When Gulzar and Joginder Paul discussed the horrors of India's partition
[Book extract] Partition was like the blast of the supernova, its pieces kept smouldering on, alive, hot.
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Poet, author, lyricist and filmmaker Gulzar and writer Joginder Paul have creatively visited their experiences of the Partition over and over again. Here is a dialogue between the two about the Partition they witnessed and the scars that it left on their literary endeavours. The discussion was moderated, transcribed and translated by Sukrita Paul Kumar.
On the Partition of India, 1947
Joginder Paul: At the time of Partition, we had no home of our own and lived in a rented place. The landlord was forever after us to increase the rent to Rs 15, something we could not afford. Times were difficult and we were very poor. I was doing my MA and didn’t have a job.
In hindsight, I would say I didn’t leave behind any home in Pakistan. The idea of a home materialises only if you have a house. In fact, the house our friend got us in Ambala was quite comfortable and I worked for the dairy that he helped us open. Of course, the bloodshed I saw, the suffering all around, could well have been avoided. But then experiences of the blackest of tragedies vary from person to person.
Gulzar: Perhaps it has something to do with the age at which one witnessed Partition. You were doing your MA and must have been mature and sensible enough to contain it all. I was too young. My house was already divided, half of us were there and the rest here. Some had migrated – a process that had begun at the end of 1946.
Photo: Harper Perennial
My father was stuck on the other side of the border while we had arrived here in Delhi. We were at Sabzi Mandi which was among the worst riot-affected areas. Sabzi Mandi, Sadar and Paharganj were terribly affected when the riots started.
These areas were very close to our school. For me the riots were terrifying. We did not know what was happening, why it was happening. All we knew was that India was going to be divided. We saw people being killed and it didn’t make any sense.
I remember a small incident. In school, there was a boy leading our daily prayers each morning – in MB Middle School, Roshanara Bagh – and right in front of me I saw a sardar dragging this boy tied with a rope, pulling him towards Roshanara Bagh. People peeped from their windows and doors but nobody came out. The roads were totally empty. When we asked him where he was taking this boy, pat came his reply, “I’m sending him to Pakistan!”
Soon he came back, down the same road, with a blood-soaked sword in his hands, almost triumphantly. Oh the horror of it! People want to know how I reacted to this. Did I cry? No, I didn’t. You know, out of horror, a silence settles inside you. That is what happened to me.
Gulzar. [Photo: Facebook]
Joginder Paul: Thankfully, we are dealing with this question today – more than half a century later. I wouldn’t say I did not experience the horror that surrounded me then. You know what, I laugh at my stupidity today when I think of how I went by the political slogans of those times.
A young man of 23, and fed on the speeches of our local leaders, I actually believed as we crossed the border that I had achieved something by successfully bringing my family to what we should perceive as our country!
But then where was our home? Even though I had no home as such even before Partition, what was wrenched away was my sense of belonging. After all, I had lived all my life in the same mohalla (neighbourhood) of our old city – on the right a chachi, a dadi on the left!
When the front door of our house would be locked, I would jump from one roof to another, jump into the inner courtyard of our house and go to sleep; even with my mother away and the door locked from outside.
I belonged to the whole mohalla and the mohalla belonged to me. It is that feeling that I missed. Even today when I think of it, I believe my roots lie there. That apart, I must say that we were part of a slogan-fed mess. I blame our leaders for not planning the settlement of people who had to migrate...
Gulzar: My reaction remained buried within me for a very long time. I said I didn’t even cry, but I wonder, should I have just wept, cried it all out? I was completely horrified by what I saw – half-burnt bodies on the streets, broken chairs and beds thrown over them. Even then the whole body wouldn’t burn. I remember someone saying, “Liaquat Ali Khan is coming!” And people began to clean up the mess frantically...
Joginder Paul: Where was that?
Gulzar: Sabzi Mandi, here in Delhi.
Joginder Paul: Our experiences then must be very different!
Gulzar: I saw how they started to pick the bodies off the road, scrape them off the road with spades... half-burnt bodies, corpses all around stinking away, and then, truckload of bodies going away. If I had cried, and cried enough, I may not have written at all. For twenty or twenty-five years I used to have nightmares, waking up in the middle of the night horrified, afraid to go back to sleep lest the nightmares returned.
That fear settled in me. I think writing it out helped. The purging happened slowly, not in a gush. I took my time and did not write about it all at once. I may not have written short stories if it had happened that way. I took my time even to get a hold over my medium of expression.
Joginder Paul: Fortunately, we were picked up and taken into a military camp... and, under military watch, our train came to the Indian side of the border and I suddenly saw all the suffering around me.
Joginder Paul. [Photo: Rekhta]
We were kicked around and insulted for a while because we were totally dependent, we had nowhere to go, nothing to eat. Our relatives also feared we would settle with them permanently if they gave us shelter…
Gulzar: On the other hand, all our relatives coming from across the border were assured that Sardar Makhan Singh’s house – my father’s house – was available. The house in Sabzi Mandi became a sort of refugee camp.
From morning till night each one would narrate his or her story, of what they witnessed, of tragedies shared and stories of how they managed to survive and arrive.
Sukrita Paul Kumar: Were you a refugee yourself or did you come earlier?
Gulzar: I had come earlier, but half of our family was oscillating. In fact, I too kept coming and going. We’d go to Dina and come back.
Joginder Paul: I too witnessed a lot of bloodshed that I never got over.
Gulzar: Camp scenes all around, schools closed. There were two very big camps close by, Kingsway and Chandraval. My father would send us to work there, “Go boys, go and work there.”
I remember one expression of his that really helped us. Paul bhai, I’d like to share that with you. Everyone was bitter with the Muslims and hated them, cursing them for their misfortunes. But my father kept a calm head. He’d say, “Bad times are here! Pralaya aa gayi hai! It’ll pass... Lang jayegi!”
Sukrita Paul Kumar: How old were you then?
Gulzar: I was eight or nine years old. You know, I think it was those words of my father which helped keep our minds clean. He was coping with the tragedy with that perspective despite having lost everything at the time.
We worked in the camps and that is where I saw incidents that slowly seeped into my creative expression and became stories later. Most of my father’s friends were Muslims and he continued to be friends with them. One of them, the son of his friend from Dina, was staying with us “as a brother”. His name was Allah Ditta.
Sukrita Paul Kumar: I read somewhere that Manto, perturbed by how neighbours were killing each other in the riots, went and asked a close friend whether he would kill Manto if the riots took place in Bombay. His friend reflected for a moment and, angry with how members of his own family had been killed in the north, replied, “I think I might!”
I believe this was what finally made Manto decide to leave for Pakistan.
Joginder Paul: I don’t think it was that simple...
Gulzar: I don’t think that triggered Manto’s decision to leave India. He never lost faith in communal harmony. He left because he would have thought that in this madness, this man, or any other, might actually kill me. Just out of madness!
Joginder Paul: Yes, madness of course. But I also know that he was very conscious that he was writing in a language that was going to diminish this side of the border while Pakistan had claimed it. There was not much of a chance for Urdu in India. That he would get a sympathetic readership across the border was a big attraction. He thought he would be heartily welcomed on reaching there, but that never happened.
Gulzar: Then again, while there was a lot of movement of people across the border on both sides, a strong, lingering thought echoed in the minds of most: "We will come back home." They thought, "For how long can this madness go on?"
Hardly anyone felt that their refugee condition meant having to leave their homes forever. The general feeling was, "Okay. Pakistan has been created. So what? We’ll go back to our homes as soon as the confusion subsides."
This registered in my child’s mind very clearly.
Joginder Paul: You are right. My father didn’t want to go to the camp at all, and believed that ultimately we would be coming back to the same house. But I’d like to point out that most of us didn’t understand the Muslim point of view sympathetically, at that time at least. They wanted a distinct society for themselves. Not temporarily, but permanently. Through political administration.
Their leadership certainly desired that, though the common man had his doubts.
Personally, I was, of course, bitter that I was being forced to migrate. We should be able to live together naturally, I thought. But today I wonder, under the circumstances, would the Muslims think that to be "natural"? I remember, for instance, the Ahrar Society in the Punjab, at one point, believed in living collectively. But they too changed their minds later.
Gulzar: I believe the politicians swayed the minds of the common man. While Muslims killed Hindus and Hindus killed Muslims, they saved each other too. I feel, just as today, in that eruption of 1947 too, religious fundamentalism took over. Also, it became a gory game of vengefulness. You’ve done this to us, we’ll do worse!
You know, Partition was like the blast of the Supernova, its pieces kept smouldering on, alive, hot. But we must remember that the so-called original eruption too did not come out of the blue, accidentally. There has to be some background to it, whether instigated by the British or whatever. Somewhere something had been simmering over time.
In 1905, the Banga-Bhanga movement failed so badly, the Bengalis just did not allow the British to divide Bengal. But in 1947 they managed to divide it. That only means that the winds that started to blow in 1905 fanned the idea of Partition and kept the fire burning.
In the same way, in 1915 the Ghadar Party movement started. Rash Behari Bose joined and then Bhagat Singh and so on. The final eruption takes time. It waits for a ripe moment.
Photo: Margaret Bourke-White
Joginder Paul: My Bhabhoji (mother) would allow my Muslim friends to sit and eat with me in our chauka, the kitchen, from the same plate, but the moment they left, she would throw the plate in the fire for cleansing, to purify it. That was the background. The Muslims were well aware of this reality. They watched it and, I’m sure, somewhere, resented it too.
Now, I’m talking about a very humble human being, my mother, who actually wanted Hindus and Muslims to live together peacefully, who accepted our friendship and knew full well the lasting nature of that relationship.
Sometime ago, I wrote a story, Dera Baba Nanak (Dera Baba Nanak was first published in English in The Little Magazine: Looking Back, vol II, Delhi, 2001; later included in Favourite Fiction: 24 Stories from South Asia, TLM Books, Delhi, 2005), about a madman who came along with us to this side of the border.
We didn’t know whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim. Just at that time there was a Muslim caravan going to the other side, to Pakistan, and I saw the same person who came with us, now going with that caravan, back to Pakistan!
Gulzar: Yes, I have read that story.
Joginder Paul: I wanted to perhaps depict the complicated psyche of the times. It was not simple at all. We were getting so easily swayed. While there were all those slogans about Hindu-Muslim unity, what we witnessed was just the opposite. The actual blending of the two communities had just not happened, it seemed.
I used to ask myself: Why did the talks between Jinnah and Jawaharlal fail after what seemed a complete agreement between Jinnah and Gandhi that there should be one country, one society? Was the leadership so interested in power that what was arranged earlier was abandoned so easily?
Gulzar: That is precisely why I forgive the common man. I don’t see communal prejudices there. It was the struggle/greed for power that led to communal disharmony. Talking about Manto, bhaisaab, what I find so interesting about him is that he never makes you angry. The appeal is so human. He gets under the skin of his characters, underlines the hatred all around, but remains utterly human. Even his Syah Hashiye displays empathy for humanity. As an author, Manto seems to laugh at the absurdities spawned in the name of religion.
Joginder Paul: After all, why is Ashfaq Ahmed’s Gadaria regarded as an all-time great story? Because the author in this story captures a total time-frame, the past as well as the present that evolves from it. It acquires a classical demeanour precisely because it is not just playing up the drama or the gesture of the moment, it is suggestive of a past, of an entire history of Hindu-Muslim relations.
Gulzar: Take the stories of Krishan Chander and Manto. Both great writers of the same period, but see the difference. When you read Krishan Chander, you feel the blood on your hands, the smell lingers for a long time. But with Manto, you don’t get stained with even a drop of blood, though the hatred experienced all around is as sharp as a knife – and that is totally human, isn’t it?
Joginder Paul: Precisely. That’s what I am trying to emphasise. Something that seems absent on the face of it, lies unseen and hidden somewhere. Everything was not all right between the two communities. Indeed, the violence and the barbarism of the bloodshed or the bizarre fate of the women can never be justified. But it would be naïve to say that all was well between the two communities at the time of Partition.
On the impact of Partition
Gulzar: We must go back to the borders and see what new grass has grown on the other side. I think that’s what I have done in my stories Over and LoC. I find a beautiful new life flourishing there all over again. From Raavi Paar and other stories, I moved on to another phase. For the human being, I believe, nothing remains the same forever. You may become two countries but life goes on...
Joginder Paul: To me the stories that came later, much after Partition, came as strange metaphors. For instance, in the story, Panahgah, the woman who had been a victim of rape, abduction etc., lands up in a camp where suddenly she receives a lot of love, care and sympathy. And as the doctor, and others, nurse her, she suddenly bursts out, "My son, tell my people, I too have finally reached Pakistan."
This is when she is still in India. But for her this is home and home is Pakistan. "Pakistan" itself then becomes a metaphor. I would say that in a way the problem has become deeper, denser. The weaving together of communities that ought to happen is, unfortunately, not happening, for various reasons. The fabric of society is not being woven the way it should be.
Gulzar: Paul saab, one minute – the problem you seem to perceive between Hindus and Muslims is actually not among the common people of these communities. It’s the leadership...
Joginder Paul: Political intervention may be the cause.
Gulzar: It is, in fact, created by the politician.
Joginder Paul: But that is a matter of reasoning. What I am saying is that even at that time, thanks to the politicians, the rift was instigated, accentuated, nourished. By himself, a human being – Hindu or Muslim – desires connection and concord.
Gulzar: A refugee who came from that side is the prime minister here, and a refugee who went from this side is the president over there. (At the time of this dialogue, Manmohan Singh, born in Gah in Pakistan’s Punjab, was the prime minister of India, and Pervez Musharraf, born in Delhi, India, was the president of Pakistan.)
I’ve often said that the circle is now complete. We must move on. My stories are taking me forward. Only when those splinters fly a little, old times come back all over again. The fear awakens... like my story Khauf.
Joginder Paul: A very justified fear and worry. But the problem we face today must be addressed. Are we all – Hindus and Muslims – living together? We have had over sixty years of freedom, an opportunity to undo the divisive tendencies and build an inclusive society.
Have we managed to do that? In one of my stories, Sukoonat, there’s someone building a house over a graveyard and another man, encouraging him, says, "Go ahead, build the house. We have sent all the corpses to Pakistan, haven’t we?"
There’s a frightening posture behind such a comment. I have perhaps unconsciously given expression to it. We have to realise the magnitude of the dilemma. I don’t think we have made a genuine effort towards creating a unified society.
I see a plethora of problems resulting from this. We need to have a clean, honest state of mind. The very basis of hatred needs to be rooted out. In fact, Gulzar bhai, I like your stories because they present sincere doubts. The very issues that you look upon with doubt in your stories, you seem to be taking as resolved now...
Gulzar: As I said, when I am amidst those splinters that fly up now and then, I get fearful too. That is not a constant phenomenon. While you say that society is not being knit together, I really believe that the process is very much on. For instance, the Muslims of India are proud to be called Indian Muslims.
The Muslim is happier with his association with India. In fact, even from Pakistan, there are many artists and craftsmen who are flourishing in India with great ease.
Photo: Margaret Bourke-White
Sukrita Paul Kumar: Both of you, as writers, have been portraying a very basic humane concern for togetherness. Your discomfiture with the hostility, insecurities and fear that emerge from the occasional rioting has come out in your writings.
Gulzar: Yes, my work Kharashein belongs to a certain phase. In stories like Over and LoC, I do perceive a process of growth from the earlier period... This shift has come into my writings from society. It is not imaginary. As the experience of life changes, so does the writing.
Today, Gujarat may creep into my writing. So can Afghanistan or Iraq, which are so much in my consciousness today. I believe that the India-Pakistan border is much softer now, and while that huge phenomenon of history called Partition has taken its toll, the process is cooling off. Things are stabilising and we are getting more open-minded.
Joginder Paul: Undoubtedly there has been a desire for fellowship, and even at the time of Partition that togetherness was not lost. Its basis was changed, though. Perhaps the idea was that we could come closer together if separated, if Pakistan was created for those who wished to have it.
Today, that desire to live harmoniously together is still present, but then society gets what it deserves. Unless we learn to reconcile contradictions, the situation cannot be resolved. To love and be together and yet remain distinct and different, if you please.
Gulzar: I agree that the process of coming together between the two communities has been so slow that it may appear as if there has been no progress at all. But I have experienced the progress.
For example, forty years after Independence, I felt gloomy and did not see much change; at fifty, I saw a silver lining, and today, after sixty years, I feel confident that we are moving forward because today’s common man is far wiser. He cannot become an easy victim to the designs of the politician.
Joginder Paul: I like the note of hope in your voice. But, you know, freedom demands responsibility and Independence proves to be dangerous if we do not take on the responsibilities. In our case I have reasons to believe that we have not been encouraged to train ourselves either through education or religious morality to carry out the process. Unless there is conscious planning, we are damned...
(Excerpted with permissions of Harper Collins from Footptints on Zero Line by Gulzar, translated by Rakhshanda Jalil.)