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31/03/2019 11:07 AM IST | Updated 01/04/2019 2:23 PM IST

Book Review: Krishna Sobti's 'A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There' Details Partition's Devastating Impact

Sobti's last published book is particularly pertinent at a time of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan.

'A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There' by Krishna Sobti, Translated by Daisy Rockwell. Published by Penguin India

“Flowing breezes, remember: I once lived here”. These are the words Krishna Sobti wrote on the wall in her hostel room on her last day in Lahore.

In A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, an autobiographical novel by Sobti, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, the young Krishna, who is now at her parents’ home in Delhi, looks out of the window to see their Muslim neighbours leave for the railway station to catch the last Pakistan Special to Lahore.

Krishna remembers her last day in Lahore, echoing the words she scratched into the wall. Sobti was a unique author who resisted the label “woman writer”; at one point, she adopted a male alter-ego to write Hum Hashmat, a series of profiles of famous writers. She wrote in a Hindi flecked with Punjabi, Urdu and Rajasthani influences, creating an idiolect that reflected her peripatetic early life spent across Gujrat, Shimla, Delhi, Lahore and Rajasthan.

In 2010, Sobti declined the Padma Bhushan, and later, gave up her Sahitya Akademi fellowship in protest against rising intolerance in the country, citing her need to stay independent of the establishment.

Sobti’s language is experimental: she refrains from long sentences and ornate descriptions, distilling her words to produce spare poetic language.

Her novels are women-centric, her protagonists unusual for their times. In Mitro Marjani, a woman married into a conservative joint family fights for her independence and expression of sexual desire. In her semi-autobiographical novella Ai Ladki, Sobti explores the complex relationship between an elderly woman burdened by her past and her unmarried daughter.

Sobti’s language is experimental: she refrains from long sentences and ornate descriptions, distilling her words to produce spare poetic language.

If her best-known novel Zindaginama provides a compelling portrait of a relatively peaceful pre-partition Punjab, then A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There details the devastating impact of the fracturing of Punjab and India.

The title refers to Gujrat in present-day Pakistan and the state of Gujarat in India: although the spellings of these two places are different in English, they are identical in Hindi and Urdu.

Keystone Features via Getty Images
7th August 1947: One of 30 special trains leaving New Delhi Station taking the staff of the Pakistan government to Karachi.

Krishna may now be in Delhi with her family, but she yearns for her ancestral home in Gujrat and her college days in Lahore.

There is unrest everywhere; Delhi swells to accommodate refugees who come bearing tales of violence and loss.

In a section which can only be described as prose poetry, Sobti weaves together a haunting elegy for the collective loss faced by people on both sides of the line, interspersing the experiences of refugees and migrants fleeing and those attacking them.

Sobti also tries to make sense of the violence. She references Iqbal’s ode to undivided India, Sare Jahan Se Accha, when she asks: “Amongst all these how did it disappear. That anthem that warmed our hearts…”.

Ultimately though, she cannot make sense of it, and like Saadat Hasan Manto, sees the violence that ensued after Partition as an act of madness: “One comes from here and one goes over there—murder, mayhem, madness on the way.”

Krishna decides to leave Delhi to work at a preschool in the princely state of Sirohi, which is set to join India. The narrative moves seamlessly between the past and the present; the comparisons between her homeland and Sirohi are constant: the “lush yellow fields of mustard” of Punjab contrast with “the wasteland of rocky cliffs” in Rajputana.

Zutshi Sahib, the man in charge of hiring her for the position looks down upon her because of her refugee status. With the passage of time, however, “histories change, [and] geographies too must change”.

Krishna slowly shakes off that status and finds her place in Sirohi, refugees stuck in camps in Delhi who have been forgotten by the government move into abandoned houses, and Sirohi state inches closer to becoming a footnote in history.

There is unrest everywhere; Delhi swells to accommodate refugees who come bearing tales of violence and loss.

Ghosts from her past follow her: her childhood friend Beembo who was killed by a mob visits her one night in her sleep. She is haunted by a sense of loss and dislocation that stays by her side even as she comes to terms with the finality of Partition. “Look ahead. Stop following that dream which has disappeared into a foreign country,” she thinks.

She ends up as the governess for the child Maharaja Tej Singh. The young boy who has heard whispers of an uncertain future asks Krishna the meaning of the word “oust”.

Krishna tries to console him but they both know that his fate rests in Delhi’s hands: “The ink belonged to Delhi. And who knew what text it would write?”

Although Sobti’s novel was written decades after the classics of Partition literature, such as Yashpal’s This Is Not That Dawn and Bisham Sahni’s Tamas, the autobiographical nature of the novel preserves the immediacy of the event.

The narrative echoes the fragmentary approach of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, blurring time and fiat boundaries.

Women’s voices in the Partition corpus project the scalar relationship of the dynamics of power between the nation state and the individual.

In Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column, Laila’s fight for her agency occurs alongside the struggle for Indian independence.

Likewise, Krishna’s assimilation into India mirrors the gradual integration of princely states into the Republic of India.

This is a particularly pertinent read at a time of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan.

Where did it all start? Sobti ventures a guess: “When you uproot a tribe, it scatters with the destructive power of an earthquake.”

'A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There' by Krishna Sobti, Translated by Daisy Rockwell. Published by Penguin India