Book: This Side That Side: Restorying Partition
Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh
Publication: Yoda Press
Price: Rs 595
Sixty-six years and two or three generations after the event,it appears that everyone in South Asia still has a Partition story in them. This geopolitical cocktail created by shaking up,making and unmaking in equal parts,the biggest act of mapmaking and the biggest forced migration in the postwar era,has spawned a huge body of literature,song,theatre,film and art. In turn,this creative work has given birth to a flourishing academic industry which will remain gainfully employed for decades yet,fussing over sunderings and unities,hopes and fears and,possibly,imputing meaning to an incident that witnesses saw as wholly meaningless.
The academic response to Partition has flourished over a decade or so rank as tropical undergrowth itching for the attentions of a sharp instrument. So,it is with a pardonable sense of relief that one discovers that the creative stream of Partition is flowing again,in the only genre which has escaped the canon the graphic narrative. This Side That Side,a literal translation of the Bengali espar-ospar,a nonce term signifying a determination to deal with a situation once and for all,makes good the deficit at one stroke. It does more,actually. While the canon is focused almost exclusively on the western border,this collection draws attention to the border between the two Banglas,which actually has a longer history of cut and snip,dating back to Lord Curzons abortive partition of Bengal in 1905. The stories from the east also remind the reader that while India was partitioned only once,Pakistan had to suffer further corrective surgery in 1971,when Bangladesh was born.
Some of the most interesting stories are from the east. The Exit Plan by the Kolkata artist Sarbajit Sen and Bangladeshi literary editor Khademul Islam tells of the stratagems of Bengalis of their parents generation,trying to escape from Karachi in December 1971. The Dhaka teacher Kaiser Haq teams up with Delhi artist Hemant Puri to tell a delightfully hallucinatory story about a man planning to cross the border in search of the dream girl,but electing to stay on to daydream about her in the best hotel in a border town,to which he has been taken by an improbably one-legged cycle-rickshaw puller.
This collection is a triumph of cross-border collaboration. It has brought together 47 contributors from the sundered countries to produce 28 stories which,while located in the same tradition,are as far apart stylistically as the Gregorian chant is from Vangelis. These collaborations are in the great tradition of the 20th century American comic,with one person telling the story and another drawing it. A very few,like Mehreen Murtazas Bastards of Utopia and Vishwajyoti Ghoshs autobiographical A Good Education,about growing up in Delhis refugee community from East Bengal,are executed by one person.
Another refreshing twist: some stories are in translation,a quiet nod to the reality that in this region,languages treat borders as if they dont exist. Tamil,Bangla,Punjabi,Urdu and Hindustani are cross-border speech bubbles making up a linguistic Venn diagram that sends up the political map of South Asia.
Some stories are like old classics seen through the eyes of a new generation. In Fault Lines,UK-based writer Irfan Master and illustrator Prabha Mallya (she draws Nilanjana Roys cat people) use incarceration as an idiom for the choice forced upon nations freshly divided when the jail is opened after Partition,one inmate feels compelled to flee,another to stay. The device is very reminiscent of the use of the asylum and insanity in two memorable Urdu short stories Saadat Hasan Mantos Toba Tek Singh and Joginder Pauls Dera Baba Nanak.
Same old story? Not so. The interplay of text and image creates an immediacy,an economy of communication not available in a single medium. This has been the defining characteristic of the graphic narrative in all its avatars,from Maus to Mickey Mouse. This collection,curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh (something wrong with edited by?),championed by Yoda Press and supported by the Goethe Institut,stands a little apart from the corpus of Partition literature. Our review copy was filched within days of delivery. There are Partition books and Partition books,and they swipe this one? Its a serious compliment to the power of the graphic narrative.