July 28, 2020
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Do Skeletons Have A Soul?

Hindus are notoriously poor learners of history's stern reckonings. Chandraprakash Dwivedi's film 'Pinjar' is only a reminder of this grim truth.

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Do Skeletons Have A Soul?
Do Skeletons Have A Soul?
It is a tiny roadside devi ka mandir amidst lush green fields. Puro had come here to pray in better spirits, in better times. But the orgy of Partition riots wasn't just blind to human bonds, it didn't spare the gods either. The devi has fallen to the iconoclasts on a vandalisation spree. The shattered remains of the shrine, however, still stand like a despoiled mound.

In the aftermath of Partition riots in West Punjab, the holocaust has changed Puro's world as well. But the girl (played by Urmila Matondkar), is happy nonetheless—she has rescued Lajo, her bhabi, the girl married to her brother Trilok. She is not unduly shocked to see a devastated mandir. Standing in front of it, Puro turns to it to pay her obeisance. She tries to fold her hands in the usual namaskar. But she ends up raising both her hands—palms skywards—in an act of ibadat. Because Puro is now Hameeda—abducted and converted to Islam. Even her reflexes have now undergone a change.

It's the ugly reality. In the changed socio-political-cultural milieu, the shrine and its devotee have undergone a metamorphosis. The shrine is just a shell—its idol, its soul, is gone. Its motifs too have vanished. To Puro, it symbolised the divine, but for Hameeda it means nothing. Both, the shrine and the devotee, are now devoid of the soul and just the pinjar (skeleton) is left.

The Partition of India was a colossal human tragedy. As the political and demographic map of India was reshaped upon independence, so were the personal destinies of millions of human beings. And for many, especially women, it did not mean freedom but ominous captivity, which forms the theme of Pinjar, the film. Before independence, Hindus and Sikhs had comprised 20 per cent of the population in the area that went to West Pakistan. But Partition changed the scenario: the percentage of Hindus and Sikhs whittled down to one-and-a-half per cent in West Pakistan in 1951.

On the territory of today's India, Muslims were 13 per cent plus according to the 1941 census. Today their percentage share is more, not less. There were then a great number of conversions from Hindus-Sikhs to Islam; and this included both men and women. Were there no conversions from among Muslims to the Hindu and Sikh folds? The census figures for India, Bangladesh and Pakistan since Partition can provide an answer to the 'secularists'.

In terms of death, destruction and depredation, only World War II offers a close parallel to the division of India. It was no doubt the biggest tragedy of the subcontinent—for both Hindus and Muslims. World War II is still alive in public memory, thanks to Hollywood. However, the Partition of India received mostly superficial treatment in 'secular' India, though Bollywood has made a number of attempts to capture the poignant moment.

For long, M.S. Sathyu's Garam Hawa (1973), which showed a Lucknawi Muslim family rescinding their decision to migrate to Pakistan and choosing to stay in India instead, was the only standard film on Partition in India. Strangely, no one ever thought of making a movie on the Hindu-Sikh tragedy!

In the 1980s, two enormously divergent ventures were made for the small screen by acclaimed directors—Ramesh Sippy's megaserial Buniyaad (written by Manohar Shyam Joshi) and Govind Nihalani's Tamas, based on Bhisham Sahni's Sahitya Akademi award-winning novel by the same name. While "Leftist" Sahni's Tamas had a more horrific portrayal of Partition orgies, Joshi's Buniyaad was a tragic-comic family entertainer that made viewers all over the country emotional about the lost El Dorado of Lahore.

However, there's been a renewed interest in Partition in recent years. A few years ago, Deepa Mehta's 1947: Earth, featuring Aamir Khan and Nandita Das was filmed—based on Pakistani-Parsi author Bapsi Sidhwa's English novel Ice Candy Man.Gurdas Mann's low-budget film, Shaheed-e-Mohabbat, was based on the true story of a pursued Muslim girl being rescued and married by Boota Singh, a Sikh. Sunny Deol's Gadar—Ek Prem Katha, based on the love story of a Sikh truck driver and an elite Muslim girl, was a pot-boiler that became a runaway hit because of its stunts.

Director Chandraprakash Dwivedi, who directed teleserial Chanakya in 1991, deserves compliments for his sensitive portrayal of a calamitous phase of India's history in Pinjar. With authentic sets and costumes, he has recreated the pre-Partition Punjab. His characterisation is so precise that reel characters appear to have stepped in from real life. They are not in black and white, they are humane.

Puro's travails start with Rashid (Manoj Bajpai) abducting her, but it is he who helps her rescue Lajo. He also cooperates in arranging a meeting between Puro (now his wife) and her brother Trilok and fiance Ramchand. If there are Muslim League members carrying on a campaign against kafirs, there are ordinary Muslims pleading for amity. Puro's parents are good but cowardly. Her indulgent brother Trilok, though brave, is consumed by vendetta and sets Rashid's harvested fields afire to avenge his sister's abduction.

Puro suffers from two-fold travails. First, being a woman in a patriarchal society, and secondly, being a Hindu in the Muslim-dominated area of undivided Punjab. The Hindu family had come from Amritsar to their village Chattowani where Puro's marriage is fixed with Ramchand and Ramchand's sister Lajo is to marry Puro's brother Trilok. Such cases of reciprocal marriage were not uncommon in those days.

The year is 1946. Puro's marriage preparations are under way—in the backdrop of the League's poisonous exhortations against the kafirs—when she is abducted by Rashid. Essentially a good soul, Rashid allows himself to be pressurised by his family to abduct Puro and force her into a nikah to settle an old family score. The entire village, overwhelmingly Muslim, approves of the abduction and the forced marriage. It does give us a peep into those troubled times.

One night Puro flees her captors and returns home. But her parents, fearing retribution from their Muslim neighbours, are too terrified to accept her. They close their door on the hapless Puro and she returns to Rashid, with obvious unwillingness. The behaviour of Puro's parents isn't out of place and aptly reflects a fear of Muslims inbuilt in the mind of the Hindus in those days.

After her forced marriage to Rashid, the next obvious step is to obliterate Puro's Hindu identity. Her new name, Hameeda, is tattooed on her hand. She feels dirty and tries to scratch it away using a piece of stone. Her helplessness about her encaged identity could not have been portrayed more aptly. Equally stirring is the scene where she self-aborts after realising that she's carrying Rashid's child.

An intertwined subplot in the story is that of Lajo. She too is abducted during the riots but is rescued by Puro with the help of Rashid, who wants to atone for the sin of abducting Puro. Lajo's incensed captors have no idea of her whereabouts, especially since they had cleansed the entire neighbourhood of all kafirs!

And then comes the most touching scene of the film—Puro at the wayside temple. Finally, she's traced by her fiance Ramchand, with the help of Pakistan police. He offers to accept her and take her back to India. The human in Rashid is still alive and he allows his Hameeda a choice. But by now she has reconciled to her fate. Puro turns her back on her parents and doting brother and opts to stay back in Pakistan as a Muslim. "Now you are my truth," says Puro to Rashid, "for me this is my home".

But was this only her skeleton? For, mentally she thinks aloud—"Any woman, be it Hindu or Muslim, returns to her home, thinks that her soul too has come back with her".If Puro's religious sensitivity, cultural moorings and family ties could alter within such a short time, say a year, is it unnatural for some of those converted for generations or centuries to disown their pre-Islamic past, hate it and eventually work for its destruction and turn into votaries of a fundamentalist Islamic state?

In Puro's case, was this a case of the 'Stockholm Syndrome' or plain metamorphosis? Whatever it is, in the fleeting last scene of Pinjar, Dwivedi has symbolically encapsulated a civilisational tragedy of the subcontinent where change of religion brought about change of nationality.

Pinjar is perhaps the first honest attempt to recreate the tragedy of Partition without recourse to syrupy 'secularism'. Those who are trying to wed it to the rise of Hindutva, and by that extension the bjp, should better remember that Amrita Pritam belongs to the pre-BJP era. Some might still label it as 'creative grave-digging' and question its necessity more than five decades after Partition. Those 'secularists' are obviously overlooking a Kanchan Mishra (the girl abducted and forcibly married to local gangster Sultan Mia in Bihar last year) episode that takes place not in Pakistan but in today's India. They are also turning a blind eye to scores of such incidents in Bangladesh. Hindus are notoriously poor learners of history's stern reckonings. Pinjar is only a reminder of this grim truth.

(The writer, a Rajya Sabha MP and convener of BJP Think Tank, can be contacted at bpunj@email.com)
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