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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Dividing Lines

Two stories of Partition introduce the work of a major writer from Pakistan to an English-speaking audience.

Written by Urvashi Butalia |
March 28, 2015 12:58:06 am
As Muhammad Umar Memon explains in his brief introduction to the book, this could perhaps be because Ikramullah himself has chosen to stay out of the glare of publicity. As Muhammad Umar Memon explains in his brief introduction to the book, this could perhaps be because Ikramullah himself has chosen to stay out of the glare of publicity.

Book – Regret: Two Novellas
Author – Ikramullah
Translation – Faruq Hassan and Mohammad Umar Memon
Publisher – Penguin
Pages – 192 pages
Price – Rs 299

Ikramullah’s two novellas, published in translation as Regret (although the book actually includes two novellas, Regret and Out of Sight), have been a wonderful discovery for me. A major Urdu writer from Pakistan, Ikramullah is relatively unknown in India. As Muhammad Umar Memon explains in his brief introduction to the book, this could perhaps be because Ikramullah himself has chosen to stay out of the glare of publicity.

Memon describes his attempt to get hold of a photo of the author for the cover of Regret and receiving a blunt reply from him: “Dear Mr Memon, I am not in favour of printing an author’s photograph in the book…”

In many ways, Partition forms the backdrop of both novellas, but its presence is not pervasive or even too obvious. In Regret, the protagonist Saeed looks back on a childhood long ago spent with his school friend Ehsan. Running away from school to indulge in innocent pleasures such as walking by the canal, watching trains go by, splashing in a pond, eating mangoes under a tree — and ruminating on life.

In the course of their wanderings, the two young men learn about life, they discuss the famine in Bengal, learn the secrets of first love, discuss men like Rommel and look at the fate of soldiers caught in the war, and wander around Company Bagh, making guesses at why it is called that (perhaps because a company was once headquartered there is one!).

The story is told in a strange, almost-expressionless deadpan voice, with the occasional bit of sarcasm making its presence felt beneath the words. When the story opens, the two friends are meeting after a long time, now as adults with their lives more or less behind them. As it closes, Ehsan describes his family’s decision to stay on in Pakistan, rejecting an offer from a Congress functionary to move to Delhi and then Uttar Pradesh.

Did you not regret it, Saeed asks his friend. Not really, Ehsan tells him, the decision was made firmly, although he does think now and again that it would have been nice to see Delhi. And that’s all: in that one sentence you have the entire tragedy of Partition, as poignant as stories of violence and loss.

Out of Sight also deals with Partition in an oblique sort of way. Here, Partition has already taken place, but now, trouble is brewing some years later, between a Pakistani minority, the Ahmadiyyas, and other Muslims. The protagonist, Ismail, a refugee who managed to escape the violence of Partition and, with the help of a good Samaritan, was able to make a home, set up a small shop and make his life (he loves to read newspapers), looks at present-day Pakistan (of the 1950s) and wonders what went wrong.

When Jinnah asked for Pakistan for the Muslims, he reflects, he did not differentiate between legitimate Muslims and those who were out of this category. Rather, he saw Pakistan as a home for all Muslims and in recognizing him as their Qaid-e-Azam, all Muslims, no matter which sect they belonged to, looked on him as their leader. How, then, did this discrimination and violence towards Ahmadiyyas come about?

Ismail’s closeness to his friend Bashir, an Ahmadiyya, is viewed with suspicion by many of his friends. Bashir himself faces discrimination in school — why would they want another prophet, is the question — and as the story devolves, we see the inevitable deroulement towards violence and the endless questions that accompany political discussions about such strife.

Regret, of a sort, forms the conclusion of this novella too. The direct, clear, non-gimmicky tone of the telling (occasional shades of Mantoesque satire also creep in) mark these novellas as both somewhat old-fashioned and eminently readable.

Urvashi Butalia is founder, Zubaan Books

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