“No monster can be more barbarous than the mob, which assumes the name and the mask of the people.”

— Cicero, "Dream of Scipio"

The word ‘traitor’ acquires a new meaning and a sharper edge in the deeply polarised times we live in when certain words are being hijacked by certain persons or groups professing a certain ideology. Some words, such as “traitor”, or “nationalist” or, for that matter, even “secular” have become the worst victims of the worst excesses of our times. While some words, such as “secular” or “nationalist” were laudatory in their original usage, or at the very least benign since they had no sharp edges, are now used mockingly, hurled by one group at the other like poison-dipped darts.

The scope and meaning of certain other words is being enlarged to accommodate more layers of meanings. Traitor is one such word. Who or what is a traitor? The dictionary tells us the traitor is “a person who betrays someone or something, such as a friend, cause, or principle; a person who betrays a country or group of people by helping or supporting an enemy.” The synonyms listed out for it are betrayer, backstabber, double-crosser, double-dealer, renegade, Judas, quisling, fifth columnist, viper, turncoat, defector, apostate, deserter, colluder, informer, double agent; and for more informal use, snake in the grass, two-timer, rat, scab, etc. More often than not, the traitor is within – a group, a country, a people.

The former Minister for Human Resource Development in the ruling NDA-led BJP government, Smriti Zubin Irani, in a blistering rebuttal of the opposition’s charge that her government was bent upon muzzling dissent and clamping down on free voices in centrally-funded universities, quoted Cicero in the course of a long and impassioned speech in the Indian Parliament on 24 February 2016:

“A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.

This however is a paraphrasing of what Cicero actually said: “The only plots against us are within our own walls…the danger is within…the enemy is within...” In truth, the quote used by Smriti Irani is, in turn, a paraphrasing from an essay by Justice Millard Caldwell of Florida:

““A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and he carries his banners openly against the city. But the traitor moves among those within the gates freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself. For the traitor appears no traitor; he speaks in the accents familiar to his victims, and he wears their face and their garments, and he appeals to the baseness that lies deep in the hearts of all men. He rots the soul of a nation; he works secretly and unknown in the night to undermine the pillars of a city; he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist. A murderer is less to be feared. The traitor is the carrier of the plague.” 

It is against these popular defnitions of a traitor, dredged up for public consumption and lent not merely currency and urgency but also linked to a jingoistic nationalism and an adrenaline-driven idea of a nation, that Krishan Chander’s Urdu novel Ghaddaar, meaning “traitor”, needs to be read to understand its full import.

The times we live in make Ghaddaar an important novel and a timely one. Written sometime in 1959 and published in 1960 by Naya Idara from Delhi, it seems especially brimful with meaning and relevance as we mark the 70th anniversary of the annus horribilis that was the year 1947. That a novel “located” during the awful month of August 1947 can be so real and immediate seven decades later, is both tragic and significant.

Tragic because it tells us that we as a people have not changed or evolved as much as we should have in the course of seventy years of independence, that the communal ill-will that marred our centuries-old tradition of pluralism has not entirely left our psyches as it ideally ought to have with our coming of age as a nation and as a people, that the lava of communal hatred still erupts now and again like pus from a festering wound, and that any deviation from a majoritarian discourse is still seen as a sign of betrayal, and the hyper nationalism of the mob continues to sway popular opinion.

In a purely literary sense, Ghaddaar is significant because it tells us, yet again, that a truly good work of literature is one that rises above its time and circumstance and speaks to us across time and circumstance and makes common cause with its readers when it speaks of universal concerns, such as cruelty or humanism, barbarism or meanness of spirit or the human heart’s infinite capacity to love.

Coming to Ghaddaar, while not the longest or the most well-known of Krishan Chander’s novels, it is certainly the most compact yet moving piece of writing in his oeuvre.

Located in the span of a few days, possibly no more than a few weeks in the hot humid months of August–September of the year 1947, it is an account of an effete young man’s coming of age.

A well-to-do Hindu businessman from Lahore, vacationing in his maternal grandparents’ home in the tiny village of Lala and carrying on a romance with a young Muslim woman studying in Lahore who is, like him, vacationing in her parental home in the village, despite being a much-married man himself and a father of two small children, Baijnath finds himself in the eye of the storm that has uprooted families and destroyed lives across the breadth of South Asia. The storm is called “Partition”.

Born to service-class parents with roots in feudal Punjab, Baijnath has known the best of both worlds: the scenic beauty and the serene secularism of the rural hinterland as well as the cosmopolitanism and liberalism of Lahore where he and his drinking buddies – Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians too – make merry and live a life of ease and comfort far away from the rough and tumble of national politics. Hunted out from his maternal grandparents’ ancestral village by drum-beating, sword-wielding Muslims from the neighbouring village intent upon driving out all Hindus from their centuries-old homes, Baijnath tries to find his way to the sanctuary of the big city, but there are no safe havens left for a Hindu in what has overnight become a Muslim city. Forced to leave forever the urbane Lahore of his carefree days, he tries to find refuge once again in his forefather’s landholdings in the heart of the Punjab but here too the once benign land has turned hostile.

Justly renowned for his lyrical descriptions of natural beauty, Krishan Chander does not fail to delight his readers despite the grimness of the tale he must tell in Ghaddaar. As Baijnath is trudging along unknown country roads, he spots a wedge of swans, “their cheeks white as snow, their slender long necks arched,” and is forced to compare their happy fate with his sorry one...

Baijnath is forced to face the uncomfortable truth while the swans can fly wherever they wish and settle down on any lake of their choosing, he as a mere human cannot.

And that his land is no longer his; he must leave it forever in search of a new homeland or else be prepared to be chopped down like a radish or a carrot. The realisation comes after witnessing at first hand the murder and mayhem that has been let loose in the name of politics and the barbarism of those intent upon claiming the land as theirs at the exclusion of the “other”:

“I felt as though all of Punjab was an old man – an old farmer with white hair whose beard had been set on fire by the communalists. He was burning in the fire of hatred and with him the honour and reputation of Punjab was also on fire. And that poor helpless old farmer was shedding copious tears from his eyes partly hidden in the folds of his wrinkled skin.”

And so Baijnath walks along country paths, ducking for cover when danger approaches in the safe haven of sugarcane fields, witnessing many a scene of blood and gore as he walks in search of the bridge over the river Ravi which will take him across the border to his new country. At one point, faced with certain death when he is surrounded by armed attackers, Baijnath blurts out: “What a strange fate I have! All my life I worked as a Communist and did propaganda for Pakistan. My entire life I worked for the freedom of the Muslims. And now that Pakistan has been formed, I find this staff resting on my chest.”

And the narratorial voice carries on:

“God alone knows how these words escaped from my lips. I don’t know which power made me utter these words! For, I was never a Communist nor had I ever taken part in any political movement. I was a well-to-do person happy living the good life. I had friends among Hindus, Sikhs and Christians and all of them were, like me, blithe and blasé. During the day we tended to our businesses in Lahore and in the evenings four or five of us would meet and make merry. What did we have to do with politics? Our interest in politics was limited to intellectual arguments, newspaper debates and bookish knowledge. Politics was for the hungry.” 

Elsewhere, maddened by grief upon being told that his young son was killed by Muslims during an attack on their caravan as they crossed the border into India and that his unmarried sister was abducted, Baijnath gives in momentarily to the beast that lurks within all human beings...

Intent though he is upon finding revenge, Baijnath finds himself unable to do so in the most barbaric fashion possible – as other young men from his refugee camp are doing.

They have managed to find a young Muslim woman and Hindu men from far and wide are queuing up to take their turn in raping her. The hapless young woman is screaming for mercy as only a young woman from the Punjab can: “O brother, I am your sister.” In the original, this is said in Punjabi, thus reinforcing the essential oneness among the Hindus and Muslims of Punjab.

Pushing his fingers in his ears, Baijnath finds himself unable to extract this most odious form of revenge.

But fate has more trials in store for Baijnath. Ballo, a famous wrestler from Lahore and a self-appointed strongman among the Hindus refugees, decides that they must wreak havoc upon a group of Muslims waiting to cross the bridge across the Ravi. What better way than this to extract vengeance for the losses the Hindus have suffered as they have travelled across the border? When Baijnath, who wants no part in this organised slaughter, asks why this should concern him, Ballo, speaking for the monster that takes the guise of a mob, taunts him:

“‘Yes, yes, indeed, why should it concern you?’ Ballo’s tone hardened. ‘Pakistan has been created precisely by such cowardly Hindus. Even when their own father dies, they still say: how does it concern me?’” 

And so, taunted and bullied and prodded into being part of a murderous mob that attacks a group of Muslim muhajirs waiting to cross the bridge across the Ravi, Baijnath witnesses by far the goriest scene he has seen in the course of his arduous walk from the serene village of Lala to this field of Dakki next to the Ravi on this side of the border, a journey that is as much a rite of passage as a fight to safety.

Baijnath finds himself riding a horse, a spear in hand, in the thick of a carnage. Loud cries of “Allah hu Akbar” mingle with equally loud cries of “Har Har Mahadev” and “Sat Sri Akal”. Swept away in the rush of the moment quite beyond his control, Baijnath finds himself chasing a terrified Muslim in a torn vest and grimy tehmad running to save his life and that of the small boy he’s holding in his terrified arms. But just as Baijnath’s spear is resting on the old Muslim’s chest, everything around him becomes crystal clear:

“That picture of that single moment still swims before my eyes. The old man’s mouth was agape with terror, his slightly raised hand was trembling with fear and entreaty, and his chest was visible through his tattered vest. The point on which my spear rested on his chest, I could see some white hairs – the white hairs were exactly like the ones on my father’s chest. The old man’s eyebrows were white too, just as my father’s were. And the softness and entreaty with which he said ‘No, no, son, don’t kill me’, the tone of his voice reminded me of my father.” 

And, suddenly, as tears begin to prick Baijnath’s eyes and he was about to remove his spear from the Muslim’s chest, a stern voice came from behind him, “Oye, you Brahman dog! You can’t fight, can you? Get away! You traitor!” The word “traitor” here is a gaali, a term of abuse.

With these hurtful words, Ballo comes riding swiftly on his black horse and, piercing the old man’s chest with his spear, moves on. In the blink of an eye, Baijnath sees the old man totter and fall behind the flying hooves of the black horse and the small child he had been holding, tumbles and rolls away into a ditch.

Later, Baijnath hears that military assistance reached that spot beside the Ravi after four or five hours. But by then the attackers had finished their business and run away and thousands of Muslims had been slaughtered in the famous field of Dakki. But the “traitor” Baijnath – who, at the crucial moment, found himself unable to kill an old man, an old man whose white hair reminds him of his father’s white hair – finds redemption. In the murderous field of Dakki, he finds something rare and precious that is way beyond revenge.

The self-seeking, luxury-loving, self-proclaimed apolitical Baijnath emerges as a man of fine mettle. Despite his many frailties, he has nevertheless come through the fire of hatred and revenge relatively unscathed. Despite the gravest of provocation, he has managed to keep the human inside him from turning into a beast.

I will conclude with the question I asked at the beginning of this Introduction: who or what is a traitor? The answer is given by Baijnath when he overcomes the black tide of anger and hatred and instead chooses to find the human within himself:

“I asked myself, ‘Why do we walk with our head held high? Why do we assert the superiority of our civilisation? Why do we shy away from acknowledging our sins? These unformed, immature civilisations hide so many unfathomable darknesses within them. All this talk of Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation, Christian civilisation, Sikh civilisation, European civilisation, Asian civilisation! So much horrifying darkness, so many bottomless depths are hidden in them! But no one ever talks about them. They only talk of their beauty and grandeur and majesty. If one finds the courage to push away the beautiful outer raiments to look deep inside, he is considered a traitor.”

Excerpted with permission from the Introduction to Traitor, Krishan Chander, translated from the Urdu by Rakhshanda Jalil, Tranquebar.