11th August 1947

After the sickening and soul-wearying curfew of 24 hours, I finally stepped out of my house today morning. All around, some languid dull activity had begun. Layers of fear and terror had accumulated over the roads. People were stepping gingerly over these layers. Doubt and fear – fear and doubt! It felt as if everyone on the road was carrying a bomb or a knife and would bury it in the back of an enemy in the blink of an eye!

— "The Sixth River", Fikr Taunsvi, translated by Maaz Bin Bilal.

For the people in the Indian subcontinent, 1947 meant independence from colonial rule as well as a redrawing of the physical map of their land. Two nations, India and Pakistan, came into being as massive populations of Hindus, Sikhs and Muslim men, women and children moved across the newly made borders of the two new independent states. Given the gigantic scale of suffering, the Partition of India still remains a contested terrain of politics, culture and identity, because the present and the past remain so interlinked within it.

In Pakistan, it is celebrated as the birth of a dream, while in India it is an example of bipartisan historical trauma where each community, whether Hindus, Muslims or Sikh, Dalit or the upper caste, anticipated to some extent what was to unfold as and when the British left India. This was because the penultimate events leading up to August 15, India’s Independence Day, unfolded through other low or high grade communal disturbances throughout British India.

In the months leading up to August, cities in the Punjab province, like Lahore and Amritsar, witnessed some of the most horrendous rioting where hundreds of people lost their lives. During this time of large-scale barbarity, pathological unreason overtook all rational or ethical compulsions. Neighbours attacked one another and the distinction between victims or perpetrators changed whenever opportunity arose.

The eyewitness

Fikr Taunsvi’s journal, that I quoted at the beginning, points to this sense of a breakdown of all social and cultural order, a veritable time of suspicion, fear and anxiety. Taunsvi’s The Sixth River thus remains an astonishing eyewitness account of those early days of mayhem leading to the independence that is quite unparalleled in the sub-continent’s Partition literature. Maaz Bin Bilal’s most excellent translation of this text captures all the pathos, barbarity and black humour that so characterise Taunsvi’s searing narrative.

Taunsvi is a sublime realist. Yet his almost imperceptible and subtle irony, his heartbreaking bewilderment and anger at what he sees taking place around his beloved Lahore create an uncanny resonance across time:

“It seemed that the meanings of emotions, traditions, demands and claims had changed immediately upon winning independence. Why had such freedom been brought into existence? Was it only to free dharma and shastras that we struggled for three hundred years against foreign rule? Did we strive to move forward or only to go back by thousands of years? Did we call to freedom only for life to regress?”

The long shadow

The violence of 1946-48 brought out the worst side of humanity: Our imagination of evil collapsed, helpless at coping with what was happening all around. Looking back at 1947 after a span of 71 years, how can we understand or make sense of the nature and extent of those years of bloodshed and carnage? It is through texts like this that we may learn the extent and contours of our shared humanity.

This is because Taunsvi’s narrative does not look at the short time of political event(s), but is a chilling look at a time when the structures and pluralities of social life under the shadow of the event can be ascertained only through the sights and smell of a particular street, a particular locality. It is through such simple but complex particularities that Taunsvi’s text is replete with memory, imagination and the practice of the everyday that results in a surrealistic tableau of indescribable horror:

“I came back to the Mall Road. Coffee House was closed. China Lunch Home too. And the street in front led to Sant Nagar –– where my house was. I don’t know why, but I had a feeling of great unfamiliarity with the street. But then I braved my heart and went in its direction. The whole area was desolate. Not a creature in sight. I knocked on many doors despite knowing that all houses had been adorned with big locks. And apart from the lovelorn caws of the crows and the shrieks of hungry birds, I found nothing else.”

Taunsvi’s métier is to make the uncanny an integral part of his imagination. As he watches the destruction of Lahore and himself becomes a refugee, this imagination will find newer outlets. He will re-fashion his pen to write satires and black comedies that he will continue to publish till his death in 1987. However, the form and content of The Sixth River will remain an enduring achievement of Ram Lal Bhatia, who chooses to abjure his given name to call himself Fikr (in Urdu the word has multiple meanings like considerate thought, sorrow or imagination among others) and Taunsvi, that is “one who hails from Taunsa Sharif”, a city in West Punjab noted for its Sufi shrines.

His name was, as the translator remarks, based on “the composite Sufi culture” that “shaped his pluralistic worldview”. This pre-Partition world, so ephemeral yet so real, fires Taunsvi’s multifaceted imagination and his self-deprecating irony that leaves us mesmerised.

The Sixth River

The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India, Fikr Taunsvi, translated by Maaz Bin Bilal, Speaking Tiger.

Debjani Sengupta is the author of The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities, (CUP, 2016). She has edited a volume of stories, Mapmaking: Partition Stories From Two Bengals (2004 rpt 2011) and co-edited Looking Back: The 1947 Partition of India 70 Years On (Orient Blackswan, 2017) and Women’s Writing from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh: The Worlds of Bangla and Urdu (Bloomsbury, 2019).