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.

A few commandments of happiness

For writer Gretchen Rubin's happiness project, she started a blog as one of her work goals, to expand her identity as a writer and connect with a new community. On this blog, over the course of the project, she shared her own Twelve Commandments for Happiness, and many readers shared some of their own. A great list of them is in the book. I wanted to share. The ones in italics are my favorites.

  • Forget the past.
  • Do stuff.
  • Talk to strangers.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Stop the venting and complaining. 
  • Go outside.
  • Spread joy.
  • Never bother with people you hate.
  • Don't expect it to last forever. Everything ends and that's okay.
  • Stop buying useless crap.
  • Make mistakes.
  • Give thanks: for the ordinary and the extraordinary. 
  • Create something that wasn't there before. 
  • Notice the color purple.
  • Make footprints: "I was here."
  • Be silly. Be light.
  • Be the kind of woman I want my daughters to be.
  • Shit happens--count on it.
  • Friends are more important than sex.
  • Choose not to take things personally.
  • Be loving and love will find you.
  • Soak it in.
  • This too shall pass.
  • "Be still, and know that I am God."
  • Remember, everyone's doing their best all the time.
  • Expect a miracle.
  • I am already enough. 
  • Let it go, man.
  • Light a candle or STFU.
  • Recognize my ghosts.
  • What do I really, really, really want?
  • Help is everywhere.
  • What would I do if I weren't scared?
  • If you can't get out of it, get into it. 
  • Keep it simple.
  • Give without limits, give without expectations.
  • React to the situation.
  • Feel the danger (many dangers--saturated fats, drunk driving, not making deadlines, law school--don't feel dangerous).
  • Start where you are.
  • People give what they have to give.
  • Be specific about my needs.
  • Let go, let God.
  • If you're not now here, you're nowhere.
  • Play the hand I'm dealt.
  • Own less, love more.
  • One is too many; a hundred aren't enough. 
  • Nothing too much.
  • Only connect.
  • Be a haven.

On happiness, and pleasure in failure

From Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project:

One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened. Losing your job might be a blow to your self-esteem, but the fact that you lead your local alumni association gives you a comforting source of self-respect. Also, a new identity brings you into contact with new people and new experiences, which are also sources of happiness.

On enjoying your failures:

Pushing myself, I knew, would be a source of discomfort. It's a Secret of Adulthood: Happiness doesn't always make you feel happy. When I thought about why I was sometimes reluctant to push myself, I realized that it was because I was afraid of failure--but in order to have more success, I needed to be willing to accept more failure. I remembered the words of Robert Browning: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

To counteract this fear, I told myself, "I enjoy the fun of failure." It's fun to fail, I kept repeating. It's part of being ambitious; it's part of being creative. If something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

10 books everyone should read

(in my opinion)

I was excited to get a request from my friend Andres, for a list of my "10 books everyone should read," because it forced me (non-reluctantly) back to my bookshelf to see which books have had the biggest impact on the way I view the world. That is my criteria. Because while there are many books that interest based on my own personal taste and penchants (this includes South Asian politics and history, linguistics, Georgia history, travelogues), I recognize that this is not the material that needs to be on a list "for everyone to read." Spots on this short-list must be reserved for those books whose stories and message endure beyond their particular topic or subject at hand, and instead resonate with the human spirit, our universal soul.

These are the 10 books that have changed the way I see the world, and which continue to resonate deeply with me. Their subjects dive deep into universal love, pain, suffering, faith, healing, goodness, and evil. Humanity.

Fiction:

The Kite Runner, written by Khaled Hosseini (2004) - You will never see Afghanistan the same way. Possibly the most affecting book I have ever read. I wept for a nation.

Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe (1994) - I was supposed to read this book for World Lit in college, and couldn't devote enough time to it to learn the African names; I ended up with Sparknotes to pass the test. But it was assigned to me again in a West African History course the following year, and this time, I was absorbed in the story, blown away by the way its historical point echoes significantly on the state of modern Africa and post-colonial strife on that continent. The title comes from a famous poem ("things fall apart / the center cannot hold..."), and we witness how things do fall tragically and magically apart within one African tribe, when Christian missionaries arrive. It is a tale of the very good and the very bad to come of missionary work in Africa. Achebe forces you to examine both essential parts.

Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley (1931) - If you've ever had a conversation with me about literature, chances are I've professed my love for this short-list classic dystopian thriller. I read it in high school and again in college, and its comments on the modern world ring truer today than when he wrote it more than 80 years ago. The other famous dystpoian tale, George Orwell's 1984, is based on a society where the Big Brother government is so controlling we have no freedom. Huxley's tale is set in a society where they have so much pleasure--in the form of free sex, pornography ("the feelies"--just your regular cinema experience that often ends in an orgy), and soma drugs to stay happy and carefree--that there is no need to keep us under control-- our addiction to pleasures does that for us. Imagine a world where we are so seduced by comforts that no one needs to be controlled by a repressive state. Far scarier, and far more accurate a depiction of what a dystopic future might look like (in my humble opinion). Gripping story.

American Born Chinese, written by Gene Luen Yang (2006) - If you don't feel like mulling over the failures of humanity (as a few of these others might), then start with this, an illustrated tale of life as a Chinese-American kid. It was my first foray into the world of the graphic novel, and I was blown away by how much emotion can be expressed in an illustrated little boy's face. (But then again, I should know already how emotional cartoons can be, after 18 years of watching Pixar movies.) A tale of cultural overlapping combines with the Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King, to make for a lighthearted, humorous commentary on growing up as a hyphenated American; in his case, Chinese-American.

Candide: Or Optimism, written by Voltaire (1759) -  This is another book that I basically ignored the first time it was put in front of me, and which became a stunning revelation when it was assigned to me a second time. I guess my high school perspective missed the massive amounts of humor in this classic work of satire. Voltaire's commentary on the relentless optimism of man--even in the face of never-ending bad news and disaster--is still a touchstone today. Read it (duh).

 

Non-fiction: 

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, written by Malcolm Gladwell (2009) - I swear to you, Malcolm Gladwell's brain does not operate like the rest of ours. He sees the world in a fascinating way, and asks the questions many of us would never think to ask. Why are there numerous kinds and flavors of mustard, but only one kind of Ketchup? Is plagiarism really even a thing? (And does it matter all that much?) Are smart people overrated? This is a collection of the best articles Gladwell has written for the New Yorker in the last decade or so. And they will blow your little, intelligent mind. My favorite in the whole book: "John Rock's Error: What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn't Know About Women's Health." Among many other "why-didn't-I-think-of-this-before?" questions. And blessedly, he has some answers.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, written by Randy Shilts (1987) - Shilts wrote The Book on the early HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the successes and failures of activists, politicians, doctors, scientists, and everyday people faced with the disease of a century. You can read my Amazon.com review if you don't believe me: this book is one of most important books I have ever read. It also confirms another truth: journalists are fantastic history writers. Shilts weaves a tale of human drama, and it reads like fiction. How else would I commit to 600 pages on this subject?

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, written by Edward J. Larson (1998) - I'll give you a clue--the famous Tennessee trial on teaching evolution in public schools was nothing like you think it was. It was purposely challenged, and Scopes, a still-green young teacher, was the volunteer offender, who would be used to launch a legal war over the still-touchy subject of science and religion in schools. If you read one history book, read this one. Highly relevant today.

 

On Georgia and the South (Everyone should understand the South a little better, whether you live here or not!)

Beach Musica novel, written by Pat Conroy (1995) - The writing is extraordinary, and the drama compares to nothing else. This is a sweeping tale of a South Carolina family across several generations, spanning a century and tackling racial prejudice, a changing South, the Holocaust, multiple wars, and the battle wounds inflicted on a generation in Vietnam. Add a lot of family drama and coming-of-age tales of love (and loss), and you've got Beach Music. Perfect for the approaching long, hot Georgia summer.

Praying for Sheetrock: A work of nonfiction, written by Melissa Fay Greene (1991) - Greene lives in Atlanta now (and has written a wide variety of other works), but she was living near the places and events this book recounts in the 1970s and 1980s, when McIntosh County -- on the Georgia coast -- was still lagging far behind the rest of the state in grappling with desegregation and racial prejudices and injustices. The events really happened, though it reads like fiction. An important piece of history for anyone who lives in the South, or feels they want to understand it a bit better (or maybe this will only add to your complicated image of it--rightly so).

 

A note: I own all these books. I am willing to lend them out.

 

Summer reading list

Books I read this summer (and recommend)

For the preservationist you: The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a CIty Transformed by Michael Meyer

For the adventurous youthful side: Undress Me In the Temple Of Heaven: A Memoir by Susan Jane Gilman

For an all-out laugh (and very breezy, quick read): Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American at Home and Abroad by Firoozeh Dumas

Your source of comedic relief on everything from unsolicited "help" on being a mom, to the old men's Christmas event at the YMCA (oh yeah, and a disastrous honeymoon on a cruise ship...): Bossypants by Tina Fey

For when you need to be reminded, we all start somewhere: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

OK, everyone's read it. Darn it, it's SO good. Read it again: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

For the kid (and really, the adult) in you: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (yes, again)

For the crime thriller fix: The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson 

For adventure in the Brazilian Amazon, complex moral dilemmas, and mystery: State of Wonder by Anne Patchett

 

Books that I was enjoying, alas, did not finish (but still recommend!)

For a thoughtful analysis, crafted beautifully, on your missing father figure: Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama

For your do-gooder, "I want to change the world now" mood: It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace by Rye Barcott

 

Books I read that were, eh...

Mostly trite gender analysis, of all our "little princesses": Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein

For when you want to hear a talented writer talk about his crippling childhood fear of Jesus, and his hatred of Fidel Castro: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire

Bossy lady

I loved Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants. Her thoughts on being a woman in society, laughing at her own childhood, recounting the sagas of SNL writing days and Sarah Palin sketches, talk of her father, 30 Rock writing and development, motherhood, and in the intersection of all these things, was fantastic. I laughed all the way through it, especially because I listened to the audiobook, read by Ms. Fey herself! (The fact that I used an exclamation point means I'm serious. Those are rare.) It was like spending nine or so hours with her, laughing about life and being very real. Wanted to share one funny little quip, in which she is reflecting on her several-month escapade back in the fall of 2008, when she made a series of guest appearances on Saturday Night Live as Sarah Palin during the months leading up to the election. She's talking about how the vice presidential debates sketch was her favorite, and why.

 

One, I felt like I contributed a lot of jokes to this one, so my writer ego likes it best.

Two, Queen Latifah was there.

Three, I thought the speeches that Jim Downey wrote for Jason Sudeikis as Joe Biden were brilliant. Especially the stuff where Biden is trying to prove that he's not some Washington elite by talking about how he's from Scranton, Pennsylvania, "the most godforsaken place on earth." I thought that was ingenious, becuase not only was the ad hominem attack on Scranton a hilarious comedy left turn, it also exemplified what the election had become. Instead of talking about issues, everybody was trying to prove how "down-home" they were. "I'm just like you" was the subtext of every speech.

Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? "I'm not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I'm just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I'd like to cut your chest open." The crowd cheers.

That continues to strike a cord these days...

I recommend her book highly--mostly to women, I might add, but many men will get some laughs as well. You can skip over the parts about stages of being fat and skinny in her life, and some of the motherhood bits--although those are some of the very best bits.