Category: India

Staring into the Void

Hirsh Sawhney for The TLS
Partition

In the 70th year since Partition, Hirsh Sawhney reflects on how it has been depicted in Indian and Pakistani literature, for The TLS:

In 2013 Google released an advertisement featuring an elderly Hindu man in Delhi, Baldev, who is reminiscing about a Muslim playmate, Yusuf, from his childhood in Lahore. Baldev hasn’t seen Yusuf in many decades, having migrated from Pakistan to India during Partition, and he misses him. Baldev’s attentive granddaughter, Suman, uses Google to search for Yusuf and manages to track down his Pakistani grandson, Ali. The pair arrange for Yusuf to travel from Lahore to Delhi. With the help of Google, Ali easily figures out how to attain a visa for Yusuf, who is soon standing at Baldev’s doorstep. The long-lost friends embrace; the Google logo flashes. Soon the old men are getting blissfully drenched together beneath a rainy sky. Thanks to technological progress, they have been able to overcome decades of trauma, geopolitical strife and communal discord.

Various commentators in India, the United States, Canada and Malaysia have showered praise on this advert, and it has been viewed more than 13 million times. But despite its laudable message of cross-border religious harmony, it is perhaps more notable for its lacunae, which reveal a great deal about the way in which Partition is remembered today. For example, the advert centres on two men, though Partition disproportionately affected the lives of women. Furthermore, it doesn’t contain the slightest trace of the British Empire, even though it was Britain, in conjunction with the Indian leaders it favoured at various points during colonial rule, who imposed Partition on the country without adequately preparing it. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs sometimes experienced tension before colonialism, but Britain deliberately engineered policies that fomented strife between these groups in order to manage its imperial holdings more effectively. It pitted the Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Congress Party of Mohandas Gandhi against one another, putting India on a crash course towards division and destruction.

The elisions in the advert aren’t surprising. The diminishment of imperial responsibility for the woes of Partition has a long history. In an article about Indian independence in 1947, Time magazine praised the justness of a British legal system in the Raj that denied basic human rights to ordinary Indians. It claimed that “by the time the British reached India, both Hindu and Moslem were deeply immersed in hate”. The Atlantic, in 1958, asserted that “long before the British conquered India, the Hindus had resented their Muslim Mogul masters”. Around the same time, Anglo-American readers were delighting in Khushwant Singh’s finely constructed Partition novel Train to Pakistan (1956) – a book that contains not a single British character. The fact that Singh’s family made a fortune collaborating with the Raj perhaps explains this omission.

In recent decades, scholars such as Gyanendra Pandey and Yasmin Khan have helped to unravel the complex role the British played in encouraging the religious discord that still beleaguers South Asia today, and yet the tendency to downplay the role of the colonizer in Partition persists in many English-language texts. Even seemingly nuanced accounts can’t seem to shake off this habit. Take Nisid Hajari’s book Midnight’s Furies (2015), which received thunderous acclaim in the US, UK and India. It presents provocative evidence of British imperialists actively fanning the flames of communal discord by paying off Muslim clerics to preach against the Congress Party, and yet the author seems reluctant to rigorously scrutinize British actions and attitudes leading up to Partition. He often makes light of the role of imperial actors, such as Viceroy Mountbatten; he rehashes old tropes about the “deep roots” of divisions between Hindus and Muslims, mentioning age-old “frictions” stemming from the destruction of “flower-strewn temples” by “Muslim conquerors”. Various scholars, including Audrey Truschke and Romila Thapar, have demonstrated the tenuousness of such claims. Thapar, for example, has pointed out that alleged Hindu grievances about the eleventh-century destruction of the Somnath temple were first aired in Britain’s Parliament; only after this point do records begin to reference “the Hindu trauma”.

It is true, as many critics have pointed out, that South Asian thinkers and politicians would do well to reckon with the culpability of their own leaders and citizens in carrying out Partition and perpetuating religious violence. As the legacy of twentieth-century imperialism continues to inform our current moment of global instability, it is similarly imperative for Anglo-American audiences to see through the simplicities epitomized by Google’s Partition commercial.

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Drone

An extract from Hari Kunzru's new novel in the new Granta
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Granta‘s new issue is on India, and includes an extract from Hari Kunzru’s forthcoming novel, in which he imagines a Indian future where inequality is taken to an all-too-imaginable extreme:

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It is, of course, the tallest tower. In the slums below, people orient themselves by it as they carve their way through the warren of chawls. Rich men have been building tall on this hill for centuries, but no one will ever reach as high again. The owner of this hundred-storey pinnacle has bought the air rights around its peak, for sums so vast that the men who own the adjacent fifty- and sixty-storey erections feel quite sanguine about the cap he has placed upon their desires.

For now. Perhaps ever is too strong a word.

This is the house of the Seth, who has learned, in his century and a half of life, to appreciate the beauty of layering. A man of taste knows that when you change, you should always leave a trace. The common people have short memories. One needs to remind them, to keep things before their eyes.

Eighty years ago, when he built his house, the Seth loved Italy. He loved, in particular, the rolling hills and cypress trees of Tuscany as they appeared in the background of portraits of aristocratic Renaissance warlords. He owned pictures like this and saw no reason he shouldn’t go further. He had no interest in physically occupying any part of Tuscany, or indeed anywhere else in blighted Europe. It was the fantastical chivalric Tuscany of the portraits he desired. Urbino, as he called his house, was to be both a landscape and a castle within that landscape, a crag with a view of a palace and a palace with a view of a crag. A waterfall would tumble down its sides. And so it rose, the work of one of the great perspectival architects of the era, four impossibly elongated Palladian facades, which, from the point of view of the neighbours (and the shack-dwellers far below), broke into passages of Italian landscape, incorporating flocks of birds and a cataract that gushed white water. In certain weather conditions, a line of robed angels modelled on the Seth’s third wife could be seen ascending a set of spiralling golden stairs.

The apsara house, the slum boys called it. The sexy-sexy house.

Later, the political climate changed. Italy was not the sign of a true patriot, a real Indian. Unlike a lesser man, who would simply have pulled the thing down and built again, the Seth melted Urbino, like an ice sculpture left out in the sun, impressing the new order onto the upper floors. On top of the old palace, now angel-less and renamed Adityavarnam, is a Sun Temple built of red sandstone, in the shape of a chariot with a high-pointed shikhara and massive carved wheels. A saffron flag flutters at its peak. Below it, on the middle floors, are the quarters of the earthly members of the Seth’s household. The lower storeys, a maze of slimy rock and rotting Italianate columns, contain garages for his vehicles and giant kitchens for festival days, on which it is the Seth’s custom to feed the poor.

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