Moments In The Dark

April 25, 2012 at 9:15 AMApr (Literature, Musings, Poetry, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

I was in the Ophthalmology department of a hospital. It was late in the evening. I was waiting for the doctor to attend all those patients who had arrived before me and then call my name. The department was flooded with out-patients.

Some of the co-patients waiting with me were wearing black glasses, some thick glasses and some were covering their eye(s) with hand kerchief, some were perpetually wet and some perpetually red.

Patients were being called one after the other, as I waited for my turn. Suddenly there was a power cut. The architecture of the building was such that the evening light couldn’t enter the department. The entire department came to a halt. The doctor who was to ‘see’ what problem did the patient have with his eyes and the patient who had a problem with his eye both were unable to ‘see’ the world properly. Darkness erased the distinction between the doctor and the patient, for a while. Darkness equaled the two by handicapping the two.

I standing there, waiting for the re-flow of electricity and for the doctor to call my name remembered the lines from Rabindranth Tagore’s work Stray Birds:

In darkness the One appears as uniform; in the light the One appears as manifold.

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Stranger Than Fiction: In Freedom’s Shade by Anis Kidwai

April 15, 2012 at 9:15 AMApr (Activism, Literature, Musings)

One of the greatest story-tellers of the subcontinent Sadat Hasan Manto wanted his epitaph to read: Here lies Sadat Hasan Manto. With him lie buried all the arts and mysteries of short-story writing… Under tons of earth he lies, wondering who of the two is the greater short-story writer: God or he. Though there can be no dispute on the genius of Manto and his skills in story-telling we are forced to tell ourselves, at some points, the oft-quoted line that truth is always stranger than fiction and wonder who is the greatest short story writer, Manto or reality/ truth itself!

One such moment, earlier, were when Urvashi Butalia penned ‘The Other Side of Silence: Voices from Partition of India’ (2000), and latter when Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin edited ‘Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition’ (1998), where the silences of the victims of the 1947 partition found voice. With the recent translation and publishing of Anis Kidwai’s ‘Aazaadi Ki Chaaon Mein’ by her granddaughter Ayesha Kidwai as ‘In Freedom’s Shade’ (Penguin Books, 2011) we are prompted to retrieve the silent voices of the victims of the communal conflagration during India’s partition.

Asish Nandy in one of his lectures, on October, 8, 2007, in Heggodu, Karnataka, said that majority of the partition victims did not discuss the trauma of partition with their children or grand children. What can be made out of this is that there has been a great silence about the trauma of partition for a long time. Although there have been works of fiction by Manto, Khushwant Singh, Amrita Pritam and likes, the missing dot in the history has been the firsthand accounts and direct voices and not the metaphoric and fictitious ones, however close to reality they are.

Anis Kidwai’s account from the time of partition fills a great gap for us to conceive partition and write the history of partition and thus also the history of India. The book was initially written in the year 1949 based on the notes jotted down about what she saw and observed around her in Delhi between 1947 and 1949 while she worked as a relief worker for partition victims. The book was first published in 1974 and then in 1978 in Urdu and later translated to Hindi and published in 1981.

The narrative of ‘In Freedom’s Shade’ begins with the personal story of Anis Kidwai’s husband being murdered and she moving to Delhi to spend the rest of her life in the path of Mahatma Gandhi. As her tryst with Gandhi unfolds, along with it starts unfolding the unheard and unvoiced stories of partition. We listen, from Anis Kidwai, Gandhi reminding her that, “those whose life is devoted o service cannot afford this luxury,” of falling ill, which reflects not just the service-mindedness that Gandhi himself had and what he expected from his co-workers but also of the vastness of work that the dark times demanded from the volunteers devoted to service. From Kidwai we hear that voice and silence of Gandhi in direct relation to the partition and the violence that followed it.

Anis Kidwai gives us an account of the several victims with whom she crossed paths as and when she tried to rebuild the broken India and save the nation from further breaking. Her works at the Purana Qila camp and the camp at Humayun Tomb unfold as we read the book telling us the other history of the places- Humayun Tomb and Purana Qila, which has always stood in our minds for the Mughal times without reminding us how tomb and broken monuments sheltered lives when the streets became graveyards, and lives and nation was broken into pieces.

As we turn pages we come across several heart-wrenching stories like that of a Qawwali singer, who was devoted to singing and be heard, but could not sing because the time he lived in witnessed  that the strings of heart were torn. Remembering the unknown musician Anis Kidwai says, “How difficult it was for singers of happy songs to survive in such times.”

How were the times of Partition? A mother lost both her hands and was hospitalized with her daughter sitting next to her swathed in bandages and splints, groaning. Recollecting the scenario Anis Kidwai writes, “but the that poor woman was bereft of her hands- hands with which she’d have caressed her daughter’s head, stroked her back, moistened her parched mouth, soothed her pain.” There was wound everywhere and not enough hands and hearts to soothe the pains.

Supply of blankets for the victims of violence was not sufficient. Complaints to and request by Bapu would have also not assured the required supply of blankets.  At the camp, the bodily needs had to be met with two bricks and at other times the very same two bricks would be put together to serve as a kitchen stove. With the health of the new-born nation collapsing the health of the nation’s people collapsed in these camps. Pneumonia and influenza swept through the camps, in winter, with less medical facilities.

In Purana Qila a dead body lied with no relative left to bury. The Maulvi refused to do the rituals. In the end women, mainly relief workers, bury the body after asking every single man to help them bury the male body as they- the women could not bathe and burry the body . In Humayun’s Tomb the shrouds being distributed were short in size because the increase in the number of dead had left little cloth for shrouds and many men and women were buried in their soiled clothes,dupattas or dirty sheets.

Women abducted, raped and murdered, children orphaned and murdered all become a part of Anis Kidwai’s narrative along with the houses burnt, looted and broken down or occupied for shelter by the refugees. We see the masjids and mazaars being damaged and broken and thus memories being erased. We see men turning beasts and plotting against and scripting murders of those with whom they have lived for decades together. We see the idea of Nation reshaping communities. We see communities bathing in blood; thanks to the sword and bullets provided by the idea of nation. We see women turning violent and we see women’s body becoming the space of revenge and violence, unlike the communal violence in the earlier riots. We hear silent screams and screaming silence.

Amidst all these we see the Jamia students trying to weave the torn dupattas to cover the shame of mother land. We see the service of Shanti Dal and many unknown volunteers who all tried rebuilding lives through schools, street games, mushairas, handloom industries and the possible paths that were available to them.

We also learn of those humanizing stories where strangers formed a family or strangers stood by each other like family members, bonded like family even when from opposite faiths to survive the dark times and set an example for history to learn. We learn of the unknown Babas who made children happy by distributing sweets to them and also about the Management of the Delhi Cloth Mill who arranged for an exchange of workers between their Delhi factory and the Lyallpur factory in Pakistan, which saved the lives of all those workers.

Though the narrative leaves us with several questions of right and wrong especially in the episodes of reuniting the women with the family, especially in the complicated cases where the women would fall in love with the man or become pregnant because of the man, etc. and the episodes where the Dalits were forced to carry the dead bodies when others refused to, the strength of the book lies in narrating the stories and documenting the incidents honestly which gives a lot of space to debate and discuss the right and wrong, making space for understanding and writing and rewriting history for ourselves. In this honesty the book essentially documents the complexities of the Partition Time.

Even when certain incidents and episodes need to be critiqued by the readers what the book does essentially is to fill the gap in the history of India and the history of partition by unveiling the beastly nature of men, the human nature of men, the apathy of Congress, the conspiracies of RSS and the triumph of humanity over beastliness of men at places and the damages done to humanity by the traumas of the time. The book is important since it is a major dot in history which needs to be connected with other dots to get a complete picture of history.

Anis Kidwai ends her book, which documents not just dates and places but also the “inner states of mind and hearts of the people,” saying the book must reach the youth before they “lower their crafts into the river,” because by reading they “are able to divine the direction of the wind and understand where the rocks and whirlpools lie.”

Interestingly the opening sentence of this new translation by Ayesha Kidwai says she read her grandmother’s book for the first time in April 2002 in the wake of Gujarat violence! History will repeat itself in case we do not learn from history. To learn we need to visit, revisit, write, rewrite history and importantly shame ourselves with episodes of history which is our shame. Shame and guilt humanizes the heart.

In her preface to the 1974 edition Anis Kidwai quotes Maulana Mohammad Ayyub Surti Qasmi as:

Taaza khwaabhi dashtan gar daagh haaye seena ra
Gaahe gaahe baaz khwaan en qissa-e-pareena ra

To mean…

If you wish the scars in your heart to remain fresh
Then, from time to time, revisit this old tale afresh.

(Published in the first edition of Inculsive– a journal of Kolkata Center for Contemporary Studies)

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Of What Worth Is Life If One Cannot Stand On His Own Legs!

April 12, 2012 at 9:15 PMApr (Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

It is fourteen days since he passed away- Haregod Lingappayya Acharya- my grandfather- Ajjayya. He passed away late in the evening on my 27th birthday- 30th March 2012.

Looking back at my relationship with my grandfather what do I recollect, I ask myself. The first image that comes to my mind when I think of my grandfather is of him working in his garage. He was a mechanic. It is impossible to imagine, for me, my grandfather without the garage like any actor cannot be imagined without the stage. An actor comes with his setting and so was my grandfather, memories of him comes with his larger self- the garage.

Memories flood my mind with the sound of the spanner turning the hammer hitting and the wheels turning, apart from the machine announcing its wellbeing through its mechanic sound.

Most of my pre-school days were spent in Byndoor with my grandparents. So memories of my early days have a major chunk of Byndoor in it. What I can remember from those days is my grandmother my aunt and obviously my grandfather. He would wake up before me and when I would wake up he would be praying to the God and then soon after having his breakfast he would go to his garage, attached to the house, and start with his work. He would work the entire day. He had to be called several times for lunch. Tea breaks paused his work and at times tea would be supplied to the garage itself as he would be too busy and more importantly too involved to walk two steps. He would work till evening and once he returned he would wash his soiled hands and light the lamp before God. Then he would go out for a while to meet his friends and then come back, have dinner and sleep.

Those days I did not know the word workaholic. But yeah that is what he was. But looking at his life deeply I see two threads of image getting intertwined- one of him working in the garage throughout the day and the other of him saying his silent prayers morning and evening. These images which mark my earliest memories of my grandfather define, to me, what my grandfather was. He lived the philosophy- work is worship. His real form of worshipping was not in the morning and evening but from morning to evening.

He had narrated his life story to me more than once. His story mainly spoke of how he repaired which machine when and how. He would explain how the owners of the machine- be it a tractor, a car, a scooter, a sewing machine etc- was brought to him and what problem the machine had and how he repaired them, going to the details of the nuts and bolts and other parts of the machine. His autobiography was the story of his labour.

He was 86 when he passed away and even at the age of 86 he had his shoes on. He was earning his bread and butter without relying on anyone else but his garage. He was working, even at the dusk of life, though the number of hours he could and did invest had decreased. In the last few years of his life he suffered from multiple problems. Still he continued to repair things. In the last few months his legs lost their strength and he couldn’t walk or stand without the help of a walker. That is where he started out losing his love for live and his inner strength collapsed. He had come to Manipal for treatment then and was with us for over couple of months. It appeared through his words that what had upset him was the fact that with the broken leg he will not be able to work anymore in the garage which demands a lot of standing and lying down on the floor.

When he couldn’t stand on his legs, he collapsed from within and the last act of life began. He not being able to stand on his legs and that leading to his lost interest for life and he seeing it as the unworthiness of life, as it related completely to his ability to work in the garage, became the ultimate metaphor of his life. It appears to me like his message saying- of what worth is life if one cannot stand on his own legs!

He believed that one should stand on his own legs for one’s living. He believed that nobody should be dependent on anybody for a living. So when he couldn’t stand on his legs, physically and metaphorically, his love for life ended. When he was in Manipal during one of the last months of his life when I, along with my cousin and grandmother, asked him to try and walk slowly, with the help of the walker, in a dramatic tone he had said, “I cannot keep a single step. My next step will be to Kailasa,” Kailasa being the imaginary paradise where people (rather the soul) go after the death of the body. That is where he had decided keep his next step and he did. Looking at his life through his eyes that is where the next step had to be for he lived the words ‘kaayakave kailaasa’ and if he couldn’t engage himself in ‘kaayaka’ there is no ‘kailaasa’ for him in his living. So the only other ‘kailaasa’ had to be the place for him.

If I say only about his obsession with work I would be giving a partial picture of my grandfather though his obsession for his work marks a major part of his life. Not always he would have work. When he did not he would sit with us asking about our lives. Not a very learned man who would narrate stories from mythology, like it is believed in the subcontinent. But a self-learnt mechanic he was who would narrate stories from the garage. He was short tempered and all of us feared him. He was warm and affectionate too. But like an old timer he thought it is not good to express too much of an affection.

It seems an hour before his death in the hospital a stranger boy came to visit the patient in the next bed and Ajjayya, without his glasses, kept asking if it was me. I think of it and write it down without hesitating to mention the lump in my throat and the swell in my eyes.

In one of his last days he asked me about “the course in Delhi” not knowing what M.Phil was but knowing that it was some course I was doing. I had told him that the course is over and my “final exam” (viva) was yet to take place. He asked me what would I do after that and I shared my plan of doing “yet another course” (PhD) in Delhi. His immediate question was, “What is the duration of this course?” I said it would take four to five years and laughingly he had said, “There is a walking stick that a friend had gifted me. However I don’t want to use it, so you take it with you when you join for that course.”

He never used a walking stick. He collapsed when he had to depend on a walker and couldn’t stand on his own legs. The only way to pay tributes to my grandfather- the man who lived the philosophy work is worship- is by standing on my own leg.

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