Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah has described the Partition of India as one of the most horrendous political events in the history of the world.
“When I thought of what ‘Torn Apart’ has meant to me, I actually thought of the partition in the subcontinent, which is possibly the most horrendous political event that has taken place anywhere in the world,” he said during a discussion on the idea during the first day of Dhaka Lit Fest on Thursday.
“We’re talking of 1947 when we had millions of people going from one area of the subcontinent to another, millions of people being displaced, millions of people losing their property, their lives, their livelihood, their everything.”
Farah said that it was impossible to talk about the literature of the Indian subcontinent without mentioning the name of Saadat Hasan Manto, a South Asian writer and playwright, known for his stories on the partition and his strong opposition to it, and noting the madness about which he wrote.
“India as it was then was put together through various histories – the Moghuls, the pre-Moghuls – to tear apart India the way it was done was to create an anomaly – a historical anomaly. Because whatever may have happened before partition, the Indians had accepted one another, stayed together, called themselves Indian, whether they were Muslim, they were Hindu, they were Zoroastrian, whatever group they belonged to,” Farah said.
“When I saw the title ‘Torn Apart’, that is what came to me.”
Farah, known for his rich imagination and refreshing and often fortuitous use of his adopted language, English, said another aspect of the discussion that came to him was the way in which European powers divided up large swathes of the world for their own colonial benefit during the age of imperialism.
“The second thing that came to me is how at a table in Berlin towards the end of the 18th century, the 19th century, Europeans took the continent by tearing it apart and putting it together for their own convenience without consultation with the people who lived there and who would naturally be affected by the partition and the claims that this territory was British, this was French, this was Italian, and so on and so forth.”
He also noted that, even aside from politics, he had thought of the separation people undergo from their mothers, who bore them and fed them until they became entities able to survive on their own.
“Many of us are eager to go back to where we came from and to reconnect,” Farah said.
THE ROLE OF THE WRITER IS TO IDENTIFY COMMONALITIES: KARUNATILAKA
Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka joined the discussion by saying that the discussion prompt had pushed him to reflect on conflict and polarisation through politics and the media landscape in the modern world before considering what the role of a writer should be in this context.
“We were taught, right at the beginning when we start writing stories, that conflict is the source of drama. And perhaps that’s why we have so many interesting books coming out of South Asia, South Africa, because there’s plenty of conflicts to draw on.”
At times like this people often view things through dichotomies such as ‘us vs them’, left vs right’, ‘good vs evil’, he said. And while writers can take sides and advocate for them, most writers tend to take a middle ground to explore the grey areas and look at the contradictions.
“In an ideal world, which is sadly not the world we live in, but in an ideal world that is the role of the writer, to look at both the polarised sides of the debate and identify commonalities.”
Karunatilaka noted that while it is believed that debate is necessary for consensus, the current situation with social media has not turned out that way.
“I mean social media and the internet were supposed to democratise information. You can truly say that information is democratised, but did that lead to seeing the other person's point of view and consensus? Sadly not, it's lead to anarchy.”
States, tech firms, and even the billionaires who buy these tech firms have not been able to resolve this issue, said Karunatilaka who won the 2022 Booker Prize for his novel, “The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida”.
“We can draw on numerous examples from COVID to crypto. The information is all out there, but we don't have anything resembling a consensus.”
“In fact, the algorithm is designed that way. You don't need to have access to the gatekeepers, you can shout into the ether and have that opinion validated. The way media is presented to you through those platforms, your worldview is reconfirmed and the other side is demonised.”
He referred to his own country of Sri Lanka, which has undergone a tumultuous 10 years during which he saw duelling narratives spring up around the country’s civil war.
Karunatilaka said that many had believed, perhaps naively, that the end of the brutal 30-year war would lead to an end to the racial divisions and conflict that had long plagued the country and a turn to unification.
Instead, when one side started calling for an examination of the war and the atrocities committed, the state shot back with their own narrative and a battle over the history and the blame for that history began spreading on social media, he said. Even when people came together in 2022 to oust the government, it was short-lived.
“A lot of us saw it as a beautiful unifying moment, suddenly this divided country came together across races, across generations, across political divides. And with this, one agenda of let's get rid of this incompetent government led us to this state and that was a beautiful moment,” he said.
The writer said he had believed there would be a platform for new voices from a younger generation not entangled in old divisions.
“But what's happening now is again, it's being demonised. So these ‘rabble rousers’ are being funded by - we've heard this now - funded by foreign powers and the diaspora and therefore we can't have any more protests. So again, it’s the state versus the people and it looks like the people are being crushed.”
With the looming elections, which are likely to cost billions for a bankrupt country, it will be back to ‘us vs them’ once more, he said.
NIHILISM HAS REVOLUTIONARY POTENTIAL: GEETANJALI SHREE
Indian novelist and short story writer Geetanjali Shree, whose work of fiction, “Tomb of Sand”, won the 2022 International Booker Prize, also joined the Dhaka Lit Fest session. The book became the first novel translated from an Indian language to win the International Booker Prize.
She took the opportunity to discuss how a simple misreading of the initial prompt had led her to consider the topic in a different way.
“What I misread when I first picked up this [proposal], I read ‘world’ as ‘word’ and I thought ‘the word always torn apart’ and I thought yes, indeed that's very profound.”
“The word is always under threat, the word is always endangered and perhaps very much more so today and we all need to get together and think about the recuperating and revolutionary possibilities that the word has and we have to bring that to the fourth.”
She congratulated the Lit Fest for providing forums for essential discussion on important issues during this crucial time.
“And of course, forums like this are absolutely one of the best things that are happening in the world which is torn apart by war and partition, and other things which do no good for humanity. And this at least is the place for putting together the word, respecting the word and taking dialogue and debate forward, and hopefully humanity forward.”
Another word that caught her attention in the prompt was ‘nihilism’.
“I thought terrible as it is, nihilism also has revolutionary potential because it is a dismissing and disbelieving in the entire system. [The system] is the way that the rich and the powerful have of… to keep the people in check. The people in check reject [it] by not believing in the system at all.”
While nihilism can send us into pessimism and despair, writers can do revolutionary work using it, she said.
“I think indeed writers, they pick it up, they expressed that pessimism and that nihilism precisely to press upon everybody the urgency, the need to disbelieve everything that's going on, to disbelieve in the worth of everything that's going on in order to look for another way.”
In Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, which is credited with ushering in Russian nihilism, the nihilistic character of the son is a positive character because he sets in motion a questioning of the establishment and the acceptance of the powers that be, Shree said.
“Kafka had nothing in his description of the society and the world he lived in to say anything there was worth believing in. But it was a pointer towards the important need to look for how to set things right. Even though it looked so despairing, it was I think towards hope and another world, which must be thought about.”