Of late, I fear the blush of dawn,
The day it yields is a rash –
Of wild stories,
For the fingers to gouge and scratch.
Dusk is bloody therefore.
Night gives no respite”

— From 'Lahore', by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar.

The visceral unease of these lines, a poem by one of Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s characters, is a rather accurate summation of the sense of discomfort that Lahore forces the reader to confront. India’s partition, that moment of political, cultural and social rupture that irrevocably fractured a land and its people, is the subject of Someshwar’s Partition trilogy.

Lahore, the first book in the series, takes a close look at the partition of Punjab. It moves between ordinary lives in Laur (Lahore) and the political manoeuvrings of those at the forefront of the independence movement. With surprising ease, the narrative shifts between the lanes of a city caught in the grip of communal tension and rioting and the world of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Lord Mountbatten, and other heavyweights forging new corridors of power in Delhi.

The narrative opens in early 1947, with the British Empire in decline post WWII and willing, or browbeaten enough, finally, to relinquish its hold on India. With an interim government in place, a promised transfer of power was scheduled for mid-1948. Jinnah’s call for Pakistan drawn on religious lines fell right into the British narrative of an India predisposed to in-fighting and therefore incapable of governing itself efficiently.

The proposed solution was a tripartite division – Pakistan, Hindustan, and Princestan – the Princely States allowed autonomy: a formula that could only mean chaos and implosion. Lahore is as much about the process and concomitant heartbreak of nation-building as it is about subaltern stories and narratives of loss.

Communal violence: seeds and consequence

Someshwar draws on the Mahabharata, that meta-narrative of a war between brothers for territory and power, as a recurring motif through the novel. Freeing the epic from religious moorings, she seems to read the conflict between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in Punjab as yet another manifestation of the cultural imperative of conflict between brothers embedded in the Indian psyche.

She also insists that the “Mahabharata was as much about war as it was about dharma, that amalgam of duties and responsibilities.” Within this structure, the violence and looting and mindless murder become the war while Nehru’s initial resistance to the idea of dividing the country and subsequent acquiescence in the face of unrelenting communal violence and the threat of civil war is an act of dharma, a duty performed for that abstract, lofty ideal, “the greater good.”

That the Partition resulted in horrific violence is common knowledge. The seeds of this violence, the already simmering discontent, the irrational fear of the “other”, the fanning of communal flames by the Muslim League and the RSS forms the primary concern of the book.

Two friends, Mehmood and Beli Ram, one Muslim, the other Hindu, both coolies at the Lahore railway station, are witness to and survivors of a protest march that turns violent and results in the brutal murder of one of the protestors. This incident, set in February 1947, plunges the reader into a world where older rules of co-existence have changed and identity is defined only by the religion one has been born into. Brought up by Mehmood’s family, fasting through the month of Ramzan to keep his friend company, Beli Ram is made aware of having become an outsider to his own city as the League and other communal militia begin to drive Hindus and Sikhs out of Lahore.

The refusal of the women of a predominantly Hindu mohalla to buy fruit from a Muslim vendor is a less violent but similar act of exclusion. This is a Lahore in which all syncretic tradition is being erased and religion needs to be worn visibly on the body. As Beli and Mehmood’s Christian friend Shammi Joseph says, sporting an oversized cross, “It’s best to distinguish ourselves as Christians, so that in the fight between you people, we don’t get killed.”

The fight might be between the leaders but the victims here, as always, are those at the lowest rung of the power hierarchy. Riots engender more riots; violence, predictably enough, begets violence. Partition remains the great tragedy of Independence. Exactly as in the Mahabharata, “to inherit a land and people devastated by war was no victory.”

Women: Lives lived in silence and compliance

Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence makes an evocative study of the violence performed on the bodies of women in the course of the Partition. Subject to abduction, sexual savagery, forced conversions, separation from their families, women did not just experience the Partition but suffered it. Someshwar’s novel gives voice to the same when an old woman in a kafila moving towards India, lashes out at a group of young men laughing at superstitions about churails in trees: “What do you expect? All those women who have died giving birth to Pakistan! They squeezed it out of their bodies, didn’t they? Now their spirits are strung on the trees of Panjab…”

Butalia writes of the silence that women often took refuge in, refusing to re-visit the trauma they were supposed to have left behind. Someshwar’s women seem to suffer from a silencing too. They remain mostly in the background, never quite fighting their own battles, never quite emerging as heroines or even protagonists. Steadfastly, the women of Lahore remain sacrificing mothers, dutiful daughters, diligent housekeepers, and compliant lovers.

Pammi, a young Sikh girl, invested in her education, not given to romantic day dreams, has her future snatched away. Her best friend, Tara, Hindu and defiantly carrying on a love affair with a Muslim sepoy, just returned from the Great War, asks repeatedly why women should have to suffer in a war created and fought by men. For all her bravery, Tara is reduced to a statistic – just another casualty of the war being fought between men who once thought of themselves as brothers.

The women at the other end of the spectrum of privilege fare no better. The novel shows us Manibehn, Vallabhbhai’s daughter, the “quiet revolutionary” managing her father’s household, his official engagements, and monitoring his failing health. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Indu, not yet the formidable Indira Gandhi, is similarly seen keeping house, cooking, child-rearing, worrying. One wonders if roles other than the feminine being inaccessible to the women of 1947 is a conscious narrative choice and what the implications of this are for women who continue to live in silence.

Borders: Fragmented homelands

The role that religious fundamentalism has played in the horrors of the Partition is undeniable. The pursuit of Pakistan and as a corollary, the rise of extremist Hindutva in India, necessitated the drawing of borders to distinguish dominantly Muslim provinces from the rest of the country. The absurdity of dividing a people is explored again and again in Lahore.

Railway clerk and self-confessed communist poet, Kishan Singh, wondering how his mohalla would be divided, hears a koel and responds, “Wait, koel! Identify yourself. Muslim/non-Muslim?” Beli Ram, smarting from having been othered in his hometown, says that since he is not wanted in Pakistan, he will draw a circle around his house and deem it Belistan.

Common people gathered around a radio, listening to the historic announcement of India winning its freedom on August 15, are left dumbfounded about which country they will belong to once political borders are ratified. The drawing of the Radcliffe Line by Cyril Radcliffe, complete stranger to the land and people of India, is perhaps the best exposition of this absurdity. Someshwar introduces the reader to Radcliffe, aware of the impossible task assigned him: “They wanted a line (…) He would draw them a line.”

From Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh” to Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, the meaning(lessness) of borders has run through Partition Literature like a leitmotif. What do borders mean when one is forced to leave not just home but also history behind? Loss remains at the heart of the stories of all the characters the reader encounters in this book. Nehru’s bird’s eye view of two kafilas, two parallel columns of people, moving in opposite directions, attempting to carry their homes and families across borders describes it best:

“Marching with slow deliberation, east, west, the convoys were together yet apart, the distance of several feet between them serving for no man’s land. Here then was the boundary line of India and Pakistan. Not the one drawn by Cyril Radcliffe on a piece of paper. This living, leaving, heaving humanity in migrations across the plains of Panjab, where they had cohabited for centuries in heterogeneous communities, fleeing to the safe homeland of their co-religionists- this was the true Boundary Line.”

Histories of and fiction embedded in the Partition continue to be written as a fractured nation continues to grapple with its complex past. The value of Lahore lies in how it does not let the subaltern disappear into the shadow of giants like Jawaharlal Nehru and his socialist dream, Vallabhbhai and his tremendous contribution to the task of the consolidation of the nation, the statesmanship of Lord Mountbatten and the effortless charm of Lady Mountbatten.

Their lives may not intersect with the less ordinary but Sepoy Malik’s letters home or Tara’s desire to wear all the fineries of her trousseau or Kishan Singh’s trauma at the loss of his daughter, occupy as important a space. The book does not attempt to hold out hope or paint the picture of a rosy future. No narrative of the Partition should. Here’s hoping that the other two parts of this trilogy, Hyderabad and Kashmir, will continue to tell history and stories that histories have neglected to tell.

Lahore: Book 1 of The Partition Trilogy, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, HerperCollins India.