As I start writing these lines today, I have this gnawing pain in my gut – a feeling of futility about everything that I have read or written since 1929. Everything’s gone down the drain. My dreams of seeing this country stand tall and united have crumbled into dust. My eyes – yes, the same ones that had witnessed Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs sip from the same glass of water – are mute spectators to the carnage unfolding before us. They have seen brothers drink each other’s blood. How I wish the good lord had closed these eyes forever, spared them the trauma of having to see what they have seen!
One short year. That’s all it took to bring our nation to this calamity. Who could have imagined it?
And surely, it is nothing but sheer mulishness on my part that I am using this book to bring Muslims and non-Muslims on the same page at a time when people consider it foolhardy to even mention both in the same sentence. I won’t be surprised if some of my readers find this book swimming against the prevailing currents, but there is nothing that I can do about it. It feels like I am being compelled, that there is some strange and powerful force at work – a force that is driving me, driving my conscience and driving my pen to write this.
But what lies behind this compulsion of mine? Maybe it was this picture imprinted in my eyes, one that will continue to shine bright till the day that the shadow of death arrives to cast a pall around it. An image of my beautiful and vibrant Punjab, which I have not just seen with my eyes but also experienced with my soul.
Much of my childhood and youth were spent in a milieu where the Muslim and non-Muslim communities lived in complete harmony; where they didn’t just live as peaceful neighbours but were ready to sacrifice their lives for their neighbours’ sake; where every plate of food and glass of water was shared. Pieces of that picture lie shattered around me today, and this novel is an attempt to show my readers some of those pieces.
But this book isn’t just a novel; it is a reflection of the ache in my heart, the scream from the very pits of my stomach, the wail from the depths of my soul. In writing this book, my pen has relied on the tears flowing from my eyes as much as it has on the ink from my inkpot.
Everyone around me speaks of the numbers. How many Sikhs have been massacred; how many Hindus have been killed; how many Muslims have been slaughtered. But for this unfortunate writer, the biggest casualty was humanity itself.
How does it matter if the victim has the long hair of the Sikh, the shikha of the Hindu or the circumcision of the Muslim? The blood coursing through their veins is the same colour of red, the tears flowing from their eyes have the same salt.
Try as I might, I haven’t been able to discern any difference in the grief-stricken wails of a Hindu, a Sikh or a Muslim mother as she cradles the lifeless body of her son. Ah! Which evil eye has cursed our blessed land to shatter the unity of our people into so many fragments? Who brought the embers of discord in our midst to unleash flames that haven’t just devoured decades of peace and amity but also brought the fires of Hell to our very doorstep?
This novel was written in those desperate times when our country seemed to be playing a game of blood and fire, when the Muslim League had become a pawn on the English chessboard, when the League’s actions had forced the non-Muslim communities of the Frontier Province and the adjacent district of Rawalpindi to flee their ancestral lands, and when this pestilence of ethnic cleansing was also spreading into eastern Punjab.
In its initial part, the novel is set in a small village on the banks of the Soan river in the Pothohar area near Rawalpindi. The different communities of this village have always lived in harmony as members of one large family, ready to sacrifice their own lives to protect their neighbours. The story that I narrate isn’t merely the product of a writer’s imagination, nor is it based on hearsay alone. It reflects characters and events that I know personally or about which I learned from the direct experiences of some of my close friends.
As I make this humble attempt to recount the tragedy of Punjab to my readers, I readily concede that I cannot claim to be a historian. I am also aware that eminent historians will look closely at the events that unfolded to piece together an authoritative account of this period. But I am impelled to write this book because of a fear that the prevailing climate of sectarian hatred might sway the narrative in a particular direction.
A Hindu or a Sikh writer may not be able to do full justice in presenting both sides of the picture. Or a Muslim author may present a picture that exaggerates the violence perpetrated by Hindus and Sikhs, even as it glosses over the carnage wrought by the Muslims. About my own attempt in this novel, I can only say that I have done my best to stay impartial.
I have not hesitated from bringing out the misdeeds of any sect or community that has transgressed. A novel cannot claim to be a strictly historical narrative, nor is a novelist expected to weave all relevant historical incidents into his story. A novelist has the licence to maintain the flow of the story by abbreviating some incidents, even as he expands on others, all the while trying to stay true to the essential facts.
I would accordingly request that my readers neither place this book in the fiction category nor see it as a historical text. They could, perhaps, see it as a novel based on historical events, a story that flows naturally between the two banks of imagination and reality. Amritsar 20 February 1948.
Excerpted with permission from Hymns in Blood, Nanak Singh, translated from the Punjabi by Navdeep Suri, HarperCollins India.