Reading Fikr Taunsvi's The Sixth River in 2019: Searing account of horrors of Partition resonates even today
The first-person account of the Partition by Fikr Taunsvi, titled The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India, refers to the five rivers of Punjab, to which a sixth river, that of ‘fire and blood’, was added during that bloody period. Maaz Bin Bilal’s translation brings this stunning account to readers in English, and does so at a time when those histories are repeating themselves.
Speaking Tiger has recently published a new translation of the first-person account by Fikr Taunsvi, of the Partition, titled The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India.
The name refers to the five rivers of Punjab, to which a sixth river, that of fire and blood, was added during Partition.
It is a written account of the lived experiences of the writer, recorded while they were happening.
Speaking Tiger has recently published a new translation of Fikr Taunsvi’s first-person account of the Partition, titled The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India. The name refers to the five rivers of Punjab, to which a sixth river, that of ‘fire and blood’, was added during that bloody period. Maaz Bin Bilal’s translation brings this stunning account to readers in English, and does so at a time when those histories are repeating themselves.
Bilal’s introduction sets the stage: Fikr Taunsvi was born Ram Lal Bhatia in Taunsa Sharif, a city now in west Punjab, which had a deeply composite culture, dotted with Sufi shrines that were patronised by both Hindus and Muslims. He adopted the pen name Fikr, which “variously mean(s): thought, consideration, reflection; deliberation, opinion, notion, idea, imagination, conceit; counsel, advice; care, concern, solicitude, anxiety, grief, sorrow.” Taunsvi simply meant that he hailed from Taunsa Sharif.
It is a shameful feature of our times that I have to point out that this change of name did not involve changing his religion; whatever his personal beliefs about religion may have been, he was seen as a Hindu in Lahore, and lived through Partition as a Hindu in Pakistan, with all the danger that it entailed. He chose an Urdu pseudonym, and wrote in Urdu, because Urdu is neither Hindu nor Muslim; it is just a language that flourished in the Indian subcontinent.
The book covers the period from 9 August 1947 to 8 November 1947 in three parts. As Bilal points out, what makes it unique is that it is neither Saadat Hasan Manto’s fictionalised accounts, collected under Siyah Hashye (Black Margins), nor is it the oral histories passed down in families collected in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence. Instead, it is a written account of the writer’s own lived experiences, recorded while they were happening.
Apart from living in these turbulent times, Taunsvi was also a seasoned writer, which meant that he was not an ordinary observer of his times. This is why his perspective is so important, because it is not just a subjective account, but one that is aware of long histories, and possesses an imagination that ranges far and wide. Those who are not writers would have drawn different meanings from these experiences; a writer has a duty to more than just his own feelings.
Bilal tells us that Taunsvi began as a poet, a romantic optimist, and a revolutionary. But the events recorded in this journal changed him irrevocably, leaving only satire as the sole acceptable mode. During a bleak passage in the book, Taunsvi describes his move to this position, echoing Faiz Ahmed Afaiz’s ‘Vo intezaar tha jis ka ye vo sahar toh nahiin’ (The dawn of independence that we awaited so long, this is not that dawn):
"… these days, I have gotten very emotional. For how could the point of view for which we worked for fifteen years, all that we wrote, all that we thought, how could it all be laid waste so easily at the hands of political mismanagement? What had we done? Is this why we fought the British? So we could be confronted by the wrongful murders of thousands of humans? Should we also change our worldview? Should we lose our faith in humans?…We ought to die now. So that we do not continue to be misguided by the charming lie of humanity’s better future."
Given this despair, he was left with only gentle humour to expose our frailties and to prod our conscience. But even the satirist was formidable, as Taunsvi’s career took off after 1950. For a time, Bilal tells us that his satirical column was so popular that people learnt the Urdu script so they could read it for themselves. The words were easily understood, for in spite of the best efforts of the British and other dividers, Hindi and Urdu have remained the same language till today.
Hatred makes even the familiar strange
Those who wake up to new horrors in newspaper headlines every day will relate to Fikr Taunsvi’s disorientation when Partition violence came to Lahore. Taunsvi writes of a curfew established because of a bomb explosion. His pointed satire comes to the fore here, as he describes the bomb being of ‘English make’, much like the bomb of Partition itself.
He also parodies the absurd logic that decides who threw the bomb based on who died, without any other evidence; since the victims are Muslims, everyone assumes the perpetrators are Hindu. But the absurd assumption has consequences: 150 people are murdered overnight, with 50 houses burned down. An eerie occurrence reminds us of the ongoing siege in Kashmir. During the curfew, a child is born to Taunsvi’s neighbour, but because of the curfew, they are not able to reach any doctor, nor are the Muslims, who deliver milk daily, able to enter Taunsvi’s Hindu neighbourhood for fear of their lives.
Later, the curfew is lifted, unlike the ongoing disaster in Kashmir, but Taunsvi cannot bring himself to change his usual route even if it passes through parts of the city dangerous to him:
"After the sickening and soul-wearying curfew of twenty-four hours, I finally stepped out of my house this morning. All around, some languid, dull activity had begun. Layers of terror and fear had accumulated over the roads. People were stepping gingerly over these layers. … All men kept turning around. Not men but foes walked that road. Hundreds of scared and hesitant enemies had stepped out of their homes. … I eventually started up on the street leading to my office.
It stretched through a Muslim-majority area, where there had been a bomb blast three days ago. Going through these parts was a habit for me. It was a part of my mental make-up. What else could I have done? Mental peril lay in going through the safer parts."
In the same way, as hate accumulates across our country, we find ourselves continuing to live our lives, unable to rise out of our habitual stupor to see what is going on.
As for Kashmir — it also appears in Taunsvi’s account. Just see how well his words apply today:
"And the Raja of Kashmir has declared his acceptance of the accession to the Indian Union. And the politics of the world has been rattled. It is being said that the responsibility for the security of the Kashmiri people lies with the North-Western tribals. Someone says that the Indian Dominion will save the Kashmiri people. And the Kashmiri people are being ground between two millstones.
People — they have become indistinct dots. Aimless, whom no one sees. But whom everyone is claiming to see. The people are only being used to serve different aims and motives. What are the people? Only sheep! That powerful shepherds are shoving along their own paths."
Human values versus the poisonous ideology of 'Us vs. Them'
Our world has forgotten the difference between the political and the partisan, where every critique of the BJP is seen as support for the Congress. Fikr Taunsvi’s book illustrates the difference, for he is fiercely political in his defence of human values — he excoriates the ideologies that prompted the ‘river of blood and fire’ ,and pulls up every leader who failed to anticipate or prevent it — but is never partisan. He doesn’t favour one community over another, because the facts clearly show there is nothing to distinguish them in terms of their virulence and bloodlust.
It is not that Taunsvi was not harmed by Muslim violence in Lahore. Apart from having to leave behind his beloved city, his friends and cultural milieu, the poet also suffered a personal loss of unimaginable proportions. The climax of the book is the moment when Taunsvi’s childhood friend murders his daughter.
A similar moment is invoked in a pivotal scene in Nandita Das’s Manto, where the writer’s dear friend, Shyam, takes him to meet his uncle, whose eldest son has been massacred by a mob in Rawalpindi. On the train ride home, Shyam, angry and hurt, says, "Saale mussalmanon ki toh main…" ("Those bloody Muslims, I’ll…")
Manto can only offer a plaintive, "I am a Muslim too, Shyam. If there were a riot here, could it be possible that you would kill me?"
Shyam replies, "Yes, it is possible that I would kill you."
What Shyam has forgotten is what Manto says earlier in the scene: "Ya toh sab ki zindagi aham hai Shyam, ya toh kisi ki nahiin" ("Either everybody’s life matters, or nobody’s"). It is this fundamental principle that Taunsvi does not, for one single word or sentence, forget. There are many today who justify their horrifying generalisations of other communities on the basis of personal experience. Taunsvi shows them how even the deepest of personal wounds cannot shake someone’s commitment to truth — unless they allow it.
The person could have written his daughter’s death and turned it into a justification for hatred. But the writer is forced to include, just before his daughter’s murder, the killing of his friend Mumtaz’s little boy, Achha, by Sikhs in Batala. The juxtaposition reminds us how little murder has to do with religion.
The nightmare world where a childhood friend can be so blinded by hatred as to murder his own little niece, just because she happens to belong to the other community, did not come about in a day. It was built piece by piece by peddlers of hate and fear. We know this hate and fear did not exist in this form before it was stoked by both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists of the time, because Taunsvi’s own life shows the culture that existed before the hatred. It was a culture of not just coexistence, but also of cooperation, collaboration and camaraderie.
The most heartbreaking thing about the death of Taunsvi’s daughter is that the hatred worked through her killer even without him wanting it to. After he has committed the murder, Fikr Taunsvi's childhood friend, Ali Mohammed Butt, brings the body to him, saying:
"Forgive me, my friend. I did not break this branch. A harsh and rapid gust of wind came, and she broke with a snap to fall into my yard.’ His eyes are wet with tears...My daughter lies dead on the ground. And Ali Mohammed is handing his six-year-old son to me: ‘Fling him, Fikr bhai, dash him hard on the ground, such that my sins may be forgiven! My heart may come to rest and I stand punished. Dash him, dash him, my friend!’ I hugged the little rose-like Rashid to my heart. ‘Go away, go away, Ali Mohammed, you have gone mad. Why don’t you get yourself treated? Go, go, I will not give Rashid to you. Rashid, my son!"
Such stoking of hate is our reality today. No one knows when it will possess even well-meaning people and turn them into demons. I hear members of my own family, those who have never intentionally hurt anybody their entire lives, talk about the necessity of killing millions of Muslims. I hear other members of my family say, "People like you will become extinct," in effect calling for my own extinction, because I am writing against this hatred.
My friend, whose parents live in Mumbai, speaks of how they are afraid to go on a holiday outside the city for fear of being attacked, as they are Muslims. He says that neighbours who have known his parents for decades have stopped exchanging sweets or greetings on Diwali and Eid. Meanwhile, there are reports of five and six-year-old schoolchildren being called ‘Pakistani’ and ‘terrorist’ by their classmates.
What happened in 1947 devastated not just entire families, but multiple generations. My friend, even as he thinks of his parents stuck in this vortex of hatred, reminds me that, "When trauma is not transformed, it is transferred". This trauma, left unprocessed, has rained down on the heads of children and grandchildren, for 70 years, and has become a part of today’s hate. If the hate is allowed to spiral further, the 2020s may well be another such decade that will poison our land and our people for another 70 years.
I pray that the human in us, as represented by Fikr Taunsvi and Saadat Hasan Manto, among others, wakes up before we do things that cannot be undone.
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