Partition literature is about the choices we make. Parochial nationalism and language can be used to debase the ‘other', or it can be used to build a life-affirming future, says

There is, I think, a close relationship between those who arrange languages in a structure of hierarchy — languages which are assumed to be original, holy, and classical on the one hand, and languages which are ‘mistakes' which even the gods can make — and the myths of holiness and purity upon which the politics of partitions is based.

Thinking about language and identity within grids of power is ethically graceless, for, it turns others into hostile strangers. It is also dangerous, for, it transforms our politics into a delirium in which the stranger is always a monster. While the language of privilege available to some gives them the right to inflict humiliations on others, the idea of an exceptional identity bestows upon ethnic and religious mythmakers the right to debase anyone different — and humiliation and debasement we know are never enough. Both, thus, deny that the human ability to cultivate a language and to craft a life — any language and any life — gives to each of us equally enormous privileges and responsibilities, and, thus demand from all of us courtesy and respect. Needless to say, both would dismiss, with an impatient snarl, any suggestion that the ‘strangeness' of human words and of human footfalls upon the earth are always mingled with the infinite variety of the sounds of animals, birds, trees and other sentient beings who share the earthly habitat with them, as the romantic nonsense of poets, shamans, and madmen. And so, unfortunately, both fix themselves into such fanatically defined spaces that one begins to hear, in the word “territory,” fearful echoes of words which now define our experience in the present — “terror,” “tear apart,” “terrier,” “tears” — establishing, thereby, our kinship with the ferocity of animals than with our ideals of reason; making us, not artificers of societies imaged by the muses, but hard-bristled, sharp-fanged, knife-clawed creatures with merciless fires in our eyes.

Chilling stories

Let me narrate two fragmentary stories of annihilatory thinking about language and identities from two modern partitions — of India and the Balkans — whose horrors erase the line separating self-regard and cynicism, fanatical religious convictions and cruelty. The first is by Manto from his collage of laments, “Dekh Kabira Roya” [Kabir Wept When He Saw…]. Here the saint-poet Kabir watches with sorrow the ruins of language, religion and society left behind by the partition of 1947. As he wanders through Lahore, he weeps over the vandalism of language and the corruption of religion. In Kabir's poems, Sanskrit and the vernacular sing together; words from cities and villages, the rhythms of ordinary speech and wandering bards weave songs that are ecstatic dialogues with other human beings and God. In Manto's text, however, the people Kabir meets in Lahore, after the genocide of 1947, obscure the distinction between words and daggers, and confuse slogans with thought.

One day, Kabir sees a street-vendor tearing pages from a book by Surdas to make paper bags. Tears fill his eyes. When the vendor asks him why he is crying, he says, “Poems by Bhagat Surdas are printed on these pages...Don't insult them by making paper bags out of them.” The vendor laughs, and says: “A man who is named ‘Soordas' can never be a bhagat (saint).” The vendor's taunt contains a foul pun on the word “sur/soor,” which in Sanskrit (“sur”) means “melody” and “harmony” as well as “angel” and “god,” but when slurred over (“soor”) is the word for “pig” in Punjabi. And since “das” can mean both “slave” and “disciple,” the vendor's jibe becomes part of the virulent religiosity of partition politics. Self-justificatory religious identity and linguistic contempt degrade a common world; both push us towards annihilation and make mercy impossible.

The second story is from Ismail Kadare's Albanian novel, Three Elegies for Kosovo (1998) about a land where the nightmares of identity are as “ancient and cold as stone” and are inerasable parts of the memories and songs the traditional Serbian and Albanian bards sing. Even when there is peace between the Serbs and the Albanians, or when the Turks are attacking both, ironically their minstrels cannot but sing: “Rise, O Serbs, the Albanians are seizing Kosovo! A black fog has descended — Albanians, to arms, Kosovo is falling to the pernicious Serb!”

Caught in the crossfire

During the wars, a Muslim Turk falls in with Balkan Christians. He continues to pray as a Muslim. However, curious about Christianity and Judaism, he learns to make the sign of the cross and seeks to understand the Jews. Unsurprisingly, he is damned as a heretic by all three religions and must be exterminated because he is an impossible invention of the devil. As he burns at the stake, he screams in his own “strange” language. The crowd is convinced that he is asking for mercy from “Allah”. The inquisitor is sure that in league with the devil, he is chanting “abracadabra” like a sorcerer. A Bosnian thinks that the Turk is screaming the word “ablla,” which means “mother” in Turkish. But word the Turk utters is the world-despairing, faith-negating, terrifying curse, the first Latin word he learnt upon entering the Christian dominated Balkans: “NON,” — “No, nothing beyond the fire and the burning body, the vision of moral and spiritual void.” In the novel, it is the deliberate refusal of people to recognise that other languages and religions are no more than reflections of the same language, religion and self, gave rise to that merciless scream. That scream, uttered by a poor helpless man seeking only an affirmative faith with others in a region known as the “plain of crows” (Kosovo), can still be heard in our times.

We still allow languages to become a curse and religious or ethnic identities to drift into a dangerous hallucination. We must somehow try to find a life-affirming, community-making future through languages and identities.

Alok Bhalla is the author of Partition Dialogues. His four-volume edition of Stories About the Partition Of India (2011) is published by Manohar. Email:

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