October 11, 2016

Of Partition and Polio: Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India is visceral and heartbreaking and everyone should read it


There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? I ask Cousin.
‘Rubbish,’ he says, no one’s going to break India. It’s not made of glass!’

Cracking India (also known as Ice Candy Man) is one of those novels that 16-year-old Anum (more interested in North American YA – not that there’s anything wrong with loving a particular genre as long as one eventually gives other genres a chance) would never have liked. But 24-year-old Anum can very clearly appreciate the importance of reading any and all fiction related to the 1947 partition - an event so shocking and traumatic that its repercussions still resonate in the here and now in both Pakistan and India (and of course Kashmir, but that is a topic for another day).

For those of you who don’t exactly know what the partition was, (so basically most people who aren’t Pakistani or Indian – if you are either of these two, skip this whole paragraph) the summary goes: before 1947 there was one huge land area called the Indian subcontinent, ruled by these group of power-hungry, eventually-decadent rulers called the Mughal Emperors (think Taj Mahal, Akbar the Great, all those cool architectural wonders in India), who then lost power to the British colonial powers, who went around wrecking all kinds of havoc on the land, eventually causing the people in the area to want to kick the British people out (demand for self-independence, right to rule, lots of other important historical stuff that really is more interesting than our textbooks make them sound). But before the British could be kicked out, a decision had to be made about who was going to rule the area upon their leaving, and this led to major conflicts between the Muslims and Hindus in the subcontinent (not the only religious parties in the area but certainly those in the majority) who both had different ideas about what should happen. Long story very (very) short, in 1947 when the British eventually left, the whole area was divided into two: one piece was called India, and was considered the land of the Hindus (although of course other minorities continue to exist there, and the state is actually secular – again, a topic for another day) and a completely new state called Pakistan was created – supposedly a land for Muslims (but of course any well-read human being will tell you that the rampant violation of human rights make it something else entirely).

Impromptu history lesson aside, this book is about partition, written from the point of view of a young Parsee girl (Zoroastrian for you, in case you didn’t know). Think The Diary of Anne Frank, except this is fiction and the setting is another major historical event involving lots of death and conflict and at the same time emergence of adulthood and the pains of growing up.

Lenny, our protagonist, suffers from polio (Pakistan is one of the two countries where children still suffer from Poliomyelitis; literally the rest of the world has managed to eradicate it), a disease which affects young children and causes muscle weakness and in some cases paralysis. Taken care of by her Ayah, a beautiful young Hindu girl, we follow Lenny’s story through the events leading up to 1947 and afterwards, and even though I’ve spent literally my whole life reading dreary, boring historical texts about the partition, there’s something else entirely about reading how individuals got affected by the crushing brutality of those days.

The radio announces through the crackling: ‘There have been reports of trouble in Gurdaspur. The situation is reported to be under control.’
‘Which means there is uncontrollable butchering going on in Gurdaspur,’

Ayah, as Lenny’s vivacious and responsible caretaker adored by her huge group of admirers, is the main proponent of our story, but there are enough side characters to retain our interest. Lenny, with her crippled leg, is more interested in retaining her abnormal foot, because she believes it helps her live a life more pampered than other people. Her doctor certainly encourages the notion by telling Lenny’s parents not to strain Lenny with studies and exams, to not pressure her nerves by sending her to school, to basically let Lenny live wild and free.

What will happen once the cast comes off? What if my foot emerges immaculate, fault-free? Will I have to behave like other children, slogging for my share of love and other handouts? Aren’t I too old to learn to throw tantrums – or hold my breath and have a fit? While other children have to clamour and jump around to earn their candy I merely sit or stand, wearing my patient, butter-wouldn’t-melt expression . . . and displaying my callipers – and I am showered with candy.

Right alongside Lenny’s growth from an innocent, pampered five-year-old to her teen years is the story of the partition and of how the changing times enter Lenny’s household as well. Her Ayah, who acts as a sort of beacon for men of all religions because of her beauty and sexuality, is always surrounded by Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, all of them intent on engaging in discussions not only about politics but about what to eat that day and where they want to meet up; mundane, silly things amongst all the serious, charged atmosphere.

This, I found truly intriguing. All these people belonging to different faiths sit down regularly and have frank, if sometimes bitter, but mostly honest conversations about what the political climate is like, and how it affects them. In the current times we live in, I honestly can’t imagine sitting down with a Christian or a Hindu belonging to my country and having an open conversation about the treatment of religious minorities over here, or what the politics of the country are doing to the religious atmosphere. 

‘Funny things are happening inside the old city . . . Stabbings . . . Either the police can’t do anything – or they don’t want to. A body was stuffed into a manhole in my locality . . . It was discovered this morning because of the smell: a young, good-looking man.’

One thing that manages to help balance the viciousness of the story’s darker side is Lenny’s own life and the characters that fill her surroundings. Her loving, stern mother and her quiet father, her younger brother and her cousin, the neighbours and the tenants, the chef and gardener and guard, all of these have a life of their own and dot Lenny’s life with what some might term as irrelevant rambling, but I thought were necessary for one to be able to breathe amongst all the other moments of sadness. Still, the majority of our story, being that it is situated in such a volatile period of history, comes back again and again to its main, central plot point: that of the partition itself.

I become aware of religious differences.
It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves – and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah – she is also a token. A Hindu.

But even though this story tackles such a sensitive topic, about a period of history riddled with so much violence and destruction, it’s still quite funny. Weird, but true. Blatant humour, subtle jesting, even moments of outright hilarity occur here and there, lending a lighter touch to the otherwise horrifying repetitions of rape, death and kidnapping that dot the narrative.

‘If we must pack off, let’s go to London at least. We are the English king’s subjects aren’t we? So, we are English!’

And of course, it was inevitable that familiar names - names I’ve seen regularly in textbooks and figures I’ve seen famous pictures of – would eventually crop up, because what is a discussion about the 1947 partition without Jinnah (the Pakistani leader) or Gandhi (the Indian one)? But the fascinating thing this story does is that it plants these figures in that time very solidly, like figurines coming to life out of history books. Suddenly the actions of Nehru and Gandhi and Jinnah and Lord Wavell and Mountbatten, people who existed too long away for me to really care about, suddenly seem much more significant, carrying so much more weight.

‘What’s it to us if Jinnah, Nehru and Patel fight? They are not fighting our fight,’ says Ayah, lightly.
‘That may be true, but they are stirring up trouble for us all.’

But the book makes it clear that for most of the characters, the machinations and manipulations of the leaders feel like they’re far away from their own lives. Only a few raise their heads up and face the fact that the effects of dealings at a government level are spilling over into the streets, but the idea that politics happen at a distance from the civilians, who love all their neighbours equally irrespective of religion, is part of an overall theme that’s repeated again-

‘Our villages come from the same racial stock. Muslim or Sikh, we are basically Jats. We are brothers. How can we fight each other?’

And again-

“So what if you’re a Sikh? I’m first a friend to my friends . . . And an enemy to their enemies . . . And then a Mussulman! God and the politicians have enough servers. So, I serve my friends.”

And again-

‘I’m alert to what’s happening . . . I have a radio. But our relationships with the Hindus are bound by strong ties. The city folk can afford to fight . . . we can’t. We are dependent on each other: bound by our toil. To us villagers, what does it matter if a peasant is a Hindu, or a Muslim, or a Sikh?’

However, all of that crumbles and falls apart once the actual rioting starts, because even though the Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus remain friends, their relatives are raped and kidnapped and butchered by other Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus, and it is only a matter of time before they fall upon each other. And when they do, when friends turn against each other, it is where the story hurts the most. Those were the moments when you need a break from reading this novel, because you ache both for the Muslim whose family has been slaughtered during a train ride, but you also pity the Hindu whose family is the one the remaining Muslims take their anger out on. There’s no end to the viciousness, the circle of vengeance and killing that erupted during the partition [AS3] (the largest mass migration in human history, with millions of deaths on both sides, and unbelievably chilling statistics. An example: Some seventy-five thousand women were raped, and many of them were then disfigured or dismembered.) 

A naked child, twitching on a spear struck between her shoulders, is waved like a flag: her screamless mouth agape she is staring straight up at me. A crimson fury blinds me. I want to dive into the bestial creature clawing entrails, plucking eyes, tearing limbs, gouging hearts, smashing brains: but the creature has too many stony hearts, too many sightless eyes, deaf ears, mindless brains and tons of entwined entrails. . .

At its heart the story is about Lenny’s passage into her teen years, as a child suffering from polio, discovering her sexuality, learning the difference between white lies and truth, but because it is set in such an important period of history, it becomes something more. And even though it’s not the best thing I’ve read by far, it was still chilling enough, still visceral enough for me to stop and feel and think more deeply about partition than the sort of second-hand barely-there sympathy you feel after reading about it in history books.

Recommendation

I am Pakistani. In a snap. Just like that.

The story is vicious in its honesty, and in how the characters react to the situations around them. There really are no moments of hiding the brutality, and it’s heartbreaking. Definitely recommended, but only if you’re in the mood.