This is a book review of two Yoda Press titles, published in HardNews magazine. The link is here:
‘Write down what you saw, what you heard, what you endured’
Aziz’s Notebook was written immediately after the events described, and is extremely powerful to read. Violent Belongings is an academic attempt to “trace the political economy of memory”
Aziz’s Notebook is about the two daughters of Aziz, Fataneh and Fatameh, who were arrested for being mujahideens in the early days of the Iranian or Islamic revolution. Fataneh was pregnant and Fatameh had a three-year-old son and a six-month-old daughter, Chowra. Later, they were executed by the regime. But not before they, especially Fatameh, had been put through torture, solitary confinement in a tiny cell that was actually an abandoned bathroom, electric shocks, nails being pulled out and spine being broken. (“Her head is still filled with Rajavi’s — the leader of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq organization — ideas and she is not willing to collaborate with us. She will remain in prison until she rots.”) This slim diary-cum-memoir by Aziz, from 1981 to 1988, when his daughters were taken away by the new regime and ultimately put to death, was written for his grandchildren, though they would accompany the elders every week to visit their mother in prison. The immediate reason for their arrests was that Fataneh and Fatameh had stood for election as candidates for the Mojahedin-e-Khalq in the towns of Gachsran and Shiraz. These were the first legislative elections held under the Islamic Republic. In the book, Aziz attempts to record his memories and observations. He is an “old man of seventy, with trembling hands, bloodshot eyes, a broken heart and a life that was swept by the wind, the pernicious effect of this revolution,” but it is his “inner voice” that shouts: “Write down what you saw, what you heard and what you endured.”
Many years later, when the grandchildren had fled to France, to be with their father, a “political refugee”, they would watch and help their father build a “museum” to their mama in their flat. An empty wardrobe — “the same size as a coffin and looked like one too”— with Persian calligraphy engraved in red on its door which meant “Nothing”. Inside, the transparent shelves were slowly stocked with all the possessions of Fatameh that could be retrieved from her Iranian home and prison. But their father found it very difficult to answer his children’s questions about what exactly happened to their mother. Many of the answers lie in their grandfather’s continuous text.
The structure of Aziz’s Notebook is in three sections. The first is a translation of Aziz’s real notebook, the second is Chowra’s account of discovering her grandfather’s diary and the painful journey she embarked upon in trying to access what he had written, and finally, there is a selection of correspondence between the family members (1978-1992). It is interesting to compare the tenor of each section.
Aziz’s writing is focused, taut with details, dates and journeys, trying to recreate the horrific period as correctly as possible for his family. It must have been excruciatingly painful for him to write it but he seems to be determined. Whereas, when Chowra begins to write, she opens her narrative with an account of her brother’s and her flight from Teheran to join their father in France. It is composed and flows chronologically. Then it begins to waver and meander as she recalls incidents that link it to what she is writing. At times, this style becomes confusing to follow but is quite understandable (and not at all unusual), given how, as a woman, she is trying to piece together a part of her history, more importantly, derive an image of a mother whom she never really knew, save for some hazy memories of a woman sitting behind a glass partition in prison trying to hold the telephone with both hands to speak to her visitors. Chowra solicits friend Sarah’s help to translate her grandfather’s Persian manuscript but the project is quickly abandoned: “Sarah discovered the reality of a buried history: her country, her society, her history.” Experiencing extreme violence first-hand and living in a state of constant terror is not an enviable position to be in, as in the case of Aziz, but to write about it requires stupendous perseverance and mental strength. Yet, as Chowra discovers, the memories are permanent for the survivor.
Violent Belongings (first published in 2008) is focused on the relation of violence and culture in the modern world, particularly on how Partition had a resounding effect on history for a long time after 1947. Its most obvious impact seems to be on the way the Indian subcontinental diaspora redefined and realigned its identities in a post-colonial world. Speaking from her experience and engagement with the Indian diaspora, Kavita Dahiya discovers how the events of Partition continue to resonate in contemporary life and communities are “collectively created and contested through various media, in postcolonial India and ethnic America”.
According to her, these discourses continue to reside deeply in the consciousness of these societies, albeit through their existence in literature, films and other modes of cultural expression. Research on international migration reveals that currently 190 million people reside in a country where they were not born, while there are 24.5 million internally displaced people in the world, making one in 35 humans in the world a migrant. Hence, it is not surprising that generations of writers, filmmakers, cinematographers, historians, feminists and academic discourses are preoccupied with how the “scene of violence that becomes ordinary during Partition and refashions everyday life” has left an indelible impact in literature, cinema, memoirs and verbal accounts. Apart from English, much of this material is to be found in accounts recorded in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Punjabi.
Reading two books in quick succession dealing with an extremely violent chapter in a nation’s history is a disturbing exercise. But, they are differentiated in treatment. Aziz’s Notebook was written immediately after the events described, and is extremely powerful to read. Violent Belongings is an academic attempt to “trace the political economy of memory” and to understand the senseless losses of those who have endured, inhabited and survived ethnic violence and displacement, both in contemporary South Asia and in the Indian subcontinent of 1947. It goes over much familiar ground covered in many published discourses on Partition. It will remain a useful handbook for its analysis of literature and media linked to Partition.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Delhi, 13 May 2013
Chowra Makaremi Aziz’s Notebook: At the heart of the Iranian Revolution Translator, Renuka George Yoda Press. Pg 150. pp. Rs. 250. Publ. 2013.
Kavita Dahiya Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender, and National Culture in Postcolonial India Yoda Press, Delhi, 2013. Pp. Pg.250. Rs. 450