War, Violence and Literature

The person who said, “I don’t know what the Third World War will be fought with, but the fourth, will be fought with sticks and stones”, is an unchallenged modern prophet.

History has seen many wars fought on the face of the earth. Even though there would have been several wars fought between tribes and kingdoms, as writing was invented in 3000 B.C., the first ever war recorded was that between Sumer (in modern Iraq) and Elam (now part of Iran), fought in the area around Basra. Beginning with the war at Basra until today’s US-Iraq war, no two consecutive generations have known a world without antagonistic uprisings. Death and destruction would be insufficient words to describe the consequences of such conflicts.

On many occasions the root level fighters, the soldiers, are hailed in all glory. Often the salutation given to Indian soldiers is, “…because of them, with their lives at stake, a country of a hundred million sleeps safely, without a worry.” The soldier is expected to be well compensated with bravery awards by their governments, for the limbs that he loses, for the nightmares of friends being blown apart before his very eyes, and for the haunting pain of guilt of not being able to rescue their friends while they survived.

Siegfried Sassoon captures all these sentiments in a ten-line poem, “Survivors”.

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re “longing to go out again,” –
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk,
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,–
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride …
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

The title of the poem is a parody of what the society sees as survivors. Through the ten lines, is put forward the fact that soldiers are termed ‘survivors’ if they are biologically alive, ascribing no significance to the mental torment that they undergo for their lifetime even after the war is over. In this short poem, Sassoon showcases the silenced voice of “survived” soldiers of a war. Intricately woven is also the voice of the society which glorifies the “honourable” wounds of the soldier and, indirectly pressurizes them for further ventures on the battlefield.

Parikshit, son of Abhimanyu, a Pandava who died in the Mahabharata, asked a question of Vyasa Rishi. “Maharaj, all the elders of our family were present at Kurukshetra. There were wise and knowledgable men amongst the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Why didn’t they understand that in war everyone has to pay a heavy price? That war destroys everything? Annihilates everything?”
In reply Vyasa said, “Son, during times of war, even the best of men lose their heads…”

The unsettling tensions that had been steaming up under the British Raj for two hundred years in the Indian subcontinent were eventually successful in overthrowing the rule in the August of 1947. The reasons, among many, included the exhausted imperialist after the Second World War and the heightened strength and unity of the nationalist leaders of the colonized land. The occasion is dearly remembered by the fragment of the sub-continent which acquired the status of separate nations as a consequence: India and Pakistan. However much that the countries might try to forget, the violence and bloodshed would not be erased easily from the minds of those that witnessed the massacre and their progenies. If at all “time heals everything”, these wounds would take long years to heal.

The governments of the two countries have tried, on their part, to heal the mental injuries inflicted, by quantifying the consequences of the partition and entering reduced numbers in terms of deaths and those displaced, in the official records.

Even while Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of free India was delivering his “Tryst With Destiny”, thousands were trying to get a foothold on the available trains, unsure of reaching their destiny, alive. The trains departing from a station, packed with confused people, arrived at the other end of their journey, packed with dead bodies of Hindus or Muslims.

The reaction of the people to the announcement of a separate State of Pakistan for Muslims exemplifies the answer that Vyas gave to Parikshit’s immortal question. People who were incapable of protesting before food stores and ration shops at the time of the great Bengal famine which killed a three million, suddenly found themselves born to kill and rape in the name of religion.

The Hindus and Sikhs, living in the area marked for the new state of Pakistan, found it imperative to uproot themselves from their ancestral land and migrate from the place where their lives as Hindus and Sikhs could be threatened. Though India proclaimed herself a secular state, the Muslims residing in the area under the new India were uncomfortable and were urged to migrate; the reason being, the trains from Pakistan arriving with dead Hindu bodies provoked the Hindus of India to turn violent against their old Muslim neighbours, brothers. This migration and confusion, with the inevitable dread of one’s death being at the next step, marred the celebrations of independence for both countries.

All said above is documented as history. But the voice of the marginalized gets submerged in the outcry of the major groups of sufferers. For example, the number of women raped, displaced or the plight of the people belonging to the minority religions never finds place in history text-books. This job, left undone by history is taken up by literature, which tries to look at the situations at grass root level, even from the perspective of the most socially insignificant person affected.

However even the literature that found inspiration from the great manslaughter is not commendable in its quantity when compared with that inspired from other massacres like the holocaust. There have been, however, some notable works, for example The Train to Pakistan (1954) by Khushwant Singh and the movie Garam Hawa (1973), directed by M. S. Sathyu and scripted by Ismat Chughtai.

Literature tries to capture the incredibility of partition, not only of land but also of identities. On defamiliarizing oneself from the political background that led to partition, one finds it absurd that a group of people decided and imposed identities on millions of people, on a religion-area basis, causing large scale migration and inter-religious tensions. While describing them, it becomes impossible to ascribe nationalities to writers like Manto and Husain as Indian or Pakistani, because each had spent some part of their lives in each of the two countries.

Saadat Hassan Manto’s works, in the form of short stories in Urdu, have found their way to literary criticism as partition literature. His works include, “Thanda Gosht” (Cold Meat), “Khol Do” (Open It), “Tetwal ka Kutta” (The Dog of Tetwal) and “Toba Tek Singh” among the famous ones. His stories capture the trauma of partition, be it through the lost identity of a dog in “Tetwal ka Kutta”, the sexually assaulted girl in “Khol Do” or the unsatisfied urge of the madmen to ascertain their identity in “Toba Tek Singh”.

Intizar Husain’s “Platform” (1990) is a short story about stranded people on a platform in Pakistan’s Lahore in the post-independence era. The people are waiting for a train that would transport them to Delhi, across the border. The news that the train would not arrive at all that day gets the passengers agitated and they run up and down enquiring the Station Master and Rail Officers, but after some time they “collapse with exhaustion” in a heap amongst the other exhausted passengers. The story ends in a sense of hopelessness with the constantly emphasized question, “Who is responsible for us?” hanging in the air, the only hope expressed being, “Maybe time will have an answer…”

The most important fact noticeable in the text is that none of the characters are named though many have been introduced. They are referred to as “the man with a suitcase”, “the man reading a newspaper”, the man in the brown bush shirt”, “the youth in blue trousers”, “the venerable old man” and so on. This deliberate side-stepping from naming, is perhaps to indicate the universality of the hopelessness experienced by people kept waiting for a journey, decked with passports and ‘formalities’, to visit a place which a few years ago had been their own.

Some of the passengers stranded are holders of visas that would expire on that very day. Since the text describes him as old, one can figure out that the venerable old man must have, at some point in his life, lived when both Lahore and Delhi held the same identity. The question, “Do you realize all these passengers cannot legally (my emphasis) stay on here any longer?” makes one think of what it must have been like for him to say it.

Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer, the celebrated Malayalam writer and Padma Shri awardee, included in his oeuvre of writing, a short narrative tracing a train journey from Bangladesh (the then newly formed East Pakistan) to India during the troubled times of Hindu-Muslim riots resulting from the Partition. Basheer delves into the gory details of the journey in such a way that one immediately realizes the shortcoming of history in recording the details of demonized men, in the wake of partition. The images of the narrator checking his coat pocket to find the disassociated arm of a child and the description of a woman in a stage of advanced pregnancy, on the platform floor with her stomach ripped open and the foetus spilt out, refuse to fade away from memory of anyone who comes across the story.

The story is in first person narrative, which seems, most convincingly, a narrative of events experienced first hand. He uses simple language and in such a way that one feels as if Basheer himself is speaking to the reader. Directly beginning with the descriptions of the journey and the images encountered during the same, he refrains from giving the reader a background of the time. However it becomes evident to the reader as the ghastly details of the story gradually unfold.

The partition witnessed by the Indian subcontinent in 1947 is not all constituted in that one word and the official records associated with it. The trauma of callous brutality seen and experienced is only attempted at being captured and depicted through literature. Contrary to the mainstream documentation done by the privileged categories of the society to hush up the cruel realities, literature looks at the subaltern, marginalized and largely silenced voices of the affected parties. Some stories use metaphors to elucidate the predicament of lost identities like “Tetwal Ka Kutta”. Some authors like Basheer give a personalized diary entry to record an ordinary traveller’s experience. In all, the aim of literature in writing about war and its violations is to realize and give cognition to what one may call “soft experiences” as against the hegemony of hard “facts”.

Deepa Sebastian

*This piece has been selected as a Winning Entry for the ‘Viewspaper Express Yourself Writing Competition’*