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In this Screen Southasia Q&A session, recorded on 7 August 2023, Kanak Mani Dixit, founder of Southasia Trust, speaks with director of the documentary ‘Taangh (Longing)’, Bani Singh, and political scientist Ishtiaq Ahmed, on the topic of ‘Two Punjabs, One Southasia.’
Synopsis of ‘Taangh (Longing)’: Against the backdrop of Partition, newly independent India’s first hockey team defeats England, their erstwhile coloniser, to win the Gold at the 1948 London Olympics. Six decades later, when Nandy Singh, a member of this iconic team suffers a stroke at the age of 84, his tenacious will to recover inspires his daughter to go on a journey to discover the champion he was before she was born.
This is a machine-generated transcript of the event and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording.
Sana Amir: Hello everyone, thank you for joining us this weekend. We screened Taangh or Longing by Bani Singh. We are also live on Facebook if you want to catch the discussion there. I would like to invite our editor, Roman Gautam, to give a brief introduction to our speakers. Over to you Roman.
Roman Gautam: Thank you Sana. I, of course, have the honor and privilege of saying a round of welcomes and a big round of thanks. The first thanks, of course, to all of you who are joining us. Thank you. We started Screen Southasia, six months ago now, and this is precisely the kind of thing that we started it for. It’s a huge pleasure to have all of you here with us and all of these wonderful people on the screen as well. The time we have together is precious, so I will keep the introductions relatively short, but before we go there, I just want to also start with a very special thank you to Bani for this film.
At the start of it, as all of you know, having watched it over the weekend, she says that this is a gift from her father. And now, through her hands, she has passed that gift from Guru Nandan Singh ji, or Nandi ji, if we may. She has passed that on to all of us, to our minds, to our hearts.
It’s a miracle, really, for his story and for what his story means to have come to us this way. So Bani, thank you. And you know, you also say that it’s the first film you’ve ever done. I think that also probably left a lot of us speechless at the end because it’s so beautifully done, so beautifully edited, the way you’ve told the story and the power of it.
So thank you for sharing it with us and thank you for this gift that you’ve passed on from your father. It means a lot to all of us, I’m sure. A very brief introduction, Bani, since you are already in the spotlight. Bani is a designer, as she identifies herself in the film as well. But I think it is also very important to know that she’s also worked in museums and has specialized in museum studies.
She’s worked at the Virasat-e-Khalsa museum in Anandpur Sahib, and, as a faculty member at the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology. Taangh is, of course, her first film. Our second, very special guest is Ishtiaq Ahmed Sahib, whose accomplishments are extremely noteworthy, and very extensive to keep things short.
Ishtiaq ji, if you will permit me to perhaps focus on some of the most important ones, Ishtiaq Ahmed holds the position of professor emeritus at Stockholm university, where he obtained his PhD in political science and taught for many years, retiring in 2010. And he has served as a professor in numerous, numerous distinguished universities and institutions. Just to name a few, Lums in Lahore, National University of Singapore, but also want to shine light here, on Government College, in Lahore, because of course in this film that assumes a very central part.
Ishtiaq saab’s list of books is extensive both in terms of the list of titles, but also in terms of the depths of each of those titles. His most recent book is Pre Partitioned Punjab’s Contribution to Indian Cinema. If that is something that interests any of you, you should please, pick up that book.
But I also want to shine the light, especially on a particular work of his, the monumental book, The Punjab, Bloodied, Partitioned, and Cleansed. It is a book that possesses great power, power of a very sobering kind, because I think it shows the depth of both the brutality and the hatred that spilled out across Punjab at that time. Of course, a legacy that this film highlights. I want to also point out that, It’s very pointedly called the Punjab, not just Punjab. Bani, in the movie you talk about things that cannot be partitioned in English. Somehow we’ve managed to partition even the word now it’s Pakistani Punjab, Indian Punjab.
Of course, the Punjab is the Punjab. The homeland united as the historic geographic region, not as two separate nationally divided entities. But I also want to point out that as much as in English, we’ve partitioned that word. Hindi mein, Punjabi Punjabi bolte hain aaj tak. So that is perhaps one place where, even though the political reality might be different, in these languages, the languages that matter in this place. There, the word Punjab has not been partitioned. With that, I want to very quickly introduce Kanak Mani Dixit, of course, I think probably someone well known to many of you. Kanak is the founding editor of Himal Southasian, the very long time editor of Himal Southasian until he stepped down. I think he is the best person we could possibly have hoped for to be this conversation because he’s also written in his columns, on Punjab and its central place, both in the divided partitioned imagination and political reality that we now inhabit. So just with that much, Kanak over to you and I leave all of you with thanks once again.
Kanak Mani Dixit: Actually, when we say Punjab, not the Punjab as Roman mentioned, but when we say Punjab, and Punjab meaning two Punjabs, we inevitably speak of both the partition and the work by Ishtiaq sahab. It’s a tool. It is a work of deep humanistic resonance because it is trying to bring to life an excruciating moment in the subcontinent or Southasian history. And, which both nation States in their capitals would actually like to forget: what Ishtiaq bhai calls the cleansing of the Partition.
And we go on to Bani’s film, Taangh which is also a human, a very humanistic attempt to delve into family and friends. From the pre-partition era and how they kept their memories in their hearts over decades until this film sought to dig into those memories and present them to the protagonist.
Unfortunately, her own father had passed away by the time the film was made and the other two main protagonists in the documentary are gone. But the beauty of time is that it is there for us like the book, the Punjab, for us to learn about an incredible time where individuals were impacted and those actual individuals are mostly gone now, but we are left with a documentary and a book.
Let me just go back to the book for a bit. The Punjab. No, Ishtiaq bhai has not pulled any punches, bloodied, partitioned, and cleansed. So I’ll go to him with my first suggestion or a question, Ishtiaq bhai, we have about an hour to be with each other right now and welcome to the audience who are with us right now, but also the audience that I know will be here.
Over the years to come, as this video is shared on YouTube, because if there is one topic that is vital to the memory of pre-1947 Southasia, in a way that will help us recreate some kind of a unity in Southasia for the future, you need resources such as this book, and this film. So my question, going to the heart of the matter is here. In your introduction, you’ve said the Punjab partition saga is not over yet, and never will be. Now, when you wrote that, did you imply that coming together in whatever way, I do not see a future Southasia as one nation state, certainly we will remain different nation states, but are you being a little pessimistic from all that you know, from all that you have seen, all the interviews that you have done that perhaps partition will never be over and hence people’s divisions within people’s mind will remain. Is that what you implied in that sentence?
Ishtiaq Ahmed: Actually, that was not what I intended to convey. It was the other way around, that the tragedy was so huge and the involvement of people in it was from all three sides that even if they want to forget and cover it up, this would never be possible because there will always be people coming up with new stories based on stark reality from the partition, and I give the example of this.
I was teaching at Lums, and this was a course I was teaching on the partition of Punjab, and I told the story of Harbhajan Kaur, who was captured in 47 in Lahore, married to a Muslim, then went to her parents in Raja Sansi. When I told this story to my students, one of them came next day and said, you know Tufail Uppal that you mentioned in the book is my grandfather’s brother.
So this was 2014, she turned out to be also from Raja Sansi, and her grandparents. So what I meant was the way Harbhajan Kaur and her children were reunited, when I wrote about this in the Pakistani newspapers, ultimately, that story is not there just in the public, but very much in the class I was teaching.
And so that’s what I had in mind, that this saga will not be over, notwithstanding the attempt to cover up. All the crimes against humanity in which so many forces were involved, and there has never been, they have not been put on trial. There has been no tribunal to set up to find out who did what.
But all this would be defeated ultimately by the very fact that I think human nature is driven ultimately by the urge to find out the truth. And Bani’s movie substantiates that. And my book also tries to do the same. So this will continue despite all efforts to just forget it.
Kanak Mani Dixit: I agree, because I don’t see how we can allow the bloodletting and the chaos of partition to be a fair accomplishment. And so what you’re saying and the way you interpreted the words that I pulled out from the book, I’m heartened by that. And I want to share with you that in 2011, I and my wife drew a Volkswagen Beetle from Kathmandu, joining the Grand Trunk Road, and all the way over Amritsar, Lahore to Peshawar. As we were going past the Jalandhar Bypass, that’s the name of the town, we met an old Sikh and he couldn’t believe that this Nepali in a Nepali number plate Volkswagen was going across the border. And here I was as a Nepali citizen, privileged to do that. And I’m going to take advantage of that privilege again, when we go to show Bani’s film in Lahore. Sadly, that is not as easily available to most other Southasians, particularly from the two countries.
This is the conundrum we live in, but that gentleman, Sikh gentleman said, I come from a village outside Sialkot. Will you please bring me, will you please go off track, go to the town and bring me a bottle full of mud from my earth, from my village, which we did. So I will now have to move to Bani to ask a question related to what Ishtiaq Bhai said, that memories will continue. And my presumption is that he meant memories will continue because there are documentaries and there are books that will keep the memory alive, but the individuals will pass away. Your dad, Nandi ji, has passed on and so have his other colleagues that you interviewed in that film. Do you feel that we can keep that flame of memory alive enough and strong enough to be able to revive some kind of camaraderie in Southasia, Punjabis?
Bani Singh: I think it’s very possible because, you know, if you even just take the example of my father, and that generation, they had very often spoken of their homeland. And whenever they referred to their vatan in West Punjab, they spoke with a lot of love and warmth. So even when I screened my film for my family, I was very heartened to see how the younger generation was very, very curious and they wanted to connect.
And even when I present the film in colleges and schools in India, they all have a desire to visit Pakistan, you know, and find out for themselves. I think in that sense, the film does bring alive memories of the grandparents. That’s very heartening, you know, because grandparents and our forefathers are like the foundation of our personal memories.
And to be able to visit them and understand what it was perhaps that they tried to bring with them when they came and they spoke about is something that is received with warmth. In that sense I feel that if we can rekindle, you know, memories of the togetherness that was also there, which may not be that we come from a common pool, then there is a chance of changing the frame through which we view this relationship.
Kanak Mani Dixit: In which case, there is a big challenge for the rest of us. You’ve made your documentary Ishtiaq bhai has written his tome but what is contained there has to be taken to the public. Not only through documentary screening, not only through individual books being sold, but how do we jump from that sensibility, that Bani, you say, does exist. And when people see that film, It creates a cultural tug in the hearts of the people who watch it. But we’re talking about hard politics of nation states. And what I have seen in having started Himal Southasian, which Roman now edits, and over the years, the rock hard certitude of the nation state, not only in the capitals, but in among the public at large, the nationalist populism, we have to chip away at that and can it happen? People? This is my question you Ishtiaq saad, have interviewed so many individuals besides the, the midnights oil you have poured over, more than a decade to prepare this book and even the faces that come out to me from your book. Taleb Ali Sheikh, 18 April 2011, Tanel Singh and Desh Raj, and Hari Sharif in 2004, and on and on. So many faces, so many names. These are people who felt it, who felt the pain, and then they’re now moved on. How much, how can your book be a tool to revive old Punjabihat. My question to you.
Ishtiaq Ahmed: That’s a great, great question. And I would say that I’m greatly encouraged by a number of things which happened, first of all, when this book was published to my very, very, very great surprise. In Pakistan, it won the best nonfiction book award in two literary festivals, one in Karachi and one in Lahore.
And incidentally, I was not invited to both of these festivals, but in my absence, the juries gave me this prize for the best nonfiction book award. And it goes against the teaching in Pakistan about the partition in general, and also what happened in the Punjab. So somewhere, I believe that the goodness in people is always there as a counter to official narratives, which are always, you know maneuvered, manipulated and distorted to tell a particular type of story.
And then now recently for nine weeks, I was in Pakistan with my more controversial book, Jinnah, his successes, failures and role in history. And I thought they will lynch me. It didn’t happen. I was welcomed everywhere in Pakistan. And in nine weeks I addressed 27 public audiences at all levels, and everywhere the reception was very warm, just to contextualize a difference between how the partition is seen in India and in Pakistan, while in India and rightly so, this is considered a great tragedy.
In Pakistan, the national narrative drummed down every day is that had there been no partition, the Muslims would be permanently enslaved by the Hindu majority. So officially partition is considered the price you had to pay to win your own freedom. But Vajpayee Sahib came to Lahore in 1999, somebody published in the local newspapers that those people who want to visit their ancestral places in the Indian East Punjab can apply for the visa. And this was a fake news, but thousands of people came there to apply for the visa, which shows that despite official, you know, propaganda not to consider the partition a bad or a disastrous thing, at heart, people were very much attached to their ancestral abodes and the memories of their elders.
So I think the social media, Bani’s film, and more popular presentations, reading a book, is getting out of fashion, but still many people have read my book. It’s an effort, reading the book, but those who do, they are transformed, I’m told, but things like putting it in a film form is absolutely the best way to reach the message on a grand scale.
And I think in the long run, India and Pakistan are going to come together despite all this recent acrimonious sort of stands on both sides. Because ultimately, this is the future of the subcontinent. And these two nations cannot permanently be at war. It makes no sense. This has been tried in Europe, and they have all learned the wisdom of investing in peace.
And in the case of the subcontinent, blood spilling is not a very common thing. It has happened occasionally at the time of invasions and battles. But mostly the wisdom of the people have been to live and let live. And I think this will come back once again, as soon as we keep on making this effort. Yeah, I think this film is going to make it a household sort of discussion.
Kanak Mani Dixit: I think this is really good to know. And in fact, if what you just said is thereby had been said by somebody else. It might just have been seen as the word of a romantic. You said in the long run, you believe that India and Pakistan will come together. But this is what you have said from your deep understanding of the very death and the mayhem that you saw around you and you recorded it and you still are able to say this because you see what you seem to be saying is there is an inherent goodness in humans and that has been stifled for now but over time if we work at it that will be pushed aside even in these populist times and I should tell the audience how closely Ishtiaq Ahmed is linked in his own life with partition when we speak of Punjab that will never go away. He was born on 24th, February, 1947. And the British government announced that it was ending its rule over British India four days before he was born. And soon after he was born that very year, was the year of the bloodletting. And if I might say so, and you can correct me if I’m wrong Ishtiaq bhai, is that you are also, besides being a scholar and a political scientist of renown, you’re also carrying this, in a way, a burden for being from, born in Temple Road, Lahore, and knowing everything that happened around you, knowing how things were and then recording it so that it may be turned around.
This, your birth in that very year, has that made a difference for you in your own mind?
Ishtiaq Ahmed: Absolutely. I was. This was a trauma my mother inherited when she saw a poor Sikh carpenter being mercilessly killed in front of her eyes on Temple Road by the local badmash people. And she died in February 1990 in Stockholm.
And till her last days, this trauma never left her. She said that was a great, great injustice done to a poor man going to work who had nothing to do with the partition and high politics and all that. This will never be forgiven by God. This is what she kept on saying. And I think that gave me the strength to tell the story. There is a story which I advise all of you to read by Krishna Chandra. It’s called Kalu Bhangi. It’s a Dalit who’s insulted and mistreated everywhere in a hospital. And Krishna Chandra father was a doctor and he grew up in the hospital. And he says that every time this man’s and my eyes met, he wanted me to tell his story.
But what could I tell about him, that everybody insulted him? Nobody gave him and gave him any love. What story is there to tell? Until one day he noticed that at about four o’clock he would disappear. And then he followed him, and he noted that on the hospital compound, everybody who worked there would have a cow or a buffalo or whatever, sheep and so on, and he would lead them for grazing.
And then in the green field, he would like lie down like a king, and the Gaumata would lap his bald head with her tongue. And so the ultimate irony that people who despise him and worship the Gaumata, the Gaumata gives so much love to the same Dalit. So that was the story Krishna Chandra says I wanted to tell.
So the eyes of the Punjab were always telling me there is a story, there is not just the holocaust, there are so many other stories. Who’s going to tell the story of Punjab? So I think that’s what ultimately prevailed on me. And 11 years later, I would say my greatest work is the book on Punjab, although the Jinnah book has got more attention for obvious reasons.
Kanak Mani Dixit: Picking up from what you spoke, what the confidence you gave from your side and from your understanding of human nature and that essentially the fact that we can make people remember, even if they were not alive during the time of the events. I’ll now go back and take our audience to the 1948 hockey gold cup, which happened in London, which is the trigger for the film by Bani Singh
You are by discipline, a space designer, you’re a teacher. You got into documentary filmmaking because you wanted to record your father. And then that led to looking for playmates. Who were together in the original team in up till 47, and then they got divided one in Lahore, one in Calcutta, later Bombay. And, what you have done is also exactly what, Ishtiaq Bhai has done in his book, an archival recording with feeling. Because archives tend to be dry. It’s meant for others then to delve into and find meaning in it. But the book is incredible because it also gives analysis while also being a work of archiving.
Your film too, and you have yourself said that this is a Recording. Memories or albums are essentially presenting albums of our community and albums of our nature. And so you, in turn, the documentary, which is a human document about friends who got torn by one of the most vicious divisions, in modern history, Ishtiaq Ahmed actually calls it people cleansing that of the kind that has not happened anywhere in the world, in its dimensions since the Second World War. So my question now to come to you, Bani, is when you interviewed your father and his, colleagues who have now all passed on, do you believe that a film such as what you’ve made can make those who did not live partition still feel for the partition and the injustice that it represents on the body politic of Southasia?
Bani Singh: Yes, I think very much so and actually, you know, I have screened the film in South India a couple of times and this comment has come back to me from some people because you see geographically the southern part of India was quite removed. Yes. And in the eastern part and people have come up to me and said that we could never understand why, you know, the people from Punjab and Bengal cannot move on from the partition, because we felt distant from this tragedy, but they said that your film has made us understand, you know, because it gets into it. One can speak of the blood and gore, of course, and there is a tendency that you tend to try to, you know, block some of it because it makes one so uncomfortable.
But when you’re talking about a friendship that could not survive something, something so tender, then you know, sometimes a whisper can speak much louder than a shout. I think that’s the impact it has. So it touches you very deeply. I’ve even hadfriends come to me together who are buddies in college, you know, and they say, you know, your film has taught us to value this relationship more because we take it for granted.
You take a buddy for granted and you cannot imagine that you would lose the buddy and neither side is speaking about it, you know, because in a sense, it’s a part of the national narrative that you allow yourself to be silenced. That is all I can say, because my father and I were very, very close.
He shared so many memories with me, but I had never heard of Shah Rukh memories. And once he started speaking about Shah Rukh, he couldn’t stop. And was so keen that I go to Lahore. So I just feel that, you know, in that trauma there are a lot of memories, and I mean, it’s, it’s a memory of a friendship. It hurt so much to be able to say that we loved each other, but we couldn’t, we couldn’t complete it. So, yeah.
Kanak Mani Dixit: So the names, the names you know, Shah, Ghanandan Singh, Nandi ji, your late father, they were, I think they probably exemplified the larger mass of Punjabis of people living in Punjab at that time rather than the individuals who got involved in the blood and gore, in the killings. Would you agree, Ishtiaq Bhai, that the majority were not complicit? And maybe that gives us hope that the peoples of the two sides, which are sadly the two sides, can actually reconcile because some would say, well, the people who felt the closeness of one Punjab have now died and there’s such a deep chasm created by the nation states that created the two Punjabs that now you can’t come back together. But could you say that when the people who actually did it, were a few. The larger mass of population and their families and their descendants till today do not have that feeling of animosity. Would you agree?
Ishtiaq Ahmed: You see let me illustrate this, In 2013, I was in Bangalore to give a talk on this book of mine and a young girl, before I started speaking, got up and said, Sir, why do Pakistanis hate us so much? Now, this is before my formal presentation of what I wanted to say on the book. And then, you know, I couldn’t come up with any good explanation, except I said, look, all these years I’ve regretted that Pakistan’s literacy rate is so low, and that of India and Bangladesh is going ahead.
But now I celebrate it because all Hindus and Sikhs who managed to go to Lahore or Punjab, they are received so warmly by the illiterate people, the chabadi wala, the rickshaw wala, people, salespersons in shops. And even owners of shops saying, nahi lehne. I mean, Bani, I think, something of this is mentioned in her own film as well.
So the people at large were never involved in the massacres. There was, you know, in such circumstances when the state authority, the RIT is gone, the lumpen element, the gunda element is always there to carry out looting and attacks and all that. And then there is the corrupt police network and local administration, but I give ample evidence from both or all three sides of people going out of the way to help others and save their lives even when that threatened their own sort of existence. So I think this was done by networks being operated by the partisan state. I call it on both sides after the transfer of power where the state was involved in eradicating their space of unwanted minorities. And that is why I don’t call it genocide, because most people were not killed. The very large number could cross over. And those who were killed were done by these gangs. Because people came out even when the caravans were going and provided them food and help on the way. There is the example of this famous songwriter, Naksh Lyalpuri, which I give, that they were trekking then from Lyalpur all the way and there was no food, they went to a village and the villager, Anayat Ali, I remember his name, came with all the food and so on. And there were there were so many examples of people helping one another, even in those very difficult times. So I don’t believe the Punjabis at large were involved. And mostly, even those who were involved wouldn’t, almost never, attack their own neighbors. They would go and do it in another village where the anonymity of the person was good enough or bad enough to make them a target, but you can’t kill your own neighbors. In a few example cases, even that happened because there is no grand rule about social behavior. All rules are broken here and there. But by and large, I think this thing we can overcome if we keep on talking about it and questioning the type of underlying demonization, dehumanization, which went on for many years before people started attacking one another.
Earlier on, people lived on, Abdali came, Naali came, they attacked, killed, and went away. But in the popular imagination, they were not heroes. They are heroes of the Pakistan government with its missiles and all, but that’s all too artificial. People still think Ranjit Singh was the real state Punjabi. I’ve heard it from people saying this. You hear this in, in the streets of Lahore as well. All the time, all the time, and the Punjabi abuse against the official narrative is so coarse, I can’t repeat it here. Well, well, well, putting, you know, tipping a hat to Maharaj Ranjit Singh. You’ve given us some heartening words. By that, the people at all at large don’t carry the burden of guilt. They don’t wear the term you used, the gangs, the state, and the Muslim league and the Congress. Especially the Muslim League
Kanak Mani Dixit: And now, thank you for adding that last point you did, you said, Especially the Muslim League, but I won’t ask you to elaborate there because that will take us to talk. I note the point you made. If we must remember the people in the films that you’ve made Bani because, they bring to life those who are alive during partition who lost so much, but then we hear from Ishtiaq Bhai that the bulk of the people were like them, where innocence caught in this maelstrom of international geopolitics and national division making. We also talked earlier then about if that is the case, then it should be easier to bring people together. But there is this, my suggestion, there’s this hardening nation statism that makes people feel even more quote unquote Pakistani, even more quote unquote Indian. And we’ve been thinking that perhaps we can challenge that, but both of you seem to think so yes.
So my question to Bani is, you made a documentary, would there be space for finally made fiction films, which may even take this further. I’m sure there are in the past but in the current scenario I can’t think of anybody. Especially the way India is going as well, and India is going the way Pakistan did, we can’t see anybody daring to invest in blockbuster films that deal with this topic, whereas in the past it was possible. So can we work with film, cinema rather, Bani?
Bani Singh: You know, I am also optimistic, I do feel that there is a good future for a good relationship, at least people to people, person to person. I feel that it is a time that we have to be very alert and guard our memories. So, you know, I think somewhere when we have been doing documentation of histories and the national narrative, the personal story has to be privileged.
I don’t think there can be a legal mechanism of doing it because who owns your personal story, right? Fortunately, this story got told and this story has been received very well in India and not being questioned because it’s a documentary. You know, so we are saying tough things. We are questioning the very fine line between the vatan and the nation, but we are questioning it on the shoulders of that generation who knew Punjabi and who lived by, you know, its principles.
So if you today in today’s scenario, where the nation states on both sides are bent on telling a very different story, if you ask a filmmaker to do a fiction film, they invest so much money in it, then it’s a huge risk because the government can ban it, or, you know, publicity can be drummed up against it. But I feel in the current state, documentaries have a better chance of doing it because these are real stories.
Kanak Mani Dixit: Okay, but then Bani the subjects for this film, for these documentaries, dazzling examples such as Taangh cannot be made in the next few years because the people with the direct memories are gone. So unless it’s a matter of reviving footage that people find in somebody’s attic and fashioning a film such as was done, for example, in Bangladesh in a film called Mukhtirgan, where Tariq Masood and his team, Catherine Masood and her team brought up footage from 1971 and then fashioned the documentary. So, the reason I went into cinema, I take your point that nobody would be willing to invest at this point, but this is the era of streaming and streaming presumably doesn’t is not blocked by the border. So perhaps we could still think about it, I would be very heartened if projects like this took on.
Bani Singh: I mean, even if you just take my film, you know, so many times I have said that it, it, it can be depicted in a different way. I have people who do fiction films, but most people have said that currently no, but they are moved by the story. But I do feel that stories, you know, which can make people understand the pain of partition could be done.
For example, there is this very touching story in Ishtiaq aaab’s book, which is about the animals. I mean, somehow I read so many eyewitness accounts, but there’s this one story, which is about this family that lets loose their animals because they have to flee. And quite by chance, they are allowed to come back on an army truck to collect their luggage and the animals collect around them again.
And when this truck leaves, how the animals chase that truck, you know, very often when I’m talking to students and they don’t understand why losing home and losing everything you know, was such a tragedy because say, for example, even if you take me, I mean, I knew my parents when they were settled. I could not understand what it meant to lose the ground beneath your feet.
But, you know, if you can, if you can explore a story like this. and something as precious and innocent, like an animal expressing his love for losing the people that they love. And why are you leaving? And the people don’t want to leave. I’m saying that we have to choose those examples very well and maybe fictionalize them.
Ishtiaq Ahmed: Yeah. I was about to say, you know, of all the stories in my book, the one which always catches the eye is this one of the animals running after the truck. And then me describing this elderly, sick gentleman, very firm and calm, but then breaking down like a child while telling the story. And so I’m very amazed that almost all those people who read the book, this story is always the one which moves most of them because it only shows the limits of human feeling and the instinctive love of animals, which has been killed by civilization.
And I think such stories can be part of a documentary, so from my book, there are many such stories which can be part of a documentary and I agree making big scale film in Bollywood may not be possible, but doing it in documentaries, I think in a serial type of thing can be another way to bring forth real life stories.
Where I say in my book, you find the stark, shocking reality of Sadat Hasan Manto and the magnificent humanism of Krishan Chandra, because both these are found in the real stories from the partition. I think when we talk about audio visual media they have the possibility, especially now to get a mass audience.
Kanak Mani Dixit: I think a documentary filmmaker such as Bani or a historian like Ishtiaq Ahmed, they have got the steel in them to overcome trolls, for example. But the moment you go into the marketplace, if you go into the world of celebrities, or even celebrity scholars, they shy away because the state frowns upon thinking about a future of cohabitation, because the capital elites do not want that. And so that is the trope that has everybody hunkered down. So some way to use books such as The Punjab, Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, to use documentaries such as Taangh to get people, artists, filmmakers, cinema makers, short story writers to think again, not only referring back to the partition. Partition would be the dividing line between where we may have evolved as a somewhat unified subcontinent somewhat because we may have devolved into a different type of subcontinent than a subcontinent of eight nation states of sort, something else would have come out, but that may have been more logical, rather than the kind of partition we suffered.
So these, the book and the documentary, form the backdrop on which new kinds of stories can be written, not always about partition, but looking at the possibilities of the future. And so just because this book is about the partition of Punjab, for the film also refers to friends divided. That doesn’t mean that we can’t use this as a base for something, some new creative activities.
Kanak Mani Dixit: I would make just two quick points. I think we’ll go on for another 10 minutes. Firstly, let me read a note from Sarah Arshad from Lahore. This is directed to Bani. Just a comment. Hello everyone. This is Sarah Arshad from Lahore, Pakistan. I’m a volunteer for Southasia Peace Action Network.
I met Bani at a panel talk last year about a documentary screening. I love each moment of this movie as this is largely connected to my childhood and about my father too, being a player of hockey and having been born in Shimla, then moving to Pakistan at the time of partition. As Bani has just said many times that we live through our parents.
I have witnessed the longing of my father missing Shimla and his beautiful childhood left in the Lakhad Bazaar. He could never go back due to these policies imposed on us. Just wonder when these restrictions will be lifted and people will reach their long lost places for one more time on this or this taangh will die with us.
I just wonder, that question, the comment is of Bani’s film, but the question I direct to Ishtiaq Ahmad, as a political scientist, where do you see the hope of not a unified Southasia, but a Southasia at peace, where activists, like me, like to say soft borders, open borders, and we are laughed out of the room. But who’s going to get the last laugh, I ask you.
Ishtiaq Ahmed: I think the last laugh would be those who would probably impose a war on the people of this region. And I hope that never happens because it will be a devastation which we would never ever be able to overcome because nuclear weapons will be used. So I think the peace movement must get up now and go out and challenge all these orthodoxies.
And I think it’s high time we demand the rights of the people to be restored. And one of the human rights in the 30 human rights in the universal declaration of human rights is that you have a right to return to your roots. Now that may not be in the form of people going back from Lahore to Shimla or vice versa. That freedom to visit their places, of the elders, and so on. And we keep on questioning the stupidity of this confrontation. It leads nowhere. The problem now is that the Indians tell me we are a success story. Why do we want a failed Pakistan to be a partner? Now, for me, that’s a very discouraging sort of posture.
But I keep telling them that ultimately, India also benefits if Pakistan is brought on board. And in Pakistan, I know people are trying very hard to overcome this obsession, fixation with Kashmir and I’ve said the only workable, doable solution is to declare it the international border and a porous one as Manmohan Singh and Musharraf had agreed, but then something bad happened in 2007 and Musharraf lost his whole life position and things went from bad to worse. This keeps on happening, 1999 Kargil, Narendra Modi goes to Lahore and then there is Pathan court. But I think the Pakistani state’s ability to continue with its terrorism, I think, is greatly reduced. And we have to convince them that there is no future for Pakistan in a head on confrontation with India.
We, we must have an independent secure Pakistan but as a friend, good neighbor of India. And then I think all people in the region will benefit. SAARC is there. You have to bring it back to life. Things like this, as a political scientist, I can only look at. What has happened elsewhere in the world, and where have they finally agreed? We have the European Union, we have ASEAN, you know, all these Southeast Asian nations have terrible conflicts over territory and borders and so on, but they have decided never to go to war over them. Also, the African nations in their wisdom have agreed that they will not go to war to change the borders anymore. So we have to bring that back to our region. And I think it’s only academics, intellectuals, public intellectuals who can, who can keep on questioning the wisdom of this confrontation.
Kanak Mani Dixit: Let me add one point and then we’ll come towards the closing of this session, but picking up what Ishtiaq bhai just said and I think you are very correct in your critiquing of the Pakistani state it’s involvement in cross border terrorism in the past, which you say now is greatly reduced, but that actually provided a trigger for so much of all the animosities that have absolutely across the border. At the same time, we would be remiss if I did not mention the way India is going right now. And India is, as I said earlier, seems to be, under the current Indian state, seems to be wanting to follow the footsteps of the Pakistani state, which can only create more divisions in the future. I always make this point, I should like to share with you that there is a caricaturing of the Pakistani to represent the Pakistani state. And in my personal view, if there is any per capita population that is suffering more from terrorism in Southasia, it is the Pakistani. You have to learn to distinguish between the Pakistani state, the military intelligence. all the kinds of politicians you may have, but then the people are the ones that we are concerned with. You did say some people in India seem to think that we’re doing so well, why do we need Pakistan? But if they would do, if a political economist would show to them how the economy of India would rise if the border were to be more open for economic interaction, if the Pakistani market, for example, were to be open to Indian industries, where would Indian industry be?
Would it have to go out across the seven seas to sell its products? So all of that meaning that we must also understand for now that within India, the quote unquote Pakistan anti-lobby is strong. We must arrive at a point with whatever we said today, with a book like this, and documentary like this, arrive at a point where we can challenge the dominant presented ideologies in India and Pakistan. And that is the world we look for. And let us hope things don’t degenerate too much within India, within Pakistan, because Ishtiaq Ahmed said something, the N word, this is the time of Oppenheimer, the film, and we tend to think Oppenheimer means, oh, the Americans and the Russians and the Japanese and Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We forget to realize the hair trigger situation we are with two nuclear weaponized states in Southasia. So I’m very glad something that the N word was mentioned today because Southasians tend to think we don’t have India and Pakistan, at least in the discourse, that they don’t have nuclear weapons. Let me open the floor now to first to Bani for a few words and from Ishtiaq and then we’ll go towards closing this event.
Bani Singh: So, to say on what you’re speaking, and the fact that the N word does exist and it could be a reality, I will take the same thing to the story. And I do feel that it’s a time at which individuals have to be very, very alert to the stories that the nation state is propagating. And there are stories that are being weaponized. I mean, with the power of the media and social media, all these things, which could do good can also be used to actually propagate one story again and again, and again, there is no space left inside your head to imagine a different possibility. You know, the way we have been taught to look at the past in a certain way, we are also slowly being encouraged to look at the future in one way, which is in the hands of other people. So I feel that the individual has to stay alert. And we have two forms. Even if it’s small pools of people who agree with each other, you know, platforms like the one you’ve created. When we come together and we speak, we find strength in each other because otherwise, very often we are alone. And then it’s like how do we again bring forth that place of reflection that every individual has, and put it in a place where it is honored, you know, to encourage people to think from a place of reflection. I think fortunately I had that one thought in my mind when I took this story out and I was looking and curating things that could not be partitioned. So there were none in a sense. Dev Ananda, part of Bollywood, but could not be partitioned, Heer Ranjan could not be partitioned, the loveove that could not be partitioned. So the underlying structure in my film is also one of that. And I think everyone has to pull out what is precious to them and speak of their stories.
Kanak Mani Dixit: Thank you, Bani. Our colleague in Himal Southasian, Lakshmi Murthy in the reinstitute for Southasian Research and Exchange have put together Love Legends of Southasia. There are so many such poignant stories that bring people from different communities together to appreciate the power of love, which is again thought to be unromantic, but we must make it romantic from a geopolitical standpoint. As we speak, there is an Indian lady who found a Pakistani husband through social media and is right now somewhere in Pakistan and they’re having beautiful videos in beautiful surroundings and you can watch them.
Meanwhile, another lady from Pakistan has arrived in India and is facing some challenges. I think from the police as we speak, let’s hope these lovers, all of them find themselves in each other’s arms. Let me now move to Ishtiaq Bhai.
Ishtiaq Ahmed: I’m a deeply incorrigible romantic myself, and I totally endorse the points you are making. I would say that I was in India for more than 11 weeks and the amount of Love, affection, warmth, hospitality I received belies all the official hate propaganda which is going on in India. And of course, Pakistan has been doing it for the last so many years. So I still believe that when you get a chance, people to people sort of interaction, so many of these prejudices can be called into question and a more humane Pakistani and Indian can meet without any complications and sort out whatever problems they have. And so I do believe, for example, this woman who came to Pakistan. And they were for a month, this has been a fixation of the Indian media that she’s been sent by the ISI and all and they even asked me, so I refused to comment on it. I said, tell me if the ISI has sent her, would they choose a woman who has four children with her to go? And if then she’s arrested, the four children would also end up in jail all their lives. Does it make any sense? And so I think in India, there is a sense of being successful and vindicated in their attempt to modernize and develop. And they say it is the karma of Pakistan which is haunting Pakistan. Now I find that also very apathetic callous type of way of looking at the Pakistani situation. It’s the corrupt Pakistani elite and not the people who are responsible for what has happened. So as a political scientist, I know who is doing all the harm and I wouldn’t blame, you know, stereotype all Pakistanis, all Indians, all Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as either good or bad. I think we all have these traits in us and, and we have to keep on making an effort to bring out, bring out what is the good in us. And I do believe that will triumph and being 76 now now I’ll repeat a verse of Zahir Kashmiri, a poet of Lahore originally from Amritsar. [verse] One has to have that optimism, the belief in the goodness of humankind, and then things can change.
Kanak Mani Dixit: I do add to that, woh subha zahoor ayegi [Ishtaq Ahmed: aur hamei se hi ayegi] but we gotta to work for it.. And that is what our discussion here has been. Can we use works of history? Can we use documentaries? Can we move on to new platforms provided by social media or new streaming services, whatever. Let us use what’s there because in the end, this is meant to uplift a region that has a fourth of the world’s population. Just as we remembered nuclear weapons of Southasia which is not part of the discourse at all, to think that countries can be so much against each other yet so oblivious to the head trigger situation therein. And um, and also we should actually right now be even wondering about wind directions. If a blast were to happen in this season, where would the fallout go? That is the level of detail that we should be having instead. There is a like an unknowing calm. We don’t know, we don’t care. We just have these guns and these bombs and we will use it, I would like to make one last point before I pass on the mic and the camera to Alok of Film Southasia.
We when we speak of Punjab, we’re speaking of whether these two powerful provinces, state of Pakistan and India cannot be the engine to have that camaraderie, because this is where the divisions began. The public positioning of these two important states of both each country should have a role. That’s probably one reason I wrote an article in the Hindu, on Punjab and the future of Southasia as a whole. That’s where I want to bring in Southasia. We talked about the south of India where Bani also went and made the film. This division that began with Punjab, Punjab, and the partition, India and Pakistan is holding hostage, the rest of Southasia as well. And when we say the rest of Southasia, we also mean the south of India. We also mean Sri Lanka, we mean the northeast of India, this propped up official hate propaganda to use the word of Ishtiaq Bhai, that is essentially a function of the Northern half of the subcontinent, that to the Indus Gangetic Plain, that to Punjab, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, that area, Haryana. Somewhere we must let the discourse begin that all of Southasia cannot rise unless India and Pakistan make up and that we do have economic synergies, rationalization of our economies, learning from each other, from everything from climate change to vectors and epidemics, so much to do together that we are trying to do alone.
And for that reason, I always go back to try to bring some poignancy as not a writer of books, nor a documentary filmmaker. I like to relate the view when one flies towards Kathmandu at night from the West, and you’re flying at 38,000 feet and you just go past Lahore. And if it is a clear night, you look down and you see a beautiful pearl necklace that if you are on the right hand side, the necklace goes into the third desert, a beautiful lit up necklace. Well, 38,000 feet below, that is the tragedy of Southasia. What looks so beautiful is so horrific in what it means. That is the India Pakistan border with the strobe lights, the lighting, the halogen lamps, the fencing, et cetera.
And the idea of a Southasia of the future, while studying Punjab the book and what Taangh offers while studying the families that were torn apart, the friends that were broken apart is a Southasia, where that beautiful necklace, not very beautiful, will be no more. Let me end with that and pass on the mic then to Alok.
Alok Adhikari: Thank you so much Kanak. And that ending was beautiful indeed. Thank you to Bani, for your wonderful film and for being here with us today. Thank you for coming and joining us today. And this conversation has really motivated me to read your book as well.
Thank you all for coming to the special edition of Screen Southasia. Screen Southasia is a monthly session that is a partnership between Himal Southasian and Film Southasia and it is normally hosted by Sana Amir and myself. And this talk as well as all other film discussions are available on Himal’s website as well as on YouTube.
And we will be sharing them on our social medias on Himal’s and Film Southasia’s as well. Thank you so much. Next month we will be here with a Pakistani film. We’ll be announcing a film early next week and we hope you all join us again. Thank you for the amazing turnout and thank you all. Thank you so much.