Heart-rending stories of common people during the Partition.
As a witness to the bloodshed following Partition, Mohinder Singh Sarna presents the cataclysm as it was — brutal and disturbing — in his collection of short stories, Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition. Sarna’s characters are fictional but their faith in mankind, too, seems be to be crumbling against the backdrop of senseless murder, rape and pillage. The author in a simple, but powerful, way narrates stories of families separated, daughters raped, communities killed and new beginnings. Through these poignant narratives, he shows how history can sometimes be represented far more effectively through emotional accounts rather than through documentation of facts and events.
Sarna’s characters are mostly common people. Their religious identities — as Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs — suddenly become the sole deciders of their fate after the border is drawn. On meeting after Partition, they are distrustful of one another. But as they slowly mingle, they realise that their pasts are similar; they’ve all lost loved ones or been separated from them and, in this similar twisted fate, they find solace in each other as human beings rather than religious beings. This is brought out beautifully in ‘Of one community’ where a Hindu lady, on drinking ‘Muslim water’ instead of ‘Hindu water’, has an urge to throw up when she discovers her ‘mistake’.
Although in most stories — ‘Savage Harvest’, ‘Basant the fool’, ‘The Butcher’, ‘The Crimson Tonga’, ‘Rumour’ — there are have vivid descriptions of carnage, displacement and sorrow, Sarna’s characters are also hopeful. In the introduction, the translator Navtej Sarna, says that this prevents the characters from “wavering from the path of humanity, even when the world around them is dissolving into chaos.”
‘Hope’ describes how an old man withdraws into a world of his own after his children are murdered by a mob. He eagerly awaits the destruction of the world on reading about hydrogen bombs. “With great happiness I have reached the conclusion that the world now will last only a few days,” he says to his neighbour. But when she gives birth to twins and names them after his children — Navjot and Navneet — he is suddenly filled with hope that the world will improve. “Soon life will give birth to powerful new forces, which will slay every hydrogen bomb in existence,” he concludes happily. Small incidents like these change characters’ outlook towards the world rather than government decisions in Sarna’s stories.
The author also pays attention to setting. The tense situation inside the axe-maker’s hut in ‘Savage Harvest’ is metaphorical of the world outside; there is a fire glowing in front of him just as the village outside is burning.
In ‘A village called Laddewala Varaich’, Choudhry Khuda Baksh is killed trying to save young Jagiro from being raped. As he lies dying on a sugar cane field, the salwar of the 15-year-old “begins to grow in his vision”. He finds as he closes his eyes that “countless salwars” hang around him. “They swayed in the wind; they caught in the thorns and were torn to shreds.” Such detailing gives the reader disturbing images of the mindless violence that swept over the country during that period.
However the author’s emotional outpouring makes the reader weary by the end. With the same theme running across all the stories, they are sometimes repetitive.
If the collection was smaller, the book could have been a more compelling read.
Savage Harvest: Stories of Partition; Mohinder Singh Sarna, translation: Navtej Singh Sarna, Rupa, Rs.295.