A Fatal Love

To understand what happened in Kargil you have to go back half a century, to the colossal and premature sundering of the Subcontinent known as Partition. The men who killed each other over Tiger Hill and Drass and Batalik were dealing with the unfinished business of Partition. I have no personal experience of Partition; my family is Gujarati, from Calcutta and Kenya, and I have no relatives in Pakistan or Bangladesh. My own partition was at the age of 14, when I immigrated with my family to New York. I am a novelist. What I try to do is to get to the struggling human being underneath the massive foot of history. The greatest scholar of Partition was a fiction writer, Saadat Hasan Manto, a man who died in Lahore mourning his separation from a whore named Bombay. "Uper di gur gur di mung dal…", chants the madman in "Toba Tek Singh". Fiction writers and lunatics have their own truth. Our enemies are the writers of school textbooks. As the Czech poet Jaroslav Seifert said: "for anybody else, not to tell the truth can be a tactical manoeuvre. But a writer who is not telling the truth — is lying".

My family borders are not subcontinental; they are inter-national. But Partition, like the Big Bang, has echoes that will forever permeate the universe of people I write about. In my work, in my fiction as well as in my non-fiction, I have been looking at riots, at communal conflict, in Banaras, Punjab, and especially Bombay. Most of this conflict has its roots in Partition "batwara", which in different circumstances could also have meant "sharing". It is a family quarrel, as when three brothers live side by side in the same house, walling up the rooms, always conscious of the others in the rooms beyond. Kargil is only the latest battle in that endless property dispute; the brothers have come to blows in the street. There will be more to come, before the children grow up and say to their fathers and uncles: Enough.

There are millions of Partition stories throughout the subcontinent, a body of lore that is infrequently recorded in print or on tape, and rarely passed on to the next generation. All over the map of Southasia, there is an entire generation of people who have been made poets, philosophers, and storytellers by their experiences during Partition. Any person over 55 or 60 in Delhi or Amritsar or Lahore has stories to tell of that period, even if they were not themselves dislocated then. And for those who have been displaced from their birth-places against their will and at an early age, the impression of home is all the more vivid and sharp; it haunts their dream-lives, and their minds are the battleground between the desire to forget and the need to remember.

In the summer of '97, I travelled to the Wagah border, and then on to Lahore. It was through Wagah and the nearby town of Atari that most of the Punjabi refugees came through, crossing east to India or west to Pakistan. It was here, in a dingy tourist hotel room on the border, that two 70 year-old Sikh men, Santokh Singh and Harjeet Singh, told me what they did one afternoon 50 years ago, when their minds went mad.

One day in August 1947, Santokh Singh said, an old Sikh man in a village near Atari, out on a walk to buy milk, was murdered by some Muslims. Santokh Singh was a student then, a "leader-type", as he refers to himself. Ten Sikh men gathered to take revenge. Before they went on their ex-pedition, they went to the gurudwara and took an oath not to kill or molest women and children. Then Santokh Singh put on his armoured vest. He took a revolver. They went to the Muslim part of the village. One member of their band grabbed a Muslim woman, but he was reminded of his oath by the others.   Santokh Singh did not tell me what happened next. "My mind went mad for one day", is all he would say. "We took revenge here, they took revenge there", he shrugged. He did not seem to be much affected now by whatever he did then. But on the day after they took their revenge, Santokh Singh's father asked him why he, a strapping 21 year-old man, looked so sad. He had been watching the Muslim women and children going over the border, people he had grown up with. "Mere jigar ke tukde jaa rahe hain", he said. "Parts of my heart are going across".

The next morning, he brought along a friend. Harjeet Singh was another of that band of ten men. He looked at a map in the lobby of the hotel. It was a large map of undivided Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh's Punjab. "Even now the heart…", he started saying, and his eyes reddened, his voice thickened. He was a thin, dignified man who has done well with his wheat and rice farms. He has a daughter in the US, and a son in Toronto, and has travelled there, marvelling at the friendship between Canada and the US, the free trade over the border.

Harjeet Singh repeated, as a prelude, what Santokh Singh had stressed. "When the old man was killed, nobody could hold back. But we didn't touch any woman or child".

"There was much junoon (madness). It lasted 15 to 20 days. When we heard that injured bodies, dead bodies were coming in the trains people were going crazy. Then when the old man was killed, nobody could hold back". They got guns, swords, spears, scythes. Then they went to the Muslim village. "It lasted just a few hours. At most two people killed the old man, so we should only have looked for them". Harjeet Singh knew some of the people in the village — they were his classmates. He was looking out for them, to save them, but they were not there. The Sikhs rounded up the Muslim men, and gathered the women and children to one side. "We killed one third of the people in that village. About 50 to 60 men were killed in those few hours. The women and children were put to one side but they were watching; they were screaming. In some places there was fighting, but they weren't begging for mercy — by that time everyone knew that asking for mercy was meaningless, there wasn't much being said".

Harjeet Singh was weeping profusely by now, his handkerchief going now to one eye, now to the other. It was obvious that he was saying some things for the first time; at this point, he was not even talking directly to me. Every journalist knows that this is when the really important stories come out, when the person you are interviewing stops talking to you, and is really explaining things to himself. "I don't get angry on anybody else but myself. I did not sleep all that night, I did not stop thinking about it for a single minute. That's the worst memory for me".

What happened to the survivors, I asked him.

"Then they walked to Pakistan. I've never met any one of them after that — not even my classmates, the ones who got saved".

How does a man live with having murdered his neighbours? Harjeet Singh's way of atonement has been through a constant searching out of the 'other', a series of highly emotional meetings with his former enemies. He has crossed the border no fewer than three times since then, a feat whose magnitude can be appreciated by any Indian trying to get a visa at the Pakistani embassy in Delhi. On his trips, he tries to meet his former neighbours, the Muslims from Atari whom he had a hand in driving out.

The first time Harjeet Singh went to Pakistan was 1956, and he went with his wife. An entire convoy of vehicles came to the border to receive the Atari group, 25 to 30 trucks, five to seven buses, cars. They were the Muslims who had been driven out. The group from Atari had to stay at each of their houses in turn, and nobody took money for lunch or dinner, or for petrol. But on the 1956 trip, he says, "The younger generation looked at us with a certain amount of hatred".

Harjeet Singh's wife's village was in Pakistan. When they went back, he said, "They knew I was the son-in-law of the family; they just held me and burst out crying". He met the people who had worked in the household of his wife's family. "Whatever money they had, they just emptied their pockets and gave me". He was, after all, the returning son-in-law. After all these years, he says, "my wife was still a daughter of the village".

In 1980, one of Harjeet Singh's cousins went to Pakistan, and Harjeet asked him to look up his best friend before Partition, a Muslim who was so close to him that he would eat a chicken that Harjeet had cooked, even if it was not halal. The Muslim friend received the cousin with great hospitality, and then asked him a favour. Would he bring Harjeet Singh to the border? He wanted to meet him, just once.

The cousin went back to Atari and passed on the message. Harjeet Singh went to the border at the appointed time. "All the security men said, you must be mad. You can't meet". Across the fence, Harjeet Singh, after 33 years, saw his friend, who rushed forward, only to be pushed back by the Pakistani security men far beyond the fence. Harjeet saw that his friend was straining against them, weeping. At first Harjeet turned back, but a relative who knew the soldiers intervened on his behalf. The Indian major talked to his Pakistani counterpart. So Harjeet Singh went forward with two of his youngest children beyond the fence and his friend came forward to meet him. They embraced each other; they were overwhelmed and there was no point in talking. What could be said? How does one condense the highlights of three decades? His friend was crying, but Harjeet Singh was determined not to. Harjeet Singh apologised — for not having brought all of his children to show his friend. "I said I'm sorry. My two girls are married in different villages; I did not have time to get them all here to show you".

Then the soldiers separated the two men and his friend went back into Pakistan and Harjeet Singh started walking slowly back into India. He was stopped by agents from the Intelligence Bureau, and they asked him, "Who were you talking to?" "To my brother", Harjeet Singh answered. How can that be, they demanded, he was Sikh, the man who came to meet him was Muslim. "I said that is exactly what I mean, he is my brother. He has land on that side, I have land on this side, that's why we're separated". The Intelligence men said, "Don't fool us". I said, "I have told you what I told you, I have said what I have said, he is my brother".

Again, in 1982, Harjeet Singh crossed the border. He went with his daughter to a village on the other side where a group of Muslim brothers from Atari had settled. Some of them were wrestlers; they had gone there and become sweet-sellers and made three good houses. But now there was only one of the brothers left. Harjeet Singh and his daughter went to the old man's house for dinner, and talked with the sweet-merchant's entire family late into the night about the village. If the border were opened up tomorrow, said the old man to Harjeet Singh, his children would drive there, because they had cars. "But", said the old man, "I will still beat them because I will run so fast". In the morning when they woke up the old man said, "I am going to tell you something…", and then all his grandchildren rushed forward and interrupted him. "We are going to tell you what he was going to say. He will say I had a dream last night that I was in Atari. Uncle, every morning when he wakes up he says he has met this person in Atari, that person in Atari". This was in 1982, 35 years after the old man had left his village. At least in his waking life.

It is a common desire among those displaced by Partition to make the return crossing, to try to go home again. The Pakistani writer Intizar Husain, whom I met in Lahore, told me that for 30 years he had tried to get a visa to go back to India, particularly to the village he was born in, Dibai, near Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh. Although he has been living in Lahore since 1947, most of his fiction is set in Dibai. Like the old sweet-seller from Atari, he had also been having a recurring dream. "I go there, to my home, and am wandering among the houses. Those lanes, those palaces. The terraces where we flew kites", and then he described his house for me, constructing it lovingly in the air with his hands. "The Muslim quarter began at our house. The terraces of the Hindu houses were so close that at Diwali time I would reach across, steal oil lamps from their terraces, and bring them home".

30 years later, at the invitation of a literary gathering in Delhi, Husain was able to get a visa to go back. He was in Aligarh, and then made an impulsive decision to revisit Dibai, which his visa did not allow him to do. He persuaded an Indian friend to drive him to the village. On the way, he saw the trucks all along the road, the phantom convoys of Partition. As they came into the village, he could not believe how much it had changed. There used to be a pilgrim's hostel. Where was the hostel? Where was the hospital? Everything had become a bazaar. He looked for his house, but the geography of home had changed. His companion said, "Why don't you ask someone?" "I said I have come to my own town. I am not going to ask someone else for directions". Husain got out of the car and wandered the bazaars but could not locate his birthplace, and something in him would not let him ask a stranger for guidance in the territory of his own childhood, his own dreams. At last, he got back in the car, and drove back to Aligarh. He never found his childhood home. He has never gone back.

I asked Husain why there were no museums, no memorials to that time. He responded, "It is good that the killings are not memorialised, that there are no pictures of those times". I found this curious, coming from a writer whose entire body of work deals with "those times". What tormented him, he seemed to be saying, was his generation's burden alone. What use would it be to rake up the past, to keep harping on the atrocities of Partition? If the current generation could only forget what his generation went through, then maybe they could start talking to each other.

Beware of the past: turn back to look at it and the one you love will be cast into hell, like Eurydice, or you will be turned into a pillar of salt, like Lot's wife. The past is a dangerous place, for it is where home lies.

I respectfully differ with Intizar Husain. I think there should be museums, memorials, a supreme subcontinental storytelling. I think that recounting the atrocities of Partition might have the opposite effect from that feared by Husain: it will inoculate us against repeating them. It is interesting to compare the experiences of Holocaust survivors with Partition survivors. The world has come around to the notion that the great crime that happened in Europe in the '40s is worthy of minute examination — a tidal wave of films, books, and tele-vision shows drive home the point, almost to exhaust-ion. But it barely has a notion of what was happening at the same time in Southasia. Among the Partition survivors, I have found surprisingly little bitterness against the perpetrators. 50 years is a long time to live with trauma, and a great many of the survivors have found that the only way to maintain their mental balance is to forgive the aggressors. I was struck by the fact that many of the people telling me their stories were telling them to someone outside the family for the very first time, and they were astonished that anybody would be interested.

The strongest need to tell is not that of the victims of violence; it is that of the perpetrators. What did we do to each other? Examine your hands: they are covered in blood long dried. Who made us do this? We can't just blame the conqueror. "I don't get angry on anybody else except myself", Harjeet Singh said to me in that hotel room in Wagah. It is an existential burden. Which one of us is capable of killing? What authority are we submitting to, whose orders do we obey when we kill?

Harjeet Singh did not explicitly say that he keeps travelling to Pakistan to atone for what he did. But when he told me his story, weeping, wailing, it was evident that it was in the nature of a confessional. In drawing out such narratives, I have found strong initial resistance; but once the telling begins, it is nearly impossible to stop it. It comes out in a flood. The perpetrators were not professional murderers or rapists. They were village folk, by and large. Farmers, grocers, neighbours. In Punjab they call it the "junoon". It was a period suspended in time, separate from what came before and what came after. It was a mad time, and madness is their excuse for what they did. "Uper di gur gur di mung dal…". They have lived the past 50 years with the moral responsibility for what they did. At an individual level, these human beings who murdered other human beings are perfect fictional characters. Fiction, as Faulkner said, is about the human heart in conflict with itself.

For 50 years the telling has stopped. A whole generation did not want to talk about it to their sons and daughters; a whole generation did not want to hear about it. The telling is for the grandchildren. Now there is a generation of grandchildren in all three countries that is coming to power, and they have the luxury of forgiving, a luxury their parents did not enjoy.

But there are two competing forces in the telling: the grandparents and the governments. The governments have their own ideas of the story, and they have the power of the state to spread their version, through textbooks. School textbooks on both sides, written as always by professional liars, gloss quickly over Partition, preferring to concentrate on the struggle for independence, a much more noble chapter in the Subcontinent's history. When Partition is dealt with at all, it is portrayed as a massacre of our people by their people. The way we gained independence is something to be proud of, an example to other nations. What followed is our shared secret shame. But surely Partition, the splitting up of the Subcontinent and the mass transfer of populations, was a far more important historical event than independence from a foreign power which ruled parts of the region for less than 200 years, an eye-blink in Southasian history.

The history of Partition and the independence struggle, points out Husain, gets distorted in both countries. "I was seeing episodes of the freedom struggle on Indian television. I was surprised to see that Maulana Muhammad Ali, Shaukat Ali were completely absent. Jinnah also. Why had they disappeared?" The results of this willed amnesia are apparent in a poll of urban youth aged 18 to 25, commissioned in May 1997 by the newsmagazine Outlook. When asked which state was most affected by Partition, 59 per cent said Kashmir; only 39 per cent identified Punjab. When asked to identify places associated with Partition violence, the majority (53 per cent) picked Jallianwala Bagh.

So the child growing up in Lahore or Delhi or Dhaka shuttles between two tellings: what he is instructed at school, which he will have to learn by rote and regurgitate in the examinations, and what his old grandmother tells him in the last room of the house about the days of the junoon.

Who is the telling directed towards? Why is it necessary? The new generation has no sense of Partition. We have grown up, and our parents have grown up, with the reality of three separate states and most of us are satisfied with the arrangement. We do not want to merge into one colossal super-state. I ask those who want to undo Partition: have we really managed India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh so well from Delhi, Islamabad, and Dhaka, that we want to push it still further to fold everything back into one? What is needed is far greater decentralisation, not the opposite. Perhaps a future in which the various states of the Subcontinent split off into autonomous entities is not so bad, is inevitable and even desirable. Kashmir has as much right to self-government in local matters as does Karnataka or Karachi. What is possible is a common market, free movement of people across open borders, even a common currency. Everything else should be radically decentralised.

What still brings us together? Paan (betel-leaf) and music. On the Samjhauta Express between Delhi and Lahore I saw everybody carrying baskets of betel-leaf. It is among the biggest items of trade between the two countries; a Southasian bad habit. Through the three wars, through the problems over Kashmir, through cricket matches, through Thackeray and the Jamaat, people have needed to chew paan. India grows it; Pakistan chews it. People in Lahore will curse the Indian army through a mouthful of paan grown in the enemy country. As for music, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saheb, who after 1947 shuttled restlessly back and forth between the two countries, unable to find home, put it best. He said, "If classical music had been taught in every home in India and Pakistan, there wouldn't have been a Partition".

The first time I met the enemy people, Pakistanis, was when I went to New York. We shopped together, we ate together, we dated each other and had each others' babies. A phenomenon I have been noticing lately is that of the young NRI student coming to Delhi for the Christmas holidays, and saving a week to go to Karachi or to Lahore, to attend the wedding of a college roommate. It is there, abroad, where exiles gather, that there are signs that Partition might not be irreversible. I used to shop at a store in Jackson Heights, Queens, advertising "Indo-Pak-Bangladeshi-Afghan Groceries". I know of a gang in the high schools of Flushing, comprising of juvenile delinquents of Southasian descent — Muslim, Sikh, Hindu kids fighting together, united against the Koreans, the Hispanics, the African-Americans. The cafeteria below where I used to work in Manhattan sold rice and dal to taxi drivers from all across the Subcontinent; turbaned cabbies sporting Khalistani slogans on their cabs stood next to Punjabi Hindus with VHP stickers on theirs, and ate together and talked about the mustard fields of their villages. There are an astonishing number of Pakistanis dating Indians in Wembley and in Jackson Heights. It is almost as if the 'enemy' is deliberately sought out, wooed. These are by and large children of very conservative parents, who have raised them on a diet of patriotic hatred. So teenage rebellion travels hand in hand with repudiation of their parents' hatreds. The young people are determined to transgress the ultimate boundary with the 'other', by accepting them into their bed.

Most progressive organisations in North America take pains to call themselves "South Asian", rather than Indian or Pakistani or Bangladeshi. It is always when the quarrelling family leaves its house that it comes back together again. These walls, these fences we have put up on our borders: they are of recent vintage, and they are flimsy. We have watered them with our blood, and they have come up weeds.

The massacres of Partition were the first act of a great love, an illicit love, worthy of a Sufi qawaali or a Bhakti bhajan or a Bollywood block-buster. The three-and-a-half wars we have fought since then comprise the second act. We are nearing the last act, the logical and mythic end.

We, the peoples of the Subcontinent, respect illicit love; we know that the most powerful love is the hidden love, the secret longing of the individual soul for an absent god. I have a Sindhi friend in Bombay whose father, a doctor, left Karachi only in 1965. Well after independence, he kept on his practice in Karachi. Among his clients were the women of a brothel. His wife always knew when he had treated one of them, because the notes he brought home that day would be scented. For some reason, the prostitutes preferred Hindu doctors — they thought the Hindus would not take liberties with them. They were also quite shy around the doctor; when he would go to examine them, they would unveil only the affected part; so he saw their bodies only in segments, never whole. One day one of the prostitutes, whom he had now known for a long time, asked him if he would come to her room. He was not sure what she wanted, and was hesitant, but she insisted. Come to my room, doctor, she said. And she led him inside when no-one was looking, and locked the door. Then she opened the almirah in the back of the room, and showed him her secret inside. He came closer, and saw what she was pointing at: it was a small shrine, with a statue of Lord Krishna. Lifting her veil, the prostitute told him that she prayed to Krishna every day. She was a Hindu woman who had been kidnapped during Partition, forced to convert, and then sold to this brothel. But she maintained, in the silences of her room, this illicit lover, Krishna, through all these long years. That was all the prostitute was asking of the doctor: to bear witness to her love, to the truth of her love.

Love can still be mythic in Southasia. There is a reason that Southasian writers are suddenly in vogue in the West. It is because we are a storehouse, a seed bank, of myth. Our leading exports are software, jewels, and myths. Is there any such thing as forbidden love in Paris, in New York? There, the greatest tragedy possible with love is that it can end in marriage and divorce; here, it could end in death.

I am thinking now about Kunwar Ahson and Riffat Afridi in Karachi. In Pakistan in 1998, a Pathan girl dared to love a Mohajir boy. It was because of Partition that the boy was born in Karachi, but there were other borders which could never be crossed. The girl's relatives, her tribe, went gunning for the boy; and they were prepared to kill their own daughter. The entire city went up in riots; two people were killed, dozens injured. The police arrested the boy and beat him badly in the prison. The girl was brought to court to repudiate her love; she came in her wedding dress. She addressed the judge from behind her veil; lifted her eyes and said her truth: that she loved Kunwar Ahson. She had taken him as her husband. The bloodthirsty mob bayed its sentence outside. When the boy appeared in court, the girl's relatives were waiting for him, with the compliance of the police. They riddled his body with bullets. Kunwar Ahson now lies in some hospital, paralysed for life, unable to consummate the love he nearly lost his life for (and this, too, fits within the story; for such a love should always be the love of angels, a chaste love, in which lust has no part). The girl is hidden with his parents, unable to meet her lover. Both of them are now begging the world to give them safe shelter somewhere else, for such love is dangerous in a region where love still has power.

I find their love important, metaphorical. Against great odds — against the tyrant father of the State — we the peoples of the Subcontinent love each other. It is an adulterous love, an illicit love. When we want to live together safely, it has to be outside, in some other country, in someone else's house. It is still a land where love means something, because we are ready to die for love. We are ready to kill for love. Such is the strength of our passion for each other that we have no other way of proving this love than to die for it. Any lesser climax would be to mock the vastness, the wholeness, of this love; could it be tested, satiated, by mere exile or maiming? We are determined to die, for love; we have made a collective suicide pact. Each one of us will kill the other. We will show the whole world what love is; we will all go out in a grand gesture, all together at once, in the space of 15 minutes. This can be the only fit ending to such a great love.

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