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‘Savage Harvest’ – Hope in humanity amid unfolding tragedy

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By Vinod Taksal

Book Review: “Savage Harvest – Stories of Partition”; Author: Mohinder Singh Sarna, Translated by Navtej Sarna; Publisher: Rupa Publications India Pvt.

Ltd. 2013. Price: Rs.295

The Partition was a traumatic chapter in the history of sub-continental India. Some two million people are said to have been slaughtered on either side of the religious divide, sacrificed to fanaticism and hatred. Over 20 million people were displaced. It was the biggest peace-time carnage-

One that dwarfed war-time violence.

Mohinder Singh Sarna was among the millions who suffered. He endured, witnessed and lived through it when the world around him was crashing down to recount the horrors, loss and pain. What he felt, saw and heard those days found words later in his outpourings in poems, volumes of short stories and novels and then again in epic poems.

But his Partition stories stand out.

“Perhaps this is because I passed through that cataclysm unprotected … I saw humanity sobbing as it breathed its last. It shook my faith in mankind and in life,” he wrote in 1990 in “Meri Sahityik Svaijeevni”.

The Partition, as Sarna tells us, seared many generations, from father’s father to son’s son, withered grandmas and crushed granddaughters. The land from Delhi to Rawalpindi was soaked in blood. Once lush farms were strewn with the dead and covered with ash from burning piers and smoky shells of houses.

The babus and leaders in Delhi couldn’t have in their wildest dreams dreamt of what nightmares they were about to unleash when they red-inked a line on paper to demarcate India and Pakistan. The boundary line divided villages into “us” and “them”, set once friendly neighbours at one another’s throats, and tore families apart, never to come together again.

“Savage Harvest” tells of the stories of riots and rapes, plunder and pillage, arson and killings. These acts of violence were to permanently fracture society, leave a deep imprint on arts and culture in the decades to come, and most importantly wreck the psyche of the people far beyond the geographical confines of the holocaust.

Was everything lost forever? Sarna’s stories unfold tragedies, but also uphold the hope in humanity. They rejuvenate faith.

Meet the characters whom Sarna brings alive with deft expression.

The village iron-monger, fearful of his brigand son, is hammering out a pile of sickles the gang would use later in the night to chop down the infidels.

Shabir, the strapping young man, risking his life, rescues an abducted girl from his own rogue uncle. And Syeda, a god-fearing housewife, cuts her husband down with a glance full of contempt, impelling him to cast into the fire a spinning wheel he had looted.

Religious divide does not stand between an old Muslim faithful and his Sikh landlady when her entire family, and even daughters and a dog, have fallen to a frenzied mob. It is, in fact, piety and vision of his mother reading the Quran that saves a sex-starved middle-aged Kashmiri Muslim from sinning when he chances upon a young Kashmiri woman as godsend.

But these are not the stories of just courage and compassion. Sarna blends the heart-wrenching with the heart-warming.

Like the story of a distraught Sikh mother baring her own bosom before her son incensed at his parading of hapless Muslim women naked in the streets of Delhi. Or another of an elderly Sikh woman refugee taking under her cover two young Muslim girls stripped of their clothes when a mob was about to lynch them in revenge for the violence on the border they had not even seen.

And while Partition provides the ashen background to his tales, in some Sarna delivers a sting in the tail.

Meet then, a middle-aged officer in New Delhi who at a get-together at his house throws out the father of a prospective groom for his niece whom he had seen slaying an innocent Muslim in the killing fields of the border. Or, a Muslim woman from India who breaks off her daughter’s marriage proposal in Islamabad because of the would-be groom’s father’s obsession with the Kashmir problem.

There also are the delightful stories of a postal clerk who wins the heart and hand of a young woman assistant to whom he scribbles notes because he thinks she is deaf and mute, and of vegetable seller Bashir Ahmad who offers to take his wife to Barnala years after settling in India only because he hears an Azaan in the town and feels safe.

The underlying social message in Sarna’s stories is that hate and violence cannot have a place in society and have indeed no religion. Basic human values must be the guiding spirit in any society.

Originally written in Punjabi, the stories have been translated by Sarna’s diplomat-son Navtej, who too has a way with words.

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