Bending boundaries

Bending boundaries

Many books and stories have been published on the immediate post-Partition period and what it witnessed. This book also deals with the same period but it has more to do with the lives of two families, one Hindu and the other Muslim, which were thrown together, perhaps too close and too fast. The circumstances in which this happened impact their relationship which goes through a cycle of mutual accord, acrimony and sullen silence.

Dina Lal and his wife Janoo opt to stay on in Pakistan while their two sons migrate to India. They are friends with Amir Shah and his family of a daughter and son Javed whose  expatriate wife Irene lives abroad. Dina Lal also spurns his wife’s advice and seeks to enhance his local status by buying Five Queens Road, a mansion being vacated by Smithson, the head of the local railway who decides to go back to his country after the Partition. However, having moved into his new residence he decides for various reasons to ask his friend Amir Shah and his family to move in to share the mansion. Lal saw this move as an insurance against attacks by local extremists and also as a means of sharing the upkeep load of the mansion. As a further precaution, Lal becomes a muslim.
In order to accommodate two families in the same building, boundaries are prescribed arbitrarily and like all boundaries the ones in Five Queens Road also lead to accusations of violation. The relationship between the two families swings back and forth between armed truce and open acrimony. The scene of Shah standing outside Lal’s kitchen door and hurling abuses at him is truly funny as it was revenge for Lal’s habit of abusing Shah from the driveway.

Equally childish is Lal’s deep-rooted hatred for Smithson and his plaster model of his railway, something Smithson had entrusted to Lal’s personal care and custody. Lal first consigned it to a remote corner of the house, deliberately stored things over it and eventually had his servants dash it to the ground!
There are some touching scenes, for instance, of Lal’s sense of despair after his wife’s abduction by local goons. His sons had left him to go and live in India. And now his wife had also gone, as feared by her when she tried to dissuade him from buying Smithson’s house. She had anticipated the local animosity towards Hindus.
As he went from room to room, as if hoping to find his wife in one of them, Shah accompanied him and the state of war between them was forgotten. The long forgotten friendship seemed to have surfaced again.

The story does tend to meander a bit in the closing stages but manages to refresh itself as the lives of Lal and Shah come together in a futile sort of way — when Lal dies. It is left to Shah to take charge of Five Queens Road and deal with Lal’s belongings, including huge heaps of old newspapers. Shah finally leaves the mansion to occupy a more modest and manageable residence. Five Queens Road is eventually declared unsafe and demolished by the local authorities. The story ends there.
The book is well written and readable if one is willing to persist through the few heavy pages.

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