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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Breaking Links -- Review

Curled in the end lies a beginning and in every beginning lies the end of something old.  Never is this truer than in the case of countries that are born after prolonged periods of parturition or when they are hived out of old nation states after much blood has been shed. Bangladesh has had not one but three partums: the first in 1905 when Bengal was spliced into East and West Bengal, then in 1947 when fresh borders were drawn on the Indian sub-continent and the new wing of a new nation state called East Pakistan came into being, and the third in 1971 as Bangladesh was to be its final coming, an assertion of a proud new identity by breaking all links with the past.

Razia Fasih Ahmad's Breaking Links is a valuable addition to the small, almost minuscule, body of work by Pakistani writers on the disintegration of Pakistan. Except for a handful of authors such as Intizar Husain, Masood Ashar and in recent times Sorayya Khan in her debut novel Noor, there has been a tacit silence on the subject of what went wrong with the two-nation theory. The poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz was another exception to the rule that said since people from West Pakistan heard no evil, saw no evil, they could not, therefore, claim to bear witness to the evil that had been festering in the hearts of men who were once brothers. Written in 1974 Dhaka se Waapsi Par (“On Return From Dhaka”) is an acknowledgment of guilt:
 Ham keh thehre ajnabi itni mudaraton ke baad
Phir banenge aashna kitni mulaqaton ke baad
Kab nazar mein ayegi bedagh sabze ki bahar
Khoon ke dhabbe dhulein ge kitni barsaaton ke baad

(We who became strangers despite such expressions of affection
After how many meetings shall we become friends again ?
When shall we see the beauty of blotless verdure?
After how many monsoons will the blood be washed away?)

While laudable, attempts such as these have merely alluded to that bloodstained legacy of shame; there has been no attempt to flesh out the bare bones of that long-buried nightmare. Razia Fasih Ahmad makes a brave attempt to do so but in the guise of a love story.

The blurb at the back describes Breaking Links as “a tale of love gone awry through a grievous sense of honour reaching out across generations”. I found its romantic content, slender to the point of anorexia, quite over-shadowed by its feisty, robust political consciousness. In telling the story of Zari and Shams, both descendents of a Turkish soldier, one born in West Pakistan, the other in its watery twin separated by the vast Indian plain, Razia Fasih Ahmad has chronicled the disintegration of the two ‘arms’. The first part, that deals with life in West Pakistan, especially its remote mountains and valleys in the Swat region, hurtles along at a breakneck speed with events piling up one on top of the other. A huge cast of characters is introduced, adding to the sense of bemusement. By the time the action shifts to East Pakistan, you have stopped trying to figure out who is related to whom and how. The general idea seems to be somehow follow the thread of dissolution in the tangled skein of several confusing sub-plots: the dissolution of a marriage and a country.

Breaking Links charts the history of the subcontinent through personal griefs and tragedies and records the birth of an independent nation. Interspersed with the depiction of everyday life are astute observations on the political state of affairs in West Pakistan: “Conditions in the country were taking a new turn. The government had imposed Section 144 in every big city but people disregarded it. The police tear-gassed and lathi-charged, but it only resulted in more and more protests. The demonstrations were spreading like wildfire across the country, demanding blood money for the families of the martyrs, for the release of political leaders and for restoration of democracy.” The observations become keener, the insight sharper and the commentary more unsparing when it comes to the state of affairs in East Pakistan: “ a comparative study of the economic conditions of East and West Pakistan (there is) the glaring disparity in government jobs, particularly in the armed forces, the differences between the prices of commodities...” Given the economics of “integration” everything is cheaper in East Pakistan – be it arms or consumer goods. So, while the Westerners are contemptuous of the Easterners’ demand for equality, they don’t think twice before coming out East to shop – be it crockery, cutlery, cars, furniture or carpets. Everything is sent out by ship or aeroplane yet everything costs less in the East.

While there is mistrust and anger among East Pakistanis at this imbalance, their western compatriots are scornful of this desire for equality and parity: “Everyone spoke Urdu till recently. Even the servants spoke beautiful Urdu. Now, all of a sudden, they want us to talk to them in Bangla.” The East Pakistanis are acutely conscious of the contempt in which they are held: “If we wear a lungi, or eat in stainless steel plates, it does not mean that we are barbaric or uncivilised. The bottom line is that people here are not going to bear (their) airs any longer. That’s why the gulf between the two people has been widening.” The fatal mistake West Pakistan made was that it thought it could browbeat the East Pakistanis and cow them into submission; it sent its army out, especially the infamous Rangers “to chasten these black pygmies if they don’t behave.” The Rangers unleashed mayhem of the most barbaric kind and were not merely dreaded but despised by the locals: “They think all Bengalis are kafirs, and they have been sent to fight the kafirs and infidels… they are so ignorant that if they see someone saying his prayers or find a copy of the Holy Quran in a Bengali house, they are surprised. They think that Tagore must be a Muslim because he had a beard, so they leave his pictures and destroy Iqbal’s because he is clean-shaven.”

Through the lives of Zari and Shams and their eclectic circle of friends and relatives, the novel depicts how the rallying cry for Amaar Shonar Bangla gains momentum: from hushed whispers to stray slogans to a single unequivocal demand that resounds across sylvan meadows and bustling cities, leaving no place for mutuality. Promoting any one must necessarily mean harming another -- be it language, culture, even nationhood. With scorn and hatred tipping the scales on both sides, there can only be a cataclysmic, irrevocable upheaval, a sundering of limb from limb. In the end, there is the dilemma of people like Zari, ardent votaries of integration who don't just mouth platitudes but go to the extent of marrying the ‘other’ so the ‘otherness’ may be subsumed in ‘oneness’. But every effort comes to nought and Zari is left with the bleak prospect: “If Bangladesh is right, then Pakistan is wrong.” And the even more heart wrenching: “But we were told that the ‘truth’ always wins. Were we wrong to insist on having one Pakistan?”

First published in Urdu in 1988 as Sadiyon ki Zanjeer, the English version has been ‘compressed’ and translated by the author herself. Herein lies its greatest misfortune. Its language is stodgy, archaic, almost banal; its plot and characterisation rudimentary to say the least; its spirit however survives intact and unharmed and soars above its awkward, alien garb. The fleshy, over-ripe fruit of a misalliance between an Urdu writer's penchant for writing an English novel and the demands of translation can very easily be tossed aside. The bitter-sweet kernel of the story, hidden underneath its flabby skin, has much to recommend it. On the ripening vine of partition narratives, Breaking Links is a seasoned offering.

-- Rakhshanda Jalil

Breaking Links (A Translation of Sadiyon ki Zanjeer), by Razia Fasih Ahmad, Introduction by Asif Farrukhi, OUP, Karachi, 2006, Rs 450, pp 331.

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