Towards A Kindlier Self: Analysing Partition through Ashwin Sanghi’s ‘The Sialkot Saga’
By Priyanka Chatterjee
A memory that still unsettles India bespeaks of appalling atrocity that had struck its north western borders at the stroke of that momentous midnight hour. While the world slept, the Empire withdrew only after drawing lines, which, without a moment’s notice, divided the country, unleashing a blood bath that the newly-formed state had no ability to control. The unwillingness of those in power to take responsibility of their political decisions in the just-born nations, India and Pakistan, created a rupture that still remains too difficult to absolve. The liberated nations formed as a result of an unruly end to the Empire displayed a frantic grappling with the notion of ‘independence’, which ultimately boiled down to ethnic cleansing, to negotiations of power and territory, and incomprehensible violence that spread unchecked, unprecedented in all forms of brutality. When scrutinised, these acts of violence also revealed “a high level of planning in the attacks and the use of paramilitary strategy in mob violence” (Kannabiran 7). Thus, while religion has often been considered the cause of much of the violence perpetrated during Partition, one cannot overlook the cold rationality of state’s violent action as a counter position to the madness and insanity of the mob, which remains as a reminder of worst times because of its graphic visibility that refuses to leave memory and, hence, becomes more terrifying.
The question that looms large is – what led to such violence? Was there an unnoticed, seething divide already present within the people that saw such a violent outburst as soon as it could find a vent? Presumably, what completely escaped notice were the invisible forms of violence that could never find a register in the social or cultural memory because without a cumulative effect of visible magnitude, any sporadic occurrence can easily be subsumed into the everyday as something uneventful, thus causing no alarm. While several such forms of violence are continuously working every day to divide people, it is the division of the ‘self’ that seems to stand as the most prominent cause of many partitions, even before the Partition.
Questions that emerge after the understanding of the partitions in its numerous forms: Where does the ‘self’ stand in the aftermath of the violence of Partition? How does the ‘self’ negotiate with these internal and external forces of partition? In the debates and opinions about the presence of fragmented ‘self’, does the ‘self’ at any moment resist those fractures, thus seeking to be whole?
Ashwin Sanghi in his recent novel, The Sialkot Saga (2016), narrates an intertwined tale of mythology, history, fact, fiction, business, and politics, where he too wrestles with the complicated notion of ‘self’ in the aftermath of Partition, trying to answer these questions that do not seem to find an easy closure.
Under the pressure of power, politics, and expectations, we are prone to living a life of divided selves. Although a whole is made of parts, the parts might not produce a homogenous whole when the parts are themselves contesting against each other rendering the self as a host of contradictions.
Even before Partition saw its official day, the Indian society was smarting under unwritten norms of cultural, social, and religious partitions. While untouchability was practiced with impunity, religious segregation was normalised under the guise of tolerance. A Muslim beggar could be fed by a Hindu Brahmin family, but he would have to sit outside the kitchen space, use a bamboo leaf as his plate, throw it away to some place other than the family dustbin, wipe the place with water and after he left, the women of the household, who would take utmost care to feed him, would sprinkle a generous amount of ganga jol to turn the spot holy and useable for the household. This othering has been going on through forms that have always been compliant visibly but strategic and violent invisibly. The cause of perpetuation of this kind of violence renders the integration of ‘self’ impossible, normalising the fractures behind excuses.
Ashwin Sanghi unfolds the complex intricacies of the ‘self’ in The Sialkot Saga, where the narrative constantly shifts from myth to history to present day India to fantasy. The action of the novel begins with a horrific description of Partition riots and moves to unfurl the emergence of India of the present times with its tales of progress and regress. The narrative is continuously interspersed with moments from Indian history, ranging from 250 BCE Pataliputra during the reign of Ashoka to 1833 Lahore of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.
In an effort to coalesce all these powerful rulers as the visionary makers of India, Sanghi uses an age old myth – the presence of nine unknown men in the court of Ashoka, who possessed the secret knowledge of a powerful eighteen-step research to attain immortality. The seeker of the ultimate knowledge of immortality would be tested in the seventeenth step of the process when mercury would metamorphose into gold. If one were able to resist the lure of power and greed manifested in gold, he would proceed to the eighteenth step that would reveal the knowledge of life. As the myth goes, this research has been handed down to generations till date through persons who are capable of upholding a united self, free from the material temptations of life. The rest stand battling with themselves to attain what they presume to be wholeness, which ultimately only augments the fissures and fractures within themselves. It is interesting to note that Ashoka, the emperor who had manoeuvred the brutal loss of innumerable lives in his lust for power, should execute designs that could lead to immortality. Ashoka projects the dilemma of civilisation when in his avatar of the righteous Ashoka, he puts up inscriptions all over the country to deplore power mongering, builds clinics for the ailing, universities for the dissemination of knowledge, goes across boundaries to spread the word of life and love but is never able to disband his army. He carries with him the contradiction that power imposes on the self. The self can motivate power or in turn be motivated.
Power, for Ashoka, was not only present in the physical prowess of his mighty army but was equally present in the cultivation of minds, spreading of love; hence his initiatives in promoting knowledge and love. After ruthless atrocities on the Kalingans, he realised, watching the Daya river flowing crimson for days from the blood of those he slayed, that power was not about othering, not about creating fissures and augmenting greed and lust, but it was about bringing the fractured self together into one harmonious whole, from where one could attain peace, power to do good and, thus, immortality. Yet, he never disbanded his army because he was not oblivious to the bane of power and knew that only state power could be potent and responsible enough to eliminate forces of disruption just as it could be responsible for it.
The book takes us to courts of rulers from Indian history, who can be seen charting ways of India’s rise to power while contemplating meticulous precautions against violence. However, India gains sovereignty only to prove the fears of the ancient rulers – the partition of the country creates an explosion of violence that does not seem to have douched itself still. And what continues to grow is the propensity to create an ‘other’, who by default becomes a site of violence.
The novel begins at the point when the Radcliff line has bifurcated the land, creating a visible division in the communities who had previously lived in apparent togetherness. It, likewise, necessitates the need for ownership, which further coaxes the separation of self from the other, and a need to eliminate the other. The last Amritsar-bound train from Sialkot brings in brutally mutilated corpses, amidst which feeble groans of life can be heard. Two five-year-old brothers are rescued but get separated at Amritsar station to meet again as Arbaaz and Arvind faces that mirror the two majoritarian communities of the country. The novel’s entire grappling is then with the nation within as it explores the self and its negotiations within and without through the trajectories of the lives of Arvind and Arbaaz, both businessmen of a kind. It simultaneously records the political, social, economic movements in India, which impact the lives of the protagonists. Their fates are intertwined as they climb to the echelons of power using deceit, corruption, and murder, laying bare the murkier side of power. Yet, moments of contradiction arise when they uphold their humane, honest self, using the same power.
In the superficial understanding of power, goals of short-lived pleasure are pursued that ultimately render lives futile. It is this notion of power that has never allowed us to come together as Indians, thus creating a volatile situation that erupts for any reason whatsoever. And hence, the search for the whole never ceases. Although their power-mongering sees no bounds, their personal and professional struggles slowly steer the two men towards their inner selves.
Arvind and Arbaaz can gauge the futility of what they are chasing but they are so enmeshed in the cycles of power and corruption, it is impossible for them to look beyond, except in moments of resistance that occur deep within their fractured self. Adhyapika Jyoti comes in the form of the much needed resistance. Quite unlike the other religious heads they use to rise to power, Adhyapika Jyoti overwhelms them with her spiritual power as she manifests the urge to spread light and equanimity. A victim of Partition violence, she buries all her losses in the zeal to help living life. As she moves around the Partition camps witnessing the failure of the creed of non-violence that India was supposed to set an example of, she realises that integration within oneself can alone allow us to overreach the bounds of the constricted notion of self to encompass all.
Arbaaz meets her when she was once again victimised during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 only to find her move from door to door to offer a shoulder to cry on. “Humankind should remember that it’s less important to be human and more important to be kind”, she says (p. 407). She encourages both Arvind and Arbaaz towards establishing an intrapersonal relationship with the self. Influenced by her teachings, both these businessmen turn their attention towards a Bhutanese scientist, Karma Tshering’s research for attaining human longevity. It is through Karma’s research that Sanghi plaits the strands of myth, ancient Indian history, and present India where the need is to reach the eighteenth step of Ashoka’s research. Karma’s intense desire to reach the eighteenth step stems not from any Faustian lust for power but from the sheer wish to propagate longevity through health of mind and body. Adhyapika Jyoti, who had for all these years hidden the secret knowledge which she had inherited from her dead husband, recognised in Karma the ideal person as the ‘Preserver of Secret’. And it is this secret that every emperor in every age has tried to unpack.
The fractured lives Arbaaz and Arvind live, with no love, no friendship, no trust to integrate them, finally culminate, when terrorism strikes, to the aggregate of practicing many partitions. The disruptive forces at work constantly negate the oneness of the universe and devastate it through divisions. Mortals, who can never comprehend power beyond its temporal domain, are thus stuck in the seventeenth step of Ashoka’s secret research, Rasayana, attaining gold but not immortality.
The state uses its power of strategic compliance to coerce people into believing that it stands for equality while what it fosters is inequality. It intimidates with power and strategically makes that power available to a few, only to propagate greater divisions, creating gaping fissures within the Indian polity. Conventions regarding power and the powerful change with every regime. The state creates a pseudo notion of authority by coercing people to comply with the conditions of subjugation. Anyone or anything that lies outside what is considered as the normative arrangement of that convention is eliminated with brutal violence, perpetuating innumerable partitions. Here power is gold, gold is power; the quest for immortality is lost. This notion of immortality has very less to do with death and everything to do with deed. Hence, Karma is the Preserver of Secret who alone can propagate the need for an alternative world, a world where the notion of power would not rest in partition, but in promoting oneness of the universe emphasizing the interconnectedness of things.
Mystical as it may sound, the basic oneness of the universe is also evident in concepts of quantum physics. Hence the disruption, destruction, brutality that we create through violence of division emanates from our own selves, which like to dwell in the illusion of power. What is required is weeping together, to see the pain in our enemies, enemies whom we create by othering ourselves. While society is to be blamed for dividing us, can the integration of the self, that could be extended to encompass all, act as a resistance to that partition? When Cain killed Abel and returned to God, God asked him, ‘Where is your brother?’ Cain could not answer that. God then told him, ‘Hark, your brother’s blood speaks from the soil.’ It is time we opened our ears to the sounds of the blood we spill. It is a sound that should reverberate within the fissures of what remains of the nation. Can the humankind thus be less human and kinder?
Kannibiran, Kalpana (Ed.). Violence Studies. New Delhi: OUP, 2016.
Sanghi, Ashwin. The Sialkot Saga. New Delhi: Westland Ltd, 2016.
Priyanka Chatterjee is a researcher working on Indian women writers writing crime and violence.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.