CROSSING OVER: PARTITION LITERATURE
FROM INDIA, PAKISTAN, AND BANGLADESH

Summer 2007 (19:1) 200 pages, illustrated
Edited by Frank Stewart
and Sukrita Paul Kumar

Authors: Abul Bashar, Samaresh Basu, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Gulzar, Intizar Husain, Saadat Hasan Manto, Khadija Mastur, Joginder Paul, Mohan Rakesh, Bhisham Sahni, Kamleshwar, Rashid Haider, Prafulla Roy, and Urvashi Butalia.


Crossing Over comprises stories from three South Asian countries—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—with a combined population of over two billion. The works here focus on the cataclysmic experiences of Partition in 1947 and its aftermath, including the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971. Many of these works have not been readily accessible to American and other English-speaking readers; they serve as a mere glimpse at a rich and vast body of literature being produced in many languages of the Subcontinent.

Guest editor: Sukrita Paul Kumar, former Fellow of Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, teaches literature at a Delhi University college. A poet in English, she has published four collections of poems, and her critical books include Narrating Partition, The New Story, Conversations on Modernism and Man, Woman and Androgyny. She has co-edited several books that include Ismat, Her Life, Her Times, Interpreting Homes in South Asian Literature and Contours of Change: Women Studies in India. As a writer, translator and painter, she was the recipient of the Bharat Nirman Award for Talented Women. In 2002, she was invited to be part of the prestigious International Writing Programme at Iowa in the U.S. In addition to many other fellowships and residencies of international significance, she was invited to be an Honorary Fellow and resident poet at HK Baptist University, Hong Kong, in 2004.

An aesthetic shaping of the incidents of Partition has been of deep concern to the authors in Crossing Over, especially those who lived through the events. Their subject was and continues to be the working of the human mind and heart at the collective, as well as the individual, level. The great task they have faced has been to describe and attempt to comprehend how normal human beings could so easily be swept into barbarism. Their approach does not derive from sociology, history, or political science. The best writers work in a more subtle realm, where the truth is revealed in a nonpartisan narration of life experience, and which does not put aside such essential human values as social justice, compassion, and love. At the same time, these writers do not flinch from the reality of combative feelings, criminality, vengefulness, and cruelty. Some have rendered events with stark realism; others have created parabolic stories; and still others have explored the psychic responses that give rise to nostalgia, the wish to recall and value a lost connectedness that transcends communal strife. Prafulla Roy’s Bengali story "Where There Is No Frontier" comes to mind in this context, along with Mohan Rakesh’s Hindi story "The Claim," which ends with the driver of a horse-drawn carriage reminiscing about the mango tree he has had to leave behind—as well as his missing wife. He blesses his old horse with the words, "If God keeps you well, Afsar, the old days will return again."

—from Editor's Note


Sukrita Paul Kumar

But Sunderlal ignored all those who either praised him or abused him. The queen of his home had returned and had filled the emptiness of his soul again. He enshrined Lajo like a golden idol in the temple of his heart and guarded her like a jealous devotee. Lajo, who had once trembled before him, was touched by his unexpected kindness and generosity and slowly began to flourish and blossom.

Sunderlal no longer called her Lajo. He addressed her as "Devi." Lajo was deliriously happy. She had never known such joy before. So that she could feel clean again, she wanted to tell Sunderlal, with tears in her eyes, all that she had suffered. But he always shrank away from hearing her story, and Lajo felt apprehensive about her new life of love and kindness. Sometimes at night, when he slept, she would lean over him and gaze at his face. Whenever he caught her doing so and asked her for an explanation, she would merely mumble a vague reply, and he would fall back into exhausted sleep…

—from "Lajwanti"


Rajinder Singh Bedi

This is Lucknow.

With the partition of the country, the mohajirs migrated from Lucknow to Karachi. And, here too, as soon as they regained some balance, they raised the old Chowk of Ameenabad. Here too, tilting their caps in the Lukhnavi style, several streets converge upon the square all at once, as if the whole world were flocking here. When not an inch of space remained in Ameenabad, the mohajirs spread themselves around it. And, in this way, all of Lucknow in Karachi was peopled. Not just the old city, but also the new one born from the womb of the old, was soon spreading its spirit of playfulness over the suburbs. They say people come and go, places stay where they are. But, in this case, the mohajirs had transported an entire city within the folds of their hearts. With some came the bricks of their houses; some carried entire homes intact. Some brought a whole gali, and others transported the bustling main road beyond the gali—whatever they could contain in their hearts! As soon as the mohajirs recovered their breath after reaching Karachi, the entire city emerged from their hearts, brick by brick. Who knows what remains at the spot where this city had earlier stood! Here it has acquired such splendour that any visitor to Karachi is repeatedly asked, "Have you seen Lucknow in Karachi?"

—from "Sleepwalkers"


Joginder Paul

Annu had always wanted to become a story-writer. He could always spin out stories. I was convinced that he would become a poet or a writer. Not everyone can be a poet; poetic inspiration is a divine gift. Annu had the rare quality that only a genius has.

Even when we played gilli-danda, Annu would sit apart, either lost in thought or busy scribbling in his notebook. I was always curious to know what was going on in his head, how he made his characters come alive, how he wrote about them on the piece of paper before him—how they lived and breathed. Annu sent them wherever he wanted to, made them do whatever he wanted to, and as they moved from place to place, the plot of a story got created—wonderful! Story-writers are marvelous; they can kill whom they want, give life to whom they want. Aren’t they like gods?

Annu laughed. We were in college by then, and he said, "No, that’s not true. My characters are not imaginary; they are not under my control. In fact, I am under their control."

—from "Whose Story?"


Gulzar

Yar, how strange it is that the same town becomes more meaningful than before for one of its inhabitants, who has left the country, so that he dreams about it; while for another inhabitant all its meaning disappears, so that even though he’s in the same country, he never feels any desire to see the town again. How meaningful the journey to Pakistan made Rupnagar! And how severely Sabirah was punished for staying in India, that for her Rupnagar became meaningless. I think my fate is the same as Sabirah’s. And sometimes I feel that in my childhood I must have offended some holy man, and he cursed me: "Son, your native land will no longer let you see her."

—from "Basti"


Intizar Husain
Not much could be ascertained from newspapers alone, and since the guards on duty were illiterate for the most part, little information could be gained by talking to them. All they knew was that there was a man, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who was known as Quaid-e-Azam, and that he had founded, for the Muslims, a separate country called Pakistan. Where was Pakistan? What were its boundaries? They did not know. For this very reason all the inmates who were altogether mad found themselves in a quandary; they could not figure out whether they were in Pakistan or India, and if they were in Pakistan, then how was it possible that only a short while ago they had been in India when they had not moved from the asylum at all?

For one lunatic, the entire issue of Hindustan-Pakistan and Pakistan-Hindustan resulted in further disorientation. One day, while he was sweeping the floor, he suddenly suspended his task and climbed onto a tree, where he remained for nearly two hours. During that time, he lectured extensively and nonstop on the matter of Pakistan versus Hindustan. When ordered by the guards to come down, he climbed higher still; when threatened with force, he said, "I want to live neither in Pakistan nor in Hindustan—I will live on this tree."

—from "Toba Tek Singh"


Saadat Hasan Manto

The people of the city watched these groups of Pakistanis with eagerness and curiosity. There were, of course, some who were still so suspicious of the Muslims that they turned away when they saw them on the road. But there were many others who walked up to them and embraced them. Most people who met the visitors assailed them with a variety of questions. "What is Lahore like these days? Is Anarkali still as bright and gay as it used to be? We hear that the bazaar of Shah Alami Cate has been completely rebuilt. Krishna Nagar couldn’t have changed much, could it? Was Rishwatpura really built from money taken in bribes?…They say that the burqa has disappeared from Pakistan—is that really true?" These questions were asked with such sincerity and concern that it seemed as if Lahore wasn’t merely a city, but a person who was related to thousands of others who were anxious about its well-being. The visitors from Lahore were treated as the guests of the whole city, and most people were delighted to talk to them.

—from "The Owner of Rubble"


Mohan Rakesh

The train slowly pulled into the Amritsar station. The platform was crowded. The people who peered into the compartment wanted to ask only one thing. "What’s happening back there? Where have the riots broken out?"The entire platform was buzzing with talk about the riots. The passengers in the train had pounced upon the few hawkers on the platform. They were hungry and thirsty. A few Pathans appeared at the window of our compartment. The moment they spotted the Pathans inside, they began talking to them in Pushto. I looked around for the Babu. He was nowhere in sight. I was disturbed. He had been trembling with rage. I didn’t know what he would do. The Pathans in our compartment collected their bundles and left with the other Pathans to sit in a compartment further up. This segregation, which had taken place earlier in our compartment, was now taking place in the entire train.

—from "The Train Has Reached Amritsar"


Bisham Sahni

I had never imagined that I would be driven out of my own house like this. No one who has been humiliated and driven out of his own village can ever be at peace again.…

The truth is that Pakistan pierced my heart like a sword that day. I know that people had been forced to convert, had changed their names, had been killed…Shame, fear, anger, tears, blood, madness, love—all these were burnt into my soul that day. To tell the truth, even if I had been able to possess Bano after that day, it would have been worthless. I still would have been unable to recover the past…Bano had been locked up in her house…The wind had ceased to blow over the mehndi flowers…The train left, and I began to wander from place to place like a dervish. I knew I could never return home again.

—from "How Many Pakistans?"


Kamleshwar

The men seldom spoke about women. Women almost never spoke about themselves; indeed, they denied they had anything “worthwhile” to say, a stance that was often corroborated by their men. Or, quite often, they simply weren’t there to speak to. And what right did I, a stranger, an outsider, have to go around digging into their lives, forcing them to look back to a time that was perhaps better forgotten? Especially when I knew that the histories I wanted to know about were ones of violence, rape, murder.

For a while, then, I held back from speaking to women: there were so many layers of silence encoded into these histories.

—from "The Other Side of Silence"


Urvashi Butalia
(photo by Rajeev Bhatt)
 
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