Saturday, April 14, 2007

This Above all
Drama of Partition on stage
Khushwant SinghKhushwant Singh

THE Partition of India in 1947 was a tragedy of a scale unknown in the history of mankind. Ten million were uprooted from their homes to find new ones across borders. Hundreds of thousands were butchered in cold blood. Who was responsible? Name any of the leaders of the time. The verdict will be guilty with the sole exception of Mahatma Gandhi. Leaders are presumed to have their hands on the pulse of the people. Either their fingers had gone numb and they did not feel how dangerously fast these were throbbing or they were blind to the consequences. The two men on top, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and M.A. Jinnah, believed that as soon as Partition was completed, peace would be restored and religious minorities in either country would be assured of safety of their lives and property. This did not happen. To this day, over half a century after the division, we continue to pay the price of their folly.

There is library full of literature on the Partition of India. Many novels, short stories and poems have been written on the subject. Many films have been made on the theme. But for the first time a celebrated scholar of contemporary Indian history has tried to dramatise it for the stage.

Dr Shashi Joshi of the Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla has tried her hand at play writing: The Last Durbar: A Dramatic Presentation of the Division of India (OUP). She knows her subject and has made good use of authentic records of proceedings. She has been sparing in the use of fictional mirchmasala to spice up her dialogue. What is lacking is sense of drama and suspense. To start with, you can't have 89 characters in any stage play. The scene shifts from Delhi, Shimla to Karachi, Lahore and back to Delhi; from one home to another. Some acts last a bare two minutes; others go on for over 20. None of the characters really come alive ó not even the star player Lord Louis Mountbatten. Maybe directors like Girish Karnad or Ebrahim Alkazi could re-mould it into one. It could certainly be turned to good use as a film.

The task of dividing a subcontinent like India along communal lines was daunting as every dividing line would leave millions of hapless minorities in the country where they felt insecure. This was most acute in the case of Sikhs who would be split in two equal halves. Then there was the problem of 500-odd princely states, some of them like Hyderabad and Travancore, that wanted to become independent. There were also states like Junagadh, largely Hindu, whose Nawab ruler wanted to accede to Pakistan and Hari Singh of Kashmir who could not make up his mind till Pathan tribals aided by Pakistan invaded his state. No one had much sympathy for the ruling princes, not even Lord Mountbatten who knew some as his friends. He described them as "enlightened autocrats at the best, squalid degenerates at the worst..... They are really a bunch of nitwits". It took a man like Sardar Patel, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, to bring them to heel as if they were his pet dogs.

The play ends with the Mountbattenís bidding farewell to their huge domestic staff on the steps of Rashtrapati Bhawan. I canít think of such a tame ending to high drama.

Entirely unconnected with events covered by Shashi Joshi, there is a doggerel she quotes about the snobbery of the sahib log which I was unaware of:

The men who live in Poona would infinitely sooner play single-handed polo, a sort of solo-polo than play a single chukka with a chap

Who isnít pukka.


Pray or play

Cricket fans complained to God "Have we done a heinous sin ?

We prayed to you day and night

Still our team did not win!"

God laughed and gently said?

"I know you prayed and did pray

But how could your paper tigers win

When they didnít have the will to play?"


Patching up

An American MNC executive travelling by his own car came to India and travelled from north to south exploring business prospects. His car developed some trouble at Delhi and he went to Jama Masjid looking for a mechanic who was able to repair American cars. One mechanic assured him safe journey upto Jaipur with a jugadh type of mechanism.

At Jaipur his car again developed some trouble. This time too another mechanic assured him up to Bhopal with his own jugadh. In this way he was able to complete his travelling schedule.

During his meeting with the Prime Minister, he offered to buy the Indian jugadh technology at a huge price.

Mr Vajpayee refused his offer saying that jugadh technology was not saleable since his own government was running on that technology.

(Contributed by B.K. Pabreja, Gurgaon)