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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