan after the old man was killed in a riot, carried with them his only photograph, which had been taken in the courtyard of his abode.

Rashid also got to see his mother's ancestral home, but what haunted him most was the desire to meet his grandfather's assassin: a man who died extremely repentant of his misdeeds. Consequently the writer met the assassin's son, who was 13 years old at the time of riots and saw his father leading a mob and killing a number of peaceful people, including the kind doctor.

 Like the assassin of the medical practitioner, there was also one Charan Singh who had joined "the mobs running amok across the country." He had killed scores of Muslims to take revenge for the killing of his co-religionists in what became Pakistan. Singh was haunted by irrepressible guilt for many years and paid the price by losing his eyesight during the last two decades of his life.

Rashid recalls a similar case of poetic justice on our side of the border, too. While at Ughi, Rashid was highly astonished to find that a Sikh, in a spirit of devotion, was fanning the grave of a Muslim saint, to "save" it from the heat of a summer afternoon. He also found the place called Lamiyan di Patti where his ancestral home was located and collected some dust to take back with him to Lahore to sprinkle on the graves of his father and uncle. The remaining portion of this "treasure" was to be stored in a small container placed in his study.

A Time of Madness reads like a gripping story and at least two-thirds of the book is unputdownable, but the final chapters are in bad taste. The author finds fault with everything in Pakistan and among Pakistanis. Is this an exercise in Pakistan-bashing to please his Indian readers, one is tempted to ask. Mind you, the book has, after all, been published in our next-door country.

 The other blemish is a statistical error that appears on the back page of the volume. The transmigration of population was much more than two million people as stated. At least the editor of the book should have verified the number. Also to be checked is the claim that more than one million people died at the time of Partition, whereas the real figure seems to be somewhat on the higher side.

The reviewer is a senior journalist.
The write-up has appeared on

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