In Review Books

A Time of Madness: A memoir of Partition

Published Mar 16, 2018 02:19am

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Rashid (right) with Mohinder Pratap Sehgal on the roof of Habib Manzil
Rashid (right) with Mohinder Pratap Sehgal on the roof of Habib Manzil

In a recently published article (in Eos on October 8, 2017), author Salman Rashid reflects on a bygone memory and almost mournfully asserts, “that past though is another country … ” as though that past is a chapter closed shut, and no matter how alluring at the time, of no relevance or concern anymore. In complete contrast, A Time of Madness, written just a tad earlier, if anything, returns to a tumultuous past and a physical and emotional journey of self-discovery into that past in a time warp.

The author belongs to a Muslim family residing in Jalandhar, in pre-Partition united Punjab, with roots over several generations in their obscure ancestral village of Ughi not too far away. Their life is shattered by the cataclysm of Partition. The communal fires that rage all around drive the family to flee for their lives through a sea of blood and tears to the safety of Pakistan. All too soon an iron curtain drops; Punjab is split into two and sealed. No one and nothing moves either way. Rashid’s family busies itself in making a new beginning in Lahore. The elders go silent, as though petrified by the shock of dispossession and the horror of bloodletting. A Sicilian ‘omertà’ descends — their pre-1947 existence surgically removed and locked away in another country.

There is, nevertheless, the occasional whisper, a story, anecdote or episode – mention of grandpa Badruddin, of grandma and their three daughters left behind – but the only tangible link to the past is a 1940 photograph of Badruddin seated in an easy chair in the courtyard of their home in Jalandhar! On the other hand, the author hears chatter from other migrant families who, like his own, had crossed the line drawn by Radcliffe, and their mostly tall tales of fame, influence and wealth contrast with the family’s own decidedly middle-class situation. Rashid’s appetite to discover his roots is sharpened but the opportunity to explore arrives 40 long years later.

In 2008, the author sallies forth “across Wagah on foot” and loops over Delhi, Jalandhar and Ughi, tracing the markers of his family. The journey is overfull with descriptions of the Badruddin family home on Railway Road and his wife’s some lanes away; the warmth and hospitality of his facilitators, ever-ready to assist; the welcome and familiarity of the strangers who now inhabit these spaces; the triumph of good over evil at Jassar Bridge, where the railway line crosses the river Ravi.

Pundit Fakir Chand Sangar (left) , who remembers Rashid’s grandfather, with his brother in Ughi
Pundit Fakir Chand Sangar (left) , who remembers Rashid’s grandfather, with his brother in Ughi

Of course, the pièce de résistance is the re-enactment of the gory slaughter of the gentle and venerable Doctor Badruddin, with all the family members surrounding him, at the hands of a Hindu mob. This unknown fate of the Badruddins had always rankled in the mind of his Pakistani grandson (the author). But now the devil has been set to rest like some cathartic experience. It is best to read all this in its original, not in paraphrase.

As regards physical appearances, the observations are striking — the abundance of wine shops and of women riding motorbikes. Otherwise, the landscape on either side of the fence is nondescript and quite similar.

The narrative is interspersed with observations and comments with deeper connotations. The pervasive evil of the communal savagery is juxtaposed against the innate goodness of a few courageous men of conscience. Though a time of malevolence and madness, humanity and human kindness are also somewhere present. To heal the wound of Partition, each side, Muslim and Hindu, must recognize its guilt in that catastrophe and seek forgiveness of the other, just as the author and Mohinder Pratap have done on an individual level.

Another facet is the inevitability of punishment pursuing crime — nemesis is embedded in and integral to the law of nature. Thus states Charan Singh, the butcher of innocent Muslims in Buttar Khurd: “Now I pay for my crime against humanity. My sight is gone because I sinned against my own brothers. I killed without remorse and now the Parmatama punishes me. I have suffered this miserable life and do not know how much longer I must live.” A mirror reflection is seen on the other side where Karim Baksh Teli, the murderer of Sikhs in Laliani, “passed away blind and crippled ... tormented by grief and shame ... convinced his blindness and chronic caducity was divine retribution”.

Peculiar and gratuitous is the indictment beyond reason of the role of the Muslim leadership in Partition and the blowback of the experience of Partition in the travails of present-day Pakistan. A few criticisms may best bear the point, for example: “the Muslim league felt free to play footsie with the Raj” and was “busy fanning communalism to bolster the Two-Nation Theory”; the Two-Nation Theory was concocted by Jinnah “only after he was sidelined by Mahatma Gandhi”; the responsibility for the violence fell upon the Muslims since “encouraged by the events of the Direct Action by Muslims the first killings in Rawalpindi occurred … the prelude to the mayhem of Pakistan had begun”. As for the blowback, the author judges that Pakistan inherited “lust for lucre” and “internalized savagery” and “a blood lust”.

The short memoir is an easy and interesting reading. It is an embellished travelogue — a genre which distinguishes the author. As for its philosophical musings — what can one say!


This article was published in the Herald's March 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.