In a Violent Land
Author - Khushwant Singh and 13 others
Publisher - Aleph, Rs 399
This collection of short stories by established authors uses powerful and evocative imagery to highlight the many wrongs in society and help create a necessary mass aversion to violence, writes Ronica Wahi
In the face of the chilling incidents of different kinds of violence that we continue to witness around us and the discussions around them, this collection of stories and essays on violence — entitled In a Violent Land — does an important and timely job in presenting many aspects of violence that have scarred modern India.
The writings included in the book reflect the forms of violence through the decades, starting with Khushwant Singh’s piece that sheds some light on the social history of India’s Partition, one of the darkest realities of the Indian story. Each piece of writing included here explores a different kind of violence, in a different setting — from metropolitan cities to remote forested areas find space here, and of a different time in history. Thus, as the reader progresses, he/she reads of widespread tragedies, and of individual accounts that are representative of widespread afflictions, progressively moving from 1947 to more recent times. Violence based on religion, gender, caste, politics, physical attributes, and even an imagined challenge to personal feeling of superiority is depicted.
Aleph Olio does achieve its aim of collecting the finest writing on a given theme to project India powerfully, for the chosen pieces in their varied styles and voices all narrate deeply touching tales of human exploitation, cruelty, and suffering. The first page of each piece is black — as if symbolically representing what is to come.
Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh stresses on the monotony and regularity of life as determined by the timings of trains in Mano Majra, and how these schedules change after the summer of 1947, how a train incident is what disrupts life of Mano Majra. Violence on religious lines forms the subject of a number of pieces. In “A Sheet” by Salam Bin Razzaq, translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, the whole atmosphere during the 1992-93 Bombay riots is oppressive; there is “palpable tension in the air”. Thus, even for friends there arises suspicion, taking birth from fear. In “Powertoni” by Suketu Mehta, the reader encounters people gloating over their acts during the Bombay riots, and the inhumane side of some policemen refusing to remove bodies being eaten by crows and dogs claiming that the case did not fall under their jurisdiction. In “A Sheet,” there is a commissioner claiming, while the riots are on, “…the situation is under control.”
In every instance of mass violence, the women are targeted; they are raped and brutalised. Barkha Dutt, in her piece “In the Name of God,” relates how a gang rape of a woman who was part of an attacked group during the 2002 Gujarat riots was not registered as a separate case. Dutt writes, “…this method of clubbing cases together would effectively render rape almost invisible.” Sonia Faleiro’s “13 Men” is the case of a woman gang raped because she did not care to live the way others dictated.
Stories of labourers oppressed by the caste system and annihilated when they protested, of students who were brutally murdered because they wanted to work towards a cherished cause, and of youngsters who turned against the Indian state owing to discrimination find place here. Despite being a decorated army brigadier’s son, Sangliana in Sanjoy Hazarika’s “A Troubled Peace in Mizoram”, fights as part of the Mizo National Front as he suffers race-based discrimination in New Delhi, Calcutta, and other parts of the country. Also included are the tragedy of a Kashmiri old man — his accident, the ill-treatment of his daughter by her in-laws, the killing of his son — in “The Gravestone” by Shahnaz Bashir, and the attack on the cavalcade of the President Giani Zail Singh in “1984 in Delhi” by Manoj Mitta and Harvinder Singh Phoolka.
One particularly disturbing story is Vijaydan Detha’s “Countless Hitlers,” translated from the Rajasthani by Christi A Merrill and Kailash Kabir. The juxtaposition of the thoughts of the innocent victim and those of the perpetrators is done exceedingly well. There is repeated emphasis on the fact of the perpetrators being men, which makes their bestiality all the more glaring. The hawks in the story preyed for survival — these men for just feeling good about an achievement.
There is an indirect form of violence — of social fetters. In “Gold from the Grave” by Anna Bhau Sathe, the inability to find jobs and having to resort to brutality because of unemployment is worrying at more than one level — not only that people are capable of stooping so low but also that there exist such circumstances that can make people go to any extent.
The people in power always get away, some way or the other; there is often a ‘pact’ between people holding some power within the social fabric. Swapan’s mother in Udayan Ghosh’s tale and Dulan in Mahasweta Devi’s are victims of cruel fates, and their tragedies haunt the reader long after the stories are finished. The ones with political and economic power can just destroy lives and for long bear no consequences of their actions. Justice eluded so many Sikh victims of 1984, and so many of the Gujarat riots, among those of other tragedies. And fleeing from oppression and violence is not possible. A brutal figure, Lachman Singh of “Seed,” becomes the symbol of pervading injustice as the question is voiced, “Is there a place without Lachman Singh?”
These stories are evocative and use powerful imagery to create a sense of unrest and danger. Nature reflects the disturbances and so do the other objects that surround the characters. Everyday objects acquire newer meanings and associations. For instance, in Mahasweta Devi’s tale “seed” takes a wholly new meaning. Such associations make the impact more lasting. The collection reflects the many wrongs in our society in one volume, highlighting the spread and extent of brutality, and will hopefully help create a necessary aversion to violence.