A moving and visceral account of Partition

It reflects so many attributes of the times we are living in, becoming, hopefully, a veritable lesson for whoever reads it

Visuals from the partition of India in 1947
Visuals from the partition of India in 1947

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

Fikr Taunsvi was the pen name of Ram Lal Bhatia. Taunsvi was a noted columnist and satirist in Urdu, most well known for his column on social satire, “Pyaaz Ke Chhilke (Onion Skins)”, that was published in the Urdu daily Milap. He had lived in Lahore till he migrated to Amritsar after India gained independence in 1947.

Taunsvi’s Urdu book Chhata Darya, now available in an English translation by Maaz Bin Bilal as The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India, is a survivor’s account through three months during the days leading up to Partition and after it. Written between August 9, 1947 and November 8, 1947, it is a moving and visceral description of the brutality, hypocrisy, and the debilitating feeling of self-doubt in which every person affected by Partition was mired in.

Taunsvi was a satirist and his sharp wit questions a number of issues and individuals, but the dominant mood in this book is not satire but realism. Taunsvi’s unflinching and matter-of-fact description of the violence that marked Partition – which includes an anecdote about the murder of his own daughter – is shocking and eye-opening at the same time. In fact, I could draw parallel between some of the anecdotes mentioned in Taunsvi’s journal and certain things taking place in the present, and I wondered if Taunsvi had been blessed with the gift of premonition.

One day before India celebrated her 73rd Independence Day, a local court in Rajasthan acquitted six out of the nine accused who allegedly lynched Pehlu Khan to death in April, 2017. Khan, a 55-year-old resident of Haryana, was a dairy farmer who had gone to a cattle fair in Jaipur to buy cows. He had appropriate papers with him to buy and transport cattle. Yet, the cow vigilantes attacked him and his companions, and Khan, soon after, succumbed to his injuries. If this act of violence and cow vigilantism was not shocking enough, there was a marked apathy shown towards Khan’s kin despite him having given a dying declaration against those who lynched him and his lynching being recorded on a phone camera.

How did this apathy grow? Why was the life of a man not found important enough to be protected? And even after his death, why was that man denied justice even though he had testified against the accused?

In the journal entry in The Sixth River, dated August 25, 1947 – when communal violence following Partition were such that “bloodied trains [reached] Lahore station, and the platforms [got] covered with mounds of corpses” and “then groups of Muslim mujahideen [attacked] Hindu-Sikh trains passing through Pakistan to cover in human blood the platforms of Amritsar, Jallandhar and Ludhiana.”

Taunsvi writes, “Now, [after Partition,] Pakistan and India even have two independent governments. The people want these governments to prosper. And the people are with their leaders, ready to lose their heads on their orders. Then these people, why are they losing their heads without the orders of their leaders? Their leaders have not told them: go kill each other, ruin your settlements. Throw the Hindu out of Pakistan, don’t let the Muslim remain in India. Where has this face of hatred come from?”

Maybe this hatred was already there. Maybe in our society the ‘Other’ has always been seen as a threat. In a society divided already by walls of religion, community, region, political opinion, lifestyle, etc., it is the garb of propriety that maintains a show of harmony. Beneath this garb, however, the river of repulsion against the ‘Other’ quietly flows, unexpressed, unseen; till there comes a time when the ‘Other’ is seen as an enemy to be fought and dominated. Partition, perhaps, was one such time. In recent times, atrocities against Dalits, Adivasis, and minorities too could be seen as instances of this Othering exercise. With several partitions in our midst even now, is it surprising that there was apathy on the lynching of one ‘Other’? Perhaps the sentiments against the ‘Other’ are ingrained in the psyche of our society, and Taunsvi realised and expressed it quite early on.

Taunsvi’s recollection of the hypocrisy of the leaders and the ordinary people’s blind faith in these same leaders is heartbreaking. Just like he does with the double standards of the society, Taunsvi also unmasks some of the most celebrated figures from the history of the sub-continent. His journal entry on November 3, 1947, while he was at a gathering addressed by M. A. Jinnah in Lahore, reads: “After speaking for four-five minutes, the Quaid-e-Azam declared: ‘Hereon, my speech will be in English, because the international press representatives do not understand our tongue…and the crowd was listening to the English speech like mute, deaf and blind people. As if asking, What is your command for us, O Quaid?”

Even though The Sixth River ends with a chapter titled “Come, Let Us Look for the Dawn Again (Aao Phir Subha ko Dhuundein)”, there is no hope in sight in Taunsvi’s words. His last journal entry is from November 8, 1947, when Taunsvi had already reached Khalsa College Camp in Amritsar as a refugee: “Freedom’s sweet and enthusiastic vision was being shattered. Where will we go now? What will we do now? In this independent nation, who will give us a place to sleep, bread to fill our stomachs and cloth to cover our bodies? Who is he? Who is that person? Who told us that you are free now and are free to play romantic games with the moon and the stars?”

Taunsvi’s deeply moving prose comes from the heart of a person who has lost his all. It is a testimony to the heavy price that the ordinary, unsuspecting people have to pay as they are played in the ruthless arena of politics. Taunsvi’s The Sixth River is important not only for being a heartfelt account of the Partition, but also because it reflects so many attributes of the times we are living in, becoming, hopefully, a veritable lesson for whoever reads it.

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