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Talking Partition with Children: A Herculean Task or Not?

By Anurima Chanda

Chintan Girish Modi asks a very interesting question in his article, “Read With Me: Finding freedom in friendship this Independence Day” (2013):

How do we expose children, beyond the regular self-congratulatory patriotism through songs, speeches and skits, to reflect more deeply about our country and the neighbour we have been taught to hate?

And, he gives the answer himself: “Stories may be a good place to start” and it is Nina Sabnani’s Mukund and Riaz (2007) that he talks about. It was originally a film, produced by NID (Ahmedabad) for the Big Small People – a UNESCO Israel Project (a collaboration between seven schools around the world) – based on the theme of how Partition affected inter-communal friendships. She went on to win a certificate of merit from the Tokyo Broadcasting System, Japan, for the same. Later the same film was converted into a book for children, co-produced by Tulika and NID, which has since been translated into many languages.

The challenge in this adaptation was the fact that from a film, which was not restricted to a particular set of audience, it had to be tailor-made for young readers specifically. Conveying issues of migration and displacement to young children have always been tricky. In the specific case of the Indian Partition, this would mean including the historical backdrop as well as the inter-communal tensions that propelled this event. All this to be done in a way that the narrative is largely neutral. Given that the readers are individuals with limited life and cognitive experiences, any sort of ideological manoeuvring could result in a complete brainwashing. This would hamper the future cognitive growth of the child, overpowering it with somebody else’s beliefs.

Children’s literature has forever battled with these anxieties, mostly falling prey to becoming a representative of the author’s overpowering ideological system and seeping into the child’s psyche without being adequately filtered. This can have harmful ramifications in the way a child perceives the world, feeding into its system with unwarranted prejudices. Sabnani’s text is one of those rare instances which has been able to steer away from such ideological manipulations. Based on her father’s memories, the story – set against the partition of the country – talks about how two friends get cruelly separated and put on two sides of the border and highlights how “friendship between children knows no barbed wire fencing” (Sabnani Blurb). In this narration, Sabnani avoids the use of any form of overt dramatization, keeping it fairly neutral in its stance.

The other beauty of the book lies in the way it uses illustrations. A word must be said about that before going on to discuss the actual deliverance of the subject. In the film, Sabnani creates her graphics by animating pieces of cloth – a collaborative effort between “the craftswomen who did the embroidery…and computer animation which allowed for the bringing together of the hand and the machine” (Animation Express Team n.p.). The embroidery itself – which “uses the art of women’s appliqué work which is common to both Sindh in Pakistan and Gujarat in India” and hinting at the “shared common memories, history and craft” (Singh, Paritosh n.p.) between the two nations, adds a deeper meaning to the narrative. While converting it into a thin thirty-two pages book, advertised as for five years or above, the same cloth animation has been incorporated, serving as pictorial accompaniments to the narrative.

The book emerges as “a profoundly personal journey” for Sabnani because “the story was told to her in bits and pieces by her father, Mukand, who came from Karachi to Mumbai at the age of 14 years” (Modi n.p.). This is something that poignantly comes across from the narration. The boys in her story are shown to be too young to understand what is happening around them just like it had been for her father and thousands of others who had borne the brunt of Partition. Sabnani’s exploration of such complicated issues in a simplistic fashion also opens up the avenues for initiating a dialogue about these matters within a domain where they are considered to be taboos.

The friendship between the two boys, Mukand and Riaz – one Hindu/Sikh and the other Muslim – is like between any two individuals. However, nowhere in the book has their religious differences been pronouncedly stated. They play together, read together, help each other and even share their life stories with each other. The only indication to their different religious backgrounds is in the caps they wear in the adjoining illustrations – Riaz wearing a black skull cap, and Mukand wearing his favourite cricket cap which Riaz loves but Mukand does not like sharing. Their surroundings have been made more authentic with few local touches, be it in the portrayal of the bonesetter of Keemari, or Kembel Street where the boys play cricket, or the boys’ favourite bakery where they get buns with biscuits inside them, or the gurudwara outside which sits Mukand’s dear friend Ladaram Faludawala. The markers of both the religion blend so well into each other that it is difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins. There is no overpowering presence of one over the other. At the same time, the colonial backdrop has been well fitted into the narrative with episodes of military vans full of English soldiers patrolling the street and telling the boys to go home.

The little moments of kindness and warmth exchanged between the diverse communities all living together is presented well. The boys chase each other and when Mukand falls down from the cycle it is Riaz who takes him to get it fixed. The white-bearded, skull-cap wearing bonesetter, known as Keemari ka Bhaiyya, who lives in Keemari, close to the Karachi harbour cannot be easily forgotten. He is ‘everybody’s friend’ and fixes Mukand’s broken arm without taking any fees from the boys. The boys in turn slip in some money into his donation box. On Sundays it is Mukand’s turn to be generous when he looks after other people’s shoes outside the gurudwara, serving them ice-water procured from his friend the Faludawala. Ladaram also returns the favour by treating Mukand to kulfi and gives him a bucket of water to take home. The boys are shown to be happy and content, dreaming of a happy future among friends and family. The society of pre-partition India in what is today Pakistan, would presumably have been a Muslim dominated space. However, the book and the movie go to great lengths to reveal the syncretic undercurrents of society as remembered by Mukand. Amidst Muslim bonesetters and bakeries, there also are possibly Parsi kulfi sellers, Sikh gurudwaras and the somewhat ambiguous religious background of Mukand himself which can be either Hindu/Sikh. What is emphasised in the transactions between the communities, especially from the point of view of little Mukand, who is the central character in the text, is the lack of equivalence or expectations of reciprocity. This runs counter to our modern idea of service exchanged where the central element is that of the fee. The Muslim bonesetter refuses payment, although a few coins are voluntarily put into the donation box; little Mukand arranges the shoes in the gurudwara free of charge, earning only the blessings of those visiting; Ladaram provides ice-water for free to those coming to pray at the gurudwara. Inter-religious interactions are, therefore, to a large extent reciprocally non-monetised with people instead relying on goodwill which is built up through a refusal to monetise. Hence, society is largely shown to be devoid of communal polarisation and instead to be largely based on harmony and best wishes.

It is only while returning from school one day – on the day their teacher does not come – that the narrative takes a turn. When Riaz comes in a little later and tells Mukand that the country has been divided into two – India and Pakistan – Mukand notices the change in the air. He finds the beautiful locality of theirs identified with its colourful peacefulness has turned into a battleground with “people chasing each other and shouting” and “blood on the streets” (n.p.). He still does not fully understand ‘what is happening’ but along with his family’s preparations for a hasty departure the narrative suddenly takes a three-sixty degree turn. During the final moments of their departure, it is Riaz who helps them with everything. He brings them kurtas and Jinnah caps so that they can disguise themselves as ‘everyone else’ (with no direct mention of what everyone else looks like) and can leave Karachi unnoticed. He drives them to the harbour, although he is not old enough to drive and puts them on the S.S. Shirala ship leaving for Bombay. In the final moments of farewell, Mukand parts with his precious cap and throws it towards his friend. They wave at each other till they cannot see each other anymore. That is their last meeting. They never meet again, but every time Mukand sees the Jinnah cap, he fondly remembers his best friend.

The linear narration of the story, whereby the narrator just reports things as they are instead of passing any judgement or giving an opinion, helps keep the biases from entering the space of the story. The playful banter of a child has been well captured in the friendship between Mukand and Riaz. Despite focusing more on the friendship element of the story, Sabnani has not kept from presenting the violence in the backdrop. There is a sudden and rather shocking change in the society that Mukand grew up in with the declaration of partition. The teacher does not come to school, Mukand must pass through streets filled with dead and dying people – the mention of which is in the ‘blood’ that he sees on the streets, and the father directly tells him that “their lives are in danger” (n.p.). However, it is still the syncretic bond with Riaz that ultimately save their lives. It is Riaz who provides the means of camouflaging their identity in order to successfully evade the blood on the streets and the danger. Despite remembering the partition as a traumatic event that separated communities, the book also highlights how the possibility of survival was made possible only because of an underlined healthy respect for each other’s religion based on a long tradition of symbiotic communal living. The final exchange of caps between Mukand and Riaz cements a trace of each other’s identity through the remainder of their lives. This exchange is all the more relevant because while Mukand’s cap is a symbol of his desire for cricket and a future of hopes and ambitions, Riaz’s cap is a marker of identity and tradition. It is fitting that Mukand retains the memories and traditions of his childhood and the pre-partition period of India, while Riaz presumably is left hoping for modernity and future – both dreams to be left unfulfilled in the modern nation-states of India and Pakistan.

However, for the child, what is possibly translated the best is that various communities can co-exist without necessarily devolving themselves into rigid communal ghettos. Talking about this effect that the book had on its readers, Modi mentions a particular episode from Nina’s life:

Nina once met a teacher in Bangalore who shared her experience of having a Muslim girl in her class who became the target of several hushed insults and anti-Muslim conversations after the September 11 bombings in the United States of America. The teacher introduced Nina’s book to her students, and facilitated conversations around it. The book struck a deep chord with them. Apparently, they stopped making hostile remarks about Muslims, and the girl in that teacher’s class felt a lot more comfortable. (Modi n.p.)

In an interview with Animation Xpress, Sabnani mentions how her movie had also been sent to Pakistan, the place which had only existed for her through her father’s memories and which she hopes to visit someday to “see where it all happened” (n.p.). It is interesting how Sabnani recreates the flavour of that age through mere stories that her father shared with her, which assumes such life-like proportions that she even received letters from a person “who recognize[d] the places by seeing the movie” (Animation Express Team n.p.) and eventually turned out to be her father’s classmate. Sabnani, who had initially started making the movie with the aim of getting her father’s voice across with the romantic notion that her “father’s friend Riaz would watch the film, and they would somehow get to meet” (Modi n.p.), finally had not been able to achieve that as her father passed away before that. But, by presenting his stories to the present generation – a story of an extremely traumatic period of Indian history, to children just beginning to read on their own, she translates an era of friendship that existed between individuals irrespective of their religious backgrounds.

In the domain of Partition literature, very little can be found that directly reaches out to children. The complexity of the subject makes it difficult for writers to find appropriate means to dress it up for young readers. Even in revisiting stories of Partition, the voices that we hear are all adult voices. There are hardly any accounts that are directly narrating a child’s experiences of the same. The ones that can be found have all been narrated in retrospection, mediated through an adult lens. In that respect, Sabnani’s Mukund and Riaz comes across as a breath of fresh air in the way that it tries to reach out to children in the voice of the child that her father had once been, without attaching any more appendages to this incident of colossal trauma.

Works Cited

Sabnani, Nina. Mukund and Riaz. Chennai: Tulika Publishers, 2007. Print.

Animation Express Team. “Nina Sabnani’s Mukund and Riaz to be showcased at Kala Ghoda festival.”  Animation Xpress.com. 2007. Web.

Modi, Chintan Girish. “Read With Me: Finding freedom in friendship this Independence Day.” thealternative.in. 2013. Web. 3 April 2016.

Bio:
Anurima Chanda is currently working as a Writing Tutor at the CWC, Ashoka University. As part of her job she has worked extensively with English Second Language (ESL) students and students with learning disabilities, trying to devise teaching modules according to individual needs. She has completed her PhD on Indian English Children’s Literature from CES, SLL&CS, JNU (Submitted August 2017). She was a pre-doctoral fellow at the University of Wuerzburg (July 2016-Oct 2016) under the DAAD Programme “A New Passage to India” working under Prof. Isabel Karremann. She did her graduation in English (Hons.) from LSR, DU, and M.A. and MPhil (English) from JNU. She was a SAP fellow under the UGC-DRS-Phase II (June 2011-June 2012) and a part of the JNU Team under the UKIERI Tri-national Research Partnership Project between JNU, Bangor University and West Virginia University (2013-14). She has ten publications and has presented papers at various national and international Conferences.

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

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