First published in the Journal – The Book Review on

Translation of Krishan Chander’s classic Urdu novel ‘Ghaddaar’
Translator: Rakhshanda Jalil
Publisher: Tranquebar Press by Westland
Pages: 107
Price: Rs. 250

In the summer of 1947, the flames of partition seared the souls of Indians and branded them with the torturous brutality of communal violence, and horrific images that would keep them in shock for generations.

The numbers vary but it is estimated that around fifteen million people were displaced and one to two million people died violent deaths. Many more must have died of broken hearts, missing their families, their loved ones and their homes. Many more would have lost their lives to epidemics sweeping through the refugee camps on both sides of the border. More than hundred thousand women, considered the symbol of community honour, were abducted and gang-raped, many to death. Guilt may have claimed the lives of the perpetrators too. Many lost their mind.

Tragedy forms the grist of writing and numerous stories have been written on the unspeakable horrors of partition that has left an entire nation grieving for decades. From Sadat Hasan Manto’s haunting short stories, which paint moments from the partition in excruciating detail, to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, which delves deep into the psyche of the people and brings the reader face to face with the gruesome atrocities of these few devastating weeks in the history of India.

Muslims and Sikhs were the unwitting warring factions in this drama, staged by the ambitions of a few politicians and spurred by the tortuous mechanisations of a ruling power that had long used a system of political appeasement of different sections to win their loyalty.

Krishan Chander’s ‘Ghaddaar’ published in 1960, is another book which writes about the partition, but this time it takes the reader along a journey with the protagonist Baijnath, who is replete with all the human failings each of us hold within us. A man born to riches, who lives an indolent life, is sometimes a coward, often selfish and entirely given to protecting himself to the exclusion of everyone around him. When he reaches the safety of a refugee camp and finds that his son has been killed and his sister abducted, Baijnath finds within himself the beast that wants to inflict the worst possible injuries on the perpetrators of those crimes.

Krishan Chander’s novel shows us how in such times of terror and trauma, in a bizarre cycle of cause and effect, the perpetrators and victims become one. Every inflictor of pain is carrying within himself the pain and suffering of deep loss, and this cycle is perpetuated endlessly.

But this is where Krishan Chander’s hero redeems himself. When he finds himself unable to spear an old man, whose grey eyebrows and chest hair reminds him of his own father, dead a few hours ago. When he finds himself unable to join in the queue for the gang rape of a young Muslim girl whose heartrending voice calls out, ‘Oh brothers, I am your sister!’ because she reminds him of his own sister, abducted by the Muslims. And ultimately when he picks up the little Muslim child fallen to the roadside, perhaps the age of his own slain little boy, and carries him away, saying ‘I am your uncle.’

This is also where the writer brings out the supreme irony of life, where if someone is able to quell the beast within, whatever the provocation, and refuse to participate in mindless mob atrocities, he is branded a ‘traitor’ – ghaddaar. Someone who does not participate in these atrocities ironically then becomes a traitor in the eyes of the mob that continues to pamper their inner devils.

Baijnath is a soft-hearted person, who finds it impossible at first, to believe that people he considered friends, would in the heat of flared up emotions, be willing to slaughter him and his family. It takes him a while to realise that in the face of the storm overtaking the country, all old relationships have been made redundant.

Through Baijnath’s love for nature we get a glimpse into the writer’s own feelings towards nature – for the tall swaying raven grass where he and his young lover find shelter, the pure white swans which fly wherever they please, and sit on lakes of their choice. In the high sugarcane stalks which give Baijnath shelter for days.

The story of his grandfather’s bitch Rumi is perhaps the most heartrending in the book. Rumi, who is expecting a litter of babies, faithfully follows Baijnath till she is swept away in the current of the river. In many ways Rumi represents the conscience of humanity, lost in the fighting. She is only gentle, only protective, and even when her master kicks out at her, follows him till the very end. When in his anger Baijnath kicks an old man into the gutter she howls as if in pain. How strange it is, that when every little part of nature around us is filled with compassion, yet we humans continue to allow the worst part of ourselves to dominate us.

There are hope-filled moments in the book as when in the midst of two passing groups of refugees abusing each other, childhood friends Ahmadyar and Nathu meet up and cry tears of joy. Nathu pleads with Ahmadyar to stay back in India and vows to protect him.

Rakhshanda Jalil, literary historian, writer, translator, editor and critic, has translated the Urdu Ghaddaar into Traitor. Not having read the original, I cannot comment on the accuracies of the translated book. However I have to say that Traitor is a fluent and vibrant work, with no bumps or awkward phrases. Some of the original Hindi words and little ditties in Punjabi are retained which allow the unaccustomed reader to roll the words around the tongue and perhaps get a better picture of those times. Footnotes allow a quick glance to provide an easy understanding of the meanings of unfamiliar words or context to the dialogues.

More importantly, the reader gets a clear understanding of Krishan Chander’s easy style, simple and unaffected, in tune with the characters of the story. Often when a translation is good we are so captured by the atmosphere, the story and characters, that we may not remember that the work we are reading is a product of two writers. It is easy to forget sometimes that Traitor is a translated work and that is the best testament to Ms. Jalil’s craftsmanship.

However, for me, the most critical contribution of Ms. Jalil is in the introduction to the book, comparing those times to the times we live in now. Where the shrieks of a polarised populace makes us forget who we are and allows the beasts within us to arise and lynch, and plunder and loot our fellow human beings. Where we start to believe our own screeching rhetoric and point shaking fingers at others who choose to stay calm and balanced – calling them traitors. Like in the book when Baijnath shakes off his inner demons and embraces those he is supposed to hate, in that moment when he discovers his own Self as a part of the universe around him, then he is called a traitor.

Krishan Chander’s book was never more relevant than it is today in an India which threatens to dig out the buried embers of partition and reignite them in an unholy pyre of humanity.

Strangely, there are a few typos in the book, but other than that this slim volume allows us to vicariously live for a few hours, in those turbulent times, particularly for someone like me who has known of partition only through books and films.

These stories of anguish, like those of the holocaust, must be told, over and over again, so that mankind remembers them with horror and avoids making those same mistakes. So that like Baijnath we pray and intend that a … ‘day will dawn, when men will be willing to lay down their lives … when they will conquer these basic instincts … and touch the goalpost of humanity.’

Yes, these stories must be told, so that each time communalism rears its ugly head we cut it down. But will we?