Ek Kora Canvas

November 26, 2011 at 9:15 AMNov (Friends, Letter, Literature, Music, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Dearest Srajana and Faizan,

Do you remember the 26th of September 2010? I am sure you do remember the day if not the date. That was the day when we three of us visited the Humayun Tomb in New Delhi, exactly 14 months ago.

Scanning through the age old walls, we walked around talking about the lineage of Humayun, about the architecture being a chocolate flavor Taj Mahal, about a song sequence from Fanaa and Jhoom Barabar Jhoom being shot in the same place. We saw the water flow around the space, wondered where the water came from. We found out a well nearby peeped into it after climbing a bit. We sat under the tree and walked on the lawns. It was a beautiful day.

The reason why I am recollecting all this is because couple of weeks ago I read the book In Freedom’s Shade by Anis Kidwai. The book was originally written in Urdu in the year 1949. It was first published in the year 1974 and then in 1978 in Urdu and later translated to Hindi and published in the year 1981 its title being Aazaadi Ki Chaaon Mein. Now the book has been translated from Urdu/Hindi to English by Ayesha Kidwai granddaughter of Anis Kidwai. The book is based on the notes jotted down about what the author saw and observed around her in Delhi between 1947 and 1949 while she worked as a relief worker for partition victims.

The fourth chapter of the book is titled ‘The Camp at Humayun’s Tomb’. The historical place was a camp for the victims of partition where around 60,000 refugees were housed! As I read those pages I kept remembering our visit to Humayun’s Tomb. The water there, the well, the grass, the soil, the trees, the broken walls, the stones nothing over there spoke of this aspect of history which intersects with that place! The place was silent about a certain episode of history!

Sixty thousand people lived there in the tents provided by the Government of India. But the general feeling of the people there, as Anis Kidwai writes, was that the Government wanted to throw them out of India. There were solid reasons for the homeless to believe so.

Anis Kidwai writes about those several people who lived in tents with no proper blankets to protect themselves in the winter. Dilli ki sardi is known to you both and me. Imagine spending day and night in the open without proper clothing during winter! Pneumonia and influenza swept through the camp and everywhere bodies were racked by coughs, chests wheezed with congestion.

The camp at Humayun’s Tomb has a special tent for the old women, weakened and cripples by age. Anis Kidwai says this special provision had to be made because the sanctuary seeker’s when left for Pakistan couldn’t be bothered to take the old family members and relatives with them for they would require assistance to walk and times were such that people had to run for lives. Many of these elderly people were brought to the camp. One such old lady was brought to the camp from a graveyard! Her grandson had left her in a graveyard on his way out.

Graveyard must have been an extension of the camp! Yet the last journey was difficult in dark times. The shrouds being distributed were short in size and wouldn’t cover the corpse completely. Anis Kidwai recollects how the Pir wouldn’t agree to bury the corpse when the shroud wouldn’t cover the corpse completely. The situation was so graver that men and women had to be buried without shroud and in their soiled clothes!

Many survivors, remembers Anis Kidwai, at the camp would speak of revenge. A Sikh boy, she recollects, once said, “Nineteen from my family were murdered. I, the twentieth, am still alive to avenge their deaths. I want to live only so I can kill as many of the murderers as possible…”

Six decades after all this, when we visit the place the place seem to carry no memory of it at all! The same walls which the refuges must have held while struggling to breathe because of the congestion in the chest, the same wall which the old lady and many like her must have held to walk. The same passage through which water must have flowed carrying blood of the survivors who must have bent to drink water letting blood mix with the water or must have washed their wounds in the same water passage. The same corners of the architecture which must have echoed with the angry cries of those who wanted to take revenge.  The same earth beneath the feet which must have shaken as the several homeless shivered in the winter.

Humayun’s Tomb doesn’t carry the memory or history of the camp. Humayun’s tomb doesn’t speak the horror stories of partition which it witnessed. Humayun’s Tomb doesn’t shame us with our history. Not a single blade of grass, not a single grain of soil, not a single leaf of the tree, not a single drop of water flowing through the historical space reminds the visitor of the grave history attached to the place! Silence. Absolute silence.

There was one member of the camp who once came to Anis Kidwai and asked her if she had some time in hand. When she said she did have time in had the man asked, “So, shall I get my dholak?” The man was a mirasi, a qawwal who wanted to play “just one number.” Anis Kidwai refuses to listen to a song and silences his by saying, “Music in this graveyard? When the dirges of death let up for a while, then there will be singing…” Narrating this episode from the Humayun’s Tomb, the author writes: “Crestfallen, he retreated. Truly, how difficult it was for singers of happy songs to survive in such times.”

There are dark songs in the dark times, said Brecht. But who will sing the songs of those dark times. Anis Kidwai is singing, through her book. But what stands more visible is the Humayun’s Tomb completely divorced of memories of partition, allowing a part of history erase from our minds.

Not just Humayun’s Tomb, Puraana Quila too was a camp with around 80,000 inmates. Today we have stories about how Elkazi lit the walls of Puraana Quila to stage Tughlak which is a post-Independent history. But there is not enough memory and stories about the dark episodes of our history. How conveniently we let certain episodes of history erode. Not a single reminder in the entire place of Humayun’s Tomb about the dark times of partition! The silenced history.

Ayesha Kidwai says she first read her grandmother’s book in 2002 in the wake of Gujrat violence. There is a need to listen to the stories from the past. The past has to narrate its story to us. Memories should be kept alive, in words, in space and in every possible way. Possibly then we will be able to stop history from repeating and be able to form a new history for ourselves.

That day while we sat under that huge tree on the left side of the tomb, I read out a poem to the both of you, a poem that I had written that very morning. It was titled ‘Kora Canvas’ (Empty Canvas) and if you remember correctly the poem repeatedly kept mentioning about images being erased and the canvas becoming empty again. There is a certain erasure of images of partition in that space where I read the poem to you too. Aaj phir kora hai woah canvas (the canvas is empty yet again)…

Someday, we should revisit Humayun’s Tomb and listen to the unheard story of Humayun’s Tomb. The crying whispers and whispering cries of Humayun’s Tomb need to be heard… We should shame ourselves a bit with the dark history of our country.

In harmony,

Samvartha ‘Sahil’
26 Nov 2011


  1. vani said,

    dear mr samvartha, sahil, is 11 month gap from 26 september to 26 november?

  2. crazymindseye said,

    Ms/Mrs Vani, thanks for pointing the mistake. But you read it wrong as 11 when i have written it as 14. The mistake was in writing the year. I wrote it as 2011 while our visit was 2010. I have corrected the mistake. Thanks for the observation and bringing it to my notice.

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