‘…friendships not forever last,
They know not life, who not this.’
We all are to die one day. You and I. For you, to make the reason of my funeral, a long beard, turban and kirpan would be foolish. For me, the reason of your burial, a skull cap, niqaab and circumcision – moronic.
The back cover of the book will lead you to believing that it is yet another story of a Sikh boy pining for a Mussalman girl yet it is so much more than that. The love angle is only a sub-plot – just a speck of dust in the universe of partition. It starts with a dacoity, continues with the love scene and proceeds to prostitution, politics, epiphanies, illusion, delusion and death – loads of the last. Gory and glory, I think, was the definition of bravery and religion at the time. I am not trying to pass a comment. I am just making a statement.
The dacoity and the death of the money lender of Mano Majra seems trivial in the face of the massacres, yet it is a signal of all that is to come. I think, for most who took part in the killings were either seeking vengeance, entertainment or were just motivated to do it for the country but mostly for the religion. Vengeance or revenge has never been a reason to seek the death of thousands of others. Neither is the growing population a cause to degrade the value of human lives. As the author points out in many parts of the book, India’s population increased every year by four million. Well, duh!
Massacres, bloodshed and evacuations, form a major part of the plot but so does the local Magistrates’ struggle of how to deal with everything, his dreadful nightmares and his self-loathing attitude towards his physical needs of being with a Mussalman prostitute who is of the age of his dead daughter. Well, what is so intriguing, touching and overwhelming is his whisky laden stupors where he thinks of his past, his present and the foolishness of ‘the tryst with destiny.’ Hukum Chand, with his orders which saves, kills and preserves, how aptly has he been named?
Iqbal? Mussalman or Sikh? I am still not sure, but the dichotomy in his name has been well used in the book to create differences in how this well educated, ambitious, power seeking, ‘England-returned’ will be and is treated. His character, though, crafted to be the helper and guide, in the end, falls weak. A diet of pills, tin-contents and whisky, he is just one of those who go to jail because it brings glory. In a time where there is chaos, self preservation must be deemed supreme, that becomes his principle, in the end.
Meet Singh is the Sikh priest, advocates the right but thinks that he is beyond the power to take an action. His job is to preach and the Guru will stand in the path of those who want to sin and punish those who continue to do so.
Juggat Singh, the lover, the badmash, the saviour. His rustiness, love of the blind man’s daughter brings him the end. And he gives his love, the world.
In all this, Mano Majra, the border village is bereft of its tenants, its trains and the principles of a simple village.
The book for me raises several topics – alcoholism, masochism, the perception of religion, stereotypes and character. But mostly, who is the greatest? An educated social worker drowned in his whisky laced stupour, the magistrate who has records to show that he did try, the badmash who beat up another one, the sub-inspector, the Mussalmans who evacuated, the Sikhs and Hindus who wanted to save their Mussalman bhais or those who planned and killed for revenge?
A train, which is carrying the Muslims to Pakistan. It is carrying the unwed pregnant lover, the child prostitute, the tenant brothers, carrying them all to a new country. Lives have been taken, will be taken and properties looted, conscience burdened and ropes broken.
I have always been interested in reading Partition literature. Ironically, all I have always read about Partition is either the official history or unpublished works of virtual acquaintances. This was one of the main reason behind the anxiety to read the books besides it being an Indian classic. The book had been lying in my vault for two years now and I think the old author’s death and a review of his life in a daily was the last straw that led me to reading it.
Disclaimer – The views are purely mine and clearly, the review is incomplete and does not encompass the different parts of the book.
A/N – I wish the quote were true for animosity as well.