The Traveller in Time: An interview with Sybil Pretious who has lived through history in six countries and travelled to forty — she has participated in the first democratic elections in an apartheid-worn South Africa and is from a time when Rhodesia was the name for Zimbabwe. Click here to read.
Ratnottama Sengupta, who has edited an encyclopaedia on culture and is a renowned arts journalist, gives us the role ‘kanthas’ (hand-embroidered mats, made of old rags) played in India’s freedom struggle. Click here to read.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to a Grecian Urn
What makes for great literature? To me, great literature states the truth — the truth that touches your heart with its poignancy, preciseness, sadness, gentleness, vibrancy, or humour. If Khayyam, Rumi, Keats, Tagore, Frost or Whitman had no truths to state, their poetry would have failed to mesmerise time and woo readers across ages. Their truths – which can be seen as eternal ones — touch all human hearts with empathetic beauty. Lalon Fakir rose from an uneducated illiterate mendicant to a poet because he had the courage to sing the truth about mankind — to put social norms and barriers aside and versify his truth, which was ours and still is. This can be applied to all genres. Short stories by Saki, O’ Henry or plays and essays by Bernard Shaw — what typifies them? The truth they speak with perhaps a sprinkle of humour. Alan Paton spoke the truth about violence and its arbitrariness while writing of South Africa — made the characters so empathetic that Cry, My Beloved Country(1948) is to me one of the best fictions describing divides in the world, and the same divides persist today. The truth is eternal as in George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) or Suskind’s Perfume(1985). We love laughter from Gerald Durrell or PG Wodehouse too because they reflect larger truths that touch mankind as does the sentimentality of Dickens or the poignancy of Hardy or the societal questioning of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. The list of greats in this tradition would be a very long one.
Our focus this time is on a fearless essayist in a similar tradition, one who unveiled truths rising above the mundane, lacing them with humour to make them easily digestible for laymen – a writer and a polyglot who knew fourteen languages by the name of Syed Mujtaba Ali (1904-1974). He was Tagore’s student, a Humboldt scholar who lived across six countries, including Afghanistan and spoke of the things he saw around him. Cherished as a celebrated writer among Bengali readers, he wrote for journals and published more than two dozen books that remained untranslated because his witticisms were so entrenched by cultural traditions that no translator dared pick up their pen. Many decades down the line, while in Afghanistan, a BBC editor for South and Central Asia, Nazes Afroz, translated bits of Mujtaba Ali’s non-fiction for his curious friends till he had completed the whole of the travelogue.
The translation named In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan was published and nominated for the Crossword Awards. This month, we not only run an excerpt from the translated essays but also have an interview with the former BBC journalist, Afroz, who tells us not only about the book but also of the current situation in ravaged Afghanistan based on his own first-hand experiences. Nazes himself has travelled to forty countries, much like our other interviewee, Sybil Pretious, who has travelled to forty and lived in six. She had been writing for us till she left to complete her memoirs — which would cover much of history from currently non-existent country Rhodesia to apartheid and the first democratic election in South Africa. These would be valuable records shared with the world from a personal account of a pacifist who loves humanity.
We have more on travel — an essay by Tagore describing with wry humour vacations in company of his niece and nephew and letters written by the maestro during his trips, some laced with hilarity and the more serious ones excerpted from Kobi and Rani, all translated by Somdatta Mandal. We have also indulged our taste for Tagore’s poetry by translating a song heralding the start of the Durga Puja season. Durga Puja is an autumnal festival celebrated in India. An essay by Meenakshi Malhotra explains the songs of homecoming during this festival. It is interesting that the songs express the mother’s views as highlighted by Malhotra, but one notices, never that of the Goddess, who, mythology has it, gave up her life when the husband of her own choosing, Shiva, was perceived by her family as ‘uncouth’ and was insulted in her parent’s home.
In spirit of this festival highlighting women power and on the other hand her role in society, we have a review by Somdatta of T. Janakiraman’s Wooden Cow, translated from Tamil by Lakshmi Kannan, where the protagonist upends all traditional values ascribed to women. Another book which is flavourful with food and would be a real fit on every festive occasion is Mohana Kanjilal’s A Taste of Time: A Food History of Calcutta. Bhaskar Parichha tells us in his review, “In the thriving universe of Indian food books, this clearly stands out.”
As Kamata’s book travels across two continents in a pre-covid world, Sunil Sharma in reality moved home from one continent to another crossing multiple national borders during the pandemic. He has written an eye-opening account of his move along with his amazing short story on Gandhi. Another unusual story creating a new legend with wonderful photographs and the narrative woven around them can be relished in Nature’s Musings by Penny Wilkes. This time we have fiction from India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and America. Steve Davidson has given a story based partly on Tibetan lore and has said much in a light-hearted fashion, especially as the Llama resumes his travels at the end of the story. Keeping in step with light humour and travel is Devraj Singh Kalsi’s account of a pony ride up a hill, except it made me laugh more.
Former Arts Editor of Times of India, Ratnottama Sengupta, has shared an essay on how kantha (hand embroidered rug) became a tool to pass on information during the struggle against colonial occupation. The piece reminded me of the narrative of passing messages through mooncakes among Chinese. During the fourteenth century, the filling was of messages to organise a rebellion which replaced the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) with the Ming (1368-1644). Now the filling is delicious lotus paste, chocolates or other edible delicacies. Women were heavily involved in all these movements. Sameer Arshad Khatlani has highlighted how women writers of the early twentieth century writing in Urdu, like Ismat Chughtai, created revolutionary literature and inspired even legendary writers, like Simone de Beauvoir. There is much more in our content — not all of which has been discussed here for again this time we have spilled over to near fifty pieces.
We have another delightful surprise for our readers – a cover photo of a painting by Sohana Manzoor depicting the season titled ‘Ode to Autumn’. Do pause by and take a look at this month’s issue. We thank our writers and readers for their continued support. And I would personally like to give a huge thanks to the team which makes it possible for me to put these delectable offerings before the world. Thank you all.
When iconic Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai (August 21, 1915-October 24, 1991) wrote ‘Lihaaf’ (quilt) and made waves by portraying alternative sex in 1941, second-wave feminism was still around two decades away. Her feminist subversion of patriarchy with the portrayal of a woman’s conditioning vis-à-vis her body had no parallels in the West then. ‘Lihaaf’ predated Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex by five years. Chughtai’s journey to becoming South Asia’s top feminist writers began in Aligarh where she had her literary grounding at a school affiliated with the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). The school was upgraded to a college in 1937, nineteen years before Delhi’s premier Lady Shri Ram College was founded and when the literacy rate among women was just three per cent in India.
The AMU Women’s College was the labour of love and realisation of the dream of its founders, Sheikh Abdullah and his wife, Wahid Jahan, of educating and empowering women in a dusty inland town while western education had just begun to flourish in far off coastal centers. It was not an easy task for them. Both Hindus and Muslims opposed Abdullah’s movement to educate women, fearing it would lead to ‘immorality’. Many years later, he told the students of the college with a sense of triumph and pride: “When, after innumerable odds, we came out of the darkness, it was found that education had the same bright effect on them as silver polish has on pots and pans. Educated girls have illuminated our society.”
The movement for educating women in Aligarh started during the lifetime of AMU founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, who, in celebrated historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, ‘propagated liberal values and rational outlook to oppose blind adherence to traditional values’. As a result, the Muslim Educational Conference formed a separate department for women’s education in 1898. It promoted the idea through Aligarh Institute Gazette. Abdullah, who was close to Khan, was appointed to look into the women’s educational project in December 1902. A special ‘Aligarh Monthly’ issue was published in November 1903 for the purpose. Abdullah, who was educated at AMU after migrating from Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir, later started a dedicated journal Khatoon (woman) for the promotion of women’s education in 1904. He simultaneously founded Female Education Association in 1904 to promote his cause and provide support to institutions working for it. Abdullah got a shot in the arm when Bhopal’s ruler, Begum Sultan Jahan, offered him a grant. Thus Aligarh Girls School took off with five students and a teacher on October 19, 1906. Science and social science were part of the initial syllabus.
The school was the first for Muslim girls in north India, where Abdullah’s daughter Rashid Jahan honed her rebellious streak. Rashid was trained as a doctor, who chose a radical path of a communist and a rebel. She went on to study at Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College after her schooling in Aligarh. Rashid was among the first Muslim women to be trained as a doctor at Delhi’s Lady Hardinge Medical College. She was a woman ahead of her times — both in personal life and the literature she produced. Rashid was unusual in the choice of her profession of a gynaecologist, her dress — a khaddar sari with sleeveless blouse — and style — short hair. She travelled to far-off places to treat the needy and the poor. All this was rare for any woman of her generation particularly in Uttar Pradesh in the first half of the 20th century before independence.
Rashid was one of the four authors of a polemical collection of stories, Angaarey (embers), which provoked outrage in 1932 with its attack on religious conservatism and British colonialism. The collection was banned in March 1933. But it led to the formation of the Progressive Writers’ Association, which attracted the likes of Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, and Chughtai and revolutionised Urdu literature. Rashid wrote about female bodies with the exactness that only a doctor with intricate knowledge of human anatomy would. She attacked purdah, patriarchy, and misogyny. Rashid influenced Faiz Ahmed Faiz with Marxist ideas along with her husband Mahmuduzzafar, while the latter was Amritsar’s Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College principal while the poet taught English there.
Besides Faiz, Rashid influenced successive generations of Indian and Pakistan feminist Urdu writers and inspired them to explore forbidden subjects such as love and sex. This included her junior at school, Ismat Chughtai. Like‘Angaarey’, ‘Lihaaf’triggered a storm as it humorously dealt with lesbianism and sexual desires of women. The British colonialists charged Chughtai with pornography and she was summoned before a court over it. Yet years after her death her legacy lives on. According to Chughtai’s translator Tahira Naqvi, in nearly every department where South Asian Studies, Women’s Studies, Feminist/Gender Studies, and South Asian literature are taught, her work draws as much attention as her Western peers. Chughtai is often described as one of Urdu fiction’s pillars. She has deeply influenced the likes of Khadija Mastur, Hajira Masroor, Bano Qudsia, etc. Naqvi believes Pakistani poets like Kishwar Naheed and Fehmida Riaz have ‘derived inspiration from her bold, uninhibited style of writing’. Other notable alumni of AMU Women’s College included artist Zarina Hashmi, Pakistani film actor Nayyar Sultana, and writer Kusum Ansal, etc.
Many AMU Women’s College alumni may not have realised their full potential had not it taken its present shape in 1937 when India’s female literacy rate was less than three per cent. This is up to 65% now. Much credit for this goes to the pioneers of female education in India. Among them, Abdullah would be in the same league as the founders of India’s first women’s college, Calcutta’s Bethune College, in 1879 and Lucknow’s Isabella Thoburn College (1886). Abdullah’s efforts were recognised in 1964 when he was awarded the country’s third-highest civilian award — Padma Bhushan.
This is a slightly edited version of a piece published in The Times of India, the author’s former employer, in 2014. And then republished in his blog. Republished with permission of the author.
While skirmishes continue to line the borders of India, Sameer Arshad Khatlani, author of The Other Side of the Divide, explores the deeply embedded syncretic elements in the heritage left behind by the founder of Sikhism. Part of his legacy still lives on in Pakistan.
Poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal’s ‘tremendous work’, wrote German writer Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), belonged to the world of Islam apart from two other domains of the worlds of India, and of Western thought. In his book Incarnations, academic Sunil Khilnani echoes Hesse and notes that Iqbal (1877-1938) was “deeply engaged with the histories, themes, and conflicts embedded in Islamic thought and in literary traditions that fired his imagination.”
Islam was certainly an important theme of Iqbal’s poetry. But he also wrote about important figures of other religions glowingly in the spirit of his famous couplet: “Mazhab nahin sikhata aapas mei bair rakhna, Hindi hai ham vatan hai Hindustan hamara (religion does not teach us animosity, we are Indians and India is our country).” “Hai Ram ke vajud pe Hindustan ko naaz, ahl-e-nazar samajhte hain is ko imam-e-hind (while India is proud of Ram, priests also teach us about Allah),’’ wrote Iqbal, highlighting the reverence that a vast majority of Indians felt for Lord Ram.
Of all the non-Islamic religious icons, Iqbal perhaps wrote most admiringly about Sikhism founder Guru Nanak, whom he hailed as “mard-e kaamil (perfect man)”. His poem titled Nanak starts with a lament that “our people paid no heed to the message of Gautam [Buddha]”; did not recognise the worth of that “jewel of supreme wisdom”. It then refers to Nanak and says the perfect man “awakened India from a deep slumber”. In another poem, Iqbal pairs Nanak with Muslim saint Moinuddin Chishti, who was a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. “The land (India) in which Chishti delivered the message of truth; the garden in which Nanak sang the song of oneness that homeland is mine, that homeland is mine.”
Iqbal was born, raised, and died in pre-partition Punjab, the land of Nanak, which was divided between India and Pakistan in 1947. The division triggered violence, left tens of thousands of dead, and led to a virtual exchange of populations between the two parts of Punjab. It tore apart the region’s centuries-old milieu of co-existence imbibed in Nanak’s philosophy.
Nanak remains a unifier even as the vivisection continues to take a heavy toll on the subcontinent. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), where conflict remains a legacy of the Partition. The two countries were on the verge of another war in February 2019 when India carried out a retaliatory airstrike in Pakistan following a car bomb attack in J&K.
Relations between India-Pakistan worsened in August 2019 following the stripping of J&K’s special status that prompted Islamabad to take steps like the downgrading of diplomatic ties. The upheavals had no impact on the Kartarpur Corridor that provides visa-free access for Indian pilgrims to Gurdwara Darbar Sahib built at Nanak’s last resting place in Pakistan. The corridor was completed and opened within a year on November 9, 2019, three days before Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary.
Gurdwara Darbar Sahib remains an enduring symbol of Nanak’s legacy, which is more relevant today when divisive political leaders rule the roost and all pillars of democracy appear to be succumbing to majoritarianism. It is built at a place where a group of Hindus and Muslims are believed to have found flowers underneath a white sheet when they performed Nanak’s last rites. The two sides agreed to divide the sheet and flowers among themselves. Muslims buried their share and built a mazaar or mausoleum in Nanak’s memory. The Hindus put their piece of the sheet and flowers in an urn and buried it.
Nanak and Sikhism’s association with Muslims has been far deeper than what is generally known. His Muslim teacher was the first to point out how blessed Nanak was as a child. He called Nanak gifted and understood before anyone else could that the Guru’s vastly superior intelligence was because of the blessing. Rai Bular, a Muslim landlord, prevailed on Nanak’s father, Mehta Kalu, to be patient with his son’s otherworldly pursuits. Kalu was worried as Nanak wandered with holy men. Kalu wanted Nanak to study. Bular convinced Kalu to let Nanak be and reported miracles associated with the Guru which convinced him of Nanak’s holiness.
Bular is known as Nanak’s first devotee outside his family. Janam-sakhis, or Nanak’s life stories, and the Sikh scripture Guru Granth Sahib have several references to Bular. Bular is believed to have reported a hooded cobra shielding the Guru from the sun when he lay asleep under the open sky as another sign of Nanak’s spiritualism. Bular is also the one who is said to have noticed that a tree’s shade remained on a sleeping Nanak even as the sun’s position changed. He is reported to have rushed to tell Kalu that his son was an exalted being upon observing this. Bular convinced Kalu that Nanak was ‘a gem, a man of God‘ and dedicated large tracts of land to the Guru. Much of the modern-day Nankana Sahib, including Gurdwara Janam Asthan, built at the place of Nanak’s birth, is located on the land Bular bequeathed to the Guru.
Bular’s descendants lead annual processions to celebrate Nanak’s birthday in Nankana Sahib. Rai Hadayat, Bular’s 17th generation descendant, had the honour of leading Nanak’s 500th birth celebration. Bular’s descendants have been the custodians of Nanak’s estate. Rai Mohammad Saleem Akram, Bular’s descendant, now manages the estate. The revenue generated from the estate is spent on the welfare of the local Sikh community and the upkeep of gurdwaras in Nankana Sahib.
Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh Empire founder who came from the same Bhatti Rajput heritage as Bular, recognised his contribution to Sikhism. He bestowed the title of Rai Bhadur on his descendant, Rai Issa Khan, and made him a revenue collector. More recently, the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak (management) Committee (SGPC) acknowledged Bular’s “immense contribution” to Sikh history in May 2018 by putting up his portrait at Amritsar’s Central Sikh Museum.
Another Muslim, Nawab Rai Kahla, made it to the Sikh hall of fame in July 2017. The SGPC unveiled his portrait at the museum in recognition of the courage he showed in sheltering Guru Gobind Singh, one of Nanak’s nine spiritual successors, in 1705. Kahla, a vassal of Aurangzeb who ruled a small principality in present-day Indian Punjab, offered Guru Gobind refuge in defiance of a Mughal decree to hunt down the 10th Sikh master, who was at war with the Mughal Emperor.
Kahla’s descendants are the custodians of Guru Gobind’s holy pitcher called ganga sagar which he was given as a token of gratitude along with a sword for sheltering the guru. Ganga sagar is believed to hold water despite its asymmetrical holes. Former Pakistani lawmaker Rai Azizullah Khan is the relic’s current custodian. He inherited it in 1975 from his family, which managed to carry the prized relic with them when they fled to Pakistan at the time of the Partition.
In 1705, the goodwill generated by the Malerkotla ruler, Nawab Sher Mohammad Khan, for speaking up against the execution of Guru Gobind’s sons, Zorawar and Fateh, has held his successors and principality in good stead since. The small kingdom in India was an island of calm; a Muslim sanctuary in East Punjab when the neighbouring areas were emptied of Muslims in 1947. Malerkotla continues to be East Punjab’s only Muslim pocket.
Folk history attributes Guru Gobind’s blessings to Malerkotla’s unique history. He is said to have blessed the nawab when he learnt about his letter to Aurangzeb protesting the un-Islamic execution of Zorawar and Fateh. By the time the nawab stirred the Mughal consciousness over the injustice, it was too late. But his gesture was not lost on Guru Gobind. He is said to have declared “his roots shall forever remain green”.
The rubabi tradition of performing devotional songs, kirtans, at gurdwaras is associated with the descendants of Nanak’s Muslim companion, Bhai Mardana. Guru Nanak sang his poetry to the tunes of a lute-like musical instrument, rubab, that Mardana played. Mardana’s descendants came to be known as therubabis. The rubabis had performed kirtans at the Golden Temple for seven generations since Guru Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Sikh Guru, roped in Mardana’s descendants, Bhai Sadha and Madha, for the job until the Partition ended the tradition. Only baptized Sikhs can now perform kirtans.
The Partition weakened the syncretic links, but the ties are inseverable. They are enshrined in Sikhism. Guru Granth Sahib is the anthology of sacred writing of Sikh gurus and saints, including Muslims such as Baba Farid. It is revered as a collection of revealed words—Gurbani (literally from the Guru’s mouth). Guru Arjan compiled the first edition of the scripture then known as Adi Granth. He had it installed in 1604 at the Golden Temple, which he declared Ath Sath Tirath (shrine of sixty-eight pilgrimages). Guru Arjan is widely believed to have invited a Muslim saint from Lahore, Mian Mir, to lay the foundation of the most exalted Sikh shrine. Muslim saints such as Mian Mir and Farid are highly revered figures in Sikhism. Farid’s picture at the entrance of Gurdwara Janamasthan underlines his importance in Sikhism.
Muslim saints like Baba Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah also contributed to unifying literature that bound people together. Waris Shah gave full shape to Heer-Ranjha, which remains popular on both sides. He followed in the tradition of Baba Farid, the pioneer of Punjabi literature. The syncretic message cut across the religious divide and bound Punjabis together.
Things began to change in the 19th century when, according to writer Ian Talbot, revivalists began to peddle “the myth of a golden age when their faith was pristine and unsullied by syncretic traditions”. The myth weakened the shared cultural values of the rural population and replaced blurry community identities and replaced them with defined boundaries. Even Punjabi became a language of contention. The Muslim and Hindu revivalists increasingly began identifying Urdu and Hindi as their mother tongues. The Sikh-Mughal conflict was used to exacerbate religious fault lines. Emperor Aurangzeb’s high-handedness in dealing with the Sikhs was highlighted. The spiritual Muslim leader Bulleh Shah’s (1680) moral stand was conveniently forgotten. Shah, a Syed and the Prophet Muhammad’s direct descendant, hailed his friend, the ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, as a ‘holy warrior’ when he was put to death. He earlier dissuaded the guru from seeking revenge on Muslims “for the cruelty that the emperor Aurangzeb had inflicted upon his (Sikh) people”.
Title: The Other Side of the Divide – A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan
Author: Sameer Arshad Khatlani
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2020
Journalist Sameer Arshad Khatlani’s maiden book, The Other Side of the Divide – A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan, published end February 2020, seemed to, at the outset, suffer the fate that the India- Pakistan relationship has continually suffered – whatever could go wrong, did! COVID19 almost did the distribution of the book in. But like the legendary resilience of the people of the subcontinent, and because of the inherent quality of what his intrepid journey into Pakistan was able to produce, the book made it through alternative channels, and is sure to be talked about for many years to come.
Khatlani, a Kashmiri, is a Delhi based journalist. More than his bio, it is the dedication that caught my eye, “For my son, Orhan Ahmed Khatlani, and kids of his generation. May they grow up to live in a peaceful and prosperous South Asia free of bigotry and conflict.” Wonderful words! Also written with sincerity. As you read deeper into the book you understand one thing about the author: That he is a young journalist cut in the traditional mould, the type that is fast disappearing in an increasingly polarised world. The intrepidity of perusal and perusal, the cultivation of people across political and cultural divides, the search for objectivity and truth, the erasure of one’s own biases, and the courage and resilience of conviction that forces one to take positions when push comes to shove marks out an honest journalist. Khatlani ticks all these boxes.
To be frank, the book suffers from many editorial glitches and unnecessary typos, like this line by way of example: “Not surprisingly, the country (Pakistan) comes across as a hopelessly dark land because to its (sic) portrayal in the news media …”. The word ‘due’ has been carelessly substituted by the word ‘because’, rendering the sentence nonsensical. Enough to put me off and set a wrong note to the reading experience. But as I entered the heart of the book, even as Khatlani dived deeper into the other side of the divide, I realised nothing, but nothing could take away from the richness of the information it was unearthing, the depth of its historical exploration, the breadth of the issues and the personalities it was reaching out to, and most importantly, the chord of personal reflection and poignancy it was touching.
The last point is important. Pre-Partition, the author’s grandfather, of limited means, had fled the oppressive feudal rule of the Dogra king to seek a better life in Lahore. Ultimately, due to pressing circumstances the patriarch returned to Kashmir before 1947. Lahore always had a strong Kashmiri presence. These were people who abandoned the oppressive taxes and strong biases of the existing rulers in Kashmir to seek a better life elsewhere. This was a world when the Hindu rules of Kashmir were oppressing its Muslim citizens. Many ‘Punjabis’ settled in and around Lahore were of Kashmiri origin, though they now primarily spoke Punjabi or Urdu and had little of the Kashmiri left in them.
In fact, Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s iconic politician traces his roots to Kashmir, though his family settled in Amritsar a long time back, and from there moved to West Punjab. The interlocking of the writer’s personal narrative with that of a general observation about a rather little known socio-cultural reality, and the search for those lanes where his grandfather might have roamed especially in the now drastically altered Anarkali Bazaar, present a storyline that is extremely catchy.
The conversational style (after all he is a journalist) comes off easily, as does the South Asian predilection for digressions when names and places are evoked. One name dropped becomes the point of departure to connect events and places from far away. One set of friends introduces him to another. Then the second set introduces new facets to his story, which essentially is to write deep pieces for the Times of India, datelined Lahore, as part of the ‘Aaman ki Aasha’ (the ‘hope for peace’ drive between India and Pakistan, during the last Congress Government) initiative. The excuse for the journey is to cover a Punjabi cultural event. Though to be honest there is enough mention of the Punjabi language and cultural predilections to justify the excuse!
As you read further into the book this particular aspect of the style quite catches you. What earlier might have appeared unnecessarily digressive, grows into you and you begin to realise this story could have been told no other way. The frenetic swamping of emotions, the bitter regret of missed opportunities, the cornucopia of details that mark the stories of both separation and oneness are as fervent as they are insistent – they can only be told breathlessly if they are to be shorn of artfulness. The writer must at times bow before the sentiments of the storyteller. The story is often so powerful that it almost takes over the storytelling. This is said by way of praise. When you have the book in your hands you’ll understand exactly what is meant herein.
Khatlani’s book is modelled around his discovery of Lahore and its people. Each discovery follows the hub and spokes theory. Every discovery is the hub. And the stories that emanate from these hubs are the spokes. In this he touches all the right chords. There is the Bollywood connection, the history of the army and its ubiquity in Pakistani life, the cricket connection, the stories of shared miseries and standout acts of personal friendship, there is the story of alcohol and conservatism, the liberals of Pakistan and their sentimental pro-India politics, and the special story of minorities, especially the Sikhs.
These stories slip in and out of the ten chapters, and in no particular order. In each of these particulars, Khatlani shapes his narrative with great background stories, provides rich historical accounts, and at times manages searching insights into the intricate sentiments that guide the existing reality between the two nations.
The Other Side of the Divide is an important intervention at a difficult time. The dateline is 2013 when things were better. Better despite the numerous setbacks, not in the least the attack on Mumbai in 2008 November, or the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers outside the Gaddafi Stadium in 2009.
In 2020 another world has overtaken us. We inhabit a world that is shriller than ever before, a world in which India is fast giving up its secular and liberal credentials, and instead turning sharply right. As some have observed, new Pakistan looks more like old India, and unfortunately, new India like old Pakistan. Bearing the cross of a fractured history we continue to inherit each other’s loss. Amidst this, Khatlani’s book is an invaluable source of solace and possibilities.
Debraj Mookerjee has taught literature at the University of Delhi for close to thirty years. He claims he never gets bored. Ever. And that is his highest skill in life. No moment for him is not worth the while. He embraces life and allows life to embrace him.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.