This morning I finished recording a panel discussion on “Children’s literature in India” at All India Radio, the national radio channel. After the fabulously animated session was over, the producer informed us about the magnificent history of the table that we were recording at.
This table is where the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, made his “Tryst of Destiny” speech.
This table is where Mahatma Gandhi appealed to the nation to stop rioting. It was the one and only time that he visited the AIR studios — 12 Nov 1947.
This table is where Emergency was declared.
All India Radio has ensured that it is preserved and used. In all these decades they have never changed the bar from which the microphones hang.
Needless to say, all of us had goosebumps, by the time the producer finished his story.
Perhaps the producer was so pleased with the outcome of the recording. He really liked it. Truly, I am glad he did not tell us earlier. The moment he did, all of us jumped out of our seats. It just seemed surreal to be at the same desk where so many defining moments of our country’s history had played out. Apparently, most of the AIR employees are told this when they are training for their posts. But most do not share it with their guests as they are usually in a tearing hurry to leave after the recording.
Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of our conversation where I shared a lot of our publishing history with reference to children’s literature. Made a point to connect it with developments in modern India. Maybe the producer was responding to the histories we were sharing? I do not know. It just happened so spontaneously.
I have no idea why were singled out for this precious piece of news. But this is a privilege indeed to be at the same table that has witnessed so much of modern Indian history.
Below are photographs of display cabinets in the foyer of AIR showcasing sound recording equipment.
…If religion was the basis of nationality, why there would be multiple nations in India. These nations exist in most villages, in varying proportions, with no boundaries. A Bengali Hindu and a Bengali Muslim live together, speak the same language, share the same customs. In Panjab, it is not uncommon in Hindu homes for the eldest son to be brought up a Sikh. Would that therefore mean two nations in one home? p.159
The first volume of “The Partition Trilogy” by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar , entitled Lahore is to be released very soon. When it is available in the market, buy it. Read it. It is excellent.
The publicity blurb states the following:
Set in the months leading up to and following India obtaining freedom in 1947, this trilogy is an exploration of events, exigencies and decisions that led to the independence of India, its concomitant partition, and the accession of princely states alongside. A literary political thriller that captures the frenzy of the time, the series is set in Delhi, Lahore, Hyderabad and Kashmir. Covering a vast canvas, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhai Patel and Lord Mountbatten [ the text rather disparagingly refers to him as “Dickie” instead of “Lord”] share space in the trilogy with the ordinary people from the cities that were affected by the partition and the reorganization of the states.
Lahore is a very well-told story, delineating step-by-step the events that led to the subcontinent’s independence from its British colonial rulers and the heavy cost in terms of human lives. The story also focusses on the irrational hatred that consumed people. The author attempts a fine balance between the political events that were taking place at a rapid pace, sometimes leaving the politicians and administrators bewildered at the speed at which it was all happening, with that of the events engulfing common people. She offers insights into the macro- and micro- levels of decisions that needed to be taken by the British, and incoming Indian and Pakistani governments. The story moves extremely fast, aping the historical events. Lahore seems to based on extensive research involving historical documents, accounts, testimonies, more contemporary analysis that has been unearthed of the events that took place nearly seventy-five years ago. It is perceptible in the tenor of writing. It seeps through in the descriptions of the real and imagined characters — the state-level decisions that were being taken to manage the handing over of governance by the British to the Indians/Pakistanis, albeit the narrative focusses more on the Indian side; the brutal hacking of people on the streets simply because they were of the opposite community (“Communal rioting was spreading,as if by chain reaction”); the unreasonable acts of violence in neighbourhoods towards the “other” such as the fictionalised account of the Muslim fruit seller being shunted out of a predominantly Hindu colony ( eerily echoing present day India where a few days ago a similar act occurred towards a Muslim bangle seller in Indore); or the vicious assault, kidnapping and raping of women where often they were left to their fate ( “Nobody moved in pursuit, nobody seemed to have noticed her disappearance— or nobody had the energy left to care.”).
There is much, much more to absorb. It requires a keen historian’s eye to verify if the facts portrayed in this novel are as close to the truth as possible. In terms of the broader arc, the depiction of the events is close to what is evident in history books and the many oral testimonies that came tumbling out in the older generations as they recalled 1947 while witnessing the communal riots that had broken out in Delhi in 1984. The chilling parallels between the two were unmistakable. For instance, my grandfather, who was the last ICS officer, suddenly began to remember the 1947 horrors that he saw as a young officer. So much of what Manreet Sodhi Someshwar documents of the officers making lists of divvying up office furniture, watching people being slaughtered in the streets, or houses being burnt to the ground with families inside it are much of what my grandfather has recorded in his oral testimony at the Teen Murti Library. Apparently it is the longest oral testimony (4vols) ever recorded. It is also very familiar to those of us who have seen these riots. It is as if we as a nation cannot get rid of these violent memories and have made violence part and parcel of our lives. Today, with social media, recordings of such incidents spread like wildfire, igniting even more in other regions. It is incumbent upon us as responsible citizens of a democracy to remember the horrendous events of the past and learn to move on, rather than nurse communal hatred and replicate pogroms.
More than forty percent of the 1.4 billion Indian population was born after 1991, many of whom are unfamiliar with modern Indian history. But it can be accessed through various ways. By reading historical fiction such as Lahore in conjunction with history books such as Bipan Chandra’s History of Modern India and of course watching the classic film by Richard Attenborough, Gandhi, available in English and Hindi.
Lahore is truly magnificent. Although it is inexplicable why the book title is Lahore when the chapters spell it as “Laur”. It should be submitted for historical fiction literary prizes such as “Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize” that is open to books published in the previous year in the Commonwealth. It would also be interesting to see a conversation between British writer Jamila Gavin who wrote the “Surya Trilogy” and Manreet Sodhi Someshwar as they both grapple with the events of 1947. Ideally Salman Rushdie should be invited to participate too given how his recent collection of essays dwells upon many of the themes that the other two writers tackle. Having said that there are many more writers who can be invited but this trio in conversation would make for a phenomenal conversation.
Buy it once it is available.
28 August 2021
PS I had posted this review on Facebook. Later Manreet Sodhi Someshwar shared it as her Facebook story. Here is a screenshot of it.
My Life and Struggle: The Autobiography of Abdul Ghaffar Khan by the Frontier Gandhi ( Roli Books) has been translated from the Pukhto by ex-bureaucrat Imtiaz Ahmad Sahibzada. This book recounts the life of the freedom fighter till 1947 when the subcontinent gained its Independence from the British colonial rulers. Considering Bacha Khan or Badshah Khan ( as some Indians like to call him) lived till 1988, nearly 47 years of his life is missing from this text. Nevertheless it is an important book as it maps a part of history, especially of a community, of the North-West Frontier of British India ( now in Pakistan), of which not sufficient is known. Along with Mahatma Gandhi and like his non-violent movement, Frontier Gandhi too started the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) movement from 1930-47. They were the key allies of the Congress who formed three governments in the NWFP. The original Pashto edition was first published in 1983 when Bacha Khan was 93 years old.
This is a seminal piece of writing. It has to be respected for the text that was created when Frontier Gandhi chose to dictate it. It captures that moment in time and has an authoritative air about it. Definitely, a tenor as if it is being spoken out aloud for the benefit of a larger audience. Whoever took the notes and compiled it into this book, probably never fact checked or assessed the manuscript for internal consistencies.
For instance, these conflicting comments about weddings and consent. P. 2 “We do not marry our children to wealth as we consider decency, capability and dignity more important in a marriage. Nor do we marry them without their consent.”
P.33 “Our weddings are very joyous occasions. With the coming of age of a boy in the family, a search for a fiancee for him would begin. No one asks for the consent of the girl or the boy.”
It makes him an unreliable narrator if he slips on a simple fact like this but it is also hard to doubt his testimony about participating in the freedom struggle that has been recorded in this book.
Ma and Bappu are liberal intellectuals teaching at the local university. Their fourteen-year-old daughter — precocious, headstrong Alma — is soon to be married: Alma is mostly interested in the wedding shoes and in spinning wild stories for her beloved younger sister Roop, a restless child obsessed with death.
Times are bad for girls in India. The long-awaited independence from British rule is heralding a new era of hope, but also of anger and distrust. Political unrest is brewing, threatening to unravel the rich tapestry of Delhi – a city where different cultures, religions and traditions have co-existed for centuries.
When Partition happens and the British Raj is fractured overnight, this wonderful family is violently torn apart, and its members are forced to find increasingly desperate ways to survive.
Moth by debut author, Melody Razak ( Orion Books), has been a surprisingly slow read for me. Usually, I manage to zip through fiction pretty quickly. More so when it is historical fiction as I have a soft spot for this genre. But this one was slow for many reasons. These ranged from false starts in attempting to read it to the many times my mind wandered after reading a section of the story. Let me explain.
Melody Razak credits Urvashi Butalia’s seminal book The Other Side of Silence for having inspired her debut novel. I can absolutely understand and recognise that sentiment. I worked with Urvashi for many years. I joined her team the day she split from Kali for Women to establish Zubaan. So, I was privy to a lot of Urvashi Butalia’s work for many years and also helped brand Zubaan. I, like Melody, and many others, had been in awe of Urvashi Butalia’s work for years. She did something fundamentally new. Of capturing the oral histories of women and families after the British left India in 1947. We gained our Independence but the people from the newly created nations suffered tremendously.
Urvashi wrote this book after she volunteered to help the riot victims of 1984. It was a watershed year for many of us living in Delhi at the time. The Indian prime minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated by her bodyguards while she was en route to meet filmmaker and actor, Peter Ustinov. It unleashed the most horrific communal violence we had witnessed at that time in newly Independent India. We were still a young nation at that time. (Now, communalism seems to be a way of life.) Many, many folks were horrified at what had occurred in the capital city. It was unheard of. We had curfew imposed. The army conducted flag marches. The silence was unbearable. No one should ever have to experience the silence of living in violent times. It is very still and still very disturbing. In the far distance, we could hear mobs. We could hear sounds. We would see smoke spires in the sky. And one of the most frightening memories was to see the ashes of paper flutter down on our terraces. When my twin brother and I returned to school after those two terrible two weeks, we noticed kids in our bus who were looking dishevelled and reduced to a cloth bag carrying a few books. They had been affected by the riots for being Sikhs and had lost property and family. It was earth shattering. But we were young. It was our first experience of such violence. But for my maternal grandfather it brought back a flood of memories. Stuff we had not realised he had kept suppressed for decades.
My grandfather, N. K. Mukarji, was the last ICS officer in India. The Indian Civil Service was the administrative service established by the British. He joined as a very young man and was allocated the Punjab cadre. This was before 1947, so as a government servant he was posted in and around the then undivided Punjab. He later recalled that as a young man, he would sit with the other officers, many of whom were British, dividing the assets of the Punjab state between India and Pakistan. Many times, the lists drawn seemed arbitrary but he would meticulously minute the meetings. I am sure somewhere documents exist with his neat signature. He also used to tell us about the migrant camps that were set up. For many years, the refugees of 1947 were considered to be the largest mass migration ever recorded in human history. It was unprecedented. There were no rules or policies governing or guiding the officers on how to manage this massive influx of people. He used to tell us of how his signature was forged and converted into stamps. These forgeries were then used to stamp documents of the refugees so that they could use them as valid papers to migrate. Some left overseas too. My grandfather was well aware of these forgeries but the administration was so overwhelmed by the number of people that needed looking after that he turned a blind eye. And if you ever knew him, he was such an upright officer that this act upon his part was so unlike him. He and his colleagues worried about the spread of disease. Cholera and typhoid that still plague large refugee settlements were the bane of their existence even in the 1940s. The only difference being that there were no UN forces or other humanitarian aid organisations to help manage the healthcare of the refugees. There was no organised camp. So, the relief of the onset of the monsoon, literally washed the camp, is something that I still recollect in Nana’s voice. He has been gone for more than two decades but his relief, as if it was a God sent gesture, is something I will never forget. So, the descriptions of the refugee camps in Moth brought back memories of these stories. I could not help but think that the perception of the refugee camps of today that are to a fair degree “organised” because of the aid agencies, was not the case at that time. And this was one of the depictions in Moth that bothered me, the pell mell in the settlement. Instead, the description seems to suggest that it is fairly orderly. It was as if the image had been created from the modern images of refugee camps.
Just as these memories came flooding back for my grandfather, so did it happen with many victims of the 1984 riots. The victims were Sikhs. The community to whom the PM’s assassins belonged. Urvashi too is a Sikh. She too had family in Lahore and in India. In fact, when I went to Lahore in Nov 2003, I went in search of the house that belonged to Urvashi’s family and discovered that it was in the process of being pulled down. So, I brought back pictures of it for her.
There were many, many reasons why Urvashi was affected by the 1984 riots. But working in the refugee camps of Delhi, listening to stories, being a feminist, she realised the importance of recording these stories. Oral history testimonies were being done in our country even then but not necessarily by individuals at this level. Urvashi’s work is pioneering for many reasons. She explored her family’s history and unearthed many more stories in the process. It has had a huge impact on the way Partition stories are read.
Melody Razak picks on a few of the stories such as the women jumping into the well, the abduction of girls/women and taking them away to the other side (since then established as a regular form of persecution of women at times of conflict), the problems of documentation etc. I found it particularly interesting that while Melody Razak has been deeply moved by the incidents recounted in The Other Side of Silence and of course, for this novel, may have done some independent research, Melody has been unable to describe the traumatic incidents. I found that curious as that it is often noticed in the victims that they are unable to recount the actual event. There are mechanisms by which they protect themselves, one of them is to talk about the act in the third person or distance themselves in the plot. Melody does exactly that — distancing herself. It indicates how deeply moved she has been by the testimonies/stories of the events of 1947.
By the way, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi whom Melody mentions, Nathuram Godse, was sentenced to death a few years later by Justice G. D. Khosla. Again, another upright officer who opted to join the judiciary once India became an independent nation. He wrote about the trial of Godse. It is freely available as a booklet online. I met Justice Khosla. He was a friend of my grandfather’s. But by these acts, I feel as if I have been close to history. (Does that statement even make any sense?)
Melody Razak gets the grief at the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi very well. I recall meeting people who remembered that day very clearly. This and later, Jawaharlal Nehru’s death. Everyone could recall what they were doing at the precise moment that the news broke about these deaths. The collective grief that was felt at Mahatma Gandhi’s death has been brilliantly captured by Melody.
But the reason why I had so many false starts to the book were because of the tiny historical inaccuracies in the opening pages. I can only recall one at the moment. She refers to Amul chocolates. Well, they did not exist till many decades after Independence. Amul is a dairy cooperative that was set up by Nehru under his modern India plans under the leadership of Mr Verghese Kurien (again, someone whom I have met). The chocolates came much, much later. So, this fact could have been checked. There were also spelling errors that annoyed me such as getting the name of All India Radio wrong and hyphenating “All India” or referring to the hot winds that blow in summer as “Lu” instead of as “loo”. (It is a hot wind similar to khamsin.)
I can see why Melody Razak has been showered with praise in the media and has been recognised as one of the debut novelists of 2021 by The Observer. She has a great sense of storytelling. Her pace is fantastic. She knows when to slow down her writing tempo or speed it up as per the requirements of the plot. Her characters are so alive. She is able to move freely between the Muslims and the Hindus and describes them well. Alma’s grandmother is particularly vile. To create evil in a person who is mostly ignored by the family, is quite a creative achievement. But alas, she is also so familiar. We have all come across such characters at some point in our lives. Melody also manages to share only that much of the back story of the characters as is relevant to the main plot. Again, an admirable quality as many debut novelists tend to get hijacked by their characters and create unnecessary tangents to the story. Whereas in this case, whether it is the stories of Dilchain, Fatima Begum, Ma, Bappa or even Cookie Aunty/Lakshmi, Melody shares enough to make them rounded rather than flat characters. There is no need to know more about them.
I had reservations about the extremely feminist angle to the storytelling. It was sort of unbelievable that these narratives could possibly have existed in 1947/8. It seems as if a very modern structure of feeling has been superimposed upon the past. It does not sit well. But then it brings me to the crux of literary fiction. At what point as Salman Rushdie calls it, does fiction “lift off” from the truth and begin a story of its own? Somewhere the writer has to be given the leeway to let their imagination fly. The reader too has to go easy on the writer for letting them tell the story in their own way. Perhaps I found it uncomfortable, even though I more than heartily agree with the feminist sentiments, because of the amount I know about the events of 1947. But the moment I sort of let myself go and just read the story for what it is, I realised it was the only way to “get into” it and enjoy it. Also, having read a lot of historical fiction recently has been doing this — of revisiting past events and imbuing the women characters with a strength and a personality with a very modern touch. It works for modern readers. And if historical fiction is being redefined today as historical events providing only a backdrop to the storytelling, then I suppose we have to make our peace with it. It is fine.
As for the sisters, Alma and Roop, they are incredibly well-created. Although making Roop cut off her hair, roam around naked and wear her father’s trousers whenever she needed to step out seemed a bit farfetched for a five-year-old. But then who are we to argue with the bizarreness of life under conflict. Or for that matter now, during the pandemic. That was another thing that I found so eerily parallel to Moth — our reality of rationing food given the lockdowns and irregular supply of provisions, not sure when to step out (in Moth for fear of communal riots and today, for fear of getting infected by the Covid-19 virus), creating community kitchens (in the novel for refugees and in modern life for migrants who are going home), etc.
As is fairly evident, Moth has triggered many memories as well as made me respond to the book in a manner that I did not think it would do. So there in itself lies the answer of a good emerging novelist. Moth is an extraordinary immersive experience and I am glad I read the novel.
Scholastic India is proud to announce that it has acquired the publishing rights for one of the most awaited books of the year, Ahimsa.
In 1942, after Mahatma Gandhi asks one member of each family to join the non-violent freedom movement, 10-year-old Anjali is devastated to think that her father will risk his life for the country. But he’s not the one joining. Anjali’s mother is. 10-year-old Anjali’s mother has joined India’s freedom struggle. Anjali gets unwillingly involved in the turmoil. She has to give up her biases against the Dalit community, or the so-called untouchables, and sacrifice her
foreign-made clothes for khadi.
As the family gets more and more involved in the cause, Anjali must give up her privileges and confront her prejudices to ensure her little contribution to the movement is complete.
This is a poignant debut about overcoming one’s internal struggles and giving up one’s biases. It is essentially about female empowerment.
Inspired by her great-grandmother’s experience working with Gandhi, Supriya Kelkar brings to life the stories of the unsung heroes of India’s War of Independence.
Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India, says, “Ahimsa is a book every Indian should read, whether you are a parent, child, educator or book lover. It leaves a mark.”
Supriya Kelkar doesn’t shy away from the reality that progress can sometimes be slow and one must persist even when all hope seems gone. She draws inspiration from her own family history. Kelkar says, “I’m so thrilled Ahimsa is heading to India, and cannot wait to share this book with all the wonderful readers there!”
About the author
Born and raised in the Midwest, Supriya Kelkar learned Hindi as a child by watching three Bollywood films a week. Now she works in the film industry as a Bollywood screenwriter. She has credits on one Hollywood film and several Hindi films. Ahimsa, inspired by her great-grandmother’s role in the Indian freedom movement, is her debut middle grade novel.
“A poignant look at India’s independence through the eyes of a ten-year-old, Ahimsa is a well-crafted tale of resistance.”
— Rajkumar Hirani, director of the films Sanju, 3 Idiots, PK and Lage Raho Munna Bhai
Established in 1997, Scholastic India runs a dynamic publishing programme that aims to bring out innovative titles from the best of Indian authors and illustrators. Scholastic works closely with teachers, parents and students to encourage reading and promote the highest quality of reading and educational material in English.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Mahatma Gandhi ( 2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) was a lawyer who turned to politics after experiencing apartheid in South Africa. He returned to India and became a leader of the Indian struggle for Independence. His unique style of resisting the British colonial rulers was through non-cooperation and other peaceful means. He did not believe in violent opposition. There are many, many accounts available about “Father of the Nation” as he is fondly referred to in India. Mahatma Gandhi inspired political leaders in other countries, most notably, Martin Luther King. Recently there have been a some books published for younger readers, introducing Mahatma Gandhi to children who have been born four generations after Independence. So the stories about the freedom struggle and this incredible man are no longer a part of living history, but relegated to dry textbooks. Two biographies were published by Puffin India and Scholastic India. The Puffin Lives edition has been written by noted historian and award-winning children’s writer, Subhadra Sen Gupta. The Scholastic India edition is by Lushin Dubey. But the latest book to join these two is a heavily illustrated account of Gandhi’s life and his involvement with the freedom movement. Given how profusely illustrated the book is, with photographs, documents, sketches etc, it is quite reasonably priced at INR 299. This is the first in a local programme announced by the DK India. It is a welcome addition in the fortieth year of Dorling Kindersley’s establishment.