Not burning so bright
Partition as exile
Letters to the Editor

The death of 12 tigers in the Nandankanan zoo in Orissa has drawn attention to the rather tawdry efforts that prevail in India to preserve the tiger. Project Tiger, the most famous preservation project in India, has just completed its silver jubilee but the tiger population is down to a bare 3,600 and the projection is that in the next five to 10 years, the panthera tigris will be completely extinct. The most important reason for this sorry state of affairs is the lack of awareness in India about the environment. This ignorance and indifference extend to even those who are educated and therefore should do better. The protection of the tiger is embedded in the overall issue of environment. There exists the mistaken notion that the most important threat to the tiger is poaching. It is often forgotten that genuine shikaris for their own pleasure preserve the forest and the tiger. The principal danger that the tiger faces is the loss of its habitat. This is a direct fallout of the progress of “civilization’’. The advance of industrialism has resulted in the destruction of forests and the upsetting of the overall environmental balance. As human beings have encroached on forests and the tigers’ natural habitat, tigers, for their survival, have been forced to lift cattle and human beings. Men, in their turn, have seen the tiger as an enemy and not hesitated to kill it. The fall in the tiger population is part of a vicious cycle initiated by the erosion of the environment.

Despite its apparent lack of success, it is to the credit of Project Tiger that it approached the problem holistically. It recognized the tiger as being at the top of the food chain and took it as an indicator species. The wellbeing of the tiger serves as a good index for the overall health of the environment. The focus on the tiger had the added advantage in that it instantly grabbed public attention, since the tiger is big and spectacular as an animal and in many ways represents the stuff myths are made of. But the good intentions and the proper direction of Project Tiger have been hampered by the general indifference to environment and also by well-intentioned state policies. One such policy has been the creation of reserves. In many cases the creation of such reserves entailed the uprooting of populations who lived in the forest and in its vicinity and used the forest for their survival. The closure of the forest resulted in an artificial conflict between the people and tigers. The former saw the latter as an enemy and the unworthy recipient of state protection. This conflict has not helped the process of rejuvenating the environment and the preservation of the species of panthera tigris.

The low priority accorded to environmental issues in India is reflected in the pathetic state of veterinary sciences. Most of the veterinary colleges are starved of resources and remain unaware of modern advances in the field. They thus fail to draw talent. Doctors who come out of these colleges are trained to treat domestic animals and are often clueless about ailments that afflict wild animals. This might be a reason behind the high death toll of tigers in Nandankanan. Here is another instance of the state’s failure to look at the environment as a whole. To tackle the issue, there is a need for the coming together of experts from various fields — doctors, experts on forests, flora and fauna, conservationists and even of hunters. Preservation cannot also afford to ignore problems of local people and need to take them into confidence. Over and above this, there has to be a general raising of the level of awareness regarding the environment. The environment is not something out there, affecting only wild animals and tribals who live near forests. The environment should be of concern to all human beings in their daily lives. The problem of the survival of the tiger, because it is inextricably linked to the environment, is also a problem of the survival of homo sapiens.    

In school in Bombay, we were taught a certain narrative about modern Indian history. Like all constructed narratives, it told a story of key moments, and thus it had an almost mnemonic quality that made it impossible to forget. Some of these key moments were, for instance, the inception of the Indian National Congress in Bombay, Gandhi ’ s Dandi march against the salt tax, the Quit India movement, Partition, independence. At this point the narrative stopped, as if history had ceased to exist with Partition and independence; but it had not ceased; it had probably become ourselves. We, in the classroom, came to accept Partition as an event, more importantly a concept, that fundamentally defined our country’s history as well as our own; this, in spite of the fact that we were living in a place, Bombay, that had little to do directly with Partition and its aftermath, and that most of the pupils in the class were Parsi, Maharashtrian, south Indian, whose parents, thus, came from parts of India unaffected by Partition. I was an exception, because my parents were born and grew up in East Bengal, and lost their homes and property in 1947.

Yet the historical narrative we were taught in school, with its emphasis on Partition and freedom, did not accentuate or define, in my mind, my parents’ experiences and lives, and my own place as a child of people displaced from their homeland; if anything, it suppressed such formulations. Even now, I find it hard to connect the two. Partition, as a concept taught in the classroom, as part of a narrative taught to middle class Indians as the Mahabharata and Ramayana were once disseminated in feudal Hindu India, served to define ourselves as members of this middle class looking back upon the creation of our new nation, and suggesting, implicitly, the part we would play in totalizing and interpreting it. Every time this historical narrative would be repeated by us in the future, it would be a way of once having belonged to that classroom, and restating the role we had been assigned then, as members of the middle class, as the only ones who had grasped the idea of the nation as a narrative, a totality, and our responsibility to control and interpret it.

Partition as it existed in my parents’ memories, however, and in the memories of other members of my extended family, was another matter altogether; its presence seemed to be, as it were, fragmentary and poetic rather than narrative and total. Its part in my life is profound but its entire meaning still unclear. It had no fixed identity, as the Partition in the textbook did; it meant different things at different times; at times it meant nothing at all. It was disruptive rather than definitive; and it was part of a story that involved personal history, memory, family lore, and the vernacular; it had no overarching, decisive key role to play, but nor had its meaning ever stopped unravelling. Its relation to the Partition described in the school textbook, and described again and again even now in reports, films, and recent novels in English, many of which are fictionalized versions of the official historical narrative of India, was the relation that the semi-conscious and half-remembered have to the waking world.

During the time of freedom and Partition, my father, already having lost his homeland in Sylhet, a student in Calcutta in Scottish Church College, was thinking of going to England. In 1947, my mother was worrying about who would marry her, a daughter of a family without a father, once well to do, but long struggling since her father’s death; in 1948, she accepted my father’s proposal, but no sooner had this unexpected stroke of good fortune occurred than she had to reconcile herself to a prolonged engagement and to the marriage being postponed as my father went to England as a student. The movement from Sylhet to Shillong after the referendum and Partition, although startling, was not wholly new to her or her family, as their life had anyway been a series of movements from one house to another since their father’s death, and then from one town to another, Sylhet, Naugang, and Shillong.

It might be said that freedom and Partition, which would affect my parents’ lives profoundly, were met by them with a certain degree of incomprehension and even indifference; for key moments, unlike their representations later in texts, do not really have clear outlines, and might not even be perceived as having really happened; just as it is impossible to accept as real, on a non-rational, physical, fundamental level, the absolute absence of a loved person when that person has died. Often, one does not mourn until much later, and then, possibly, at the provocation of some seemingly irrelevant stimulus. The human reaction to change, whether personal or in the form of historical events, is extremely complex; a complexity, a hiatus of the mystery or incomprehension of a response, not allowed for in official versions of history.

Partition in Bengal is central to the filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s work — not the moment of Partition itself, or its place and representation in the nationalist historical narrative, but its human, almost elemental, story of displacement and resettlement. In Ghatak (who was of East Bengali origin, and was married to an East Bengali), Partition becomes a metaphor for migration, resettlement, and exile, among the most profound preoccupations of 20th century creative artistes everywhere; for the 20th century is an age of great and continuing displacement.

Let me dwell briefly on certain characteristic images in Ghatak’s films that make his work, for me, a visionary meditation on the kind of movement and trajectory that marked the lives of my parents and others from their background. For the West Bengali, the Partition of Bengal represented an undesired truncation of the land; but, for the East Bengali, Partition signified the complete loss of the old world and the sudden, violent recreation of a new one. Ghatak’s images of Partition, thus, are the elemental ones of land, water, and sky, suggesting the composition of the universe in its original form, and belonging to a mythology of creation.

It’s not so much history-book Partition we have here as the world as an immigrant or exile or newcomer would see it, starting from scratch and reconstructing his life and his environment from nothing. Air, water, and sky recur, the properties available to the first man and to the homeless; Meghe Dhaka Tara (Stars Covered by Clouds), a film about lower-middle class East Bengali refugees struggling to start life again in Calcutta, begins with a scene in which we see only land and water, as we hear the voice of an unseen onlooker reflecting on the process of loss and resettlement; the river, which is probably the Padma, separating West Bengal from what then was East Pakistan, looks more like a sea: water and horizon. The elements, configuring the process of the world in creation, recur in other films; Titash Ekti Nadir Naam (A River Called Titash) is dominated throughout, for instance, by images of deltas of sand emerging from the water — prehistoric images of erosion and creation, as it were — turning the film into a metaphor for the process of displacement and renewal, although its story concerns the life of a community by a river.

In Subarnarekha, the title of the film is the name of a river never actually seen in it. Most of the story unfolds in Ghatshila, a mining area; the protagonist, an East Bengali refugee, with his daughter, a child of six or seven, and a boy from the refugee camp whom he has adopted, arrives at the mine at which he has been appointed foreman. The backdrop against which the tragic story of lost identity and orphanhood mainly takes place is the stark white rocks of Ghatshila; not the lush greenness associated with Gangetic Bengal, but this dream-image of prehistory, as if the rocks had just cooled and world were new.

It is through these images suggesting the original creation of the universe that Ghatak makes material the inner world of Partition, of apocalypse and rebirth. This serene background, where the historical and the natural seem to be as good as identified with each other, frames, almost indifferently, the small drama of the story’s human characters. Partition, according to this vision, which conflates the natural, the geographic, and the political, is seen as almost predetermined, and exile, displacement, and movement a condition of human existence.

Movement, exile, and displacement, as that which occurred in my parents’ lives and others of their milieu and generation, have been a part of life in India from the beginning of the 20th century, and probably before; during Partition, movement and exile simply took place on a mass scale, and with sudden and violent intensity and coercion. But the story of Partition is not the story of a moment, because it does not stop in 1947, but the story of exile, movement, and resettlement, the agonized transition from old to new, and also the search for happiness in one’s “own” country that was also a “foreign” country, India.    


Hardly his father’s keeper

Sir — What Euan Blair has done is not radically different from what thousands of teenage boys do in his country (“Blair’s son arrested after drunken night out”, July 7). But he is the son of the British prime minister. And so he must go through the trauma of seeing his name splashed all over the front pages of the national dailies and his action seen as a setback for his father’s political career. One cannot but draw a parallel with Indian politics, where politicians’ sons seem to get away with worse crimes, including rape, riding on their parents’ clout. In both cases, however, the children are the losers, being deprived of a normal childhood and adolescence. And why, one might ask, should Euan Blair have to keep in mind his father’s career at every step of his life?

Yours faithfully,
Sohini Gupta, via email

Wedding knell

Sir — Talaaq pronounced thrice in one go has been a handy whip to beat the Islamic laws with, the latest being the recommendations of the national commission for women seeking to end this practice. This betrays a lack of insight into the intrinsic values of the law. The triple talaaq is legally permissible in the eyes of the shariah. However, neither the prophet nor Hazrat Umar despised the practice. So the ulemas could ask the government to enact a law which would punish all those who practised it. Doing so will not make it seem like interference with Muslim personal law. Muslims in India continue to be backward owing to the mysterious rigidity and the deliberate inaction of the Muslim personal law board. Its ignorance should not be allowed to put Islam to shame. Immediate action is the need of the hour.

Yours faithfully,
Badr Aurangabadi, Gaya

Sir — The editorial, “Fair deal” and the news report, “Driven by dignity in divorce” (June 16) in the Metro section of The Telegraph on the Calcutta high court’s decision that Shakila Parveen should receive alimony from her divorced husband “till she remarries” is an intervention in the Quran, Allah’s word. This will hurt the sentiments of Muslims in India. The editorial’s concluding hope that “people’s opinion this time will be able to defeat the operation of vested interests” was especially flabbergasting, because the Quran and the Hadith validate triple talaaq and the maintenance arrangements.

Yours faithfully,
Md. Rafi Ahmed, Calcutta

Sir — I was astounded to know that for a divorce a Christian woman needs to produce two charges against her husband a the husband can escape with a single charge against his wife (“Christian marriage bill on hold”, June 28).

But how far will the government be able to redress the ills of society by mere laws? Several laws have been made to curb dowry, child marriage and female infanticide. Did they achieve anything? Laws cannot create miracles. All the vices result from a male dominated society. We take pride in India’s constitutional equality of sexes. But if we look deeper, everything in society supports male chauvinism.

I have been living in the United States, and I have found that Indian men find it difficult to get used to the equality this country allows both sexes. They heartily support other women competing with men, but when it comes to their wives they prefer them to be docile.

Rather than make laws and intern them in huge tomes, it is the duty of every parent to teach his child to be gender sensitive. Discrimination starts in the home and spreads to society.

Yours faithfully,
Renu Agrawal, via email

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