Little acts of kindness

Parvati Sharma | Updated on February 28, 2020 Published on February 26, 2020

Hold the wire: Cyril Radcliffe did not want to talk about drawing the boundary between India and Pakistan   -  ISTOCK.COM

The Partition Museum in Amritsar does what museums should — it tells a story and makes one listen

The first time I went to Amritsar was over 20 years ago, from college, to join a candlelight vigil, an ‘Aman Dosti Yatra’ initiated by the late journalist Kuldip Nayar in the mid-’90s. The idea was for Indians and Pakistanis to convene at the Wagah-Attari border on the night of August 14-15 — straddling Pakistan’s Independence day and India’s — holding candles in their hands and peace and friendship in their hearts. There was, that night, something of an overflow of humanitarian feeling; certainly, there was an overflow of humanity. A large crowd surged forward so enthusiastically that there was a mini-stampede; it took away with it one of my slippers and broke my glasses. Hobbling about afterwards, half-blind, I cannot say I was filled with any emotion more noble than a hankering for home.

Last weekend, I was in Amritsar again; this time, I went to its Partition Museum. There was a video of Nayar telling the story of how, years after the subcontinent was divided, he met the man who drew the lines that took so many millions from their homes, and from so many millions their lives. Cyril Radcliffe was a sad man, Nayar recalls, claiming he had received neither enough time nor enough information — not even accurate maps — by which to make the division. From sadness, Radcliffe had refused payment for his work; from sadness, he didn’t like to talk about it. WH Auden, whose poem Partition hangs in the same gallery, took a more scathing view: “The next day he sailed for England, where he quickly forgot/ The case, as a good lawyer must. Return he would not/ Afraid, as he told his Club, that he might get shot.”

Nayar’s is one of many videos in the museum; and many of these testimonies are by people, across borders, who survived the most horrific of displacements. A grey-bearded man speaks of how his family survived because the sub-inspector leading a firing squad at them recognised his father as the Doctor-saab who’d removed both his parents’ cataracts. A grey-haired woman speaks of how she lay as a child, bleeding, playing dead, in a house full of butchered relatives. There are inanimate exhibits, too, telling unforgettable stories. The camel-saddle on which a man galloped to safety — the camel fell dead where they stopped. There is the blue-and-gold wedding dress that its owner returned to retrieve. She found a mob that would have killed her had her tailor not intervened, calling out, “She’s my mother!”

The Partition Museum does what museums should: It tells a story and makes you listen. The effect is palpable. As visitors walk from gallery to gallery, the usual chatter gives way to quiet. People stand before exhibits and videos for long minutes; some have tears in their eyes.

Some of this effect comes from poetry. As you follow the accelerating momentum of the freedom movement, the model jail cell — eerily reminiscent of the model detention centre in Shaheen Bagh — and the poster on it of ‘Dukhi Mata’, India in chains, weeping for revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh drawn (literally) as moths to a flame; as you follow the call for Partition, the failure of negotiations, the glow of independence drowned in gore, a soundscape follows too.

Rabindranath Tagore’s Amar Shonar Bangla, written when Bengal was first divided, in 1905: Amar shonar Bangla, ami tomay bhalobashi/ Chirodin tomar akash, tomar batash, amar prane bajay bashi. (My golden Bengal, I love you/ Your skies, your air set my heart in tune, like a flute.) Bismil Azimabadi’s enduring cry: Sarfaroshi ki tamanna ab hamare dil mein hai/ Dekhna hai zor kitna bazu-e-qatil mein hai. (An ache for revolution is now in our hearts /Let us see if there’s strength enough in the hangman’s arms.) The soaring, lyrical ambition of Jawaharlal Nehru’s midnight speech, “When the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”; and Amrita Pritam’s haunting evocation of the barbarity that followed: Ajj aakhan Waris Shah nuu/ Kiton qabraan wichon bol/... Uthh dard-mandaan diya dardiya/ Utth tak apna Punjab/ Ajj bailey lashaan bichiyaan/ Tey lahoo di bhari Chenab. (Today I ask of Waris Shah/ From your grave do speak/... Rise, teller of the grief of the grieving/ Rise and look at your Punjab/ Its fields are filled with corpses/ And blood fills the Chenab.)

At those candlelight vigils on the Wagah border all those years ago, Indians and Pakistanis would greet each other with a poetic call-and-answer: The Pakistani side would go — Hindustan zindabad!; and the Indian side would chant — Pakistan zindabad! It’s the kind of thing that gets you charged with sedition these days. I was thinking about this on the way back to the hotel, where I found my last poem for the day. A friend had posted Philip Larkin’s The Mower on Facebook. Larkin kills a hedgehog, not meaning to; it’s caught in his lawnmower. He had known the animal, even fed it once: “We should be careful/ Of each other, we should be kind/ While there is still time.”

And most of all, perhaps, when time is running out.


Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal

Published on February 26, 2020
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