As writ­ers, we walk across borders and then come back to in­ter­ro­gate what it meant

India Today - - WINNING - by Aatish Taseer RO­HIT CHAWLA

Dear Pak­istan,

Some lines of Fi­raaq came to mind as I be­gan this let­ter. They re­minded me of our own fi­raaq of some six or seven years. Mud­daten guzarin, teri yaad bhi aayi na humein, aur hum bhool gaye tu­jhe, aisa bhi nahin: Fi­raq Go­rakh­puri. The man known among the poets for hav­ing per­suaded Josh Mal­li­habadi in 1958 to em­i­grate to Pak­istan. Josh—who had been in jail with Nehru, and who Nehru did his best to dis­suade—came later to re­gret his de­ci­sion bit­terly. But it was too late. And he be­came, like so many be­fore him—and I am will­ing now to put men as far apart as Manto and even Jin­nah on this list—a vic­tim of the idea of Pak­istan.

A vic­tim of the idea of Pak­istan. A heavy note, I know, on which to be­gin this let­ter to you. But stay with me, Pak­istan, for in some ways I feel our own trou­ble has also orig­i­nated from this point. Per­haps from the point of my hav­ing taken too lit­er­ally the idea on which you were founded, and from my never hav­ing been able to see you as just a place where people lived and worked and loved and died—where they brought up chil­dren—but al­ways, and only, as the em­a­na­tion of an idea. And what an ugly idea it had seemed to me, when I first came within your bound­aries, now some ten or twelve years ago!

I could never have been in­dif­fer­ent to you. Not in­dif­fer­ent, not im­par­tial, not sen­ti­men­tal. I was not some English school­boy trav­eller for whom the Par­ti­tion was a his­tor­i­cal cu­rios­ity. Nor was I sim­ply—though I was this, too—some­one whose grand­par­ents had come across in 1947 and who, decades later, was re­turn­ing to the land of his for­bears. I could not lose my­self in the happy-sad pain of the Par­ti­tion, I could not stand too long mar­vel­ling at the pretty sym­me­tries that must nec­es­sar­ily arise when the com­pos­ite whole­ness of a so­ci­ety is shat­tered. And that too, along the one line that the so­ci­ety’s en­tire cul­tural evo­lu­tion—from Baba Farid to Nanak to Bulleh Shah—had been an ex­er­cise in help­ing ef­face. Irony of ironies: Pun­jab that had put in cen­turies of work in blur­ring the re­li­gious line—that had thrown up a whole re­li­gion and lit­er­a­ture whose supreme aim was syn­the­sis—was, in the end, like those char­ac­ters in nov­els pos­sessed of a fa­tal flaw, di­vided along re­li­gious

lines. What is it Or­well says of tragedy? A tragic sit­u­a­tion ex­ists pre­cisely when virtue does not tri­umph but when it is still felt that man is no­bler than the forces which de­stroy him. And cer­tainly: The im­mense achieve­ment of a com­pos­ite so­ci­ety in Pun­jab—and per­haps in In­dia, more gen­er­ally— was a far more no­ble thing than the force by which it was ul­ti­mately de­stroyed.

I must con­fess, Pak­istan, that when I first set eyes on you, I blamed you for the de­struc­tion. As much as Rushdie could not for­give Karachi for not be­ing Bom­bay, I could not for­give you, Pak­istan, for not be­ing In­dia. My bi­ases were legion: I grew up in In­dia, with an In­dian mother. My fa­ther was Pak­istani. They were both Pun­jabis. The line that had gone through Pun­jab af­fected me di­rectly. No nos­tal­gia, no bit­ter­sweet ironies for me: I had a par­ent on one side, and a par­ent on the other. I must have been among a hand­ful of people, I felt, es­pe­cially of my gen­er­a­tion, on whose life the Par­ti­tion had a di­rect bear­ing. But my prej­u­dices de­clared— as if there are any who have none, any who can be truly im­par­tial on such a sub­ject—I will still say that when I first stepped across that bor­der, my first thought was: What a bad idea!

What a bad idea, I thought, to lose the in­ter­lock­ing whole­ness of a di­verse so­ci­ety, an achieve­ment cen­turies in the mak­ing, for what felt to me, at first sight, like a Mus­lim neigh­bour­hood in In­dia… But with­out end. Al­most as if Chandni Chowk or Mahim were to de­clare them­selves in­de­pen­dent coun­tries. And, ini­tially, it was re­ally only this that stood out: Your end­less ho­mo­gene­ity. What did the Poet say on re­turn­ing from a trip on your side: Ac­cha mulk hai, Musalman bahut hain. Other­wise, it should be said—for the man cross­ing that bor­der on foot in 2002—the two coun­tries looked dis­may­ingly the same: Vahi nange gande bhuke jahil log, on both sides of the bor­der. But this, nat­u­rally, was not all. For you, Pak­istan, were not sim­ply a place where a lot of Mus­lims lived. You are—or were, at least—a con­cept: An idea­na­tion, a Utopia to some. And, founded thus, you had to, on some level, be re­garded thus: You had to be seen against the high ideals on which you were founded. One could not travel in the na­tion con­ceived of as a home­land for all In­dia’s Mus­lims with­out keep­ing in mind that it had once been a Utopia. I would like to de­fine this con­cept of Utopia in my own way. I would say that: Ev­ery man who ever dreamt up a Utopia was an­i­mated far more by the wish to purge than to build. I would say, too, that the great flaw in any Utopia is the in­tel­lec­tu­ally lazy no­tion—and one ca­pa­ble of un­speak­able vi­o­lence—that if only the so­ci­ety were cleansed or purged of some par­tic­u­lar un­de­sir­able el­e­ment, the Utopia would au­to­mat­i­cally— khud ba khud— come into be­ing. That

AS MUCH AS RUSHDIE COULD NOT FOR­GIVE KARACHI FOR NOT BE­ING BOM­BAY, I COULD NOT FOR­GIVE YOU, PAK­ISTAN, FOR NOT BE­ING IN­DIA.

noth­ing more would need to be done. Here is Or­well again, speak­ing of the Left: Un­til well within liv­ing mem­ory, the forces of the Left in all coun­tries were fight­ing against a tyranny which ap­peared to be in­vin­ci­ble, and it was easy to as­sume that if only that par­tic­u­lar tyranny—cap­i­tal­ism—could be over­thrown, so­cial­ism would fol­low. Re­place cap­i­tal­ism with In­dia, tyranny with im­pu­rity, and I feel one has a pic­ture of the faulty in­tel­lec­tual mech­a­nism on which the re­li­gious state was founded. An ide­o­logue in Karachi, upon be­ing ques­tioned hard about the shape and form of the Is­lamic Utopia, once said to me: “Is­lam doesn’t de­pend on form. Form is not im­por­tant. Essence is the main thing. If the essence is there, you can de­rive from it any kind of model.”

What he did not say— and what re­ally lies be­hind this quest­ing af­ter essence and pu­rity—is the busi­ness of get­ting rid of con­tam­i­na­tion. And that con­tam­i­na­tion, Pak­istan, let’s face it, was, in your case, al­ways and ever In­dia; or rather, what re­mained of In­dia in Pak­istan. On its own, the idea of the Is­lamic Repub­lic was in­ert: It could be boiled down into vague slo­gans, like: “Pak­istan ka mat­lab kya, la ill il al­lah”. But when weaponised, when given teeth, as it were, it meant get­ting rid of im­pu­rity, and that im­pu­rity was eter­nally In­dia.

But the odd thing was that, when I first be­gan trav­el­ling se­ri­ously in your in­te­rior, I found that, even af­ter the pass­ing of six decades, you were still in­cur­ably In­dian. In those early days of travel in Sindh and Pun­jab, I had the pe­cu­liar sen­sa­tion of be­ing in places where In­dia was every­where— there in dress and lan­guage and re­li­gion and cus­tom—but where its ex­is­tence was a cause of dis­com­fort. A man in Sindh might say proudly to me he was no mere Mus­lim, he was a Ra­jput Mus­lim. When I ques­tioned him as to how he, as a Mus­lim, could speak of caste—and this same man had spent the past two days try­ing to con­vince me that Pak­istan and In­dia were dis­tinct in ev­ery way, from the way men spoke and dressed down to the weather—he replied: “Yeh jaat ki baat nahi hai. Ye good or bad fam­i­lies ki baat hai.”

I bring these things up now, these end­less con­tra­dic­tions, not to mock you, Pak­istan, but be­cause, with time, I have come to

feel that there was some­thing self-wound­ing in this ex­pe­ri­ence of killing off what is in­te­gral to yourself. I wrote some­where once that: “In try­ing to turn its back on its shared past with In­dia, Pak­istan turned its back on it­self.”

But why, you might ask, does that mat­ter? Why is this killing off of one­self or one’s past re­ally a prob­lem? In my view, for one rea­son mainly: It will al­ways lead to ni­hilism. I feel that any so­ci­ety that has at its heart this dia­lec­tic of vi­o­lence and pu­rity, this un­ques­tioned pu­rity whose at­tain­ment de­pends on the erad­i­ca­tion of im­pu­rity, will al­ways fin­ish by eat­ing its tail. “Places as these,” I once wrote, “need en­e­mies the way other places need ideas. They are there to jus­tify the fail­ure of the ide­ol­ogy on which the na­tion was founded.” It could be a mi­nor­ity one day, a fes­ti­val or cus­tom the next, or an un­ruly gover­nor. The tar­get changes, but the mech­a­nism is al­ways the same. But, Pak­istan, you know all this al­ready, and I be­gan this let­ter by talk­ing about vic­tims of the idea of Pak­istan, of which I count my­self as one. I saw you too much in the light of the idea for which you were made. And be­cause I re­acted so strongly against that idea, found it mean­spir­ited and his­tor­i­cally in­valid, found it did vi­o­lence to what I be­lieved was the more gen­er­ous, more ca­pa­cious idea of In­dia, I could not see be­yond my dis­may. But places, I re­alise now, are not sim­ply the em­bod­i­ment of ideas. They are, be­yond the idea for which they were founded, com­prised also of the people who live there, with or with­out the idea.

I was re­minded of this last month, when af­ter seven years of sep­a­ra­tion, I re­turned to you. I don’t want to get into the rea­sons for that sep­a­ra­tion; you know them only too well. Suf­fice to say that I was tired of blood, tired of your great spec­ta­cles of vi­o­lence. But on re­turn­ing, one Fe­bru­ary day a few weeks ago, I re­alised how happy I was to see you. I re­alised also that in see­ing you the way I had, I had missed out on a lot, missed out on life, as it were, on the hu­man side. Crazy as it seems, I for­got that places are made up of people. Made up of su­per­mar­kets and play plan­ets, of fam­i­lies and flow­ers and houses, of meals in front of tele­vi­sions, of neph­ews who’ve grown up and of fa­thers who’ve been killed and buried, of a tiny but re­silient mid­dle class that has come into be­ing against all odds, of grim over­cast win­ter days, of par­ties and laugh­ter, of art ex­hi­bi­tions and lit­er­a­ture, of de­fi­ance, of people who could have lived away in safer places, but who moved back with so lit­tle to go on: places are made up of hope and re­sis­tance; and yes, dis­ap­point­ment. And though this let­ter is not meant as an apolo­gia, Pak­istan, I will say that I felt a great grief at not hav­ing recorded enough of this in the past.

I will say also that as much as I was happy to re­turn to you, to feel again your warmth and amaz­ing gra­cious­ness, it was not to a bet­ter or more hope­ful place that I re­turned. I left six years ago, days af­ter Be­nazir was killed, and what I came back to felt to me like a place—or an elite, at least—in re­treat. I could not help but no­tice the higher walls, the Nor­mandy spikes and army check posts, that now pro­tected the Cantt. from the un­named and amor­phous threat be­yond. I could not help but no­tice, as I al­ways have, the isolation of the draw­ing room classes, liv­ing at a dan­ger­ous re­move from a place that had turned against them. And, most of all, I could not help but no­tice the bat­tle in the back­ground, against which the calm and placid­ity of La­hore was un­nerv­ing.

Some people, Pak­istan, had got hold of the idea for which you were founded,

HAV­ING ONCE SEEN YOU ONLY AS AN IDEA, AND HAV­ING MISSED SO MUCH ELSE AS A RE­SULT, I FOUND MY­SELF LOOK­ING AT A COUN­TRY THAT HAD BEEN ROBBED OF ITS AN­I­MAT­ING IDEA.

and they were us­ing it now to fight you with. They sought an ever purer dis­til­la­tion of that idea, sought to take it to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion. What was fright­en­ing was that one sensed, in that ab­surd at­mos­phere of talks with the Tal­iban, that, for all the threats of reper­cus­sions, there was no counter idea strong enough to fight the ex­trem­ists with. There was not even re­ally, one felt, the will to fight. And in these mo­ments, as we know only too well from our ex­pe­ri­ence here— when a tiny but en­er­gised mi­nor­ity hi­jacks your found­ing prin­ci­ples, and starts at gun­point to tell you what you’re re­ally about—you need more than an army and a silent ma­jor­ity, Pak­istan, you need an idea. This, above all else, was what I felt was lack­ing in the coun­try I re­turned to.

Strange thing. I who had once seen you only as the em­a­na­tion of an idea, and had missed so much else as a re­sult, found my­self look­ing at a coun­try that had been robbed of its an­i­mat­ing idea. And, as much as I had loathed that idea, I won­dered now what you would be with­out it. What would you find, Pak­istan, in place of faith to keep you go­ing? And would it be enough— I could not help but ask my­self—for the coun­try, which at the time of its con­cep­tion had seemed to some like a promised land, like de­liv­er­ance, to fin­ish by sim­ply be­ing a place where a lot of Mus­lims lived? As ever, Aatish

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