Tales of great divides told in pictures – A Partition Anthology

South Asia –Books/Culture/Politics/Partition 

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By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

Sixty seven years after India was partitioned in 1947 for the first time to create Pakistan and then again in 1971 to carve out Bangladesh, the voices narrating the stories of the historic events are changing.  The nostalgia has given away to detachment and a dull ache – two characteristics that set the psyches of the second generation of immigrants  apart from the rest of the native Indians. In place is wistfulness — a grief of not having been around, missing out on what was so vital to life – the ancient blood roots that makes the Indian sub-continent so distinctive culturally.

The formats of Partition storytelling are morphing making way to new forms. The spirit of Khushwant Singh’s flagship “Train of Pakistan” tales may still remain the powering force of creativity, but the medium of storytelling has become more eclectic, quixotic  and rather  adventurous. Pain tempers creative expressions to spur experiments and brilliance in flashes.  

A new anthology of Partition stories, “Restorying Partition: This Side, That Side  (Yoda Press)” has used the graphic narrative – the structure of animated story-telling – to capture 28 slices of memory by 48 writers and graphic illustrators — spanning  three nations — India, Bangladesh and Pakistan — who live in three continents of US, Europe and Asia.  Curated by New Delhi-based writer and animator Vishwajyoti Ghosh, the author of the graphic novel, “Delhi Calm”,  the Partition tales — short graphic essays and memories — narrate events hinging  around the two splits in the voices of the second generation immigrants from south Asian perspectives. “This is a book, I wanted to work on for a long time, much before I wrote my graphic novels, ‘Delhi Calm’.  I felt I was not equipped to write about the Partition,”the curator said.

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, a Delhiite, is one of the multitudes of Bengali settlers in New Delhi, whose families are rooted in erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.  “These are the stories, I grew up with,” the curator said. As a child in Lajpat Nagar — one of Delhi’s most steadfast immigrant sprawl in the heart of the metropolis — and later in Chittaranjan Park, a residential colony for displaced people from Bangladesh,  Ghosh’s childhood narratives drew from the notions of dislocations, angst, resettlement  and rehabilitation.

In one of the graphically illustrated stories, “A Good Education”, the curator returns to a little space in Lajpat Nagar, “Kasturba Nagar”- a landscape of childhood.

The soul of Kasturba Nagar, a refugee resettlement colony, was a home for widows and children from Bangladesh, a mental asylum and staff quarters for government officials.  The inmates of the mental asylum would often sneak into the widows’ home raising a hue and cry, Ghosh recalled.

It was a multi-coloured demographic space with immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan cohabiting in peaceful routine. The key to  every immigrant coming-of-age journey in Lajpat Nagar — like Ghosh’s grandparents — was sending their children to good schools. Education was a passport to better life.  

Lajpat Nagar has not changed much in character. It remains a refugee cluster even to this day. The erstwhile immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh are now landowners- having built their own homes on the plots doled out by the government under the refugee resettlement scheme. They have let their homes out to Afghan refugees and to medical tourists.  The business landscape of immigrants  – the market surrounding Kasturba Nagar- has expanded  to make rooms for shops with sign boards in Dari and Pashtu.

“The discourse of refugees is still running in Lajpat Nagar – as well as in the rest of west Delhi,” Ghosh says.

In one of the anecdotes, “Know Directions Home”, written and illustrated in the style of ethnic Kutchhi embroidery  from Gujarat, designer, writer and filmmaker Nina Sabnani (from Mumbai) narrates a personalised  tale  of a community from Adigram, a village along the Indo-Pakistan border, which was forced to move to India after the partition in trucks. The story grips the reader with its element of suspense “when the trucks in which the immigrants were travelling across the border suddenly retrace its route back to Pakistan under the cover of darkness without the knowledge of the refugees”. The occupants  refuse to go back to Adigram and threatens to squat in the middle of nowhere till they are rehabilitated in India. An exasperated local administration sends the villagers to Kutch – a barren and remote tract without supplies.

They build a settlement in the arid salt pan – erecting small Bhunga huts made of chopped wood, one of which slowly “turned into a school”. 

The narrative is redolent with resilience – the sheer courage of communities who defied politics and geography to strike new roots- and survive. Eight years after the fateful night of 1972, when the villagers landed in Kutch, the Indian government declared them citizens.  Creator Sabnani, who teaches industrial design at IIT-Mumbai, has been working with traditional threadwork of Gujarat – a legacy from across the border. Her movie,  “Tanko Bole Chhe (The Stitches Speak) “ has won several awards.

In “Water Stories”, the trauma of partition haunts the protagonist – an immigrant from erstwhile East  Pakistan – to death in the cursed river Padma, which is said to be “unrelenting in its anger and the pain of Partition”.  Years after the Padma took the protagonist  (a little girl)’s mother before the family fled to Kolkata in India — and  age felled her father in India, the young woman returns to Bangladesh in cue of her father’s prophecy that “Padma had cursed them” in search of the soul of the river. The “river with its tides of magical lores and karmic connections” draws the woman in. “…And slowly she became the river…They saw the large yellow moon rise in her dark dark eyes”.

The illustration by Bangalore-based graphic artist and writer Appupen  is kind of fairy-tale in rendition- long loopy curves of mythological drawings that prise out the dark magic of Padma.

A story by musician Rabbi Shergill (of “Bulla ki Jaana” fame), “Cabaret  Weimar”, celebrates  2047- one hundred years of partition. It is a metaphor for the cabaret cultures on television and its spillover into our lives. “Thinking is banned today, Revolution is but crap, Switch on the TV and Chill out like 1920s Berlin…” Shergill says.

Each tale is different in flavor because they are widespread, poignant, sentimental and funny- associated with millions of lives all of whom have a anecdote to narrate. They come across as breathtaking largely for their stylized graphic art that touches a gamut of practices, stylization, innovations, digitization and whips up sporadic creative depths – in flashes.

“It was tough. Some of the contributors were rookies. I had to handhold them  all the way,” curator Ghosh told this writer. He held two workshops – in Dhaka and Kolkata and worked with the Pakistani writers on the Internet for the collection.

 P.S. The book was unveiled at Max Muller Bhavan- Goethe Institut on Aug 30. Priced Rs 595       

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