A tragedy in South Asia, 1947: Part 1 of reflections on Indian Summer

I am endlessly fascinated by India. I fueled the flames in college while earning my minor in Asian studies, and my last semester in school, having finished already with my senior thesis, I relaxed by taking a double dose of India: South Asian politics and Modern India history classes, right alongside each other. It was pure heaven.

It's funny to have such a relationship with a place I've never been; nor am I of Indian descent. It's the color, the diversity, the charm, the immensely compelling history of the vast subcontinent. There is such massive human joy and suffering, simultaneously living in South Asia (which comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka roughly, for the purposes of my discussion here).  I've written about it before, and in fact I have a journal that I kept for my Modern India class that is full of my musings about all things culture, history, religion, people, language, war, peace, hate, love, and the enigma that is India.

This background with the region is probably why I plowed through Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann. First, the author conquered my number one complaint about history books: most historians aren't great writers. They let all their grammar and style seams show in an effort to ensure the accuracy and professionalism of their historical argument. I am not saying that you should neglect your accuracy in order to write a more compelling story--they are of equal import. But so much history is somehow sapped of its drama and it-s page-turning nature by bad storytellers wearing their scholarly caps. Von Tunzelmann has written a seriously great story, maintaining the intrigue and mystery and human nature that are all there in the pages and documents that recount the last days of the British Empire, as it voluntarily gave up India in 1947.

Americans, not having been much a part of the British Raj and the whole mess of stuff that was happening in India, don't know veyr much in general about this era of the Indian subcontinent's past. Considering Pakistan is one of the most significant countries on our foreign policy plate today, we absolutely should be more aware of the history of this young nation. It is the country that almost wasn't, arguably probably should not have been, and the partitioning that did occur in 1947, as the British prepared to leave the region, wrecked havoc on millions of lives.

I always remember my South Asian politics professor, who shared her family's experience during partition: her parents were from Lahore (which is in modern-day Pakistan) and they were married and left for their honeymoon in Kashmir around the middle of August in 1947 -- exactly when India and Pakistan were to become two new, separate nations from one another. The problem was that British and Indian officials waited as long as they could to publish the new, rather arbitrary and constantly-argued borders between the countries, because they knew there would be violence and havoc. So Prof. Bhasin's parents, suddenly found their hometown across the border, in Pakistan, while they were now in India. They couldn't return; thousands of people were being murdered and hundreds of thousands were crossing the border from one to the other, and returning at the time would have meant almost certain death, rape, robbery, or all three. They never returned, and now live in Mumbai.

Partition was first proposed by those Muslim politicians and leaders in Hindu-majority India who felt they would never be properly represented as a religious minority; there are several historical arguments about how serious a proposition this even was; by the mid 1940s, many people, including the British Viceroy of India, Dickie Mountbatten, agreed that this plan, if it were executed, would unquestionably bring violence and further calcify the divide between Hindus and Muslims in the region--especially those who decided to stay in their present homes, even if it meant they were now a Hindu living in Muslim-majority Pakistan, for example.

The extent of the violence that did occur could never have been predicted. It is hard to read the history of it and not curse at the decisions of all those politicians and officials--British and Indian and eventual-Pakistani--simply writing up the whole thing in your mind as one giant mistake. It is a curious thought to imagine what would have been different today for the region and for the allies of those nations, had partition never occurred. (Also, I should note, it created a third country, Bangladesh, which started out in 1947 as East Pakistan, and became its own independent nation in 1971. Any quick look at a map of South Asia will tell you what occurred: West Pakistan was able to disenfranchise its whole eastern companion, while using its resources. Von Tunzelmann explores the historical evidence that this little piece of land was basically set up to fail on its own, with its geography and infrastructure, and indeed it struggles greatly.)

I have already made this a little bit more of a history lesson than I intended. I just get so into the details of this massive drama, that was going on while we in the UNited States had little worry other than when European nations might have the money to pay back their enormous debts. We were buying homes and building cul de sacs, and gassing up our Fords. While people in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were fleeing their homes for their lives, becoming refugees based on their religious differences (many of which the British had calcified by creating such categories when they arrived, and utilizing divide and rule techniques, but that's another blog post). Von Tunzelmann wrote this stunning, terrifying and beautiful passage about the tragedy of partition, and I found it worth sharing. It brought me to tears:

 In Stalin's famous words, one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic. In this case, it is not even a particularly good statistic. The very incomprehensibility of what a million violent and horrible deaths might mean, and the impossibility of producing an appropriate response, is perhaps the reason that the events following partition have yielded such a great and moving body of fictional literature and such an inadequate and flimsy factual history. What does it matter to the readers of history today whether there were two hundred thousand deaths, or a million, or two million? On that scale, is it possible to feel proportional revulsion, to be five times more upset at a million deaths than at two hundred thousand? Few can grasp the awfulness of how it might feel to have their fathers barricaded in their houses and burned alive, their mothers beaten and thrown off speeding trains, their daughters torn away, raped and branded, their sons held down in full view, screaming and pleading, while a mob armed with rough knives hacked off their hands and feet. All these things happened, and many more like them; not just once but perhaps a million times. It is not possible to feel sufficient emotion to appreciate this monstrous savagery and suffering. That is the true horror of the events of the Punjab in 1947: one of the vilest episodes in the whole of human history, a devastating illustration of the worst excesses to which human beings can succumb. The death toll is just a number.

This paragraph could be about many atrocities, civil wars and holy wars in human history. It is about what happened in 1947 in the wake of the partition of India, East and West Pakistan, but it captures something larger about history and tragedy as a whole. It is impossible for us to produce appropriate responses to these events. And as I've said before, I cannot imagine experiencing it.

On people, or: "I didn't want to start with an issue"

Peter Hessler, former English teacher in China and author of several books on Chinese life and people, both historical and modern, is a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and long-form journalist. In his interview in reception of his prize, he spoke on what it is to write about China and Chinese life, to him:

“There's always been a tendency to see a place like China in very political terms. I think this is partly because it’s a communist country, it’s run by the Communist Party. And from my perspective, living in China, starting especially the way that I started, as a Peace Corps volunteer, in a small community, teaching in a small college, it gave me a very different starting point. And I really wanted to write about ordinary people in China. I didn't want to start with an issue, or start with a political idea, I wanted to start with an individual, start with a community.”

To me this exemplifies the kind of approach that public historians take to topics of history that have traditionally been very idea-based, politically oriented, and top-down in nature. We can look at a country or an issue or a group of people through these high-minded mechanisms, or we can study people themselves, and how they fit into the larger historical fabric. That is a much more important goal, and ultimately more meaningful.

Hessler is a journalist, that is an important distinction; but he writes based in a historical context, referencing the past at each step, and this is also valuable. (I will fight with people who dismiss great books written by journalists.)

Looking at one individual person's perspective can lead towards a dangerous of generalizing based on not enough larger perspective, yes, but it is in knowing the balance, and in incorporating these people into history that we are best served by learning of the past. Genealogy is not real historical study, but it gets people engaged, and that is important. Someone is interested in feeling a personal connection to the past, and that cannot be ignored in our own, professional approaches to studying history.

I am always reminded of British writer and historian William Dalrymple's  fantastic skill for emphasizing the individual's experience of history, as he does in The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857which keeps the reader vividly engaged by showing us the Indian Rebellion of 1857 through the eyes of several key player on the ground. I have never read a book of history in which I felt so deeply connected to the characters of the era, and when they all begin falling at the hands of their enemies, I had a true emotional reaction to the destruction of this city and these lives. I've heard he does the same thing in one of his other works, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.  An inspiring example--though not without his critiques--of this kind of engaging historical writing.

The charm of Indian English, filled with literary gems

"And what would your good name be, sir?" asked the greeter, with the Dickensian formality that only India has preserved.

So begins writer Benjamin MacIntyre's visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival (read it all here), an event that's been held the last six years to relish in and appreciate the colorful wordplay, rhyming, and dose of formality that characterizes Indian English, and makes it its own distinct entity from the its British source. A few examples:

Unconstrained by received pronunciation, Indian-English delights in wordplay and internal rhyming, eliding words, inventing new ones, but also retaining the elaborate, grammatically correct constructions of an earlier age. A hair-washing is a "headbath"; when a politician scrambles from one place to another, he is "airdashing"; sexual harassment is "eve-teasing."

Couples without children are "issueless", and when a meeting is brought forward, it is "preponed", the opposite of postponed.

The Indian love of English words is on daily display in the crime reporting of Indian newspapers, where "sleuths nab evildoers" or "miscreants abscond" after committing "dastardly deeds."

Spring a year ago, I got to spend a whole semester thinking a lot about India, Pakistan, and larger South Asia, and grew to appreciate the charming quirks and vast diversity of the area even more than I had before. (There's at least one blog about that, here.) The whole concept of a taxi wallah or a chai wallah is stunningly sensible: "wallah" means "someone who does this" or "a person from here," so you might call me an Atlanta wallah. Saves a lot of syllables, and characteristically delightful Indian English. Last spring, it made my job as a mall sales associate a little easier, being instead a retail wallah.


Discovering, India

There are many places in the world counted as historically valuable and culturally rich, places that inspire, bewilder, and enchant every generation who discovers them in their own way. And the experience is different for each person, different for the native resident, different for the generation-removed--who is visiting a place their grandparents lived-- different yet for the expat who has long-departed and again different for both first-time and long-visiting guests. And there is sometimes no rhyme or reason to explain why certain places have become such rich locales in history and in culture; sometimes, it seems, cities or regions were just lucky (or unlucky) enough to be a hot spot in the narrative of the world. Rome is one such place, an ancient capital that has accumulated layers of tradition and intrigue in its thousands of years, a place that inspires my father among millions of others (and next month, March 2010, he will visit it for the first time). Others are dotted all across the globe.

India encompasses several of those significant place-names, spots which have incurred a more colorful past and have somehow not only survived, but have continually accumulated layers of traditions, histories, and cultural idiosyncrasies. The Indian subcontinent in particular has somehow managed to retain aspects of its thousands of years and numerous empires, layering all the traditions of countless ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups to reach the diversity and density of its existence today. "India" today is also a relatively vague term, as Pakistan and Bangladesh share the same heritage and history as the nation-state that we think of as India in 2010. These three countries together form the subcontinent, and it really is just that, a continent, with the same linguistic and cultural boundaries as more dissected regions like Europe or the Middle East. A Bengali and a Rajput are as different culturally as a Russian and an Italian, but modern history has placed them in the same country. We must think of India as a continent when we approach its past and present.

I am a bit of an expert in Indian geography, relative to the average person, as this spring I am taking two classes on the Indian subcontinent: Modern India and South Asia and the Politics of South Asia. By expert, I do not mean I can identify all the rivers, but I do mean I can tell you a bit about the physical features and people who populate each of the states. This has given me additional interest in the stories of Indian people I meet, as just being "Indian" is about the most vague answer there is (may as well just say you're from Asia). Me new spatial concept of the region only deepens a love affair I've had for many years with all things India. At this point, I don't even recall the origins of my interest; but by high school I was reading books on the country from the travel essay section at the bookstore and being invited over to my friend Karn's house to drink chai and borrow Bollywood movies.

Many before me from western societies have also shared this sense of wonderment with its people, religions, textiles, history, and the interaction of them all; men were fascinated during British economic and later political influence, and many-a-hippie or Beatles fan may also have found themselves seeking enlightenment or finding a guru in their own relationship with India. Since classes began in January, I have rekindled my former addiction to chai, India's sweet, milky tea. I have been writing journal entries for class that have me thinking about the place all the time. I'm listening to Bhangra music and my Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack more. I'm trying to grapple with the narrative of Pakistani politics since 1947's partition, when the Muslim nation was left independent and without the structural foundation of government that India had; I'm trying to keep straight who pulled a coup d’état on whom.

A wonderful treat has been given to me, in this, my last semester of undergraduate studies: a whole sixteen-week period where books I've had on my list of "must-reads" for years are finally required for class. We are reading two books by William Dalrymple, a British historian and writer who has spent his career learning about India's past and present. I bought The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters in high school after learning about it then, but will finally have the maturity and time to finish reading it. And I am currently in the middle of The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857, which grippingly recounts the chaos the erupted when sepoys (Indian native who were soldiers for the British East India Company) revolted and the slowly-dying Mughal Empire came to its final demise, ushering in the era of British rule in India. His use of sources and the perspective of the many characters involved in the event make for a spectacular view inside Delhi during the event known neutrally as the "Indian Rebellion of 1857."

Out of this book I have learned the Indian term "wallah," which comes at the end of a word, such as "Delhiwallah," and roughly means "person who is from..." or "person who does..." So if the cable guy is coming to your home in Hyderabad, you may tell you friend something like "The cablewallah is coming to install a satellite dish." It's little gems like this that only increase my respect and adoration of the culture. I would, personally, much rather be a retailwallah than a "sales associate." Incidentally, if you have seen Slumdog Millionaire, you may recall the show host referring to Jamal as a chaiwallah, because he got the tea for people at the call center where he worked.

On the subject of taste buds, one class assignment is to go and eat Indian food. After the primer our professor gave us, I was itching to visit the restaurant he recommended (Swapna), and went the very next evening. I went for the lamb tikki masala, wanting to try out the more interesting flavors of meat (rather than mostly-bland chicken) and keeping it in range for my first (official) time by keeping with a popular dish. With the appetizers and sauces and naan and the spices and flavors in each one, I tasted more than enough to have me coming back-- very soon.

This fall, my Mom, does custom sewing, created a wedding dress for a young woman out of vintage saris, which were given to her upon the death of a close relative to their family. Though the bride is not Indian, she was wed on December 19, 2009 wearing a wonderful custom-built dress made from pieces of some gorgeous saris, in rich reds, oranges, and creams. I sometimes have the wish that I could wear a sari, as an American blonde girl in Atlanta, Georgia, and not draw any strange looks. Or even that I owned one just to wear anyway. Someday, I hope.

Although some of these things are part of a class, they transcend the classroom. For me, it is learning on a very personal level, as I find so many beautiful things buried in India's varied culture. India, even while it is a place I've never seen, inspires and bewilders me. Delhi, Bombay, Hyderabad, the coasts of Kerala, are all very different from each other and steeped in layers of history and tradition that a native of a relatively new-born country cannot naturally conceive of.

There are many spots in India that are rich with history, layered with thousands of years of traditions, and they have long-served as the meeting points between ethnicity, language, religion. Today they also serve as representatives to the outside world; some in history have looked disdainfully at the country, seen it as a place unworthy of respect, as the British had been increasingly doing in the years before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. But there were generations of men before and after that saw much more than this. Perhaps they saw what we recognize today, those of us who have such great admiration and respect for a land that holds such an ancient, colorful past: India as a continent, an immense, aching, breathing, enlightened, beautiful place.


(Visit "More Ink" to check out some of my recommended books and films in or about the subcontinent.)