Before they granted India its independence in 1947, British leaders divided the country into majority Hindu India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan. The partition of India was one of the major geopolitical cataclysms in history.
In its immediate aftermath, more than 1 million people were killed. An estimated 8 million — no one knows the exact number — were forced to flee their centuries-old ancestral homes to the safety of newly drawn borders.
Although most Indians and Pakistanis are too young to have experienced those fateful events, the narrative of the partition still resonates with people in both countries. Political and religious leaders assign blame for the carnage to the other side.
In that hyper-charged, paranoid climate, writers on both sides of the divide have looked at suffering through the prism of humanity. Today, a large body of partition literature in English, Urdu, and Hindi helps us see events beyond clichés, labels, and partisan self-righteousness.
One such writer was the late Saadat Hassan Manto. His short stories, written in Urdu, provide a human face to impersonal statistics of the partition. He brought them to life in vivid and compelling prose.
Ayesha Jalal, an expert on the partition, directs the Center for South Asian and Indian Ocean Studies at Tufts University in Boston. She has published a number of scholarly books on the partition.
In a recent public lecture at the University of Toledo, Ms. Jalal explored the partition through Mr. Manto’s short stories. She used the imagery created by Mr. Manto to underscore the enormous human tragedy that the partition brought in its wake.
In a story titled Khol Do (“Open Up”), a gang-rape victim, missing for days, is discovered by her father in a hospital. The girl is in a daze and barely breathing.
To get more air in the room, the doctor points to the window and says: “Open up.” The girl stirs, reaches for the drawstring of her pajama bottoms, and pulls them down. Thousands of similar other stories were scattered in the debris of the upheaval.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars since1947. Relations between the two countries have had their ups and downs.
Yet there has not been a unified effort by both countries to confront the demons of the partition and come to terms with each other’s existence. Surprisingly, there still is a groundswell of goodwill between people on both sides.
There is talk of more trade, relaxed visa policies, and exchange visits. But nothing much comes out of it.
The people of India and Pakistan have much more that unites them than that divides them. In addition to a millennium-old history, they share music, arts, food, and cultural traditions.
Perhaps they should consider something in the spirit of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. India and Pakistan could ask each other for forgiveness.
One of Mr. Manto’s short stories revolves around a man in a mental asylum who is sent to India because he is a Sikh. The man does not comprehend the sea change around him. He dies sprawling across the no-man’s-land at the crossing between India and Pakistan.
On a sabbatical in Amritsar, India, some years ago, I was invited to speak to the Rotary Club. I spoke about partition. I suggested we should erect a monument where Toba Tek Singh, the character in Mr. Manto’s story, died.
It should show a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Sikh standing with their heads bowed in shame. The inscription would read: We are ashamed of what we did to each other at the time of the partition. An artist friend of mine later provided an illustration.
Despite a friendly audience, my suggestion was received in total silence. We have a lot more work to do.
Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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