Before we get into the paratha and potatoes of this story, let’s be clear that this is not another Partition tale rising from the tomes—non-fiction and pulp alike—that we have swallowed, ruminated and digested. Countless depictions of those horrific days, since the Radcliffe Line was drawn and millions were uprooted from their hearths, have made most of these tales a stale topic; almost cartoonish at times. In a way, we have become desensitised to those horrors. Then again, Chhotu is a Partition story—“a parable of the past that is not removed from the present”. Part novel, part art and equal parts tender love and boundless suffering, this coming-of-age story is a commentary on something more pervasive and endemic if you scratch beneath the surface. It is a commentary on the violence and oppression that persist to this day.
On the face of it, Chhotu is about Chhotu, the orphan—a slap-happy schoolboy growing up in the lanes of Chandni Chowk, with best friend Pandey and love interest Heer, the new girl in the locality and school. The British are about to leave, freedom is a matter of days but something sinister is shuffling in the horizon. Just when Chhotu’s love is about to blossom, an aloo crisis hits uncle Bapu’s paratha business. The story then trapezes through a snaggle of political upheavals, communal blood-savagery and personal intrigue—almost Bollywoodish, like the “golden age SRK trifecta: K3G, Kuch Kuch, and DDLJ”. But all along, you could feel love radiating from the pages, up to a letter from Srinagar at the end.