Night-Smudged Light

Yashpal’s monumental novel joins the conversation on partition

Yashpal’s novel meticulously describes a small neighbourhood in Lahore and the fate of its inhabitants COURTESY PENGUIN BOOKS INDIA
01 October, 2011

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.

This Is Not That Dawn YASHPAL TRANSLATED FROM HINDI BY ANAND 1,119 PAGES, Rs 599 {{name}}

It was not until I had seen Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of the Partition that I came to understand the origin of Attenborough’s depiction. The scene in Gandhi is clearly based on Bourke-White’s photograph of a kafila in Punjab. The photograph does not show two lines of people walking in opposite directions; that is pure cinema. But it is shot at a peculiar angle. Bourke-White appears to be crouched on the ground, or standing in a ditch beside the road. Somehow, the travellers in the kafila take on more significance from this angle. They loom. Bourke-White was addressing the conundrum of capturing this vast and widely-dispersed event while it was happening: how to make a group of people leaving their homes and lands forever look like more than just a few figures walking down the road. The brilliance of the photograph is that it suggests to us by the camera angle that this small number of people represent the vast tide of migration. The rest of her many disturbing photographs lack the crispness and simplicity that make this one iconic. Attenborough’s kafila is visually similar. In neither representation are there any trees or buildings cluttering the image. Attenborough borrowed from Bourke-White (whom he also made a character in his film) the spareness of the single line and turned it into the absurdity of two mutually hostile groups travelling in two lines in opposite directions down a single road. In both images the metonym of a few migrants stands in for the enormity of the whole.

THIS APPROACH, of using snapshots to represent the whole, was also used by Urdu short story writer Sa’adat Hasan Manto, though in a very different spirit. Unlike outsiders Bourke-White and Attenborough, Manto had no interest in the majestic sweep of history. As a writer of short fiction, it was not incumbent upon him to represent an entire event or to explain its significance. But like the work of Bourke-White, and also of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who arrived in India shortly before Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Manto’s first Partition stories were created in the immediate aftermath of the event. His slim collection Siyah Hashiye (Black Margins) contains 32 very short stories (what would be termed ‘flash fiction’ today) and was published in 1948. Unlike Bourke-White, Manto was not an eyewitness to the Partition violence that ripped apart his native Punjab. Despite the fact that he remained in Bombay during the most volatile months—those leading up to and following the Partition—the brevity and horror of his stories give the impression of immediacy, like snapshots taken along the route of migration. It is often difficult to convince people that his accounts should not be taken as actual reports from the front.

The iconic Margaret Bourke-White photograph that inspired Richard Attenborough’s filmic depiction of Partition. MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE / TIME LIFE PICTURES / GETTY IMAGES

It would not be Manto’s style to attempt to write the definitive Partition narrative. Nevertheless, his 1955 story describing the divvying up of the inhabitants of an insane asylum, ‘Toba Tek Singh’, has taken on the iconic status of the one fictional narrative about Partition that everyone should read. ‘Toba Tek Singh’, which was written at a greater distance from 1947 and lacks the intensity and horror of Siyah Hashiye and other iconic Partition tales by Manto such as ‘Khol Do’ (‘Open Up’) or ‘Thanda Gosht’ (‘Cold Meat’), is an absurdist sendup of the bureaucratic nightmare left in the wake of the Partition in which everything from office furniture to abducted women had to be accounted for, divided up and repatriated. Not only did Rushdie famously include it as the only work translated into English from an Indian language in his collection of 50 years of Indian writing, Mirrorwork (1997), but historians such as Gyanendra Pandey, Ayesha Jalal and Sugata Bose have cited it as an example of the kind of literary work that can convey the trauma of an event like Partition much more capably than any historical narrative. Writes Pandey in an essay for Mushirul Hasan’s Inventing Boundaries:Gender, Politics and the Partition of India (2000):

…literary narratives, whether in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali or Punjabi, are an eloquent witness to ‘an unspeakable and inarticulatable history’. Evoking the sufferings of the innocent, whose pain is more universal and ultimately a vehicle of more honest reconciliation than political discourse, they provide a framework for developing an alternative discourse on inter-community relations.

True though this may be in theory, it is difficult to reconcile the sentiment with the claim that an absurdist tale such as ‘Toba Tek Singh’, for all its magnificence, fills this role. Strangely, despite his position in the canon of Partition literature as it has been fashioned in English language literary and academic circles, Manto’s stories have not so much contributed to the fashioning of memory about the event in other works of literature (other writers may have even felt skittish about straying into the territory of dark humour at which Manto excelled) as they have come to stand in for the idea, in Partition historiography, of ineffable trauma.

THE PREEMINENT POSITION of ‘Toba Tek Singh’ in the canon of Partition literature is shared, perhaps even superseded, by one other work: Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s haunting poem composed on 15 August 1947, ‘Subh-e-Azadi’ (‘Dawn of Freedom’). The influence of Faiz’s poem on the way the pathos of Partition is imagined is so pervasive that it is not only quoted in virtually every work on the event, both fictional and nonfictional, but translations of various lines have even been used to title translations of works of Partition literature by other authors. In fact, Khalid Hasan’s translations of Manto’s Partition stories is titled Mottled Dawn (Penguin, 2004), a translation of a phrase, “Yeh daagh daagh ujaala”, from the first line of Faiz’s poem. Similarly, the translation of Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach, also published by Penguin, has been titled This Is Not That Dawn. The title is drawn from the second line of the same poem by Faiz, “Yeh woh sehar to nahin”. The first two lines have perhaps been most felicitously rendered by Agha Shahid Ali:

These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light

This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,

we had set out in sheer longing....

Faiz’s poem is remarkable for its artistry, but also for its prescience, given that it was written on the very day of Independence, when the full story of the devastation and violence that would occur had yet to unfold. Nonetheless, the fact that lines from the poem have been used to title a collection of stories by one author, and to replace the original title of a work by another, is indeed curious. If Manto and Yashpal share any traits as authors, aside from writing about the Partition, it is their unadorned prose. Why, then, should their works be given titles drawn from a work of poetry?

Yashpal’s translator, his son Anand, seems a bit unsure of this in his translator’s note, where he writes:

This Is Not That Dawn, from Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem, is the title of this English translation. Little is known of Yashpal’s contact with Faiz, except for a memorable photograph taken in Tashkent in 1958, in which, sitting across a food and beverages-laden table at a friend’s home, they seem to be enormously enjoying each other’s company. It’s possible that Yashpal would have written about his comradeship with Faiz in the fourth volume of his reminiscences that he could not finish.

This explanation does little to clarify the decision to change the title of Jhootha Sach to a line from a Faiz poem. Anand seems aware that the fact that Yashpal once shared a convivial meal with Faiz does not justify the decision, nor does it mean that his father would have been pleased by it. Of course, for many reasons, the history of translation is littered with discarded titles, not the least of which is the factor of marketability. Would anyone want to buy a novel called False Truth? Still, poetry, in Jhootha Sach, is conspicuous by its absence, as is the tone of poignant and angry regret expressed by Faiz’s words. Likewise, Manto was, for an Urdu author, singularly disinclined to quote poetry in his stories; I don’t recall a single Partition tale by Manto that included a poetic reference. Why, then, have Faiz’s lines been used to package the works by these authors for an English-speaking audience?

Like the kafila captured by Bourke-White, Faiz’s poem has become a shorthand for an aspect of the pathos of the Partition. Specifically, quoting the poem is a way of capturing regret, as well as a certain nostalgia for the heady idealism of the Independence Movement. Regret is, of course, a tricky thing when it comes to Partition: Indian regret can comfortably focus on the shrinking of the borders of what was known as India, on the loss of peoples and places that were considered Indian before 1947. For Pakistan, there is certainly mourning over the loss of places and people, but to regret the drawing of lines would be to regret the very existence of the country. For Pakistanis, of whom Faiz was one, the pathos inherent in the poem would likely be of a different nature than that experienced by Indian readers. It is perhaps because of this ability of Dawn of Freedom to speak to the pathos and regret experienced on both sides of the border that it has become such a powerful metonym for the Partition in a wide range of writing about 1947.

IF THERE IS REGRET —and nostalgia—to be found in Yashpal’s 1,119-page novel, it is not to be found in intrusions of authorial voice or any sort of sentimentality toward the past. Instead, any narrative of loss must be discovered by the reader in the sudden destruction of the meticulously described setting of the first volume, a small neighbourhood called Bholapande Gali in the old city of Lahore. This neighbourhood—its inhabitants, its buildings, its history—comes alive over hundreds of pages, and with it, large swaths of the city. I discovered Lahore through Jhootha Sach. It was the first novel I read in Hindi and, reading very slowly, I would trace the routes of various characters on a map of Lahore from the 1920s that I had photocopied at the library. Yashpal’s descriptions, written in the late 1950s in Lucknow, are perfectly accurate. And so, after having grown intimate with the characters of Bholapande Gali, to the point that one knows what everyone eats, and wears, and where they sleep, and with whom they have quarrelled in the gali, one cannot help but feel shock and, yes, loss, when this community is torn apart and dispersed in a matter of days in August 1947.

Another Bourke-White image capturing a kafila of refugees. MARGARET BOURKE-WHITE / TIME LIFE PICTURES / GETTY IMAGES

Pathos, loss, trauma—a whole range of emotions to match the tragedy of the murder and displacement of millions of people—are what historians find difficult to capture in their accounts of the Partition. But what we learn from Yashpal’s novel is that the missing ingredient is synthesis. If one considers the two most quoted authors on Partition (aside from those writing in English), Faiz and Manto, neither actually offers up literature that reflects the pain and suffering of millions of migrants; their work does not reflect the pathos of displacement, nor does it even begin to cope with the enormity of the brutality experienced by women. Instead, they are quoted and referenced in an attempt to synthesise an overwhelming body of materials on the Partition. Nowhere have I seen this elusive synthesis more successfully carried out than in Jhootha Sach. Not only do the fates of the main characters reflect a wide range of experiences endured by refugees fleeing to India, but historical facts and archival documents are supplied along the way in the form of newspaper articles read aloud in the gali, or written by Puri, a writer and the main male character in the novel.

The best way to examine Yashpal’s successful synthesis is to look at his depiction of Partition and Independence itself. On 14 August 1947, the novel’s three main characters, Tara, her brother Puri (both of Bholapande Gali) and Puri’s upper middle-class girlfriend, Kanak, are already dispersed from their homes in Lahore. Tara, recently married off to a despicable lout, has escaped from her in-laws’ house on her wedding night when the house was firebombed during the communal rioting already in full swing in the city. She has then been abducted, raped and rescued by a devout Muslim scholar. She celebrates Independence in this unfamiliar setting not so very far from the gali where she lived her whole life. She is in Pakistan, with a family that welcomes the creation of the new country. In the meantime, Kanak’s family is camped out in Shimla, with a great many other well-to-do Punjabi families that have left Lahore—temporarily, they think—to get away from the rioting. Puri has gone to visit Kanak there, and they ring in Independence at a huge party at the Club.

What is fascinating is that this historic moment is not described in the context of Bholapande Gali. It is only later, when Puri meets other former residents of the gali in refugee camps, that he learns what happened to his home and family. Instead, in a brilliant stroke of realism, Independence is celebrated and Partition ignored at the home of the Hafiz in Lahore, and at the Club in Shimla, just as it must have been all over the subcontinent in areas not directly affected by the partitioning of Punjab and Bengal. Nonetheless, all the characters have a deep sense of foreboding as news begins to trickle in about violence and evacuations of Hindu families from Lahore. Ultimately, the relative safety of both Tara and Puri at the moment of Independence proves fleeting. Tara tries to get transferred to a refugee camp but ends up being abducted and imprisoned with other women waiting to be sold off. Puri, worried about his family, rushes off from Shimla in an attempt to return to Lahore. This involves a descent into the hellish madness of Punjab, where he sits in an overpacked train and witnesses a massacre of his fellow Muslim passengers, and then wanders from camp to camp, becoming, he quickly realises, a refugee himself.

Yashpal captures multiple environments and reactions to the moment of Independence in a manner that is detailed and nuanced without seeming forced. The Independence party at the Club in Shimla is an effective portrait of the tension between a celebratory mood and the fear experienced by upper middle-class Punjabis whose homes have been occupied by refugees from India and assets frozen in banks now in Pakistan. This is in horrifying contrast to the refugee camps where migrants have lost not just whatever material possessions they had, but also family members. While Kanak sets out to look for employment in newspaper offices in Delhi, now that her father’s capacity to earn money has been greatly reduced, Puri ends up destitute in a camp in Jalandhar, searching for food. The contrast between the trials of different classes is beautifully drawn and in a manner which is empathetic to both experiences. Kanak, for example, is a fully realised and sympathetic character, not a caricature of rich entitlement. And the lower middle-class and progressive Puri has, in a novel that is hailed as a paragon of progressivism, many personal failings that make him more and more unappealing as the novel unfolds.

WHAT WILLJhootha Sach, arriving so many years after its original publication, bring to the English-language conversation on Partition, and what role will it play in the ongoing process of forging the collective memory of the event? Though Yashpal depicts features of the violence and displacement caused by Partition with which many are already familiar—the massacres on trains, violence against women and, to a lesser extent, life in the refugee camps—he takes on these topics with more detail and rigour than other authors. An excellent example of this is his portrayal of Tara’s long-term rape trauma. After being rescued by a delegation searching for abducted women, Tara spends a miserable stretch of time in the refugee camps, ending up in Delhi. Her excellent English skills and good education quickly help her find employment and a path out of the camp, and, for all intents and purposes, she is a model of rehabilitation. So much so that by the end of the second volume she has attained the rank of undersecretary in the Indian government, having served for a number of years in the refugee commission.

Tara’s trauma manifests itself in what we might nowadays diagnose as a chronic mild depression and no desire to be romantically involved with men. It is only when she starts to fall in love that the trauma begins to filter into her everyday life and make her depression more acute. This delayed reaction is quite realistic—it is very common in cases of trauma, wherein a person leads a relatively normal life for many years without any signs of stress, until one day a single incident triggers memories of the traumatic event. But beyond her psychological stress, there is another surprise. After her love interest eventually proposes to her, she tells him that she cannot consider his marriage proposal because she has a fatal flaw. This, we assume naively, must be her shame at her impurity through rape. But it is not. She confesses that she had contracted a sexually transmitted disease from the rape, and no doctor will treat her for it because she is unmarried and, therefore, logically, could not suffer from that (unnamed) ailment.

Tara’s illness is, in a sense, terribly prosaic compared to the more poetic pathos we are meant to seek out in Partition literature. And among rapes, Tara’s is certainly not the worst that has been experienced even by characters she meets in the novel. Yet it represents very nicely the spirit of the novel as a whole. The terrible violence, the rioting, the loss of home and property are all examined by Yashpal with an unflinching realist’s eye in the first volume of the novel, which spans only a few months in 1947. And in the second volume, spanning a full 10 years, we meet Yashpal the pragmatist as he fleshes out for us the rehabilitation of the refugees, the changes that displacement and loss have brought to their lives and their reintegration into Indian society as a whole. The breadth of the narrative alone is a monumental achievement, but the depth of the characterisation and the meticulous attention to historical detail—down to the brass tacks of bureaucratic policies toward refugees and archival speeches and news articles seamlessly woven into the gripping plot—make Jhootha Sach a novel, a history and a page-turner all at once. I, for one, eagerly await the cultural influences bound to emerge from this new translation.