In 1947, the Indian subcontinent was given a parting gift by the nation that had colonised it for close to 335 years, from the entry of The East India Company by the Britons. Cyril Radcliffe a London-based attorney with no previous knowledge of India and her ecosystem was given the onerous task of splicing her up, broadly on religious lines. He proceeded to do his job, this one criterion in place and based on the numbers of Muslims and Hindus living in the various districts India was partitioned. Bengal in the East became East and West Bengal. East Bengal is now known as Bangladesh. In the North-west, Punjab too was divided. Hindus in the Sindh and Punjab(marked for Pakistan) were forced to move to India. Meanwhile, Muslim families in Punjab had to move to Pakistan.
More than 11 million people were displaced because the movement of these groups was anything but peaceful. There was great bloodshed, death and crimes inflicted by the people of these two powerful religious groups. The partition of India into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh left an indelible mark on the lives of all the three countries. It’s flames continue to burn, burning ember-like even today.
Apart from the physical tragedy that unfolded, the partition brought a hundred sad stories of people whose lives were forever changed by this ill-thought move. The Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa or Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto are poignant examples of the devastation that man inflicted on based on religion. These are however important stories that do not allow us to forget one of the darkest hours of the subcontinent’s history.
Nina Sabnani has animated the story of her father Mukand Sabnani and his childhood friend Riyaz Ahmad. The two young people live their happy childhood in what is Pakistan today. It is Riyaz who takes Mukand to the doctor when he falls and breaks his bone. Sabnani’s animation which uses fabric with applique work (creation of pattern using smaller pieces of cloth together on a larger fabric) and Kutchi embroidery instead of painted panels is rich and beautiful. The textile images also give it a uniquely Indian touch. Mukand and Riyaz give us a glimpse into the life of two innocent youths joined by friendship, unaware that one is a Hindu and the other a Muslim.
The audience is treated to the harmonious life of the people until Partition that is. Then Mukand sees blood on the streets. His father rounds up the family to travel to India by ship. Riyaz gets them Muslim attire, so that the family may go unmolested on the streets. In a moment, the children become aware of the difference between them, but their bond of love and friendship remains untainted. The family leaves for India, bidding a tearful farewell to their homeland and Riyaz. The two friends never met again, but come alive in the animation that Nina Sabnani has so lovingly crafted in the memory of the two friends.
Sometimes objects mean so much more than what they are. So it is with a cup of china. In Chachaji’s Cup, the child protagonist sees a cup that his uncle or chacha Ji has his tea every day in. This old, faded china cup with a rose print seems to have a special place in the family, and particularly for chacha Ji, who drinks his tea in it noisily. It turns out the cup belonged to chacha Ji’s mother who ensured that she carried this one precious cup from the homeland she loved and lived in through a difficult and dangerous journey.
Her family members had joked and wondered why on earth she would take a tea cup over the many other precious things she could have carried. It was perhaps it would be a tiny, enduring piece of home in a strange new land which was now her lot. Now chacha Ji who lives in another land -the United States of America-far from the country he grew up in – relishes his cup of tea and memories.
One day, disaster strikes and the child breaks the cup when he is washing it. Chacha ji is heartbroken and hospitalised.
A simple act by the child reminds readers that while wounds can be completely healed, an attempt can be made to overcome them.
The child is transported to the partition via his dreams.
I tossed about and dreamed of people becoming refugees, leaving their homes. In my dream they walked for miles, fleeing with only the things that they could carry. The lines they made crossed the wide plains, from west to east, from east to west. Some hurried to catch cars and trains that waited to take them across the land. Only numbers gave them safety, only hope gave them strength.
I saw Chachaji young and afraid. I saw his mother my great-grandmother her fingers curled around that teacup with roses.
Chachaji’s Cup is written by Uma Krishnaswami who was raised in India, lived in America, Mexico and is currently based out of Canada. In her biography, describing herself she says:
Some of my stories are set in North America, some in India. Some cross from one place into the other and back again, just like me.
These two stories, among several others, bring out the huge impact displacement that people suddenly find themselves in the middle of. Perfectly normal lives disrupted not just for that one generation, but generations after. Today we are seeing people being displaced or uprooted from their homes in appalling ways. People are fleeing their homes, with whatever little they can to live in refugee camps. Uprooted, unsure, often losing family along the way.
Both the stories in this post speak about the futility of events such as Partition and how there can never be true long-term peace when republics are born out of such tragedy.