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Gulzar's outpourings tell us of the unimaginable human cost of Partition

Gulzar's outpourings tell us of the unimaginable human cost of Partition

I bet most of my readers don’t know where Kish happens to be. I didn’t know it either until sometime in 2011 when I received an invitation to be one of the judges at the first Kish International Film Festival. Even the lady issuing me a boarding card for Dubai at the Karachi airport had not the vaguest idea.

As I was to learn, the island – about 20 miles from mainland Iran – is a short hop from Dubai and is part of the Hormozg?n Province of Iran. The immigration staff issues a 14-day visa on arrival but is quick to state that the document is not valid for a visit to elsewhere in Iran.

Back to my trip: the small Fokker F27 plane, which also carries some participants of the film festival, seems to be landing in the sea. The wheels of the aircraft touch the ground merely a few yards away from the beach.

My one wish, on boarding the bus, which is to carry us to our hotel, is that the world ought to become border free or at least become easily and legally crossable, if I may coin the expression.

Take a look: Stranded in India during the 1965 war: How I won friends among ‘enemies’

Coincidentally one of the two feature films to impress the members of the jury is an Armenian movie, whose title is Border.

The film is set at the time when the Soviet Union was disintegrating and separate, new states were emerging from areas that used to be part of the union.

Quite reminiscent of the Radcliffe Award, the boundary line drawn between India and Pakistan, the movie shows how an international boundary is drawn inconsiderately and thoughtlessly between two villages in the former Soviet Union, which are at a handshaking distance from each other.

Families are divided and the action is set at a time when a boy from one village is about to marry a girl from another village.

All requests to delay the laying of barbed wire fall on deaf ears. What’s worse is that mines are laid to discourage border crossings.

One evening the wires are cut, enabling the bridegroom’s party to cross over. The marriage is solemnised and the guests from the other side, escorting the bride, return hastily.

One man who had inadvertently stepped on a hidden mine does not remove his foot from the deadly contraption. He knows the mine would explode the moment he would do so.

Once the last member of the bridegroom’s party has moved to a safe distance, the unlucky man removes his foot slowly, hoping against hope that the mine won’t blow up. But it does, shattering his sturdy body into countless pieces.

Also read: A train ride to India in better times

Borders can be, and often are, callous if one has to describe it in a single word. A Lahore-based artist, whom I interviewed a few years ago in Karachi, recalled that her parents’ house, somewhere in the Punjab, fell right on the newly-carved border in 1947.

The front door opened in what became Pakistan, while the back door opened in what remained India. The family made its final exit through the front door, which until a few days back they used for welcoming their guests.

“My mother used to go to the border as often as she could and look at the house despondently,” lamented the artist, whose name I can’t seem to recall. She had come from Lahore with three others to display their work at the VM Art Gallery in Karachi.

The one border which fascinates me is the Detroit River, a narrow waterway that divides Windsor, a small town in Ontario, Canada, and Detroit, a fairly large city in the US state of Michigan.

Many people, including immigrants from our part of the world, live in the relatively inexpensive Windsor, but they work in Detroit or its suburbs. So, they use either one of the two underwater tunnels or a large bridge to commute every day.

Read next: In the heart of Rawalpindi, Indians and Pakistanis remember their pre-Partition homes

Coincidentally, as I had begun to put my thoughts on borders on my laptop, the doorbell rang and the courier boy handed me a complimentary copy of Footprints on Zero Line – Writings on the Partition, sent by the publishers HarperCollins, India.

The volume is a collection of Gulzar’s poems and short stories on the theme of Partition and the newly-created border which has haunted him for all these decades.

They have been translated by Rakhshanda Jalil, who has done a great job all these years, translating gems from Urdu literature into the English language.

A man who wears many hats, Gulzar is an Indian poet, author, filmmaker, script and dialogue writer, and what’s more, he is an Oscar award-winning lyricist.

The multi-faceted genius was born in Dina, a small town near Jhelum, Pakistan which has haunted him for seven decades and so has the border, in no small measure.

In one of the endearing prose pieces, he narrates his visit to the Zero Line with senior columnist Kuldip Nayar, who too had left his home behind in 1947.

In one of his poems, Gulzar says as he stands on the dividing line, that his shadow falls in Pakistani territory. He reminds this reviewer of a shady tree whose trunk was hardly a few feet on the Indian side of the line, but its branches and roots were on both sides of the border.

Sadly, this tree was chopped off by the Indians to increase the seating arrangements for people who come to watch the jingoistic drama enacted at the flag-lowering ceremony.

Gulzar calls Pakistan his vatan (homeland) and India his mulk (country), as he warbles “Eyes don’t need a visa / Dreams have no borders.”

One of the most moving poems is the one where he recalls the mad character Bishan Singh from Manto’s immortal short story Toba Tek Singh, who refused to cross the border. He stood there relentlessly, until his body could not take it anymore. He fell down and died.

Gulzar concludes the poem by saying that Bishan often calls him to Wagah and while repeating his gibberish line ‘Ooper di gurh-gurbdi moong di daal di laltain’ he curses both India and Pakistan.

The most heart-wrenching of Gulzar’s short stories is Raavi Paar, where a couple with newly-born twins, were perched precariously on a goods train, moving at a snail’s pace.

One of the twins, unable to bear the rigours of the hazardous trip, dies but the mother clutches him along with the other one to her breast.

As the train chugs over the bridge on the River Raavi, the father Darshan Singh, is advised by a fellow passenger to throw the dead infant into the holy river so that it becomes easy for the couple to carry the living child.

Darshan Singh finds sense in the advice. In a split second he picks up the living child, mistaking him for his dead sibling, and flings him into the river.

Most poignant stories relating to brutalities experienced by Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs at the time of Partition, written in Urdu, Punjabi and Hindi end with either the death of the characters or the crossing of the newly created border, but Gulzar goes a step further.

He narrates the enormous problems that the migrants have to suffer in the camps. He also relates how the locals, some if not all, exploit the helplessness of the refugees.

An excerpt from his forthcoming novel Two narrates the predicament of two sisters in a highly heart-rending manner.

Rakshanda Jalil has included four stories with post-Partition backgrounds. The one narrated by an Indian Hindu, all about her second visit to Kashmir, is most agonising.

She is the reporter for Hindustan Times and pines for her experiences as a small girl, when her non-Kashmiri parents took her on a holiday. Things have changed drastically and Kashmir, much to her shock, is now under siege. The Indian soldiers behave inhumanly. She returns to Delhi totally heartbroken.

What makes the volume all the more invaluable is the dialogue between another accomplished Urdu writer Joginder Paul and Gulzar, both of whom crossed the Zero Line.

Titled On the Partition of India, 1947, it is a discussion on the literature produced on the subject. They pay tributes to such writers as Manto and Krishn Chander.

Rakhshanda Jalil’s epilogue is also an enlightening commentary on Gulzar’s outpourings. She raises an important point when she says Gulzar, a post-Partition writer, has the advantage of hindsight.

Those familiar with the Devanagri script (read Indians) will have an advantage over those who are used to the script used by Gulzar himself (read Pakistanis) while going through the volume.

Rakshanda Jalil should have also given the transliteration of the poems. However, it now seems the writings will appear in Urdu and will be published by Gulzar’s favourite publishing house, Maktaba-e-Danial.

If only Gulzar could be here for the launch. He could re-cross the Zero Line. The last time he was in Pakistan he went to Dina and also recorded a song for Hasan Zia’s movie in Lahore, where he had landed a couple of days earlier.

He was scheduled to fly to Karachi, where he was to be interviewed for the literature festival four years ago by this writer. But suddenly, for reasons best known to him, he crossed the Zero Line and went back. It’s a loss I haven’t got over.

Have you or anyone you know been personally affected by the drawing of borders? Share your stories with us at [email protected]

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