Amarjit Chandan

Punjabi Literature on Partition : Some Observations

By Amarjit Chandan

Presented to the British Association of South Asian Scholars conference held 11-13 April 1997 at Bath, England.

The year 1947 stands distinctly in the troubled history of the Punjab, when it was partitioned about a century after its annexation by the British. Independence of the country and the birth of a Muslim confessional state of Pakistan brought about a massive displacement of people and sectarian frenzy resulting in killings in thousands. Not surprisingly, the Punjabis remember 1947 as the year of wadde raule ( -- the big riots) rather than of azadi. Partition caused a great setback to the development of Punjabi national identity. It is important to note that the present Indian State of punjab consists of only 15% of the pre-1947, undivided Punjab, and now this very area is the epicentre of Punjabi identity's aspirations and frustrations. Paradoxically, the recent struggle in East Punjab justified the partition by its words and deeds.

Punjabi literature has a rich humanist tradition informed by Sufi and Sikh philosophies over the centuries. The dominant Marxist trend with its professed humanism has been an added factor in this century. This tradition stood the test of recent unrest in East Punjab, when the danger of its further dismemberment seemed real. Partition was such a traumatic experience for most Punjabis that even after half a century it is difficult to comprehend and grasp its full essence. Maybe it is for this reason that the writers are still obsessed with this theme, but hardly any writer has contemplated reunification of the Punjab.

My category of Punjabi literature includes all literature written by Punjabis in Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English languages. (Note these languages'order.) Over the time the Punjabi identity has acquired a multi-lingual dimension. With the language shift, some thing remains, and that is Punjabiyat (the ssence of the Punjab), which keeps the literature written in Urdu/ Hindi/ English distinct from other non-Punjabi contemporary literature in respective languages. An oft--quoted poem by Amrita Pritam on the riots of 1947 is the prologue to the works by Punjabi writers produced over the years. The bulk of the partition literature is in Punjabi ( in Gurmukhi and Persian scripts) in the form of fiction. Scores of short story books and a few novels have been published. Most of the literature is the literature of lamentation -- the grief is there and that is genuine, but it is expressed in an exhibitionist way on a base and crude level. Nothing much remains, if we take aside the Punjabi literature of lamentation about 1947 and 1984. It is worth mentioning that unlike Intizar Husain, a UPite Urdu writer, no Punjabi Muslim writer has taken the ideology of Pakistan to its metaphysical level in terms of the Promised Land and 'the recurrent historical experience of hijrat both on external and internal planes [of the self]..transforming it eventually into a major creative experience'. Intizar Husain does not consider the entire corpus of [Urdu] writing inspired by the riots to be lasting and enduring literature.

It is disturbing to note that Partition inspired very few poems in all the Punjabi literary languages. Every Punjabi knows by heart the poem by Amrita Pritam; every Urdu reader can quote Faiz's Subhe--Azadi (The Dawn of Freedom), but there is not even a single mentionable poem in Hindi and English on Partition. There is not even a single folk song on the theme, as there are many on Punjabi soldiers' role in the World Wars. Why? Why do the Punjabis not take out their pain, suffering and sorrow? It is said that first comes poetry (heart), then fiction (mind). Maybe there is a collective sense of guilt of failure. They cannot blame the firangees all the time, or they can't simply face the facts. Do they want to forget what had happened? Is it ever possible to forget? Sikhs' daily ardas (prayer) is a constant reminder of a troubled history. Why they donot want to forget that too?

Strangely enough in the Punjabi psyche of our time the catharsis is through fiction and not through poetry. But why so much fiction? There is no epic novel written on this tragedy. In fact all the short stories, including Khushwant Singh's novellette Train to Pakistan, are the chapters of an unfinished epic. In fiction there is always a possibility to live through a contrived reality; one can choose and leave. What is left out of this choice is perhaps the essence of poetry. Gurdev Singh Rupana's story Sheesha (The Mirror) is one of the best on the theme. The story-teller describes the background of his story about events in 1947 in his village to a French student of Punjabi literature Denis on a visit to the village. The student questions why he had not included a particular incident of mass Muslim infanticide in his story. The author is left speechless. Fiction by its logic is always at odds with reality. In fiction, and in bad poetry too, artists with their marginal existence can challenge reality in the armoured robes of lofty idea[l]s. A poet challenges reality with all his vulnerability on the level of his bare existence. So far he hasn't lost.

Apart from the two or three poems which are the top of the league, by Amrita and Daman and Rahi, a less--known poem Mianan Gondal Da Dhola by Ahmad Saleem needs special mentioning. Amrita Pritam had invoked Waris Shah, the poet of the Punjab, who is no more, who is out there somewhere, an abstract entity. But in the dhola, the poet, or is it Waris Shah who, tries to comfort the woman and offers to write down her story. The woman called Janat was born as Raj Kaur and was forcibly converted to Islam with his son Ishar Singh, who was to be later known as Umar Deen at the time of Partition. The love for their cultural roots is still alive in the third generation. Her granddaughter Fatima insists on going to the gurdwara and recite the Granth there. But no Gurdwara exists there. It is a barn now. The poet says : my sister let us build a new gurdwara with our blood and flesh. Only then can I win your God's heart. The woman cries on his chest : My God lives in you, my brother. Your warm chest is my gurdwara. I donot need anything else now. And the poet wonders about Sakina's God in a Sikh's heart left on the other side of the border. That's again a possibility. The poem is full of possibilities unlike the one by Amrita Pritam, which is full of despair and helplessness. Daman expresses remorse; and Ahmad Rahi feels total alienation and resignation. Muslim poets like Faiz express disillusionment with independence.

Most of the Punjabi fiction and the few available poems are inspired by sectarian riots, but not by the actual philosophy of Partition. They could not comprehend a simple fact - that riots were not the cause of Partition, but Partition had caused riots. The riots were an opportunity for sectarian politics. Riots can not be an organic part of an historical event. A few poets of the post--1947 generation like SS Misha, Surjit Patar and myself have written poems about being Punjabis, about the undivided Punjab as intellectual exercises, as the inspiration has not come from our own experience, but from historical myths, which have not been able to evolve themselves into reality despite the best efforts of all the Sufis and Gurus. No writer

with a Muslim background questions the absurdity of Partition, as Manto did in his classic story Toba Tek Singh. Even lunatics, or only they, could see the contrast between the public and private madness. Stories with typical situations with elaborate scenes of rape and murder by members of one religion against those of another end with anticipated moral statements against political indifference and religious bigotry. Even Manto slips on this ground. His popular stories, rather parables, are those which are overtly sexual. These carry the risk, though possibly unintentioned, of perverse sexual entertainment of the reader. Krishan Chander's story Peshawar Express ends with the murder of a Muslim girl in the train. She dies with a book soiled with her blood. The title of the book is Socialism : Theory and Practice by John Strachey ! On top of that there is a socialist-realist message in the end as the train is made to speak : ...then there will be no Hindus and no Muslims. There will only be workers and human beings.

Anwar Ali's Gurh dee Bheli (The Piece of Cake) is the story of a crafty maulvi (Muslim priest) Ahmad Deen Kalanauri, who from a small time dealing in oil and hides in Ludhiana rose to be an influential politician in the new country of Pakistan. He is one of very few who shared the cake. Avoiding all the set situations of Partition literature, Anwar Ali, as in his cartoons in the Pakistan Times till the late 60s, comments on the ideology of Pakistan. In Ilias Ghuman's Halakka (Rabies) the narrator kills a fellow Muslim affected with rabies out of mercy. He had caught this disease after Sikh rioters threw him into a den of rabid dogs Coincidentally, amongst Punjabi writers writing in Hindi, there were very few Krishan Chander -- Abbas type socialist--realists. Upendera Nath Ashq's Table Land (1948), an autobiographical story, presents mutual mistrust and faith between Hindus and Muslims inherited through centuries. In a TB sanitorium near Poona, Dina Nath, now a refugee from Lahore, collects funds for the Hindu refugees. But when he realises that the old man he has met is himself a Muslim refugee from Jalandhar, and he is in need of money for his treatment, Dina Nath gives him all the money he has collected and leaves the room wiping tears from his eyes. In 1955, the Indo-Pak border was opened for the first time, when a 'friendly' hockey match was played in Amritsar between the teams of India and Pakistan; and thousands of people crossed the border on that big occasion. Among them was Ahmad Rahi - a poet, who had come to his birth place. His poignant poem in Punjabi was inspired by that event -- ... Oh countrymen, here we come home as strangers...In Mohan Rakesh's Hindi story Malbe ka Malik (The Owner of Rubble) Ghani visits Amritsar during the match. He sees his house in ruins, which was burnt down in the riots. Rakha Pehalwan the local bully, who murdered Ghani's son Chiragdeen, his wife and their two young daughters, has a claim on that derelict place. Ghani meets Rakha with the same warmth, as he does not know who the murderer is. He asks Rakha how it could happen. They all cared for each other. He could have saved Chiragh. Rakha has nothing to say. Still ignorant of the fact, wishing him well, Ghani leaves for Pakistan, this time never to return. Rakha is left with a deep sense of guilt. Kartara is the mirror--image of Lakha in Mohinder Singh Joshi's story Tarbeni. He had murdered the young daughters of Niaz a lohar ironsmith of his village. He cannot rest in peace despite his pilgrimage to Hardwar and Tarn Taran and offerings to Hindu and Sikh deities. From Pakistan Niaz keeps on writing to Kartara in the hope of finding his daughters.

Gadaria (The Shepherd) by Ashfaq Ahmad is undoubtedly the best story on Partition. The story through its main character Dauji unfolds the complexities of the human mind, which at the moment of crisis loses its direction. Dauji, himself a Hindu, is a link between his Muslim mentor and his young Muslim disciple. He is a scholar of Arabic and Persian and can quote the Quran extempore. But his knowledge could not save his honour at the hands of a Muslim mob, who cut off his bodi (a tuft of hair on the head, kept by Hindu Brahmins)-- an intellectual jugular. What happens to him is worse than death. Rajinder Singh Bedi's Lajwanti and Kulwant Singh Virk's Khabbal (The Grass) can be read with a poem Maghvia (The Abducted Woman) by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. These writings are about the plight of abducted women in eastern and western Punjab on the hands of Sikh/Muslim rioters. A forcibly converted woman in Khabbal refuses to go back to her Sikh family, as she can not face the rejection as Lajwanti meets at the hands of her husband Sunder Lal, who happens to be the leader of a local Committee for the Rehabilitation of Abducted Women. The poems by Qasmi and Sahir are like a sentimental rendering of the situation in the wailing voice of Rafi in Hindustani films.

Very few efforts have been made to record eye--witness accounts of the turmoil of Partition. Om Prakash, an obscure name in Punjabi literature till recently, published his memoirs in Punjabi last year under the title Panahageer (The Refugees) and receieved critical acclaim. The book gives a disturbing and dispassionate account of age old love and hate relationship between different religious communities of his ancestral village in Gujaranwala district during the first half of this century, the riots, the plight of refugees and their struggle for survival amongst eastern Punjabis who were not so friendly with them. It took Anwar Shaikh 50 years to write his confession about the murders of a Sikh father and his son he had committed in Lahore. Giani Hari Singh's account of Muslims in Hoshiarpur district forcibly converted to Sikh faith and then murdered leaves much more impact than the story Shaheed (The Martyrs) written on the same event by his writer son Gulzar Singh Sandhu. This questions the need of fiction. Why fiction, when we have facts? In memoirs there is far less laboured craft, the language is more at ease with the happening, and after all it is not fiction. Prem Prakash, probably the best short story writer today, has written memoirs of 1947 in the form of sketches. He did not make stories of them, which he could have done very easily. Interestingly, Khabbal (Virk) and Sheesha (Rupana) are memoirs in fact presented as fiction. Why?

Post Script

India Today (18 August 1997) in its special edition on Partition puiblished a picture, which appears to me the last chapter of an unwritten epic on the theme of Partition. Atma Singh left his brother behind in Lyalpur, west Punjab, who became Ismail Khan. In the picture typical of Bengali film maker Iritwik Ghatak, Atma Singh holds his brother's picture, his letters and a gift of kurta from the brother to his chest. He wishes to wear the kurta on his last journey. In the background two children are playing. A broken bicycle rim hangs from a pole, which reminds me of the Spanish painter Miro. Atma Singh's grandsons give a damn to the ones left on the other side of the border. Atma Singh lamnets that the relation will end with him.

Photo by Saibal Das

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Last updated April 2008