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From the ‘other’ vantage point

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From the ‘other’ vantage point

Salman Rashid talks to ANUBHAV PRADHAN about his latest book, A Time of Madness, critiques the Pakistani version of the Partition, describes the average young Pakistani, and argues that the two nations are still not at a point of ‘no return’

The sudden Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 has been a deep source of trauma. Millions of lives were lost in the span of a few months, and many more permanently scarred with the violence, as physical as abidingly emotional, which accompanied this civilisational rupture. It has been difficult for those who grew in the shadow of this cataclysmic event to talk about it, though of late, attempts have been made across South Asia — in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh — to speak about the loss and pain which still affects the way we think of each other. Salman Rashid’s A Time of Madness ventures on just such an endeavor, a memoir as much of loss as of healing. In a conversation on 1947 and its long, dark shadow, he talks of the book and of how Partition has made Pakistan what it is today.

A Time of Madness moved me strangely, like few others have. I wonder if you could tell us a little about the writing style and process, why you chose to have what you do have on the page?

I cannot even pretend to make fancy sounds about my writing style. I just write as I speak. The process is simple. I do not make prior outlines of what I am going to write. I sit down at the keyboard and begin. At the end of it — if it is a long piece (like a book) — I distance myself from it for a couple of days. Then I re-read and make corrections etc. This can be spread over several days. Shorter pieces are edited immediately upon completion.

How did you make your notes during the multiple visits you made to India? I’m asking this because it’s often very difficult to talk about all that you have, no mean feat this. It will give our readers a better idea of what goes into writing about such events, and also what touches and affects the mind and heart of the writer as well.

I make written notes in a notebook always in my camera bag. Also always in a camera bag is a recording machine (earlier a cassette recorder). As a conversation begins, I ask permission to use the machine. This is much better than just longhand notes which sometimes lose the nuance of the speaker.

You wrote of Partition being remembered as loti da saal in Pakistan and as ujayedan da saal in India. Isn’t some of the muhajir narrative, of suffering and loss of wealth and position, missing there? Or do you believe it’s largely unfounded?

Loss of wealth and position among muhajirs coming from India? Haah! You’ve got to be kidding me. There was only a handful of families that lost wealth and position coming to Pakistan. The rest were all beggars, not even middle class, who looted the new country. I know that the rich were the Pathans of Maler Kotla, Bhopal and Sherkot. There may have been a few more families but everyone else, like the muhajirs today infesting Karachi, were lower class who all became Syeds in the new country that they plundered. Not that the Urdu-speakers were alone in the plunder.

The Punjabis were equally ruthless — those who came from the other side and those whose neighbours fled the new country. It might interest you to know that allotments by settlement commissioners were made if one had two witnesses. The fathers of all these muhajirs teamed with two other friends. In turn, they were witness of the ‘huge properties left behind’ for the third. All three were winners. They, who had never seen anymore than a two-room hovel, became owners of mansions abandoned by fleeing Jains, Hindus, and Sikhs.

How does the present generation of Pakistanis remember the Partition? In India, most young people, between 20 and 30, seem to think of it vaguely and in generic terms: A tragedy, something sad, a horrible event, but nothing which moves them or those they know personally.

In Pakistan, the younger generation does not approve of it being referred to as Partition. They call it independence. They are very proud and happy it happened to liberate them from the “evil clutches of the scheming Hindus”. That is the narrative fed to them since the Partition. They even look at the killing of non-Muslims as something heroic! It is not a horrible or sad event for the younger generation. Nor too can they start looking objectively at their heroes of independence. For these youngsters, they are all worthy of veneration bordering on worship. In the end, the event is too remote to be grasped fully by younger people.

How do you think the relationship between Pakistan and India has been shaped by the long shadow of the Partition? Does it seem that we have breached a point of no return, a stage after which we will remember only our sins against each other but not our shared brotherhood?

I believe the narrative of hatred that Pakistan crafted after the Partition has a lot to do in the shaping of our relationship. I don’t think India manufactured a similar narrative. Ours was based on hatred for the other: The scheming Hindu, the raping and killing Sikh. That having been said, memories of the shared brotherhood run very deep in our collective soul, which is so evident when Indians and Pakistanis meet, whether in the subcontinent visiting the other country or in the West. The way visitors are invited into homes and pampered — even in Pakistan where the hatred narrative is strong — shows how deep our bonds go. I don’t think we have reached a point of no return. Permit free people-to-people contact and see how things change. The speed of change will astonish you.

You’re too kind in your praise of India and Indians: Our attitude to women, our governance machinery, our civic apparatus, etc. Most of us condemn ourselves in pretty much the same words as you use for Pakistan. Perhaps that too says something about our kinship?

Very much about our kinship. But also because I, as an outsider, was seeing more than the average Indian who has always lived there can discern. The example is that Karachi girls in Lahore at once remark how Lahoris stare. The difference was too stark for me the first time in India. A girl in shorts on a scooter in Amritsar cannot exist in Pakistan. And your railway is something we can only dream of in Pakistan. Road traffic may be as crazy in India as here, but Pargut Singh Garewal, my age, was afraid to drive on the wrong side of the road. Here no one would even think of this punctilio and simply carry on.


As I understand it, A Time of Madness has been received warmly in India. It is one of those rare accounts which speaks to both sides of the border, as much to India as to Pakistan. What has the response been in Pakistan?

Today I got a comment on my blog (I did not post it) by a Hyderabadi (Sindh) young man who was very upset I had written against his heroes of the Partition. Other than this, it has been extremely well taken here as well.

With growing censorship on both sides of the border, how safe do you feel in publicly criticising your country and countrymen, as, for example, you do in A Time of Madness?

A friend of mine, having read and taken it well, has purchased 10 copies to give to his general friends. I fear some of them may not like it. There could be trouble for me. Except for writing ‘politicians, civil and military’ and the way Zia and his cronies destroyed the railway to build up the military freight transport empire, I have generally avoided making direct negative comments on the Army. My friend and mentor, Khaled Ahmed, in his book Sleepwalking to Surrender (Penguin India) has been more harsh on and critical of the security establishment and the deep state. There has been no trouble for him and from that I take strength.

Do you think the mad times are here to stay, that the madness continues unabated since 1947?

Back in 1985, when Zia had successfully maddened this country with religious fervour, I said to my wife that the blowback will be India and Judaism taking a similar route for no other reason but to get even with whatever Muslims might do to the world. And it has happened in India. The Jews are too mature and perhaps also a bit remote, I think. But this madness will end. I still have hope. India will have to take the lead in returning to sanity.

Would the creation of a cross-border archive of sorts — of people visiting their homes or the homes of their forefathers and recording their experiences — help not just in moving us to mutual reconciliation but also in keeping the memory of this loss and all that is now at stake more acutely alive?

Absolutely. The sort of archive you mention is a very good idea. I have lived through the pain of those whose homes were on this side. Just talking to them I could feel the longing to return even once to their homes. And it surprised me that the yearning to come over lingers on in the third generation.

What occurred in 1947 must not be forgotten. It simply must not be forgotten. We have to keep that horrible memory alive so that we can one day gather the courage to say to each other we are sorry. That is when we will begin to move forward. And move forward we must. Seven decades of hatred is way too much for humans to handle; we have to bring an end to it. The example of Mohinder Pratap Sehgal in Jalandhar can be a beacon: He began by saying, “Vekho jee, main sab to pehlay tohady to maafi mungna chahanda aan. Ae sub meray pita jee da kita hoya si.” That was very brave of him. We need to say that to each other. With large hearts, we need to seek forgiveness and with equally large and open hearts and minds, we need to forgive.

Some thinkers from the community feel that the Partition impoverished Indian Muslims, culturally and socially, if not financially. How did the Partition affect Pakistani Muslims?

What a joke! If Muslims in India wished to live in isolation — which, I think, they did after the divide — they can only blame themselves for their cultural and social poverty. Muslims think memorising religious scripture is sufficient to live life well in the modern world; it is not. Other than making a mullah, that does not give anyone a job. And how many mosques can a country have? But those who were educated made it to the top. Like those Bollywood actors or your diplomat Salman Khurshid.

In Pakistan, after the loti da saal, we became suddenly very rich — some of us beyond our wildest dreams. We did not know how to handle the new riches. The huge bungalows of Model Town Lahore, just one example, established by rich Hindus and Sikhs in the 1920s, were passed on to Muslims mostly based on false claims. The new rich did not know how to handle the grandeur; it was single-generation riches. All those grand mansions have over the years been parcelled out and sold. The six to eight kanal grounds of those homes are now one kanal properties.

But even a single generation of riches undeserved and unearned caused an ugly social mutation, creating an entire nation of exhibitionists who flaunt wealth and who look down upon those of lesser status. In India, even well-to-do persons will ride the bus or other public transport. In Pakistan, try stuffing a General or a businessman in one and see what happens.

As for our cultural and social status, we are poorer. The clerical class — having taken over Pakistan — now tells us that all the festivals of this great and wonderful subcontinent are ‘Hindu’ festivals, a taboo upon Pakistani Muslims. This isolation has impoverished the soul of the Muslims in Pakistan.




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