Lamat R Hasan
In today’s conflicted world where language has become an index of one’s identity, Krishan Chander’s works speak volumes for the subcontinent’s glorious and secular past even when his writings are about the bloody Partition of it. Counted among the best writers of the Urdu language, Chander stole everyone’s heart through the medium of the short story. One such story is Ghaddaar, translated into English as Traitor by Rakshanda Jalil.
It’s always a treat for language cripples, like me, to read the translated works of bilingual writers, especially the likes of Chander and Premchand, who wrote in the days when language was not linked to one’s religious and cultural identity.
Jalil’s translation is, therefore, timely and important in more ways than one, as she points out in the preface to the book: “The word ‘traitor’ acquires a new meaning and a sharper edge in the deeply polarized times we live in…” In today’s times a traitor could be anybody – even somebody trying to write in the language of the ‘Other’, or favouring the ‘Other’ in his writings.
Chander, born in 1914 in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, grew up in Kashmir, where his doctor father was posted, and then went to Lahore to study English literature. On his mother’s insistence he studied law, but ended up being a writer as that best suited his personality.
Though an active member of the Progressive Writers’ Movement – which included literary greats such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Habib Tanvir, Ehteshaam Hussain, Kaifi Azmi, Amrita Pritam, Ismat Chughtai, Manto and Premchand – Chander’s incisive writings were seen as ‘flawed’ in many ways. He was accused of being an incorrigible idealist, even a maudlin sentimentalist, writes Jalil.
His stories are telling of his empathic nature, how he felt for the less fortunate classes, and how he could never disconnect with their plight – as could his peer group of writers. Chander didn’t quite fit in back then; just as well that he didn’t have to see and write about the treacherous times we live in now. Nevertheless, Ghaddaar is as much a story of our times as it was of the bloodshed of 1947.
Jalil is a prolific translator and a literary critic and her studies into the Progressive Writers’ Movement help readers see Chander’s works in the much-needed scholarly light. She decided to translate Ghaddaar on poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar’s suggestion.
Ghaddaar, published in 1960 by Naya Idara, is set against the backdrop of India’s Partition in August 1947. Baijnath is a much married, well-to-do Hindu businessman in love with a Muslim woman, Shadaan. Both are romancing in a little village called Lala where they are on vacation from Lahore. As the two seek refuge among the “sarkanda bushes whose slender green stalks, topped by silky white plumes seem to proudly hold their heads high – just as their love”, they overhear the plot to kill all the Hindu young men by August 15.
Thereon begin the horrors of the “storm” of Partition for Baijnath’s family of landlords, who till then lived comfortably with Muslims who tilled their land. The forced journey across the newly created border exposes an ugliness of both sides that none has been witness to before, shattering every myth of the goodness of mankind, questioning the notion of country and religion and baring the fangs of jingoistic nationalism.
This story of India’s division that triggered the migration of Hindus and Sikhs to India and Muslims to Pakistan has been documented many times over – both before and after Chander. However, this is exactly where Chander scores over the others.
As Jalil writes, “…while not the longest or the most well-known of Krishan Chander’s novels, it is certainly the most compact yet moving piece of writing in his oeuvre”. Chander does not fail to delight his readers with his trademark lyrical descriptions even when the protagonist is going through the worst test of his life – “Put me in your wings and take me away, O swans! I haven’t slept for days.”
Hunted out of his ancestral village by drum-beating and sword-wielding Muslims, Baijnath discovers there is no room for a Hindu in this now alien and new Muslim country. Baijnath stands by his secular values through the turmoil he is experiencing both within and outside, only briefly losing his mind when news of his young son being killed comes in, and that of his sister being abducted.
He asks for a knife, a dagger, to take revenge – but fails to rape a captured Muslim woman, as Hindus wait their turn in a queue. Her cries of “O brother, I am your sister” hit him hard.
Baijnath rushes to save a child clinging to the body of his Muslim mother. He sees his lost son in the Muslim child and tells him, “I am your chacha”.
Baijnath’s personal journey of reconciling with the many traitors within him – from looking for a dagger to kill Muslims to saving a Muslim child – is a beautiful portrayal of an ideal man’s evolution.
However, due to his refusal to flash the weapons of hate and distrust, he conveniently becomes a Ghaddaar for both faiths, both sides – who expect a show of his religious loyalty over his humanity.
“No monster can be more barbarous than the mob, which assumes the name and mask of the people,” Jalil quotes Cicero’s words from Dream of Scipio. This, unfortunately, is a commentary on the times we live in too. And, therein lies the genius of Chander – who for some reason is not quite as celebrated as his celebrated peers.
Jalil has done a fair job of the translation – it’s a Herculean task to match Chander’s original work – but the fact she attempted and helped us language cripples read a masterpiece overshadows a couple of aberrations here and there.