Lahore in my heart: Fikr Taunsvi’s memoir is an incisive account of the Partition

Mohammad Farhan | Updated on August 21, 2020

Meshed histories: Much blood was shed when the Radcliffe Line sliced Punjab into two   -  ISTOCK.COM

‘The Sixth River’ weaves together the history of a deeply personal loss and a collective tragedy

Until the Partition forced them to choose between India and Pakistan in 1947, many connoisseurs of art and culture had roamed feely from Lahore to Delhi unfettered by physical boundaries. Satirist Fikr Taunsvi was among them. His compelling memoir The Sixth River, translated from Urdu by poet and writer Maaz Bin Bilal, lays bare the wounds of the bloody event.

The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India / Fikr Taunsvi (Tr) Maaz Bin Bilal/ Non-fiction / Speaking Tiger / ₹499


Born Ram Lal Bhatia in Taunsa village in present-day Pakistan in 1918, the memoirist found his name ‘absurd’ enough to adopt the pseudonym ‘Fikr’ [Thought], a move that gives a measure of his iconoclastic nature found in abundance in his writing.

The memoir has a beguilingly metaphorical title. Chhata Darya, sharply translated as The Sixth River, is indeed a reference to Punjab, the land of five rivers; and the sixth is the river of blood that flowed through the region when the Radcliffe Line sliced it into two — one part for India, another for Pakistan.

A man besotted by Lahore, Taunsvi had to wade through the ‘sixth’ river — the exodus of people moving to the newly-independent India, leaving behind the city he grew up in as well as his close circle of friends. In the memoir, he seamlessly stitches together a personal heartbreak and the collective tragedy to hold up a searing mirror to the event of the Partition.

Divided into three parts, and with an exhaustive and reflective introduction by Bilal, the book opens with a chilling scene. “The bodies of malecha(Muslims) were loaded in tongas and carried to the hospital. Some had half of his leg blown off, someone’s skull had burst, and someone’s intestines had poured out of their stomach” — Mobbed By Darkness, the first section of the memoir, delivers a heady blow. Taunsvi minces no words, and doesn’t refrain from graphically describing the violence the Partition unleashed. His emphatic prose distinguishes The Sixth River from other factually saturated accounts of partition history. And the strength of the book lies in the memoirist’s ability to dramatise the chilling history of the Partition. This personal narrative at times reads like a sublime work of fiction that captures the complexities of socio-political upheavals and effectively presents the gritty realities of a particular time.

Taunsvi is a compelling storyteller and his language, sharp and concise. To the credit of the translator, Bilal succeeds in retaining the original flow of narration. The memoir is in the form of diary entries, most of it written between August 9 and November 8, 1947. Written right in the middle of the tumult, it catapults the reader from one event to the other as and when it happened, and each delivers a jolt.

Taunsvi’s memoir, published in 1948, is no less significant today given the recent rise of communal tensions in India. The Sixth River poses several difficult questions and makes the readers rethink the very idea of freedom wrested from the British who had fanned communal strife for their own “imperial selfishness”. Taunsvi, the master satirist, frowns upon the independence (from the British) won at the cost of dividing people along religious lines and stirring communal hatred among them. His observations on the aetiology of communal violence are incisive and as relevant today as they were in 1947.

Urdu literary historian Ali Jawad Zaidi hailed Taunsvi as “the giant among humorists” and one gets to see why in the memoir. He has little tolerance for religious bigotry and indiscriminately derides both Hindus and Muslims. He does not spare political leaders either; Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and even MK Gandhi were often at the receiving end of his biting satire. His brilliant gallows humour is evident throughout, deeply impactful and underplaying the overwhelming pessimism of the Partition. For instance, Taunsvi takes a scathing dig at Gandhi and Nehru for their feeble attempts to prevent the Partition.

“And the caravan of Muslims from Delhi has reached Lahore, and Jawaharlal is begging, holding out the hems of his shirt in supplication,” he wrote. “Begging for peace, begging for civilization. And Gandhi’s soul has been shaken, and he has run from Calcutta, gathering his dhoti and stick. ‘Hear, hear! The Mussulman is our brother! Why do you kill him? If you kill him then kill me too!’— Hunh, the idiot! How will it help us if they kill you? Don’t come.”

Taunsvi carried a grief-snagged heart since the Partition and that angst is reflected in the memoir, heavy with a lingering sense of loss. The pervasive sense of despondency may despair the reader, but that is where Taunsvi’s prowess as a satirist comes to the rescue.

However, nothing despairs the memoirist more than his separation from Lahore, a city Taunsvi always personified as his beloved. His depiction of the city’s cultural spirit is striking and Taunsvi handholds the reader to voyage into the city’s past through his vivid imagination. But the fateful Partition, which he calls the biggest mistake in history, severed him from Lahore.The Sixth River epitomises the anguish of displacement of the millions of people who, like Taunsvi, had to leave their home and land in the wake of the Partition.

Bilal’s translation of the memoir is a gift to the anglophone readers; and the effort that has gone into bringing Taunsvi’s linguistic and cultural intricacies into English must be duly acknowledged.

Mohammad Farhan is an independent writer, literary and cultural critic

Published on August 21, 2020

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