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Review Corner

Book Review – Ikramullah Regret

This is another book on the shadow cast by partition of India and Pakistan. It is  authored by Ikramullah Chaudhury who prefers being known by his first name. The two novellas are considered as Penguin modern classics. He was born in 1939 in Jandiala, a small village in the Nawan Shahr district of Jalandhar in India. He did his schooling in Amritsar. At the time of partition he was barely ten when his family moved to Multan where he did his BA in 1953 and two years later took a Law degree from the University Law College in Lahore. 

Ikramullah has been writing fiction since 1962 even though he retired from Insurance business in 1995. “Ikramullah Regret” is the English translation  of the novellas written in Urdu. What is baffling is his conspicuous absence from contemporary Urdu critical discourse in his own country. Yet he is considered a major writer in Pakistan today with a substantial body of writing. Ikramullah though not unsociable is an exceptionally private person who seems to be rarely affected by the desire to conform to, or even to marginally satisfy, what the world might expect of him. He writes for himself. He does not care for the opinion of the reader or critic, observes one of the translators Muhammad Umar Menon who is Professor Emeritus of Urdu literature and Islamic studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The popular weekly Friday Times published from Lahore describes Ikramullah’s writings as “a restlessness to express the possibilities of fictional dimensions lies at the root of his versatility.” The first part is “Regret” followed by “Out of Sight.” The first part recreates a childhood amid the trauma of partition. In 1957 two lifelong friends Ehsaan and Saeed reminisce about idyllic symmer days spent bunking school, swimming in the canal and relishing the thrills of first love. 

“Out of Sight” recounts the story of Ismail who narrowly escaped the carnage of 1947 in his youth and despairs the sudden resurgence of sectarian violence in Pakistan. If one has gone around Lahore “Regret” captures the environment and atmosphere realistically. Saeed and Ehsan are inseparable friends in school. Then suddenly Saeed discoverd that his father had decided to pull him out of a Muslim school and enrol him in a Government school at the end of the holidays so that he might be rescued from Ehsan’s company. Saeed was given to wandering by nature and it did not take him long to seek out his own kind at the new school. Some of them were Hindu and Sikh boys. The company of new friends introduced Saeed to new types of vagrancy. They started smoking now and then. In time the incurable addiction of movies got the better of him. Saeed was in a big hurry to grow up because this would make the girls take notice of him. 

Smoking was taken up to parade as grown up. However, Saeed still went to see Ehsan every ten or fifteen days but now the former soon tired of the latter’s company. It seemed Saeed and Ehsan shared nothing in common any more. Ehsan was forced to quit school and take up a job as a salesman with some Muslim shoe seller. He was once again enrolled in the ninth grade in a Muslim school. He spent much of his free time in the neighbourhood reading room. After the slaughter of the Khaksars, no new Muslim movement had emerged. The demand for Pakistan hadn’t picked up momentum yet. At most it was a battle cry whose political value amounted to no more than a vague threat. And in a district with a hundred per cent Muslim population, Ehsan, clad in his pynama-kurta made of coarse homespun cotton, laid out before the masses in great detail with compelling argument that the Congress position of freedom for India opposed the establishment of Pakistan. 

But Quaid-e-Azam Mohmmad Ali Jinnah does not talk about Muslims. Unable to stomach this praise of Jinnah a tonga driver who had perhaps spent some time in the company of Ahrars and Khaksars started telling story after story about how the top leadership of then Muslim League was hopelessly westernised and cherished the English.  Ehsan described in detail the views of the Muslim ulema and the popularity the Congress enjoyed among the Muslims of the North West Frontier Province. The Hindus had embraced India’s freedom as their sole, distinct, clear and definite political objective. Muslims on the other hand didn’t have the foggiest idea what they wanted or who to turn to for leadership. To them every political solution seemed like the proverbial “out of the frying pan into the fire”. Friendship was a meaningless thing. 

The real thing was class. A crow doesn’t become a peacock by sticking a few peacock feathers in its tail. With the end of WWII an electric current passed through India’s political climate. The people felt in their bones that something was going to happen. But what? Even the most astute political leaders were unable to say just what might emerge from the shadows of the future. During the time that the Muslim League became a household word among Muslims and the cry for Pakistan was raised, Ehsan’s father like most Muslims became a staunch suporter of Pakistan. Muslims were agitated that they had nourished the foundations of the Congress with their blood and soon saw through Mahatma Gandhi’s and Nehru’s bigotry and the Hindus relentless and eternal prejudice against Muslims. Indian Muslims have been forced to demand a separate homeland for their own survival. In the two years preceding partition when the idea of Pakistan had become a watchword in just about every household and when every child was yelling out Pakistan Zindabad in a frenzy, critics like Maulvi Karam Din were struck dumb and clammed up fearing for their lives. it was inevitable that the continual incitement to hatred should erupt in the worst kind of riots. Once started the riots continued sporadically until after independence Day on 15 August. The collective resistance of the Muslims had pretty much ended and the entire Muslim population had moved to two neighbourhoods. 

In the second “Out of Sight” the person whose efforts brought about Pakistan into being was a Shia in Mohammad Ali Jinnah but no one objected. People unanimously accepted him as the Quaid-e-Azam. Now the maulvis are calling the Shias infidels and getting them killed. The Ahmadis have already been declared non-Muslims and now it is the turn of the Shias. The Ahmadis continue to get a raw deal in Pakistan. The government is doing nothing to guarantee their safety. Both the law and the Constitution have declared Ahmadis non-Muslims. Consequently the Ahmadis are having to face the daily misery of  “you (Muslims) and us (Ahmadis).”  

Pakistan was created for all those believing in Islam but sectarianism has sprouted in that country. Innocent people are being mercilessly put to death every other day. Sectarian discord began in 1948 in Pakistan when Chaudhary Zafarullah Khan refused to offer Jinnah sahib’s funeral prayer and stood apart from a crowd of a hundred thousand and just watched them perform it. It was futile to argue now who is Muslim and who is not . The Quaid-e-Azam had settled the issue in his address of 11 August 1947 that all citizens of Pakistan would be equal regardless of their differences. Not just the Ahmadis, the Shias, Sikhs, Christians, Parsees, Hindus — everyone except the Sunni majority feels insecure in Pakistani. This state of affairs creates doubts about the survival of Pakistan but the government is doing nothing about it. 

By TIS Staffer
the authorBy TIS Staffer

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