Sunday, June 24, 2018

Writings on the 1947 Partition

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Nausheen Rahman

I have just finished reading "Footprints on Zero Line: Writings on the Partition", and I feel that my day was truly well-spent.

This book is a collection of poems (in English and Hindi) and short stories by eminent Indian literary and cultural personality, Gulzar, better known as "Gulzar Sahab". These poems and tales have been translated from Urdu by reputed writer, critic and literary historian, Rakhshanda Jalil.

The book includes an extract from a dialogue between Gulzar and Joginder Paul, a veteran Urdu writer of stature (this piece comes under the heading: A Dialogue: Gulzar and Joginder Paul on Partition and their Fiction) and the translator's and author's notes, as well.

The beautiful poems, which depict the anguish of being uprooted from one's motherland, perhaps, sound even more beautiful in the original language, Urdu, but the stories are so captivating that the language seems immaterial; however, the translator's perception and choice of words, expressions, syntax and the quality of being succinct, have surely done justice to the original versions.

The Tales

Gulzar's stories are replete with well-remembered images and sentiments which are bound to evoke nostalgia in many senior citizens residing in the divided portions of the sub-continent. With the nostalgia, there will come a wistfulness and simple, yet profound questions: "why couldn't things remain as they were?" "what inhuman force alters the nature of humans for the worse?" "why do friends turn into enemies - without any valid reason for enmity?"

Through the poignant narration, we can see the writer's emotions locked in conflict: he feels homesick for the land where he was born and loyal towards the country that provided him a second home. His having lived the partition and having seen many harrowing scenes, equipped with the acumen and the firm understanding that such divisions harbour only resentment and hostility - and bode no good to the citizens.

The best part about the book is that these sensitive pieces of writing give us an insight into people's actions and their reactions. They are meant to be reminders of the unwelcome consequences of religious and racial dissension: "the Hindu had become more Hindu and the Mussalman more Mussalman".

The after-effects of the partition (something which, if truth be told, only the British seemed to have benefited from), are being felt acutely, even today. In fact, the division, instead of helping people to appreciate one another and to value unity, has succeeded in stoking more mistrust and hatred. The stories are edged with keen observations and leave us pondering over related issues in today's troubled world.

Gulzar visited Dina, in Pakistan, seventy years after leaving it; albeit, he had made several trips there in his memories and dreams. He dedicates the book to Dina, his birthplace. The finely-crafted portrayals of people, places and incidents of his visits (real and imagined) allow us to accompany him on these visits.

The Poems

The first poem, "Zero Line", ends thus:

I am back at the zero line
My shadow whispers from behind me,
"When you give up this body
Come back to your home
Your birthplace, your motherland".

In "Bhameri", the touching fleeing scene is described graphically, etching vivid pictures in our minds. In "Karachi", the closing lines are:

In this our two countries
So much is common among the common people.

This presents an undeniable truth in stark simplicity.
In "Compatriots", the last stanza laments:
You love your country, I know
I love it too, believe me,
There's a small difference, though, if only you
You ARE there, and I BELONG there.

Gulzar pens the following moving lines, moving us to tears:

Eyes don't need a visa
Dreams have no borders.

The Dialogue

We get a glimpse of Gulzar's psyche, so to speak. He tells Joginder Paul about how the horrors of the grisly, gruesome sights he had witnessed had rendered him incapable of even crying. His recurring nightmares had made him fearful of sleep. But then, gradually, writing seemed to bring a measure of relief, a release from the torment: "That fear settled in me. I think writing it out helped.

The purging happened slowly, and not in a gush. I took my time and did not write about it all at once". He also says that working in the refugee camps as a young boy helped him "I saw incidents that slowly seeped into my creative expression and became stories later".

A touching revelation of Gulzar's thoughts is that, like many others, he, too, had naively believed as a child that the creation of Pakistan would not have any drastic or lasting impact: "We'll go back to our homes as soon as the confusion subsides".

From the excerpt, we learn that both writers were convinced that communal prejudices did not split Hindus and Muslims apart; it was the "struggle/greed for power that led to communal disharmony".The interesting, enlightening discourse continues -- for readers to mull over, to relish. Last, but certainly not least, is the translator, Rakhshanda Jalil's, "Notes" that comes as a special treat.

The writer is an academic

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