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The thin red line: ‘The Unsafe Asylum – Stories of Partition and Madness’ by Anirudh Kala

Lacerated: Pakistani rangers close the gate at Wagah.   | Photo Credit: Arif Ali

I found Anirudh Kala’s profession to be of interest while reading his collection of short stories. Dr. Kala is a psychiatrist of repute who has worked on mental health initiatives between India and Pakistan. As such, he is well-suited to uncover the trauma and psychoses that Partition caused in us as nations and in Punjab as a society.

The unsettling but deeply humane interlinked stories in The Unsafe Asylum are arranged along two major lines: Rulda and Fattu, a Sikh and a Muslim consigned to the asylum during Partition amidst talk of exchange of inmates between the two countries, and the lives of Dr. Prakash Kohli and his family, now settled in Chandigarh, a city with no history. The stories are located almost equally in what is now Pakistan, in India, with some overlap between the countries, and in England.

Who is mad?

Kala’s punch lies in depicting not the actual course of events but in showing how Partition affected the protagonists. The stories evoke myriad emotions and raise questions that defy labels of madness and sanity to bring the reader closer to the realisation of what othering does to us as a people, as a society.

The collection opens in June 1947 with the murder of a Muslim psychiatrist in Lahore by a Sikh army officer. The officer, having lost his family to mob violence, had sworn to kill 10 people that night. He kills just one, the doctor. Years later, the son of the psychiatrist, now a psychiatrist himself, visits India ostensibly to watch a cricket match but actually to meet his father’s murderer. There is no rancour but there is acknowledgement, a closure.

The thin red line: ‘The Unsafe Asylum – Stories of Partition and Madness’ by Anirudh Kala

It sets the tone of the variety of stories — straightforward, flashbacks, diary notes, monologues — of losses of lives and belongings, memory and sanity, that Kala tells with a sense of balance, interspersed with poignant vignettes from Prakash’s life. Prakash’s quest to learn why fewer patients than the number registered were exchanged at Partition is the sort of question a whole generation has asked but not found answers. Partition lacerated the shared culture and language of the land by drawing a geographical and political boundary.

This comes out poignantly in a contrast between the past and the present: as a child Prakash easily sought, and got, oranges from the other side of the non-existent border, but now his daughter-in-law has to take a series of special permissions, which can as casually be denied, to even cross Wagah on foot.

Intergenerational trauma

A few years after Partition, the two countries sought to rehabilitate the abducted women from both sides. The plan lacked sensitivity and consent, which comes through in Harpreet Cheema’s story. Harpreet, abandoned by her husband, has agreed to marry the likeable Aslam after waiting for a few years. She is forcibly returned to India, where she has nobody.

The psychosis of an unnamed protagonist unravels when she starts caring for her mother haunted by violence. Slowly, her brother, her sister and finally she herself fall prey to the hauntings and turn against the psychiatrist. It shows how intergenerational trauma, real or perceived, hounds families across generations. There is a Mr. Haq in Lahore who psychosomatically aligns himself with Amitabh Bachchan and prays for his health; young Brij, who after the Shimla Accord, is sure Benazir Bhutto is in love with him. These stories may seem superficially hilarious but are deeply unsettling.

Kala’s experience as a psychiatrist shows in how he sketches out personalities, manias, character traits. The best passages consist of Rulda’s and Fattu’s speeches. Unlike Beckett’s and Manto’s gibberish, their dialogues are smart, witty, on the verge of normalcy — through them Kala problematises the idea of what we call madness. By placing Rulda’s homecoming in the midst of the 1984 pogrom, Kala shows that the normal is a construct of social, cultural, religious, and political biases.

The two plot-lines match in terms of story placement, but some of the Prakash stories are in first person and others in third person. This jars, but also points to the crux of our inability to tell unmarred stories of Partition. Perhaps a uniform point of view is impossible while recounting an event of such magnitude.

The writer is working on a non-fiction book on Punjab.

The Unsafe Asylum – Stories of Partition and Madness; Anirudh Kala, Speaking Tiger, ₹350

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2022 1:07:49 AM |

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