Legacy of Partition

Legacy of Partition

This powerful novella (inclusive of foreword and afterword content) needs to be read by all Indians who are desirous of understanding the fragile temper of our flammable times. The author Vibhuti Narain Rai has served 36 years in the Indian Police Service, many at top levels, in communally sensitive areas of Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. It is the voice of an authentic insider — a responsible police official, activist, educationist, writer, concerned citizen.

Curfew in the City is a translation of the author’s original Hindi work that appeared first in 1988, as Shehar Mein Curfew. The original book was received with warmth and appreciation from a few open-minded readers, disbelief from a section of Hindu readership, and expected trenchant criticism from a political right-wing organisation. Thankfully, the book has survived the current trend for bans.

The novella is an episodic narrative that covers 3 days inside the affected mohallas of an unnamed North Indian town (quite possibly Allahabad). The riot starts as a small affair — just a small explosive device thrown at a temple wall, by unknowns who disappear. The wall is undamaged, but the real damage has been done: the flame of suspicion has been lit. Simultaneous small explosions happen elsewhere in the city; a motorcyclist is stopped, retaliatory bloodshed happens. Soon curfew is clamped, mainly in the impoverished area known locally as Pakistan. Shutters are pulled down; the roads become eerie and quiet in record time — and a few unprepared souls get caught in the midst. A schoolgirl gets into the wrong lane; modesty is outraged. A young mother stumbles home with her sick baby; neither doctor nor medicine made available at crucial moments.

 Ordinary lives get trampled as religious bigotry is allowed to fester and take over urban lives that are simply getting on with the business of living. The 9 chapters are set mainly in 2 parallel lanes, one Hindu, the other Muslim. Curfew is clamped on both — but the Hindu lane denizens have it a bit easier. Women and children peep curiously out of windows; the men pull their charpoys over dirty gutters outside homes, and take in the air available. The Hindu police personnel trample into the homes, are fed on demand — and then step out onto the Muslim lane for a bout of disciplining with their batons.

Here, life is more desperate. Doors and windows are firmly and fearfully shut. A beedi-making family’s claustrophobic home — this is where the action gets played out. The older folk rush out to get water from the public tap; are terrorised into stumbling home with a bit of spilt water. The mother Sayeeda watches her baby die, wails despairingly, and the family now has to prepare for a funeral under curfew. To top it all, the police barge in and prod the shrouded form, looking for arms... life cannot get any more unfair.
Translator C M Naim and author Rai assert that communal conflict and suffering have festered since Independence, when the subcontinent was cleaved on the basis of religion. Till Partition happened, Hindus and Muslims had ‘forged an amazing saga of human relationship’. It was Partition that gave rise to communal violence on both sides of the divide, with poor minorities paying the biggest price. Add to it all, a communalised police force, a cynical administration that prefers to fan insecurities, an educated class that watches indolently while the poor struggle on... things have not changed in nearly 70 years.

Decades after its publication, this book is still relevant; pregnant with information and insight.

The dark tone is occasionally lightened by some wry observations about everyday life. The local drunk manages to entertain; the village girl Sayeeda tries her own tricks in coming to terms with a smelly latrine situation... people learn to survive urban slums, smiling when they can. In a cool, detached, ironic yet empathetic voice, the author-researcher-humanist pleads for understanding, and healing. Read him.

Curfew in the City
Vibhuti Narain Rai
Penguin
2016, pp 105
Rs. 199

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