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Literature and the curse of communalism

Literature is a powerful tool that helps writers plumb the depths of the human psyche and pluck out the hidden dependencies and scars of a particular era. Although fiction allows writers the latitude to create and imagine lives, most authors of political novels tend to focus on capturing the emotional zeitgeist of the times. Through an emphasis on the large movements of history, they seek to understand the private moments of sadness and explore the sounds and flavours of a forgotten era.

Partition has been billed as a distressing phase in the subcontinent’s history. The tragedy and turmoil that surrounded the birth of Pakistan has been likened to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Many novelists from India and Pakistan have provided scathing accounts of this period.

A majority of fiction presents a darkened view of a historical moment that brought a tectonic shift in priorities and redrew the map of the subcontinent. More often than not, these works build narratives around political themes and motifs to recreate the times and bring emotions to the fore.

The nineteenth century French writer Stendhal would have viewed the growing emphasis on politics as little more than a gunshot in the middle of concert. Orhan Pamuk firmly believes such political novels must accomplish the unrealistic task of understanding everyone to “construct the largest whole”. This method demands a degree of objectivity that is seldom found in political novels about Partition as it is difficult to achieve.

Most works about Partition tend to emphasise the idea of communal violence without understanding its essence. The focus on communalism becomes a tautological flaw in these books as the violence stoked by religious differences becomes the cause and the consequence of the conflict.

Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India is possibly the only novel that deviates from this communitarian focus as the story is told from the perspective of an impartial observer. The narrator not only belongs to the Parsi community, but is insulated from the prejudices that are usually entrenched in the minds of adults. As a result, references to Gandhi, Jinnah, Master Tara Singh and even Lord Mountbatten are laced with objectivity. Sidhwa does not pin the blame on either community for the violence that surrounded Partition. To the contrary, she presents the foibles of each community in a nuanced manner.

On the other hand, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan falls into the trap of explaining the hysteria and violence through the lens of communalism. Throughout the novel, the emphasis remains on highlighting the violence orchestrated by Muslims and portraying the atrocities of Sikhs as a reaction to this bloodshed.

Such biased interpretations of a particular era serve to explain how and why political novels are akin to gunshots in the midst of a concert.

However, if literature is to achieve the rare distinction of exploring human sensibilities at a particular stage in history, it must look beyond raw hostilities and put its finger on the pulse of the common man. Fiction by Anita Desai has looked beyond communalism and the blame game and explored the consequences of Partition. For instance, In Custody puts the spotlight on the dwindling influence of Urdu in India and a Hindi professor’s quest to revive his passion for a language he is compelled to forget. In a similar vein, Sorayya Khan’s Five Queen’s Road unravels the post-Partition world of a family without delving deeper into the political realm.

Overall, it is difficult to find an objective fictional account of Partition unless the author fast-forwards his or her narrative to a time when the violence is a thing of the past. This is predominantly because it is difficult to look beyond the scars of communalism and develop a neutral stance.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 10:14:08 PM |

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