A Graphic Recollection

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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A recently published anthology of visual narratives of Partition revisits a haunting part of history with mixed results

One of the more unusual stories in This Side That Side, an anthology of graphic narratives related to Partition, is by Ahmad Rafay Alam and Martand Khosla. Titled 90 Upper Mall, it begins with Alam, a Lahori, reminiscing about going to London as a law student. At the hostel, he befriends Khosla, an Indian who is there to study architecture.

‘One evening,’ he writes, ‘Martand barged into my room at Willie G and said, in mock outrage—’ Below, there is an image of Khosla with his hands around Alam’s throat and a speech bubble saying, ‘Oi b***ch*d, I want my rent! You’re living in my fu**ing house!’

The rest of the story is a short history of both families and how it comes together in 90 Upper Mall, a house in Lahore built by Khosla’s great grandfather. His family moved out during Partition, and in 1959 it was allotted to Alam’s grandfather. When Khosla’s father comes to meet him in London, they stumble on the connection during a casual conversation.

The story ends with these lines: ‘The rhetoric of Partition has always been characterised by loss and violence. Yet, in writing this or reflecting on the story, I can’t but think of Partition in terms I’m familiar with: the story of 90 Upper Mall. Maybe this has been our buffer against the prejudices of history.’

90 Upper Mall is one of the exceptions in the anthology because most of the stories are—exactly as Alam puts it—‘characterised by loss and violence’ and they run like a steel thread through the book. This Side That Side, curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, runs on familiar tropes like the grief of exile or suddenly turning stranger in one’s own country. What is novel is the use of the graphic form.

India’s Partition was needless and arbitrary but without any wilful malicious force behind it. Perhaps that’s why, in An Old Fable, Tabish Khair and Priya Kuriyan use the allegory of a king so beholden to reason that he slices a child into parts to settle a dispute between two women claiming to be the mother.

The most powerful stories in the book are those that speak of the human experience. A Letter From India is a fine translation by Mahmood Farooqui of a short story by Intizar Hussain. It is a letter from an uncle to his nephew in Karachi after Partition, with lines shuffling between prose and poetry:

your aunt says you must not come alone, you must

bring our daughter-in-law and your children. This

way we will at least be able to observe your children

and see which one is fair and who is dark.

In The Taboo, writer Malini Gupta finds that the village in West Bengal where she goes for her social work can be reached through another route that no one has told her about because it runs through a refugee camp. Intrigued, she deliberately starts taking her vehicle that way and begins piecing together their story.

The refugees there, she learns, arrived from East Bengal after Partition, but the Government forgot about them after its relief and rehabilitation policy ended in 1958. Left to fend for themselves, the camp became home.

She brings out the prison of that existence through the story of Lily, a woman who leaves her husband to start a garage so that she can break free. ‘If I had stayed I would have remained a faceless refugee, disliked, disowned. To me that taboo is greater than the taboo of a single woman,’ says Lily.

Partition’s after-effects continue to the present in myriad ways, from the psychological to the political, including the second Partition between Bangladesh and Pakistan, and there are stories in This Side That Side representing the gamut. Some fail by trying to intellectualise the experience, or by being so clever that they become cryptic.

One story titled Bastards of Utopia, for instance, uses lines from Memoirs of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Schreber presumably as a metaphor for the madness of Partition, and makes little sense. But all in all, there is enough in This Side That Side to make it an arresting kaleidoscope.