The Sixth River – A Journal from the partition of India. Book review.

by Prannv Dhawan 2 January 2020

The Urdu satirist Fikr Taunsvi’s account of Partition, written between August and November 1947, brings to life one of the most tragic episodes in the subcontinent’s history.

The recent translation of the journal Chhata Darya in English (The Sixth River) by Professor Maaz Bin Bilal brings to life the oft-forgotten but ever-pervasive and lived experiences of one of the most tragic episodes in history that the people of the subcontinent went through: Partition. The author and the protagonist of this journal, Fikr Taunsvi (born Raam Lal Bhatia), was a distinguished public intellectual and literary writer of undivided Punjab. The journal, published in 1948, expounds his thought processes, emotional contradictions, personal dilemmas and political predicaments over three months characterised by a sense of loss and pangs of separation.

The sixth river is a metaphor for the Radcliffe Line that precipitated gory violence in the subcontinent. While various Partition scholars have recounted the horrifying violence and the harrowing tragedy that it symbolised, Fikr’s personal account humanises that moment of rupture, which continues to be a deep, unhealed wound in the memory of the subcontinent. For the author, it is the river of blood, tears and sorrow that changed the life and history of the “glorious” land of five rivers (Punjab) forever.

The journal is a window into the mind of one of the most courageous Punjabi litterateurs of that time who persevered through the violence and divisiveness of Partition to resist the bigoted expectation of going to the “imagined motherland of Hindus”, that is India. It also expresses the struggles and tribulations of a “fifth column” Hindu who objects to the policy of transfer of populations on the basis of religion.

The recurring motif of this three-part journal written between August and November 1947 is this visceral experience of the devastation of one’s sense of identity. The pain of losing a composite society, a cohesive identity, a common culture and collective sanity and humanity at large flows through the text in various forms: cynicism, satire and rhetoric.

Lahore and Punjab are at the core of Fikr’s identity and personhood. He has a deep emotional connection with the streets, hotels, coffee houses and the “air” of Lahore. He expresses a guileless “regionalist” contempt for the Hindu and Sikh residents of Lahore who escaped the vagaries of Partition and were living in refugee camps in the “competitor” city of Delhi. In his classic satirical manner, he criticises the “nincompoop, daydreaming” Punjabis for their “cruel” decision to abandon “their” land.

For Fikr, the transfer of populations was far more than the natural consequence of Independence. It was a civilisational loss where the virtues of reason, debate, culture, science and literature were abandoned for the manic “tamasha” of nationalism.

The journal goes beyond expressing emotional pain at the loss of close friends and acquaintances (the members of the Progressive Writers Association and of literary-political circles like the Communist Party) and renders an elegy for the syncretic and pluralist Punjabi culture.

He comments sordidly that as refugees from “India” came to Lahore, the imagined heaven of Lahore lay devastated because of the omnipresent hunger, vulgar loot and crime and unthinkable deprivation. His exasperation at the defanging of the composite culture and common Punjabi identity is seen in his remark of Urdu being abandoned as the language of the Mlechhas (a derisive term for “Islamic invaders”).

Fikr has a unique and critical take on the communal tensions, the citizenship crisis and the cynical politics of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. He critiques the inherent contradictions in their thoughts and deeds. He comments sarcastically on their “abstract” and “unsuccessful” appeals for communal harmony and minority protection while millions of innocent people were being tormented, houses were being burnt and the entire subcontinent had become the “apocalyptic battlefield of Cain and Abel”. Commenting on the state of anarchy and the human suffering, he says the political system had lost its balance and the head of law had been chopped off from its body.

He comments at the inability of national icons like Gandhi to douse the flames and how nobody paid heed to Gandhi’s discourses at Jama Masjid on living in harmony with the “mussalman” because he was our brother. He points to the “threat” religious bigots felt at the idea of Gandhi going to Punjab after his efforts in Delhi met with limited success, and says how in those divisive and exclusivist times Gandhi was being sincere in his stupidity to spread peace and sanity.

Fikr’s heart keeps going back to Kashmir where competitive hegemonies of Indian and Pakistani nationalism were delegitimising people as indistinct dots in the curated theatres of violence. He cites the poet and politician Allama Iqbal to point out the sheer inhumanity of the violence: “People are counted in numbers and not weighed.” Fikr’s perturbed state of mind is betrayed by his concerns about the condition of hungry, naked Kashmiris who were being destroyed in the name of a magical vision of democracy.

While being cynical about the status quo, he makes incisive comments about the self-destructive nature of religious animosity. When Lahore gets flooded with the Ravi and Beas overflowing, he says it is nature teaching the people a terrible lesson in equality.

Crisis of Citizenship

The journal dwells on the personal loss that Fikr had to bear because of religious fanaticism. It shows how he understood the psychology of the fugitive when his life was under constant threat in his “own” city, Lahore. He is threatened by goons to either convert to Islam or flee to India. His daughter is murdered by his neighbour in Multan, and one of his closest Muslim friends, Mumtaz, gets into the essentialist monolithic binary of Hindu and Muslim during one of their intellectual arguments. He is dismayed to see how the poison of communal hatred has percolated down to the psyche of the common man. Fikr uses the motif of religious exploitation to explain the phenomenon of goons and murderers acting as religion’s overlords and casting their fiery eyes of bigotry to wipe away a centuries-old civilisation.

The journal makes one appreciate his angst at this “new”, exclusivist and faith-based entry barrier to citizenship where bigotry is the prerequisite to belong to his “own city”. His response to this bigotry is subversive praxis where he shows satirical condescension towards the so-called religious overlords and asks them to recite the Kalimah Sharif and questions them on whether they offer namaz.

He is pained at the vulgar assault on the pious edifice of religious devotion as he writes how religion’s purity has been saved while religionists (Hindus and Sikhs in West Punjab and Muslims in East Punjab) are dead and how this mad rush to save the religion has left innumerable mosques and mandirs demolished and holy books like the Quran and the Gita desecrated. In the disturbing state of affairs where Fikr was facing persecution, he shows how he felt like an accused for being a Hindu despite the fact that he considered religion to be a casual thing. Juxtaposed with this, his friend and renowned artist Sahir Ludhianvi felt ashamed of his religion because a friend was treated this way.

Fikr categorically expresses cynicism at the idea of freedom and nation-building in both India and Pakistan. He laments the betrayal of the values of the freedom struggle and questions the “nationalists” about the violence of the assimilative and exclusionary postcolonial transition. This idea of subversion of a majoritarian logic of nationalism that has no consonance with humanity and people’s lives and culture is what reverberates through the words of this deeply sensitive author.

He uses chunni (sardine) as a metaphor for Punjab to show how its composite culture has been shredded to pieces. Written in a vulnerable state of mind, Fikr’s journal exemplifies how pieces of hearts are more important than nationalism and the abstract idea of freedom. It is no wonder that it speaks eloquently to the emotions and sentiments of Punjabi romantics in particular and South Asian peacemongers in general. At a time when the idea of Punjabiyat as the representative of composite culture and normalised, people-centric India-Pakistan engagements is slowly gaining currency in the subcontinent, The Sixth River pays a tearful ode to this forlorn sentiment.

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