Ye daagh daagh ujaalaa, ye shab-gaziida sahar,
Vo intizaar thaa jis-kaa, ye vo sahar to nahiin
Ye vo sahar to nahiin jis-kii aarzu lekar
Chale the yaar ke mil-jayegi kahiin na kahin…
(Translation by Agha Shahid Ali :
These tarnished rays, this night-smudged light
This is not that Dawn for which, ravished with freedom,
we had set out in sheer longing…..)
These lines, penned by the renowned Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, capture the bitter loss and pathos that most people of both India and the newly created Pakistan felt in August 1947. The much fought for and coveted independence after two centuries of oppressive British rule was won, but at what cost? The Partition of India into two separate nations, India and Pakistan, was the largest forced mass-migration in the world. It saw approximately 15 million people (Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims) being displaced and more than 1 million being killed in riots. Not surprisingly, there have been many outstanding depictions of partition in literature (from both sides of the border) and cinema, focussing on the bloody riots and their aftermath as people tried to reconstruct their lives fresh. One such outstanding novel that covered this period (the days preceding the mayhem and just after) is the Hindi novel, Jhoota Sach. Written by the legendary Hindi writer, Yashpal, this novel is considered perhaps the finest work on partition in at least the Hindi language. Published in two volumes, Vatan aur Desh (1958) and Desh ka bhavishya (1960), the English translation of this momentous work, compared often to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, was published for the first time in 2010. Translated by the author’s son Anand, it is titled This is not that dawn – a direct reference to Faiz’s lines – ‘yeh vo sahar to nahin’.
The novel is vast and wide ranging in its scope, encompassing the time period between 1942 (the days of the Quit India movement in undivided India) to circa 1957 (after the second general elections in free India). We are introduced to our protagonists who belong to a family residing in the lower middle class predominantly Hindu neighbourhood, Bholapande gali in Lahore. Yashpal in his early life as a revolutionary freedom fighter (he was one of the founding members of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Army along with Chandrasekhar Azad, Bhagat Singh and Sukhdev in 1928) had lived in Lahore in the twenties. He had been arrested and sentenced to a rigorous 14 year imprisonment in 1931. After the Congress formed the government in the United Provinces in 1937, he was released from jail and had been forbidden from visiting Punjab again. In 1955, on his way to the then USSR, he visited Lahore and was struck by how different it was, a mere shadow of its former jolly and happy self. This prompted him to base this work in Lahore – a city that symbolised the dreams and ideals of his youth.
The author captures the scenes and sights of the city remarkably and in adequate detail. Through the two main protagonists and their day-today lives, we get to experience the various facets of life in Lahore. The novel begins with the death of an old lady in a Lahore mohalla and we are led into a scene depicting the ritual mourning (siapa ceremony, that is no longer followed now and the meaning of the word has itself changed to mean ‘problem‘.) The main protagonists Jaidev Puri, an idealistic, brilliant young man and his sister Tara Puri are this old lady’s grand children. They are the children of her younger son, the poor but upright Master Ramlubhaya and his wife Bhagwanti. They live in Bholapande gali and we enter their world, as it was, in the days leading up to the partition. The neighbourhood comes alive in the descriptions and we get familiar with the inhabitants- we know what they do, wear, eat and how they live. The shock therefore when their lives are completely torn asunder due to the violence of the bloody partition is compounded. In historical hindsight, yes we know that these characters will face extreme trials and tribulations and may not even make it through. Despite this knowledge, the incidents described did take me aback. It imparts the novel a thriller-like quality as the reader is left wanting to know more.
The characters are well-rounded and we see their growth. The narrative is well balanced – the author does not take sides, be it with regard to the myriad characters from different classes (whom we see in all their shades) and the overall arching politics of the time. The Britishers are not completely blamed for the partition and the ensuing events. We are shown how radical Hindus and Muslims are equally responsible for the madness. The tone and style of writing is realistic – the terror, violence, the uprooting of these characters from their vatan and journey towards their desh is told vividly. 15th August 1947 arrives (for us the readers) in Nainital, at a club, where the rich and the upper middle class are celebrating. Jaidev is there along with his upper middle class girlfriend Kanak, her sister Kanta and brother-in-law Mahendra Nayyar. The historic moment is there, the tricolour is unfurled and India is independent. The mood is of celebration, among the rich and the poor, the tourists and the natives. And by contrast, we then are taken back to Lahore, where Tara is presumed to be dead, burnt, a day after her marriage to the unsuitable Somraj Sahni when her in-laws house gets burnt by some muslims. No, she is not dead, she tries escaping only to be abducted and raped by a Muslim man. She then is rescued by some ladies who send her to the house of a devout Muslim, Hafiz Inayat Ali, some galis away from her house. That is where she is when green flags are flown all over homes in the newly created Pakistan on 14th August, 1947. By highlighting the celebrations and purposely playing down the bloody partition, the irony is heightened. Tara’s tribulations continue when she first refuses to convert to Islam and then tries to get to a refugee camp. Instead she is held captive in a room in Shaikhupura under sub-human circumstances with eleven other Hindu women (with who have had harrowing experiences) waiting to be sold. She somehow finds her way to the refugee camps in India and on the way witnesses heart-breaking scenes as the caravans of refugees pass from one side to the other. The scenes told tales of atrocities, every bit inhuman and horrid, irrespective of the side they were committed on. Humanity was indeed forgotten in those weeks of madness. As the bus reaches its destination (the refugee camp in Amritsar, India), the driver comments sardonically, “The people in that other caravan were going to their new country too, leaving behind their old homeland. The countries of human beings have been turned into nations by religion. Those that God had created as one have been torn apart by the distrust of others and all in the name of God.” With this, Part I ends.
Part II focusses on how these refugees from Lahore find their way in independent India. On one hand you have the migrant refugee camps, people are stuck there having lost their little material possessions and families (too), and no hope or light in sight. And on the other hand, you have the upper middle class Punjabis whose tensions are more about their plush homes (back in Pakistan) being forcibly occupied and their assets frozen in bank accounts in Pakistan. They may not be in dire straits as the migrant lower class refugees, but the sense of displacement and lower standards of living are keenly felt. Kanak’s father, Pandit Giridharilal has lost his home and printing press. Her brother-in-law’s assets and gold are all stuck in Lahore and things are a bit strained. Kanak therefore goes out to look for employment, Jaidev on the other hand (now separated from Kanak and his entire family, due to circumstances – he hears about the violence in Lahore and sets off to locate his family) ends up a refugee in Jalandhar. By the end of part II, Jaidev, the idealist writer we knew in part I, has compromised on his principles for material gains and patronage from the Congress leader Sood. Tara ends up in a migrant camp in Delhi and due to her good English skills and education soon gets employment first as a governess in an influential family and then gets recruited into the department of rehabilitation. By the end of the novel, she has risen to the rank of an undersecretary with the Govt of India. The reintegration of these displaced characters has been sketched vividly – we celebrate their successes and growths and at the same time, get a sense of the overall mood in those early years of Independent India. Historical incidents are intertwined with these characters’ lives and have a place. Gandhi’s fast in Birla house and his assassination on January 30, 1948, the first general elections of 1951 are all depicted.
The author is much modern and ‘feminist’ in his take on marriage and gender equality. His sympathies lie clearly with the women characters (irrespective of their religion) and they are never caricatured. Their trials and tribulations, be it Tara, Urmila, Kanak or Sheelo or Banti, are viewed and depicted with a critical look at the prevailing patriarchal notions and customs. Jaidev Puri may have been our main guy in the earlier part, but his patriarchal views and hypocritical nature lie exposed. On the other hand, to a great extent, the author shows us that these women, despite their appalling experiences during partition, do enjoy more freedom and independence now in Delhi than they would have, had life gone on unchanged in Lahore. Sheelo leaves her abusive husband to marry the man she loved. Kanak is firmly supported by her father when she wants to divorce Jaidev Puri. Even the much used Urmila finds happiness in marriage. She becomes independent after her training as a nurse; something that would have been unthinkable in Lahore as she was a widow. Tara, the real protagonist of the story, emerges a winner. Inspite of those harrowing experiences, she comes out shining stronger and her life is much better at the end. Adversity indeed exposes the true strength and character of a person and this is what the author shows. Jaidev Puri chooses the easier path by compromising on his principles while Tara emerges a better, good and a stronger person.
As mentioned before, the canvas of the story is extremely vast and panoramic. The author, with his grip on current events of the day and social analysis, manages to recreate the world he lived in perfectly. The characters may be fictional but the picture of the society, replete with its challenges, issues, and politics is credible and well-balanced. Disillusionment had started setting in Independent India, already by the time this work was written. Corruption had started in the political and government circles and murmurs against the ruling political establishment were increasing by the day.
This explains why the author titled the novel so: Jhoota Sach or False truth. India had become independent but the people were still not truly free. However, the end of the novel is optimistic – Kanak is about to get a legal divorce, Tara and Dr Nath get exonerated and Puri’s patron, the self-serving Congress politician Sood is defeated in the second general elections. As Nath says, ” …the voice of people cannot be silenced for all time. It’s the people, not politicians and government ministers, who hold the country’s future in their hands.”
History and fiction come together amazingly making this book an extremely readable page-turner. I thoroughly enjoyed this English translation of this unputdownable classic so much that I now plan to read it in its original. Definitely worth a read!