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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Three Books on Pakistan -- review

Three books on Pakistan

A slew of books on Pakistan or by Pakistani writers published, most notably by Penguin India or Oxford University Press, Karachi, have invaded Indian bookstores. In the season of burgeoning interest in all things Pakistani, it is perhaps inevitable that we in India should look towards writing from Pakistan to see this hitherto intractable and irascible neighbour in shades other than grey. Uzra Aslam Khan, Feriyal Gauhar, Moazzam Sheikh, all from the Penguin stable and all published over the last few months, have attempted to recreate vignettes of life on the other side of Wagah. Add to this the three books presently under review and you begin to get closer to an understanding of what lies beneath the machismo.

 Arranged chronologically, the three books – Mumtaz Shah Nawaz’s The Heart Divided, Sara Suleri Goodyear’s Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter’s Elegy and Sorayya Khan’s Noor – chart the history of the subcontinent through personal griefs and tragedies and record the birth of three independent nations. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, born amidst carnage and devastation, reeling from one disaster to another, condemned forever to pay the price of that one momentous severance. But what caused that severance, so inimical and so implacable that made bloodthirsty foes of those who were once one.

The Heart Divided attempts to provide the answers by raising questions that many from the present generation have stopped asking. Mumtaz Shah Nawaz (1912-48) was a prominent freedom fighter, a poet and workers’ and women’s rights advocate in Delhi and Lahore. An ardent Congress worker till the early 1940s, she reluctantly and sadly turned towards the Muslim League and accepted the ‘notion’ of Pakistan as inevitable. Dead in an airplane crash at the age of 36 on her way to speak about Kashmir at the United Nations, she did not live long enough to see the disenchantment with the new homeland that others who came after her were to experience. In this quasi-autobiographical first and only novel, she traces her own ‘conversion’ to the idea of a separate homeland for the Muslims through the lives of two sisters, Zohra and Sughra Jamaluddin – one an ardent supporter of the Congress and the other an equally enthusiastic worker for the Muslim League in the Punjab. By the end of the novel a change is wrought in Zohra’s heart – a process of a slow churning that started sometime in the 1930s.

The novel throws up some interesting questions: What happened to the heady days of 1919 when the Hindus and the Muslims had come together to fight the common enemy, the British? What went so wrong between the two major communities of the subcontinent? What caused the disenchantment with the Congress? What made staunch Congressmen rally around the once-derided Muslim League? What cooled the Muslim’s ardour to join nationalistic mainstream politics? Why was he suddenly regarded as a toady and a coward content to let the Hindus fight for freedom from the imperial yoke? Why was he suddenly beyond the pale? How did he become the ‘other’? And what of the dream of the Muslim Renaissance spelt out in such soul-stirring verse by the visionary poet Iqbal?

In turn, why did the Congress baulk at the issue of separate electorates, calling it absurd and retrograde? Why did it do nothing to allay the Muslim fear that the freedom promised by the Congress meant freedom for Hindus alone, not freedom for all? Seen from the Muslim point of view, the Congress appeared guilty of many sins of omission and some of commission. “Nationalism” increasingly began to mean thinking and living in the Congress way and none other. Those who lived or thought another way became anti-national. Mumtaz Shah Nawaz traces the gradual shift in the Muslim’s early demands for safeguards, for checks and balances, then reserved seats and separate electorates, till finally the implacable intractable demand: a separate homeland, the land of the pure, Pakistan.

What would have been the state of the Indian sub-continent today had a pact been reached between the League and the Congress? Was the cleavage of hearts and land inevitable or could it have been averted? In the end, there is the poignancy of what might have been: “…had they tried to keep us with love perhaps we would not want to break away.” Both sides allowed the rift to become a chasm and the chasm a sea of blood and tears. Both sides are “guilty”.

Sara Suleri’s book is everything that The Heart Divided is not yet in a sense it takes up where Mumtaz Shah Nawaz’s epic narrative left off. Taken together, the two books offer a glimpse into the Muslim mind, the making of Pakistan and its inexorable decline practically from the moment of its birth. Bright and sassy and moving and poignant in turns, Boys Will Be Boys is an attempt to translate memories, places and people. It dips in and out, in and out, back and forth and sideways too in an attempt to present a “childscape” and a past that the author is never quite free of, that remains perpetually hovering at the edge of her being even when she lives halfway across the world, that makes her constantly address her dead father in the present tense. At one level, a comic elegy to her father, the full-blooded, indefatigable political journalist Z. A Suleri known to his family as Pip (for his “patriotic” and “preposterous” disposition!), this is also an attempt to reclaim vignettes from a childhood long fled and paste a collage of memories of a Pakistan that has changed much over the years. Suleri Goodyear knits disparate memories of picnics and outings, light-hearted remembrances, family jokes, now sombre now playful recollections of her mother, father and sisters – all irretrievably lost to her. Where Suleri’s maiden novel, Meatless Days, was a tribute to her mother and sisters, this memoir named after the memoir her father always meant to write but never got around to doing is a celebration of what it means to Sara Suleri Goodyear to be her father’s daughter. Her father with his “lion’s head”, “huge voice” and “memorable gaze”, his passionate commitment to Jinnah, his vast appetite for humour, politics, poetry and his family remains larger than life at the heart of this rambling monologue.

Sorayya Khan’s Noor is a remarkable novel for the simple reason that it breaks the long tacit silence among Pakistanis of all hues to speak of the horrors of what they saw and did in East Pakistan. Some like Intezar Husain and Faiz Ahmad Faiz have alluded to that bloodstained legacy of shame, but there has been no attempt so far to flesh out the bare bones of that long-buried nightmare. Ali, a young Pakistani soldier, brings home Sajida, a girl of “fiveandsix” who has lost her family in a cyclone and is found wandering about a Dhaka street and raises her as his own daughter. Saijida marries, grows roots in Pakistani soil, has children, one of them being Noor, a child so special and different and gifted that she has access to secrets yet to be revealed and to memories her mother and Ali have buried. Born with Downs Syndrome, Noor begins to paint the most astonishing pictures from her very first birthday. In the blue of her infant drawings there is the blue of the Bay of Bengal, that relentless body of water that rose up in an angry tidal wave and swept away her mother’s childhood. Noor’s unerring drawings bring the past back for Sajida: the cyclone, the sea full of fish, the fishboats plying the seas and the shores of what was once East Pakistan and has since become Bangladesh.  Wrapped like a snake in a tree high above the swirling waters, young Sajida had survived near rotting fish in torn nets when the rest of her family had perished. In a series of chilling portraits, Noor brings the past back with an exactitude that is both fearful and astonishing. She draws uprooted trees, shattered boats and the unrelenting monsoon rains. But she also details the atrocities too unimaginable and inhuman committed in the name of nationalism: the senseless killings of millions, the rivers red with blood, the bloated corpses with tied hands floating like paper boats down the river and the graffiti in a now-forgotten script written on a wall: Joi Bangla. Noor draws what Sajida has forgotten and what Ali has barred and bolted in the drawers of his memory. Her drawings reveal a “connection” not severed, merely buried – with Sajida’s past, with Ali’s compliance in those acts of unmitigated barbarism. Ali, so good, so noble, so ordinary, is the average Pakistani who is plagued by memories that rise up “like stench”. The novel moves inexorably towards its final cathartic question: “What was it like? There?” and in the answer lances a long festering wound.


The Heart Divided, Mumtaz Shah Nawaz, Penguin, pp 451, Rs 375.

Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter’s Elegy, Sara Suleri Goodyear, Penguin, pp 121, Rs 200.

Noor, Sorayya Khan, Penguin, pp223, Rs250.


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