Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan - Yasmin Khan

Rating: 9/10

For long, most of us have thought we know about partition. The story that our textbooks taught us was a simple one: Pakistan was carved out of India as a land for many Muslims and a partition occurred, one of the largest human displacements ever, and there was a lot of violence in which a lot of people died. We mourned those who died in the violence of partition for a sentence, not even a paragraph. And quickly moved on to celebrate our Tryst With Destiny, often forgetting that we kept our date with destiny after immense pain, bloodshed and hatred.

If only things were that convenient or simple to the people who lived through the traumatic violent months that were the ominous precursors to India and Pakistan's birth. The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan is a stunning book, precisely because it shatters the convenient myths that India, Pakistan and Britain have maintained as history. Yasmin Khan brings to light the confusion and chaos that prevailed during the 'transfer of power' from the British Raj to the Indian and Pakistani governments. 

Words that in retrospect have been inscribed with clarity and meaning - like 'Pakistan', 'independence' - were vague words, the meaning of which differed from person to person in that era! Some questions rang in the hearts and minds of people: 'What exactly was Pakistan going to be? Where would its borders be?' 'Who is a Pakistani? Who is an Indian?' 'What would independence really mean to the poor?' And before they could understand the magnitude of answering these questions, religious violence and ethnic cleansing broke out, partition happened. India and Pakistan were born, leaving behind thousands dead and thousands confused.

Yasmin Khan chronicles the months and events that lead to partition, the terror and trauma that men, women and children went through before two countries came into existence. Dr.Khan analyses with impressive neutrality and encourages the reader to grapple with cold facts and form opinions on what partition actually was. Some incidents that she quotes in her book made my heart beat fast and brought tears to my eyes. For instance:

Urdu journalist Shorish Kashmiri writes: ‘Some young people, whose parents had been butchered and whose sisters and daughters had been left in Pakistan, surrounded Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru). One young man lost his temper and gave Panditji a resounding slap; a slap on the face of the Prime Minister of India. But Panditji said nothing to him. He just placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder. The young man shouted: ‘Give my mother back to me! Bring my sisters to me!’ Panditji’s eyes filled with tears. He said, ‘Your anger is justified, but, be it Pakistan or India, the calamity that has overtaken us is all the same. We have both to pass through it.’

Understanding partition in just an academic point of view is impossible without confronting the emotions that come your way when you read of months of madness and slaughter. Neighbours slaughtering each other, people who once differed with each other on their political beliefs - Congress or the Muslim League - suddenly seeing each other as Hindu or Muslim 'enemies', women, almost 83000 of them 'abducted' on both sides of the border, rape being used as an instrument of war against communities, some politicians and parties aiding and abetting violence, British troops abdicating duty  and simply watching as people died, in a land which they had exploited for more than 200 years and hastily declared independent.

Yet there were also those who at great danger to their lives, saved the lives of friends from other communities. There are inspiring stories of the many social workers and volunteers who set out to heal wounds, wipe tears, rebuild lives, even when their own lives had been torn apart by partition.

There is no doubt about the great tragedy that Partition was. And yes, it ought to be capitalized, just as the Holocaust is. Understanding Partition is crucial for anyone who wants to understand India, Pakistan and indeed their relationship with each other. It saddens me that Partition is used only as a one-word, one-sentence reference, as though it was an event that ought to be remembered, but only as a small axis point. It shouldn't. Partition and its many victims, perpetrators need to be fully understood in the context of the situation in the subcontinent at that time. We need to make our peace with the truths of that turbulent time. 

The Great Partition is mandatory reading for anyone interested in India, Pakistan or the British Raj. It doesn't deal just with the politics of Partition from the elite Delhi perspective, but delves into the heart of the common man, from Lahore to Noakhali to East Bengal, who paid the biggest price for Partition. The book is not written in a racy, fiction-style format and therefore might not be the easiest of reads, but it is a wonderful, thought-provoking academic work that I highly recommend.

I hope to post more excerpts from Dr.Khan's book in the coming weeks, as part of A Passage to the British Raj. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Welcome to the British Raj

 "In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semifeudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England."

With this brilliant line begins Alex Von Tunzelmann's wonderful  Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, a book I highly recommend for its great depiction of the final days of the Raj. The above quote though, is so fitting for the start of our journey, for it gives an idea of what England and India were, before they became Ruler and Ruled. 

The symbol of the  East India company

It all began with the East India company, the predecessor of the British Raj, which initially dealt with trade in India. It was not long before trade became military and administrative control of many parts of India and the East India Company was soon acting as an 'agent of British imperialism in India' till the Great Revolt of 1857* (dismissed by the British as just a 'Sepoy Mutiny' and referred to by several Indian historians as 'The First War of Indian Independence.' The truth, as in most cases, probably lies somewhere between those two descriptions )

The 1857 Revolt shocked the East India Company since it succeeded far more than they thought it would. It was time for a change and the era of the British Raj (British Reign) ruled directly by the Crown, was heralded. It lasted from 1858 to 1947, when Partition tore apart two nations born out of bloodshed and trauma - India and Pakistan. 

The British Raj was an exercise of imperial control over the masses of India, to tap into India's immense wealth, raw material and take advantage of warring rulers of Princely states to establish the might of the British. The Raj was also an exercise where two different civilizations and peoples with little in common, found themselves at a place where they needed to interact with each other.

These interactions fascinate me tremendously, because not only do they showcase the contact between people of different cultures but also serve as a remarkable source of insight into the minds of the people who lived through the Raj and reaped its benefits and disadvantages. 

Unlikely friendships were made, alliances were forged, Englishmen served in India with pride (it wasn't for nothing that India was referred to as the 'Jewel in the Crown' of the British Empire), some became Indophiles, many were born and brought up in India and felt alien only when they went to England. Indians, meanwhile, went to England to be educated and many became Macaulay's Children. It was, in a sense, a wonderful exchange of ideas and cultures. The East met the West, not on equal footing, but it was still a remarkable meeting .

So while rich Indian boys were sent to the best English boarding schools and Universities and Indian children were taught by English governesses, several thousand Englishmen and women began to discover India. And with their help, we discover the British Raj.

Here are the contents of a rather amusing (to me) booklet given to Philip Gallop, a new member of the Royal Air Force stationed in Bombay. With thanks to Genevieve and the BBC:

Welcome to Bombay
Bombay’s citizens are very anxious to ensure that you enjoy yourselves, so that when you move on you will have the happiest memories of their city.
Exposure of your head to sun before 4pm, eating over-ripe fruit or fruits not protected by skin, drinking water from a street fountain, walking bare-footed, drinking intoxicating drinks during the day - especially spirits or soft-drinks from marbled-stoppered bottles, patronising beggars, medicants, fortune-tellers and curio dealers.
Service Organisations:
Freemasonry: Headquarters:
Gallop was also provided a map of Bombay, with specifically marked 'Out of Bounds' areas:
Next week we see what the women, English and Indian, made of each other and the Raj. 
Many thanks to Mel U of The Reading Life for joining in with A Passage to the British Raj. His post featuring stories written during the British Raj from what is now Bangladesh is definitely worth reading.

* For a fictionalised, Bollywoodised take on the Great Revolt of 1857,  watch Mangal Pandey: The Rising starring Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Passage to the British Raj

Every time I have been asked the question 'If you could travel back in time to any period, which era would you prefer?', my answer has been the same. 1858 to 1947, India. In other words, the period of the British Raj that took over from the East India Company to rule the 'jewel in the crown' of the British Empire - India. When the British Raj formally ended, there were two nation states - India and Pakistan - carved out of it through a devastating Partition that killed almost a million in what was one of the largest displacements of people in human history. 

Partition is an event that haunts relations between India and Pakistan till today, an event that lead to as much suffering as it enabled freedom.Therefore understanding the British Raj, in my opinion, goes a long way in understanding the present situation and relationship between the two countries. Indeed the impact of the Raj on India is profound, both negative and positive and for anyone who loves studying history, this time period is a remarkably rich canvas to learn about. 

There are several brilliant books, both fiction and non-fiction, films, incredible photographs and videos from and based on the Raj. The material available is just inexhaustible. I've been on a British Raj reading spree of late, and when I'm not reading books and articles, I'm engrossed in remembering dates and events that lead to Independence and Partition. 

A Passage to the British Raj is my small project of sorts, an attempt to chronicle and compile a host of material - books (A Passage to India, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, The Far Pavilions, The Siege of Krishnapur, Train to Pakistan, The Discovery of India etc), photos, videos, articles etc - that tell the story of the era preceding India's 'tryst with destiny' which can be viewed by anyone interested in the subject.

* This will include book reviews (for useful recommendations, check India- Book Recommendations), movie reviews, excerpts from books, snippets from articles, links to interesting  websites, quotes, photographs and just about anything history and literature-wise relevant to the British Raj. I hope to post as and when something interesting comes my way and hopefully, once a week. 

* This isn't a reading challenge, but I welcome everyone who is interested to learn more about the British Raj and the Indian independence movement to join this little project. 

* You can read things I post, read books/watch movies related to the Raj and review them, share interesting links or information you find, post them on your blog as part of A Passage to the British Raj (as long as you make sure to link to this post).

* Feel free to get involved as per your convenience and leave a comment here to let me know. You do not need to be an expert on the history of the British Raj nor do you need to know a lot on the subject, as long as you're interested in reading about it now. 

* Most crucially, there is no minimum/maximum reading limit or deadline, so enjoy this journey!

Finally, there are several interpretations, sometimes poles apart, of the history of British India and the birth of India and Pakistan. My interest lies solely in reading and trying to understand all sides of the picture. I don't claim to be an expert, merely someone who has a passion to understand the history that made her country. 

That's just about everything and I do hope you will all join me in this exciting passage to the British Raj. Spread the word!

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Emotions of Reading

"After all, reading is arguably a far more creative and imaginative process than writing; when the reader creates emotion in their head, or the colors of the sky during the setting sun, or the smell of a warm summer's breeze on their face, they should reserve as much praise for themselves as the do for the writer - perhaps more." 
 -  Jasper Fforde, The Well of Lost Plots

As always, not only does Mr.Fforde make a good point regarding  fiction, he makes it beautifully. For long people have spoken of the magic of books, how books suck the reader into a world of their own,  how they linger in the hearts and minds of readers long after the last page has been turned. Bookmarks acting as anchors navigating us through the literary world, dogears acting as messy reminders of a sentence much loved: these are remnants of a familiar reading experience. And like Fforde points out, it is the reader's emotional involvement with a book that makes the book a wonderful read.

For me, topics I relate to, themes I love, eras I'm interested in, make the book more personal. I tend to remember the books that moved me to tears more than the ones that were just  thrilling. Indeed when I sit back and think about it, I'm amazed by the power and control that a good book has on its reader: it can make you angry (The White Tiger), reduce you to tears (Curfewed Night), make you long to live in a fictional universe (the Harry Potter series) and simply stay in your mind forever (The Group, anything Austen). Books are far more than the sum of their words and pages.

I distinctly remember refusing to read some books at night, fearing that their topics were too sensitive and that I'd be left with nightmares. Sometimes I just stop at a paragraph, pause, linger and personalize it. I'm now reading Yasmin Khan's brilliant book The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan and when I'm not teary-eyed, I get goosebumps. 

Clearly, Partition is an intensely emotional topic for many Indians and Pakistanis and a book doesn't really seem like the best outlet to learn about it and react to it. But it is. Sitting in a corner, book in hand, I reconcile with the history that made my country and the tragedies and confusions that came with it. Flipping through pages, I stare at events that impacted the subcontinent.

Sure, you could argue that a TV show or a film with its visual impact does the job even better. But there's something rather magical and comforting about sinking into a book and coming out of it understanding the world, looking at things in a different light. And many of those who claim books can change lives do have a point.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Two of my favourite things together: Kashmir and Austen


"To sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment." -  Mansfield Park, Jane Austen 

Kashmir's pristine beauty seems so effortlessly picturesque. While I travelled through this gorgeous place, I had Austen for company. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Passage to India - E.M Forster

Rating: 9/10


A Passage to India is on TIME Magazine's list of the 100 best English novels from 1923 to the present. It is, deservingly, an oft-recommended classic that could be mandatory reading for anyone wishing to make sense of the British Raj and the complex web of relationships and attitudes it spawned between people of different cultures and different races. 

As an enthusiast of all things history, especially related to the British Raj, I'm glad I finally got around to reading Forster's masterpiece. This classic captivated me for the simple fact that Forster is a pleasure to read and he takes on a canvas that is as confusing, myriad and breathtaking as the country it is set in. It is the reader whom Forster takes on a passage to India, the India of the British Raj, showcasing a look into the attitudes, practices and opinions of the people who lived in that time. 

The plot seems deceptively simple: Adela Quested arrives in India along with Mrs.Moore to whose son Ronny serving in India, she might most possibly decide to get married. In their quest to find the 'real India' Ms.Quested and Mrs.Moore decide they need to meet Indians who are the ones oppressed by their British rulers. They meet Dr.Aziz, who is such a complex character I still haven't decided if I like him or not, and strike an unlikely friendship that sets off a series of events that will change the lives of all the characters in this book. 

Dr.Aziz's journey in making friends with Britishers like Cyril Fielding and Mrs.Moore is a wonderful exploration of racism, the scope of a relationship between the rulers and the ruled and the tensions it is subjected to. The story of Miss Quested and Dr.Aziz's misfortunes in the Marabar caves is a wonderful device with which Forster indulges in a brilliant analysis of cultural, religious, racial identities and the impact when they clash.

Forster is at his best when he provides vignettes of the manners and attitudes of the British men who governed India, right from the frivolous, never-ending conversation about Indian weather to startling though not surprising racist comments about Indians. Indeed, if  A Passage to India is anything to go by, Indian weather was the conversation topic of choice in the British Raj. As Ronny remarks:

''There's nothing in India but the weather, my dear mother; it's the alpha and omega of the whole affair' 

Forster is eminently quotable, something that adds to my enjoyment of a book. This is one of my favourite quotes from the book:

"We're out here to do justice and keep the peace. Them's my sentiments. India isn't a drawing-room."

"Your sentiments are those of a god," [Mrs. Moore] said quietly, but it was his manner rather than his sentiments that annoyed her.

Trying to recover his temper, [Ronny] said, "India likes gods."

"And Englishmen like posing as gods."

Forster not only analyzes British attitudes about Indians, but also the clash of personalities between Muslims and Hindus in their India. There are intriguing conversations about the Mughal emperors, each of their contributions to the identity of Muslims in India and the identity of Indians themselves. There are stunningly descriptive, beautifully written passages about the fun and frolic of festivals like Gokul Ashtami (which, as Forster remarks, forms a stunning contrast to the solemn nature of many Christian festivals).

"By sacrificing good taste, this worship achieved what Christianity has shirked: the inclusion of merriment. All spirit as well as all matter must participate in salvation, and if practical jokes are banned, the circle is incomplete."

A Passage to India is clearly written by a writer, who while he may not be an impartial observer nor an encyclopedia of information about the Raj, offers an important perspective that would be foolish to ignore. This book is one I cannot wait to re-read, for there is certainly more than meets the eye of a first-time reader, even though the reader may be armed with a lengthy spoiler-filled introductory analysis. I highly recommend A Passage to India to anyone who loves classics, is interested in the British Raj or likes to understand race and religion in the context of interaction between people of different countries placed in an unequal platform.


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