Torn by Partition

This beautifully crafted novella is profoundly depressing and disturbing.

Torn by Partition

Regret Ikramullah
Translated by  Faruq Hassan and
Muhammad Umar Memon
Penguin, 2015, pp 210, Rs. 264


This gripping, unsentimental volume holds not only Ikramullah’s novella Regret but also Out of Sight, a second novella, the two connected by Partition. Regret tells the story of two boyhood friends Saeed and Ehsan who grew up in a small town during World War II.

Saeed’s father, a functionary in a British deputy commissioner’s office, was assertively middle class and looked down on Ehsan whose once prosperous family was thrust into poverty after his father was imprisoned and hanged after joining Congress in the liberation struggle.

Narrator Saeed summed up his friend, an awkward, ugly boy and man: “Perhaps his father, in getting himself hanged for insurgency against the English, had left a noose dangling around his son’s neck as well, so that every moment of his life Ehsan waited for the planks to slide under his feet, and his eyes kept perpetually blazoning that message.”

Nevertheless, the two boys became firm friends and enjoyed boyish adventures which, described eloquently by Ikramullah, convey a detailed picture of life during this period. Saeed lived in a very basic house in a lane inhabited by Muslims; Ehsan in a shack by the railroad tracks. They skipped school, walked the tracks collecting discarded cigarette packages, swam in canals, and were caught stealing mangoes from an orchard where they met two pretty gypsy girls gathering coal. Ehsan fell in love with one; the girl’s clan moved away.

Apolitical Saeed was harangued by Ehsan who claimed, “The British are on their way out... and the Germans are about to take over.” They decided not to go to English class as Ehsan argued they would have to learn German and were horror-struck by newspaper photos of the Bengal famine, which Ehsan blamed on the British for transporting rice stocks to the front. The Germans were defeated, much to Ehsan’s chagrin. Saeed was sent to another school and the close relationship grew distant until they met, occasionally, in Lahore to which both fled during the bloody partition process although Congress leaders urged Ehsan to stay.

While Regret is permeated with a sense of loss, Out of Sight is the cri de coeur of Ismail, who escaped Partition carnage and settled in a town called Sultanpur in Pakistan, where he was allocated a shop and a small house belonging to Sikhs who had been killed or fled to India. Ismail was a thoughtful man who teased out explanations for the mass murders during Partition. He realised, for instance, that the issue that divided Muslims from Sikhs was not religion but “the arbitrary manner in which the majority group acted” when egged on by self-seeking leaders.

Having gone to Pakistan when all Muslims were considered equal and brothers, Ismail found that his community, the Ahmadis, were soon declared non-Muslims and persecuted by majority Sunnis. Regarding “the minority group low and powerless, they never tired of belittling or humiliating it.” He pointed out that the caste system also continued to divide people in Muslim-Pakistan. He mused on the life he might have led in India if there had been no Partition. He could have been a lawyer rather than a shopkeeper, with a family and clan in a small Muslim community. He considered what he might have done to help his people — or not.

The climax of the novella comes when Sunnis, stirred up by a local landowner who sought to seize Ahmadi property, attacked an Ahmadi village and menaced the Ahmadis in Sultanpur but, daggers drawn, drew back and slinked away, ashamed of their violent behaviour. “Those who had come with the intent to murder were now finding it difficult to run away and avoided meeting the eyes of onlookers.” This beautifully crafted novella is profoundly depressing and disturbing.

Ikramullah (Chaudhry) was born in 1939 in a small village in the Jalandhar district of India and finished secondary school in Amritsar. After Partition, he and his family moved to Multan where he earned his BA. He then took a law degree in Lahore and practiced law in Multan until he entered the insurance business. He has been writing fiction since 1962 and has published several collections of short stories and novellas. A 1978 novella, Gurg-e Shah (Nocturnal Wolf) was banned. His latest novel was Saa’e ki Avaaz (The Shadow Speaks).

The translators, the late Faruq Hassan, who settled in Montreal in Canada, and taught at Dawson College and McGill University, and Muhammad Umar Memon, professor of Urdu and Islamic Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have done a masterly job with the novellas. The English is so easy to read, exact and smooth that readers would not normally believe the works were originally written in Urdu.

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