Jhootha Sach, first published in two volumes in 1958 and 1960, has long been considered by Hindi readers to be the most important novel on the Partition, but the fact that it was extremely long and—until a year ago—remained untranslated has kept it out of the robust conversation on Partition literature that has grown in recent years. I have waited nearly 20 years now to bring up the novel in discussions on Partition literature without synopsising the entire plot and supplying a full biography of the author every time I mention his name. I have longed to loan it to friends and hand it out as a Christmas gift. Unfortunately, hardly anyone I know reads Hindi. And I suspect those who do wouldn’t choose to read a novel of more than a 1,000 pages. This includes certain scholars who write about Partition literature and can read Hindi, but mostly rely on English translations, or have passed over Jhootha Sach in favour of shorter Hindi works. As Harish Trivedi remarks in his introduction to this translation, the conversation on Partition literature will need to be “substantially recast” now that Jhootha Sach is available in English. He adds, “So far, it may even seem, it has all been a bit like talking about Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.” The Prince of Denmark has at last made his entrance; let the conversation begin.
WHEN MANI RATNAM'S FILM Bombay was released in 1995, the scenes of rioting and chaos were heart-wrenching. The 1992-93 riots were still fresh in the memory of both viewer and filmmaker. It’s not easy to portray mass chaos: Ratnam followed family members as they were scattered among crowds; he focused on individual acts of violence and also of kindness. So soon after the event had transpired, there was no ready-made template for how to depict the Bombay riots. Ratnam created that template: in the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, scenes from the riots seem cribbed from Bombay. Slumdog was not a film about communalism, and the riots served as a plot device with which to separate the two young boys from their mother and send each into the world on his own. But this is precisely how art shapes popular memory and the imagining of historical events. The pathos of a transpersonal tragedy is not only kept alive through films, novels, stories, paintings and music, it is also created by them. Memory is abstract, and personal accounts are numerous, variable and limited to individual perspectives—infinite Rashomons unfolding in space. Histories can try to synthesise the multiple human stories of traumatic events, but visual art—including film—is far more successful at creating the images that come to stand in for memories. In this process, it is usually earlier, foundational works that forge the template for this memory creation that we will see referenced and repeated in films, books and other works of art.
The Partition has been a particularly difficult event to represent, both in historical writing and through the arts. With two different fronts, thousands killed, abducted or raped, and millions more migrating over the newly-drawn borders, the number of stories that can be told are infinite. But synthesis of the many tragic fallouts of Partition, and analysis of how it came about and what went wrong, has presented a thorny problem. The first depiction I remember seeing of the Partition was in Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982). I must have been 13 years old and it didn’t occur to me at the time to analyse the stylised depiction of the onset of rioting, in which two kafilas (caravans) walk in opposite directions on the same road, just metres apart. The villagers in the scene carry their belongings on their heads and backs or in bullock carts. Something triggers anger; perhaps a hungry child or an exhausted parent. This is the last straw for an individual, who picks up a rock and flings it at the kafila on the other side. General rioting and chaos ensue. This, along with the film’s cartoonish depiction of Muhammad Ali Jinnah as what Salman Rushdie correctly identified as a Count Dracula-like figure (“The choice is yours, Mr Gandhi, Pakistan, or CHAOS!” he says menacingly in his clipped British accent), seemed to make perfect sense in the vocabulary of epic cinema. Years later, when I began to learn more about the Partition, it was that image, of the two kafilas side by side, that I needed to deconstruct first.