Book Extract: 15 August - A day to never forget

‘A day of freedom, yes, but a freedom slashed and streaked with blood’, Anis Kidwai recollects of the first Independence Day. We have come a long way, haven’t we?

People migrate after the Partition of India, 1947
People migrate after the Partition of India, 1947

Anis Kidwai

Title: In Freedom’s Shade
Author: Anis Kidwai (Urdu original)
Translator: Ayesha Kidwai (English translation)
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
Pages: 408
Price: Rs 450

A strange bestiality was born in those days. Even those with the most delicate of temperaments today celebrated wildly the misfortunes of others. Even the well-educated, the seemingly sensitive and sensible had enthusiastically joined those stoking the fires of retribution. To think that once we’d have had no hesitation in swearing by their reliability and level-headedness!

I would think—what would those mothers have gone through, as their children were torn from them and hurled into bonfires, when young girls were snatched from their parents, wives wrenched from husbands and made to change their religion?

Those wives, those sisters, hollowed out by the agonies of their experiences, what Hindus or Muslims could they possibly make? May God’s wrath rain on those who did this to them!

Witnessing all this, I would yearn for the kind-hearted Indians of yore, who had lived in amity, albeit in utter subordination to the infamous British rule. At least on the face of it, they were decent and trustworthy and capable of respect for wives, daughters and daughters-in-law.

Book Extract: 15 August - A day to never forget

How things had changed, and so quickly. Until June 1947, Mussoorie had bustled with life. Cinemas and theatres stayed open till 2 a.m. Once, I recall, I had insisted on staying over with a friend, Begum Hayatullah Ansari, and at 2 a.m., we two women walked from Rivera to Charlesville Gate unescorted, without misgiving.

Those days, the Azad Hind Fauj Band used to play every evening at Mall Road, just below the Library. Thousands would gather to hear them—burqa-clad women, [burly] Sikhs, all would be there. Children would be entrusted to pahadi men, who would seat them in baskets and take them for long strolls, returning them unharmed to their parents a few hours later.

Mussoorie was so safe then and the men who plied horses and rickshaws considered so trustworthy that it surprised nobody that a ten-year-old girl, holding the finger of her four-year-old brother, walked from Charlesville to Collectory Bazaar without any harm befalling them.

India’s Partition had been decided by then. Whenever I thought of it, my heart would clutch with foreboding. People had already begun to whisper, ‘Wait and watch, these newcomers (refugees) will surely foment trouble.’

Hindu–Muslim relations were already strained but life still flowed evenly. Our apprehension was that as soon as Partition took place, Britain would seize the opportunity to sow trouble. We were also afraid that such large-scale migration could result in great hardships. Anger mounted in our hearts against our leaders who had agreed to this division.

In June, during Bapu’s prayer meeting in Delhi’s Bhangi Basti, my sister Bilqees—whose passionate temperament always rendered her speech excitable—impetuously decided that she would march up to him to ask why he agreed to this division.

If India was for everyone, and every one of us was to live and die here, why this Partition, this exchange of populations? How could any of us, those who had dreamt so long of a united, victorious, indomitable India, be satisfied with this fragment of a dream?

As soon as the prayers ended and Bapu rose, Bilqees was poised to dart through the crowd to accost him. But as she sprang forward, her husband Wirasat Ali Kidwai, held her back, saying, ‘What are you doing? This is hardly the time. Just wait, another opportunity will arise.’

By the time Bilqees could extricate herself from his restraining hand, Bapu had gone. To this day she regrets the fact that she failed in her mission to vent her feelings in full public view on that day.

I remember well that first 15 August—the designated day of liberation, rung in by the horrifying shrieks of terror resounding from Calcutta across to East and West Punjab. The day when the corpse of Delhi was being mangled underfoot, the day when women were being dishonoured. A day of freedom, yes, but a freedom slashed and streaked with blood. A day choked by smoke and fire.

Government House echoed with the victims’ moans and entreaties, yet we were happy. Or, truthfully, we forced ourselves to be happy. All else aside, the long years of struggle had borne fruit. Whatever else had happened, at least the yoke of slavery was undone. Perhaps with this freedom, the demons of communalism would also soon be exorcised. True, the nation was divided but even separate, the two parts could live in peace and prosperity.

But on this day, even this feeble consolation was not to be available to many of us and we were to experience again a sense of servitude, of alienation, of otherness. I went searching for happiness that day but everywhere I went—and Begum Hayatullah and I had scoured the best part of the city by foot, rickshaw, car—there was the same gloom, the pall of despair that stifled the hope we once nurtured.

The tricolour’s flutter could not lift our hearts, nor the roars of ‘Inquilab Zindabad!’, or celebratory slogans charge us with triumphant pride. Signboards and posters in Hindi seemed to mock us. Hearts and spirits benumbed, our blood was cold.

On that day, India took its first steps back into the past. Foreheads were being anointed with tilaks. Why were brahmins from Banaras being summoned? Why were there frenetic searches for karis to enunciate the Quran? Why was chandan being prepared?

Why were those long beards being carefully groomed? What could Buddhist bhikshus possibly have to do in Government House? Were we to grow accustomed to the sound of wooden khadaus slapping its smooth floors?

Fretting and fuming, I made my way to Government House that night. At the threshold, my head lifted with pride. This imposing entrance to this magnificent building, on which the tricolour proudly fluttered, was now to be the thoroughfare for all citizens—everything here was now ours, everyone who lived here, our comrade. Just as quickly though, the light in my heart was extinguished. The language being spoken around me was even more alien than English. As Josh Malihabadi said:

jisko dewon ke siwa koi samajh na sake / zayr mashq ab hai wo andaz-e-bayaan, e saqi (That which can be comprehended by no-one but the giants/ Is the tongue evidently in use these days, Saqi).

Seated all around on chaukis were Buddhist monks, brahmin priests, Muslim clerics, and God knows who else. Many languages were spoken that day—English, Sanskrit, Arabic, difficult Hindi—but not the sweet tongue that belongs to us all:

jiski har baat mein sau phool mehak uthte hain (In every expression of which a hundred flowers perfume the air). –Josh Malihabadi

So much was said that day but none of us understood a word. Like me, the many women seated around, gaped at the spectacle with choked throats and incredulous eyes and, when it was over, returned home feeling as if the ground had shifted beneath our feet.

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