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Book Review: Salman Rashid’s ‘Of home, loss, and healing’

By Anubhav Pradhan

Do some stories never get old?

Almost three quarters of a century after the sudden splintering of the Indian subcontinent, it is worth asking if the Partition story has finally died out. Generations have now grown without any real memory or connect to it, and for many who are young now the grisly events of 1947 are often no more than dim lessons in history books. What real claim, then, can that massacre have in making us pause and look back, take stock of the bloody birth of our nations?

Salman Rashid’s A Time of Madness: A Memoir of Partition does not directly answer this question. It does not suggest, or guide, or preach, as many who of late have written and worked on the Partition have tended to do. It sets out to uncover, simply and humbly, a bit of family history without seeking to understand or explain why history took this course. It is heavily opinionated, yes, and may well seem insufferable at times, but much more than these it is thoroughly and consistently personal, a memoir in the true sense of the word. In giving his readers just this and not much more, in unaffectedly taking us through his travels and his thoughts, Rashid does not but still does answer that seminal question. The Partition lives on, not so much as experience as a memory calling for absolution.

That such an absolution is far from sight today seems to be a conclusion one may draw from Rashid’s memoir. Hostilities between India and Pakistan have been constantly escalating, with acrimonious allegations being made publicly in international forums. Our shared border is amongst the most militarised and tense in the world, which makes it unsurprising that even for something as poignantly harmless as visiting the homes of his ancestors Rashid could get a visa only when he approached the Indian High Commissioner. With channels of communication and interaction getting progressively blocked by both sides, the possibility of peace is perhaps as dim as the memory of the tragedy which has left such deep poison in our hearts.

Rashid’s memoir is valuable precisely because it talks to both sides of this unfortunate border. In our uncertain times of abuse and aggression, his words are a potent reminder of our shared history, of what many of us lost when India and Pakistan were born, and how the dark shadow of that tragedy continues to cloud our vision of the future. It is no mean feat that the power of his narrative emerges from its sheer simplicity, language which just states things as they were and are. Whether it is Darshan Singh of Klasswala or Abdus Sattar of Ugala, the lives of many who live today in almost each other’s homes were spared not by the intervention of governments and armies but by the simple humanity of a people who had been one for centuries. It is these simple things, simple words like Darshan Singh’s “I too have seen Lahore”, which speak strongly of homes that were, of lost homes which will always be.

Where there is loss, however, there is also pain, and the blind demon of blood. More than a few readers will find Rashid’s near-correlation of guilt-induced misfortune visiting those who committed some of the worst outrages during those months a little too poetic for justice, but it makes for heavy reading nonetheless. “Guilt riddles the soul,” writes Rashid, referring to broken men on both sides of the tortured border who died or are dying alone and abandoned – and often blind. At a time when we are constantly bombarded with graphic imagery of persecution and rapine, this quiet reckoning of the fates of ordinary men who committed extraordinary crimes serves well the larger narrative of this memoir: sins come home to roost, and there may well be no escaping the past.

Notably, it is to Rashid’s credit that he is not partisan in his engagement with this ruptured history. Even as he is acutely critical of his homeland Pakistan, he is perhaps too kind to his other home, India. Readers, say, of Intizar Hussain may find it difficult to reconcile the muhajir narrative there with Rashid’s loti da saal. Yet, to forgive but not forget: to work towards closure by breaking walls instead of creating them, this is what Rashid seems to be saying to both India and Pakistan. Despite age and time, despite the passing of generations, some stories never really get old. Salman Rashid’s A Time of Madness is a timely reminder of this shared, foundational story which refuses to die.

Anubhav Pradhan is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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