February 18, 2020
Home  »  Magazine  »  Books  » Reviews  » Review »  Flashes Of Horror

Flashes Of Horror

A fine anthology of stories on the subcontinent's many partitions

Flashes Of Horror
An Epic Unwritten: Partition Stories
By Muhammad Umar Memon
Penguin India Rs 250, Pages: 369
DO you suppose it's the east wind?" asks the protagonist in Altaf Fatima's story of the same name, wondering whether the breeze from that direction is responsible for her sudden trip down memory lane, to pre-Partition days. Casting back, she says, "and then it seemed the earth grew weary of its weight and impatient with familiar faces. It was like somebody violently thrashed the grain in a winnowing fan. One flew and landed here (in Pakistan), another somewhere else". Now, years later "all these long-lost matters are returning to me like an old pain". Could it be because of the east wind?

Haunting the pages of this anthology like the east wind are Intizar Husain's "An Epic Unwritten", Khalida Husain's "The Wagon", Ismat Chughtai's "Roots", Upendra Nath Ashk's "Tableland", Masud Ashar's "Of Coconuts and Chilled Beer"—wafting the pain and confusion, the ineffable sadness of the heart divided, our way. They are among the finest Partition stories I have read, much the richer for not having been over-anthologised.

In Husain's story, Pichwa, having fought as a Muslim to defend his village, Qadirpur, finds it has been awarded to India. He has no choice but to leave for Pakistan but, once there, he is a man adrift. It's not a place he can call his own. He returns to Qadirpur (renamed Jatunagar) where he is speedily dealt with, and then strung up on a peepul tree. He has finally crossed over to a country without borders. Nothing could be more chilling than the dreadful matter-of-factness with which he concludes: "As long as I was stuck in the web of literature, I felt cut off from my nation...neither here nor there," meaning neither India for Pakistan. To belong means to stop questioning, to embrace silence. And so he closes his diary where he was jotting down notes for his novel. "Pakistan is now a fact," he says, "and I don't have the power to turn fact into fiction."

Memon gives us three reasons for putting together these fictionalisations of fact. One, that fiction alone provides a "space large enough to accommodate competing versions of truth...capable of imparting wisdom in something like a visionary flash". Two, to find out how we have fared over the last 50 years by combining stories written immediately after Partition with those written much later. And three, to correct "the inaccuracies and unwarranted deletions frequently found" in earlier translations.

Of the three, the last is a bit puzzling because we have no way of knowing how he has righted this wrong in his collection. It is also uncharitable because, in all fairness, all editors or translators have good reasons for deciding the way they do. We may disagree with them, but we can't really say they're "lazy" or "unduly nationalist" or "mealy-mouthed Gandhians". Unfortunately, Memon's own translations are not the most fluent, and are often marred by truly inelegant phrases like "the assembly of hopes around the heart scattered". Some of this clumsiness may have to do with insuf-ficient editing, because when a story reads perfectly, like "An Epic Unwritten", we find it's been published before, abroad.

In my view, it is the two unstated features of this anthology that make it special: all the stories have been translated from Urdu, and they represent India, Pakistan and, now, Bangladesh. This fact alone—and the fictional selection resulting from it—make this far and away the best one to date in terms of range, style and treatment. Khalida Husain's Tarkovsky-like "The Wagon" explores the depth of darkness like no other Partition story I have read. The note on her cryptically informs us that after writing a dozen brilliant stories she didn't write another word for 12 years. The question that gnaws at one's insides is: why?

Next Story >>
Google + Linkedin Whatsapp

Read More in:

The Latest Issue

Outlook Videos