The Birth of a Nation

I was born in the city of Bombay…once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th, 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more…On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact. Clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came. Oh, spell it out, spell it out: at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. There were gasps. And, outside the window, fireworks and crowds. A few seconds later, my father broke his big toe; but his accident was a mere trifle when set beside what had befallen me in that benighted moment, because thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country. For the next three decades, there was to be no escape. Soothsayers had prophesied me, newspapers celebrated my arrival, politicos ratified my authenticity. I was left entirely without a say in the matter. I, Saleem Sinai, later variously called Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon, had become heavily embroiled in Fate-at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement. And I couldn’t even wipe my own nose at the time.

Now, however, time (having no further use for me) is running out. I will soon be thirty-one years old. Perhaps. If my crumbling, over-used body permits. But I have no hope of saving my life, nor can I count on having even a thousand nights and a night. I must work fast, faster than Scheherazade, if I am to end up meaning-yes, meaning-something. I admit it: above all things, I fear absurdity.

And there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumours, so dense a commingling of the improbable and the mundane! I have been a swallower of lives; and to know me, just the one of me, you’ll have to swallow the lot as well. Consumed multitudes are jostling and shoving inside me; and guided only by the memory of a large white bedsheet with a roughly circular hole some seven inches in diameter cut into the centre, clutching at the dream of that holey, mutilated square of linen, which is my talisman, my open-sesame, I must commence the business of remaking my life from the point at which it really began, some thirty-two years before anything as obvious, as present, as my clock-ridden, crime-stained birth. (The sheet, incidentally, is stained too, with three drops of old, faded redness. As the Quran tells us: Recite, in the name of the Lord thy Creator, who created Man from clots of blood.)

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie.

The Partition and Migration

Sometimes Aslam speaks in such a detached tone – like a man standing on another shore, who doesn’t care what happens to those left behind...If he really does get sicker in Gujarat, or dies for that matter, I won’t have a single friend left. Keshav is growing more distant by the day, ever since he failed the exam and Raja turned his head. Hardayal and Jita are fast becoming fanatical Sikhs. They say they can’t trust Muslims anymore. They don’t consider Aslam a true Muslim, but they say if Pakistan is carved out of India, all Muslims will automatically become their mortal enemies, and that includes Aslam. That’s why they are going to Amritsar. If Pakistan comes into being, they’ll settle there permanently. They tell me to give up Lahore and enrol in Khalsa College with them. According to them, Lahore belongs to Muslims, Amritsar to Sikhs. Aslam says what will be will be, but he’s sure they’ve both gone crazy. The silly old chatter has now turned deadly serious. They used to crack jokes about Sikhs, but now you can’t say a word about Sikhs without getting them furious. We can’t mention Giani’s lice or even exchange a smile when we greet them with the Sikh greeting, “Sat sri akal!” If they go on like this, I won’t be able to stay friends with them...When I come home during summer vacation, there’ll be no one to talk to. I’ll drift around all by my lonesome self, like a stray dog sniffing around for past associations, staring at Lord Legless bending over his watch...until he runs off to Amritsar, too, or gets killed by a fanatic. Just the thought of communal bloodshed makes my hair stand on end. Hardayal taunts me how Hindus are “cowards” and “weaklings”. Jita joins him, saying that only the Sikhs can protect Hindus against Muslims. Now I am too scared to laugh at their remarks...

Nobody knows whether Lord Legless is a Hindu or a Muslim. There was a time when for some reason or the other Mother was inordinately interested in the question. She changed her mind according to her mood. If angry, she thought he was a damned outcaste, worse than a poor Musla. But in one of her rare, cheerful and charitable moments, she thought he was not only a Hindu but a Brahmin as well. Now she doesn’t talk about it any more. Or maybe I’ve just stopped listening to her. According to one of Aslam’s theories, Lord Legless is neither Hindu nor Muslim but an exiled Christian, which is why he’s always so quiet and sad. Keshav was upset by this and pestered me with a lot of questions, “Are exiled Christians really always so quiet and sad? Who are they anyway? Where’d they come from? Is that fat lady-doctor an exiled Christian, too? But she’s always laughing and giggling.” And when, to calm him down, I said Aslam was only being funny, he looked at me sceptically—cut that stuff out, I understand everything.


If some asks Lord Legless directly about his name, he flies into a rage, “All right, you really want to know is whether I am Hindu or Muslim—right? So you won’t have any doubt if there’s to be any bloodshed. Why don’t you ask me straight out? Do you want to lift up my tehmed and so you can see whether I am circumcised or not? Well, no way. I’m not going to oblige you. I’m neither Hindu – nor Muslim – I’m just a human being. Go ahead and kill me if you like. Ever since this racket about Pakistan started, you’ve all turned into monsters... Don’t even think about asking my real name again!”

The Broken Mirror, Krishna Baldev Vaid. Translated from Hindi by Charles Sparrows and the author.

A Division of the Spoils

It was not an easy time; it never is if you are serving one master and your heart is elsewhere. Things were wrong on the home front too. Friends warned me that if I continued to be “stubborn”, I could lose my job. My standard answer was that I could earn more practising law. I was giving my views as politely as I could, but I noticed that each time I spoke, other members of the State Council, including Harvey Jones, started looking down in embarrassment.

Things were coming to a head and on 14 August, they did. I got a call in the evening that the dewan wanted me urgently. I drove to his residence. He was forthright, for once.

“Bharucha, I know your views and am certain that this will be distasteful to you. But you are the right man to do it, and in times like these, we can’t be too concerned about individual feelings. That way we could never get things done.” I kept quiet, waiting for the gambit.

“His Highness has decided that Junagadh accedes to Pakistan. I want a draft of the accession declaration. It will be a historic document and you are the best person to draft it. I can’t trust the others. Firstly, they could leak it. Secondly, it would be so badly written that a dog would hesitate to wipe its arse with the paper it was written on.”

“I have a question, Sir Shah Nawaz. How was the decision reached? It was never placed before the State Council, as you would know. Was it the personal decision of His Highness? Lastly, was it you or was it those scullions (I had suddenly gone fond of the word) Isu Muhammad, Abu Bhai and their ilk, who plumped for Pakistan?”

“I am under no compulsion to answer these questions, but I will. Sovereignty rests in the person of His Highness and not with the State Council. It was the personal decision of His Highness.”

I foolishly argued. We were encircled by Indian territory. Geographical contiguity was something I had been hammering on at every meeting. All goods came from the surrounding states. Trade, communications, transport, everything was connected with India. Pakistan looked like a mirage. And the population was overwhelmingly Hindu.

“This is not your area of concern, Sam. That’s our lookout. We’ll become a maritime power. You just stick to your charter and at the moment it boils down to drafting the accession letter.”

At such times, it is best to be short and blunt. “I am sorry, there’s no way I can do this. After all, I have to live with myself. Politically and economically, we are headed towards disaster. So is His Highness.” Before parting, I relented slightly. The instrument should be so worded that it appears the state has acceded, or the people have, and not just the Nawab. Bhutto nodded.

Ancestral Affairs, Keki N Daruwalla.

Being Refugees

After Mayadebi got married and went to live in Calcutta only those four elderly people – her uncle, aunt and her parents – were left in the house. They had very little to quarrel about now, but the passage of time had in no way diminished that ancient bitterness.

My grandmother did what she could to make them forget the past, but they had grown so thoroughly into the habits engendered by decades of hostility that none of them wanted to venture out into the limbo of reconciliation. They liked the wall now; it had become a part of them.

When my father was about six, both my grandmother’s parents died, within a few months of each other. My grandmother returned to Dhaka only twice after that, and then only to make sure that the rooms she and Mayadebi had inherited were still intact. On both occasions she decided to go across and talk to her uncle and aunt, but the house was full of painful memories now and both times she fled back to Mandalay after spending barely a day in Dhaka.

And then, in 1935, my grandfather caught a chill while supervising the construction of a culvert somewhere in the Arakan Hills. He died of pneumonia before they could bring him back to Mandalay.

My grandmother was thirty-two when he died. She had no savings and she had never worked in her life but that merely made her all the more determined to see her son through school and college. Luckily she still possessed a scroll to prove that she had been awarded a bachelor’s degree in history by Dhaka University. On the strength of that, a sympathetic railway official managed to arrange a job for her in a school in Calcutta – the school she was to work in for the next twenty-seven years.

She had no time to go back to Dhaka in the next few years. And then, in 1947, came Partition, and Dhaka became the capital of East Pakistan.

There was no question of going back after that. She had never had any news of Jethamoshai and her aunt again.

In the years that followed, living in Calcutta in a one-room tenement in Bhowanipore, she would often think back on Dhaka - the old house, her parents, Jethamoshai, her childhood – all the things people think about when they know that the best parts of their lives are already over.

But do you know? she said, looking out across the lake, half smiling. In all that time there that was only thing I ever really regretted about Dhaka.

What? I asked.

She smiled: That I never got to see the upside-down house.

The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh.

To Go or to Stay

The following July, Kishwari and Khem left together for Lucknow. At Charbagh Railway Station Dr Aftab Rai was waiting to receive his niece. Kishwari had been escorted by cousin Majid all the way from home. The two girls cried a little as they said goodbye and promised to see each other whenever possible. At the portico of the railway station, they got into two different tongas and went their separate ways.


“I met Khemvati Raizada after all these years on the stairs of Bennet Hall. She was going upstairs for Chowdhuri Sultan’s lecture. I was coming back from the Persian theatre. Both of us had recently joined the university. Back home too, it was odd that we never met. During vacations I used to go away to my brother’s place wherever he was stationed.”

Kishwari continued her narration. Then she fell silent and began to look out of the window where snow was falling soundlessly. After a pause she said, “We had lived for six hundred years in the same neighbourhood. And shared more or less the same culture. After all this time when we met, she mumbled a polite, ‘Hello, Kishwari!’ and walked away. I said to myself, That’s all right. She and I had been heading for this impasse. We have both become highly politicised in diametrically opposite directions. Although my father was a great believer in the One Nation Theory, I am in the Muslim League. The tensions have been building up. Back home on Pakistan Day, Khem and her friends had thrown brickbats at our gathering. During the Akhand Hindusthan week we had picketed their meeting. This is the reality. Earlier, perhaps, we had been woolly headed about ourselves. We had been good neighbours and good friends, but still, basically, we were malichh – impure for them and could not enter their kitchen. My mother being an orthodox Shia, always “purified” every thing which was bought at a Hindu shop by dipping it thrice in water. The demand for partition is the logical conclusion. It would solve the problem once and for all.

“What about all those who would stay back in India? All of us cannot and will not migrate to the new country. What would happen to them? My poor father used to ask me. I never bothered to think that.” Kishwari became quiet.

Flames were leaping up in the fireplace. Somebody picked up a burning coal with a pair of tongs and dropped it in the grate where it glowed for some time and died. Outside, a beggar trundled past, playing Over the Waves on his accordion.

The Sound of Falling Leaves, Qurratulain Hyder. Translated from Urdu by the author.

The Mythmaking

History, Ganapathi – indeed the world, the universe, all human life, and so, too, every institution under which we live – is in a constant state of evolution. The world and everything in it is being created and re-created even as I speak, each hour, each day, each week, going through the unending process of birth and rebirth which has made us all. India has been born and reborn scores of times, and it will be reborn again. India is for ever; and India is forever being made.

The India of which Dhritarashtra assumed the leadership on 15 August 1947 had just been through a cathartic process of regeneration, another stage in this endless cycle. But you must not think, Ganapathi, that the trauma of Partition represented a disruption of this constant process, a side-step away from a flowing dance of creation and evolution. On the contrary, it was a part of it, for the world is not made by a tranquillising wave of smoothly predictable occurrences but by sudden events, unexpected happenings, dramas, crises, accidents, emergencies. This is as true of you or me as of Hastinapur, of India, of the world, of the cosmos. We are all in a state of continual disturbance, all stumbling and tripping and running and floating along from crisis to crisis. And in the process, we are all making something of ourselves, building a life, a character, a tradition that emerges from and sustain us in each succeeding crisis. This is our dharma.

The Great Indian Novel, Shashi Tharoor.

The Barter

And then a new law had come like a death blow. All those Muslims who had left for Pakistan were declared “evacuees” and their property declared “evacuee property” to be taken over by a Custodian.

As Saleem had gone to Pakistan his share in all the property was taken away. With scrupulous honesty Kemal declared his share, to the last pot and pan and stool and chair. He was grateful he had not been harassed as so many others had been by petty officials who had ordered humiliating searches of houses and lengthy cross-examinations.

Part of Ashiana was taken over by the Custodian, and later the Hasanpur house was threatened with similar dismemberment. Kemal asked his mother to let him sell Ashiana and buy up Saleem’s share in Hasanpur with the money so as to save the ancestral house.

At first she refused to listen to him. She made herself ill with anger against the way of the world, the Government, her son and his wife. “What right have they to steal what is ours? Will they never be content with how much they rob? Is there no justice? Is this a war with Custodians for enemy property? Did they not consent to the partition themselves? Why treat those people like enemies who went over? Were they not given a free choice? Were they warned they would lose their property, and have their families harassed? If they want to drive out Muslims why not say it like honest men? Sheltering behind the false slogans of a secular state? Hypocrites! Cowards! It is good Saleem has gone away. They will destroy you and all fools like you who have trusted them. The Banias!”

Kemal tried patiently to explain as if to a child the inevitability of such unpleasant laws and regulations because Government policies could not but reflect the violent aftermath of the Partition. He pointed out how much more property had been left behind by Hindus in Pakistan. But she turned on him with the bitterness of impotent rage and said he did not care for his traditions or for her; he had sold himself to a Muslim-hating Government and married a “Kafir”, a non-Muslim. He retaliated as bitterly by asking her why she did not go to live with Saleem in the Muslim neo-Paradise across the border.

Then she had cried with the pathetic tears of an old, lonely woman.

Sunlight on a Broken Column, Attia Hosain.

The Other

This singing group appeared to be from Congress, because the man leading the procession carried the tricolour flag. When the group drew near, Nathu stood to one side against the wall of the gali. The group passed by singing their song. He saw that there were nine or ten of them—two wore white Gandhi caps, some wore fezzes, and there were even a couple of Sikhs. There were old men and young ones too. One man cried out a slogan as he walked by Nathu:

“Say the national slogan!”

“Bande Mataram!”

“Say – ‘Long live Mother India!’”

“Long live Mahatma Gandhi!”

Just then, after only just a moment’s silence, a different slogan arose in the air at a slight distance, where another gali intersected this one:

“Pakistan zindabad!”

“Pakistan zindabad!”

“Long live Qaid-e-Azam!”

“Long live Qaid-e-Azam!”

Nathu turned to stare. Three men had suddenly appeared at the bend in the gali shouting slogans. It seemed to Nathu that they were standing in the middle of the lane, blocking the path of the singing group. One of the three men wore a fez and gold-framed glasses. He stood in the middle of the gali and challenged the singing group.

“Congress is a Hindu party. It has nothing to do with Muslims!”

An older man in the singing group responded, “Congress belongs to everyone. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. You know this perfectly well, Mahmud Sahib, you used to be one of us.”

The older man stepped forward and embraced the man with the fez. A few in the group began to laugh. The man with the fez removed himself from his embrace and said, “That’s the cunning of the Hindus for you, Bakhshi ji, we all know, no matter what you say, that Congress is a Hindu party. Congress is a Hindu party, and the Muslim League is for Muslims. Congress cannot guide the Muslims.”

The two groups were facing one another. Some people were chatting as well; some started yelling at each other.

“Look at us,” said the older man. “There are Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims here. There’s Aziz standing right there, there’s Hakim ji – “

“Aziz and Hakim are the dogs of the Hindus. We don’t hate the Hindus; we hate the Hindus’ dogs,” he spoke so angrily both the Muslim Congress members shrank back.

“Is Maulana Azad Hindu or Muslim?” asked the older man. “After all, he’s the Congress president.”

“Maulana Azad is the worst Hindu dog of them all. He wanders around behind Gandhi wagging his tail, the way these dogs wander around after you, wagging their tails.” At this, the old man replied very calmly, “Freedom is for everyone. It’s for all of Hindustan.”

“The freedom of Hindustan will be for the Hindus; Muslims will only be free in a free Pakistan.”

Tamas, Bhisham Sahni. Translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell.