In Freedom’s Shade By Anis Kidwai, Penguin, Rs 450
The memoir of Anis Kidwai, Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein, might have remained a forgotten historical account if Anis’s granddaughter, Ayesha Kidwai, had not toiled hard to translate it with immense warmth, compile it with useful references and add a short, but extremely significant, biographical sketch of Anis. Ayesha says in the introduction that she had started reading Azadi in 2002, in the wake of the Godhra riots. What urged Ayesha to read her grandmother’s treatise was a need to understand the difference between a “‘true’ riot” and a “pogrom”: “I hoped that Anis Kidwai would help me to find the point of departure between ‘then’ and ‘now’.”
The readers of the English translation of Azadi, entitled In Freedom’s Shade, may find themselves searching for a similar parallel between the two riots, since the past is most useful when it can be employed to understand the present. The book, however, does not provide tailor-made answers to popular questions regarding communal violence. Neither does it endlessly repent the brutalities inflicted on the helpless while trying to stay politically correct. It rather tries to draw a vivid picture of the violence that accompanied Partition and trace the sources of the obdurate hatred that flared up in the hearts of simple men and women. The narrative does not, of course, stay objective at all times, although there is a clear effort on the author’s part to maintain objectivity. Anis rather easily turns emotional, and at times, particularly opinionated; she sometimes draws spontaneous conclusions from personal experiences without delving too deep into the politics of events and incidents. And there is a certain naïvete, or perhaps innocence, in Anis’s unquestioning devotion to Mahatma Gandhi. But, in spite of this, nowhere does the account give the impression that the author was oblivious to political and social realities, or not intelligent enough to see through them.
Anis, daughter of an elite Muslim family settled in India at the time of the Delhi Sultanate, had grown up in an atmosphere of refinement and subtlety, with a mystic for an ancestor and a father who was a well-known writer. According to her own account, her husband’s murder in what seemed to be communal violence, but was later suspected to be a bureaucratic conspiracy, transformed her withdrawn nature and compelled her to throw herself into the thick of the Partition riots. But Ayesha’s biographical sketch betrays a rebellious side to Anis, which suggests that she was drawn to serving in refugee camps and organizing the Shanti Dal not solely to reduce the pain of her loss.
Ayesha, as she describes her own experience of reading Azadi, leaves a hint for the reader: “To my surprise, Azadi told quite a different tale. It did not speak of Partition communal riots in the sense I had expected, but of an array of conflicts — from battles to localized pogroms.” Indeed, In Freedom’s Shade guides the reader through a range of fragmented visuals — the merciless slaying of both Hindus and Muslims, the apathy, deviousness and opportunism of government officials, “victims here turning perpetrators there”, and the strange face of life in the many refugee camps that had mushroomed across Delhi in 1947-48. Anis had worked extensively in these camps out of a nationalistic fervour, a womanly empathy, and a slightly romantic hope for “peace”. She is distressed at the suffering of the inmates, at their dehumanization. But her engaging anecdotes also reveal strange, often vile, courses that human minds take when faced by intense torment. They also show, on the other hand, how men and women cling to humanity, love and compassion even after suffering the most brutal of fates.
At the first reading of In Freedom’s Shade, Anis’s anecdotes will hold the reader’s attention on their own. At the second reading, however, a pattern may emerge when these anecdotes are viewed together from a distance. This pattern traces the anatomy of communal violence during Partition, the rigidity of religious hierarchies that built up over the years to crescendo into the riots, and the seeds of discontent that were sown years before Partition.
The book serves to shatter the idyllic image of Independence, conveying a deep sense of fear and helplessness in many on August 15, 1947. Throughout, Anis dwells on the pain of the people who were rendered homeless because of their religious identities. The book gives the feeling that the Partition may not be as much in the past as we would like to believe. Anis seems to have felt that; one of the main reasons for her writing this memoir was to pass on her insight to future generations.