The division of India triggered the biggest exodus of the 20th century as millions of people had to leave their homeland and settle in unknown terrain. People from the then Punjab, Bengal and Kashmir were the hardest hit and many of them could never come out of the trauma induced by the widespread madness and massacre.
Over the years, some artists tried to portray the sufferings of the common people through their works. Two among them stand out for their genuine and ingenious portrayals: Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak and Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto.
Quite interestingly we can find some striking similarities between their perceptions and presentations of the partition as well as their afflictions associated with the incident. This write-up attempts to touch upon some common threads that tie the lives and works of these two great artists.
Manto had a troubled childhood because of his dysfunctional family. His mother suffered from mental illness for a long time, but it was his disciplinarian father, a judge by profession, who might be held mostly responsible for his psychosis.
Those shattered days triggered his fractured identity as Manto could never nurture the sense of belongingness to his abode. Writings from his inchoate period bear the signs of this sore, but the trauma gets much more accentuated in the works produced after the partition.
Manto left India in 1948 and lived in Pakistan until his death but never accepted the partition. He continued to vent out his anguish through his writings and started to experiment with the literary means of expression. The unorthodox stories do not straightforwardly convey the idea and his characters also lack a language to voice their woes and disapproval. [SSZ1]
Considering the limited scope of this write-up, we can take up one story of Manto that exhibited the above-mentioned attributes: the "Toba Tek Singh".
Written in 1951, the context of the story is a testament to the sheer despise for the partition, which kicked off with the initiative of bureaucrats to exchange the estranged inmates of mental asylums between India and Pakistan.
The patients did not understand the rationale behind the move and weird things started to happen in one of the asylums of Pakistan. One patient got up on the branches of a tree claiming that he does not belong to India or Pakistan but the tree is his country.
There were some criminals in the asylum who were not truly lunatics but pretended to be so to avoid punishment. Even they failed to fathom what this partition truly implied.
Another inmate named Bashant Singh listened to the discussions on the partition debate and muttered indistinctly all the time. He strongly believed that he has some lands in a place named "Toba Tek Singh" and would go around asking everyone where this place fell after the partition. When he asked another patient, who claimed to have divine authority, he answered: "It is still undecided whether 'Toba Tek Singh' will belong to Pakistan or India because I have not given my verdict on this yet".
On the fateful day of exchanging the inmates on the border area, Bashant Singh declined to go to India until someone assured him that Toba Tek Singh is in India. When no one succeeded to convince him, the otherwise mild-mannered Basant Singh acted unrulily and stood stubbornly in the demarcation area.
Authorities involved in the process gave up on him and moved on with other inmates to complete the formalities of exchange. Next morning, Bashant Sing, who did not lie down for a single day in the last 15 years of life, was found flat and lifeless on the ground, an unnamed area bordering upon the newly born nations named India and Pakistan.
This style of subtle but sublime censure of the division is evident in the works of Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak as well, who depicted the distress of displaced people in almost all of his works. Born and raised in present-day Dhaka, young Ritwik experienced an existential jolt when Bengal was split.
He along with his family members migrated to West Bengal leaving behind their ancestral land but Ritwik could never reconcile with the pain inflicted by the event. He tried out different means to relay the harrowing accounts of this man-made crisis.
Ritwik started his career in theatre and then moved into films and wrote some fictions and articles along the way. Preoccupation with the partition theme is the most prominent attribute of the corpus of his works. It was his films that he is mostly known for though he made only seven of them.
I will briefly discuss "Meghe Dhaka Tara", the most famous one by the maverick maker, to further the key argument of this write-up.
The story centred on Nita, a diffident but idealist girl, who toiled all day to earn her livelihood. The members of the refuge family depended on her income and the selfless Nita tried her best not to disappoint anyone.
Though she had to give up her studies for the sake of a full-time job, she encouraged Sanat, her suitor, to complete his study and even lend him some money. But her dearest ones did not hesitate to deceive her. Sanat got a promising job and started pressing Nita for marriage. Upon her refusal, he shamelessly asked for her younger sister.
To Nita's utmost shock, her sister accepted Sanat's proposal and all this happened with the tacit support of their mother. The most self-sacrificing member of the family became ostracised in her own home and had to live in isolation after being diagnosed with tuberculosis.
The writer-director rendered the betrayal of the crooked politicians through the selfish nature of Nita's family members and the tragic fate of Nita represented the hapless condition of the partition victims. As Nita was turned into an outcast in her own home, Ghatak believed the uprooted people of the newborn nations had to live like an alien in their land.
It was not only the content of Ghatak's film that bore the reference of partition but he also fashioned the film language to emphasize the ordeal of partition victims. The subversive use of melodrama, unorthodox cinematography, experimental usage of background score, exaggerated acting, every single component of filmmaking seems to bear the brunt of its characters' agony.
This sort of radical experimentation with form is apparent in Manto's writing as well. He broke away from the traditional mode of expression in many regards and conveyed his ideas through disoriented characters and their disjointed thoughts.
The brevity of stories (some spanning over only a few sentences!), irony and satire, meaningless words and phrases, repetition of sentences, obscure symbolism comprise the stylistic profile of Manto's literary pieces and he relentlessly moulded the language to fit the morbidity of his narratives.
The impact of partition was not confined only to the works of Manto and Ghatak but their personal lives were shaped by this event. For example, both of them were deeply influenced by Marxist ideologies. Ghatak was engaged with Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), which was quite renowned for its leftist plays and campaigns.
He constantly borrowed from his experience at IPTA after venturing into filmmaking. On the other hand, though Manto was distanced by the left-oriented 'art-for-art's sake' group of Lahore-based writers, some researchers have frequently pointed out how this elitist artist, as well as a few scholars, failed to discern the Marxist undertone of Manto's works that always dealt with the marginalized section of the society.
Manto and Ghatak found it increasingly difficult to deal with the strain caused by the chaos of partition and they sought refuge in alcohol. The situation became so bad that they had to spend some time in the rehabilitation centre to recover from addiction but to no avail. Both of them drank to death at a premature age, Manto at 46 and Ghatak at 53.
I wonder whether the overwhelming challenge to start a career afresh in a new environment was the major catalyst behind their mental collapse. A close look into their works and lives does not support this view.
Rather it seems that they were not disturbed primarily for their loss or struggle, but they were irrevocably impaired by apprehending the national tragedy that fell upon the people of this subcontinent.
Manto had quite a secured source of income while he was in Bombay, and he could have regained his financial foothold in Pakistan. He had the talent and knowhow but he failed because he knew no way to fill the mental void left by the partition. Same is true for Ritwik Ghatak as well.
Though he was not appreciated by mass people a coterie of the intelligentsia and influential people had high regard for him. He could have managed a decent living but the wound of the division was profoundly personal for him.
He writes on " I simply cannot believe that the Bengal is divided and it can never be undone. The promise and potential of the United Bengal have been completely crushed".
This common thread of Manto and Ghatak, to perceive a national tragedy as a private one to the extent that their own lives crumbled down under its weight, suggests the depth of their empathy for the land and its people.
This quality alone is tenable to rank them with the most important artists this subcontinent has ever produced. Their creations will always serve as an inexhaustible source of inspiration for all who dare to free the society from the bondage of bigotry.