Thursday, 30 October 2014


I am reading "Freedom at Midnight" with Asha and Enoch. 

It is taking us a long time.  Mainly because we used to 'read during lunch' - and now school has reopened so we don't get as much reading time together.

But it is also taking a long time because of extraordinary complexities of partition. 

I grew up in an era were 'Indian' and 'Pakistani' were essentialised.  Pakistanis were the bad guys.  They tortured brave Indian soldiers by putting them on ice (a story I was told breathlessly by a friend when I was about 10 years old or so).

And yet reading through the book we see a different story.  Many different stories.  And the multiple possibilities that could have been.

We see the confluence of multiple peoples and the rapid end of empire - and the rise of the two (and then 3) nation-states.  We see the hodge-podge of princely states amidst the status quo of rule Britannia (and we are not talking about a biscuit company).  We see the aspirations of multiple peoples coalescing around the Indian National Congress Party, with only Jinnah's Muslim League able to provide a counter-weight with its demand for a separate land for Muslims.   We hear the myriad impressions of people involved in the handing over of power.  The authors have hunted down hundreds of players and we listen in on conversations, are guided through memories, feel the touch and smell the sweat... and blood.

The authors have obviously been utterly charmed by Lord Louis Mountbatten.  So much so that almost half of the book (so far) has been about him.  A rakish and by all means remarkable man.  And so were the key players who got the spoils - Nehru and Patel showing up on the Indian side.  Jinnah on the other (with one TB-infected year to live before he went the way of all flesh as Gov. General of Pakistan) side.  Gandhi at this point seemingly off in his own world.  Other voices heard mainly as participants in the grand sweep of handing over of power by the British and the horrific carnage that burst out upon the nation when the final contours of the new nation-states were announced.

What strikes me on reading this book again - some 30 odd years at least since I last read it - is just how little most care.  And at the same time how much the RSS has moved from being at what seems the periphery to being firmly in the limelight of the current political / cultural dispensation we have.

No one debates about Godse and co's assassination of Gandhi.  No one really talks about the horrors of those who were hounded out of their homes and slaughtered.  It's somewhere in the background - an itch which we subconsciously scratch whenever the next 'riots' take place 'between two communities' (our papers don't even use the words Hindu and Muslim).

So we plug on.  Reading about some of the forgotten stories of what happened almost 70 years ago. 

We talk about Radcliffe and his terrible task of drawing the boundaries that resulted in so many deaths.  We need to talk more.  Ask questions.  Look for answers.  Not just accept things as they are because that is how life is...

How many other untold stories are there - and who is writing the stories of today?  Of the choices and tragedies great and small.  Of the value and vice that we see swirling around us.  Of heroic decisions and sacrifices that only eternity will resound with - and also the basest and most sordid actions that we see happening with a thin veneer of aspiration draped over them.

And what does the weight of such history do to us as people?  Do we know that it is even there?   Does the shadow of the partition carnage still linger - or have we cleansed our mouths with the sweet lies of Bollywood - and washed all of that into the vague background of our lives?  In an age where swiping a mobile has enclosed most folks, are we even open to listening to what is real and true (no matter how grubby and tarnished that truth may seem)?

The next chapter we hope to start tomorrow is called "our people have gone mad..."

No comments:

Post a Comment