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Krishna Sobti, Partition and the Politics of Religious Identities

A Few Notes and a Conversation

Alok Bhalla

A Preview

To India came caravans from all over the world/
Each found a home here and so India was made.’
– Firaq Gorakhpuri


I always found Krishna Sobti, (February 1925-January 2019) as a person and a novelist learned, gracious, witty and generous. As a writer, she had no anxiety about either the demands of literary conventions or the duller requirements of traditional morality.  Her commitment to a life of tolerance, fair play and justice was so fierce that she sometimes invited the charge of being merely ‘disruptive’ and even ‘lewd’ from both  establishment writers and radical feminists. Much before we finally met at the Indian Institute of Advance Study in Shimla in 1996, she would sometimes call me very late at night to ‘tell’ me how to edit the translation of her novella, Ai Ladki, that was to appear in Yatra: Writings from the Indian Subcontinent. In those days, she was for many in the world of Hindi literature an icon—a distant, difficult and formidable presence—who was spoken about with awe and was beyond critical appraisal. Initially, I was nervous because I had the chutzpah to criticize her story about the partition, ‘Meri Ma Kahan Hai,’ (Where is my Mother) included in my anthology, Stories about the Partition of India (1994). My critical judgment was that her tale of sorrow about an orphaned girl rescued in the days of common slaughter by a Pathan trucker was weak because, instead of confronting and debunking the communal fear of Hindus about a Pathan as Tagore had in Kabuliwala, she had merely used him to create a sentimental fission thereby leaving all our prejudices unquestioned—prejudices that were crucially responsible both for the partition and the religious carnage.

Krishna Sobti never once challenged my critical reading; it was as if, for her, my right to be skeptical was both inalienable and an important part of any democratic society.

She had the discipline to sit still and intently listen, alert to every nuance and inflection of speech, before joining in with her own thoughts so as to make an ever expanding and humane circle of ideas and emotions as a way of pushing away all dark temptations to humiliate and erase the other. I do not know if she had read Civilisation and its Discontents, but she would have agreed with Freud’s analysis that impatience with the “small differences” of the self from others was the first sign of a dangerous “narcissism” that leads quickly from contempt and cruelty to genocide.

It is not surprising that the last critical essay Krishna Sobti published was a long and anguished protest against the arrogance with which, years after the partition, our present politics had begun, with deliberate calibration, to inflict pain and imprison dissenters. It is as if she was once again hearing, like a warning whisper (ahat she had called it in her interview with me), voices from the days of the partition telling her that the barbarism of those days was not an accident; that while she had, like a Gandhian acolyte, wistfully longed for ahimsa, violence was threatening to break the circle of words, friendships, marriages and communities; it had happened once, she said; it was inevitable that it would happen again.


In the last years of her life, she was rereading Aeschylus and the Greek tragedians. She wanted to understand, she told me, why and how the hard won harmony between force and freedom, faith and reason, was being cynically, cruelly and malevolently erased not by fate as in the case of Oedipus or Antigone, but by thoughtlessness and human malice.

After all she had spent her entire writing life against sectarian hatred, the noise of slogans and the mindless enthusiasm of crowds.

Even more significantly, she had crafted a unique lexicon and a rhythmic prose in which Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Punjabi, Pashto, the dialects of the region around the borders of western Punjab and Afghanistan where she grew up were so inextricably mingled that they defied all attempts at classifying them as the languages of the Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs or Pathans. The words she used were the words of community as a whole and gave to everyone a sense of cultural, political and moral belonging. Since Farid and Buleh Shah, Nanak and Kabir, she insisted, were her ancestral guides, her moral task as a writer in the present was to erase, from the place she called ‘home’, the taint of sectarian intolerance and moral bigotry; to make life trustworthy.


Krishna Sobti’s most significant and enduring fictional work is about the partition of India. Once, she came to my room in the IIAS with great excitement to share with me her discovery of a book in the library about Greek coins excavated around the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It was as if the coins were for her allegories of home; they could be exchanged as counters, one by one, for anecdotes about soldiers, traders, monks, peasants, scholars, sufis, sculptures or singers on the Silk Road.

With me at least, her conversation often began with her memories of a life prior to the partition, far removed from religion and politics and the trauma of migration, and ended with the assertion that her profoundest emotional and moral being was still haunted by the place left behind. Her earliest collection of stories was entitled, Dar Se Bichchuri (1958; Separated from the Flock) and the last work published in her lifetime was, Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan (2017; From Gujarat in Pakistan to Gujarat in India). And her single most important text is the first part of Zindaginama (1979; Sobti refused to publish the second volume because, she told me, it was too painful for her to revise it).

In the novel, written on an epic scale, a haveli and a well, surrounded by fields that barely provide subsistence, are the home and the world of a people whose faith, profession, rituals and emotional politics are radically different from each other. It is, of course, not an idyllic community, nor is it peaceful and free from the petty crimes that the sometimes threaten the peace of every civil and political society. When they hear rumours of religious strife in other places and of the attempts to rupture their sense of ‘Ishwar-Allah-Waheguru’ as composite protectors of all their life, they dismiss them as “nirey, siyasi mamley” (only matters of state) or as “nirey jhagrey” (only quarrels) that will play themselves out to a bitter and dirty end. Their historical memories, as well as, their daily experiences have taught them that they have nothing to fear; that the rituals of ordinary time (‘communitas’, as Martin Buber has called them) are more tolerant than any religious alliances and more enduring than brittle political coalitions elsewhere. Discussing the partition plan, one of the characters in Zindaginama says:

The truth is that this land has been invaded a thousand times, but at the end Lahore has remained with those who live in Lahore and Kabul with those who live in Kabul! What I mean to say is that kings and sultans have changed, kingdoms have changed, governments have changed…but the people who live here have never been driven out!” (My translation)


Historically, the religious identities of members of the basti in the novel had never felt threatened by the presence of different modes of worship. Instead, their actions and thoughts suggested that they instinctively understood that their fate as ordinary moral agents could never be secured either by the collective hubris of the faithful or the humiliation of others.

This is not the right occasion for a detailed analysis of Zindaginama. Here, I only need to add that during all our conversations, Sobti refused to concede that the political division of the Indian subcontinent was inevitable because the Hindus and the Muslims belonged to radically different civilisational histories. It is unclear if she regarded herself as a religious person. She did, however, repeatedly express her deepest respect for Mahatma Gandhi because he never failed to refer to God as “Khuda-Ishwar” and maintained till the day he was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic, that the very notion of “warring creeds” was a blasphemy. She never wavered from her Gandhian conviction that in a good society, whether based on secular principles or on theologically-derived ideals, it was obligatory for every believer and non-believer “not merely to respect all other religions” but also “to admire and assimilate whatever may be good in the other faiths” (Gandhi).


(Conducted on October 1, 1996 at the Indian Institute of Advance Studies, Shimla. Some extracts)

Alok Bhalla [AB]: Most novelists, who have written about the partition, either draw upon their personal memories of those harrowing days or use stories told to them by others about their experiences. Novels about the partition, therefore, tend to be autobiographical. This raises a few interesting questions. Given the horror, how does one write about something that is indescribable? How does one write about something that escapes language and yet demands to be written about? What kind of language does one use so that what one writes is not merely a record of horror but an attempt to understand something about ourselves? Since most partition novels are written much after 1947 — Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas was written about 25 years later, and you’ve still not published the second volume of Zindaginama — what are the memories that are left out of the narratives? How are memories used or manipulated to suit present-day concerns? In other words, how are memories recast imaginatively in a fictional text? And, finally, why do you think the partition occurred? I still don’t understand the reasons for it. I have asked a variety of people. I haven’t yet found anyone who is willing to assert that there was so much antagonism between the two communities, Hindus and Muslims, that they could not live with each other.

Krishna Sobti [KS]: The partition of India is three generations old. For my generation of writers, it was the most traumatic experience; a kind of encounter between man and reality; a collision between a political agenda and a long tradition of pluralism. Writers on both sides soon realised that after so much hatred, violence and killing, human values had to be affirmed and restored. As writers we had to reassert that in spite of the political and religious divisions, the two communities had lived for centuries in a workable harmony, almost like cousins. Fiction writers of the post-partition period have testified to this truth in novels such as Jhootha SachTamasAag Ka DaryiaKale Kos and Udas Naslein.

We are familiar with the coercive jargon of social scientists. Politicians also distort reality. Memory of those times can always be marked by ideological biases. That’s why, I think, novelists waited till they got rid of their mental and psychological blinkers and could see the partition with clear sight.

When politics, religion and humanism are transmitted in literature, human faith is transformed. I feel in my inner recesses a certain richness that is part of our common heritage. Guru Nanak, Baba Farid, Amir Khusro, Jayasi, Bulle Shah, Waris Shah, and Shah Latif — can we divide this whole lot of poets into theirs and ours? No doubt we divided the territory — but tradition, music, art and literature are not like geographical areas; they continue to remain undivided and are indivisible.

A novelist uses experiences many years after the event. I’m surprised I didn’t pay attention to this fact earlier. I didn’t realise it even when I reread ‘Sikka Badal Gaya’ recently. That puzzles me. Maybe, earlier, I was much too close to the events. I was a part of them. Now I wonder how I managed to write that story with a certain sense of detachment, even though I had experienced the horrors of the partition. I’m not sure if I still understand the creative process. Anyway, I was witness to a terrible event and I didn’t have the skills to deal with it at that time. I did, however, sense even then that it was necessary to look beyond the immediate horror — to salvage something that was untouched by violence.

Fiction about the partition in India and Pakistan has made an attempt, despite the enormity of the horror it describes, to preserve essential human values. This attempt is remarkable because in 1947 because a lot of property was destroyed, thousands had to migrate and countless people were killed. Yet, writers were convinced that it was essential to preserve a sense of humanity


AB: A few days ago, when we were talking about the partition, you told me that you had heard the first ahat — the first whisper — about the partition in 1942. Could we go back to that story because it seems to me that what happened to Shahni in 1947 could have been predicted a few years earlier?

KS: Yes, of course. I was studying at Lahore. During the vacations I used to go back to my village. Once, I took the Frontier Mail to Gujarat. I got down at the station near my village and stopped to eat some food at a dhaba. Then I went to see a man called Hayyat who owned a huge furniture shop. Gujarat was famous for two things — crockery and fine furniture. I had a cold drink with him and then said, ‘I must be on my way.’ He asked me, ‘Should I send someone with you?’ I replied, ‘No.’ He used to help to look after the girls returning home from college during their vacations. I didn’t feel I was doing anything special by travelling alone. I hired a tonga to a place called Jalarpur. I knew that a horse would be waiting for me there to take me home.

AB: Did Hayyat ever feel that he was helping a Hindu girl, or did he just help a girl returning home?

KS: Yes. He knew that it was necessary to look after them. Gujarat was known for its hooligans (laughs). Well, the horse sent for me was already at Jalarpur. Someone told me that Nawab Khan, the sai, who had accompanied the horse, had gone to visit a friend. I knew he wouldn’t return for a while. In any case, he was to follow me on foot. I, therefore, decided to ride back home alone — yes, I can ride a horse! Our haveli was about seven miles away. I must have ridden for about five miles when I decided to stop and let the horse drink some water. I was firmly seated in the saddle. The moment the horse lowered his head to drink water, he saw the reflection of a mare. He got excited. Before I could control him, he galloped after her at such speed that all I could do was to hold on. I couldn’t see anything. I thought I was done for! I managed to take one foot out of the stirrup. The horse was ‘kind’ enough to throw me down along with the saddle. I fainted. After some time, when I regained consciousness, I checked to see if I had broken any bones. Luckily, I was only bruised. I picked up the saddle. The horse, I knew, would head back home. Slowly, I dragged myself to a place where there was a cluster of huts. I recognised the place. Somehow, I got to the village well. I knew the Chaudhary of the village. He saw that I was badly hurt. He helped me sit down, and sent for some warm milk with ghee for me to drink. He said, ‘Take my horse. Send her back tomorrow.’

Instead of a saddle, the horse had a pallana made of cloth. I adjusted it. As I was about to mount it, a crowd gathered around me. That is usual in villages. I saw a new face among them. I hadn’t seen him before. Or, maybe I had known him as a child and hadn’t recognised him. Anyway, he came and stood in front of my horse. I was very offended. It went against all social norms of behaviour. He patted the horse and said, ‘Go drop her home today. Later, she’ll have to leave behind her bangles and earrings. Then we’ll see…’ A chill ran down my spine. There was something in his tone that frightened me. I left. When I reached home, I didn’t share the incident with anyone. I did, however, feel that I had heard the first ahat of something strange and powerful. And, of course, a couple of years later it did happen.


AB: Were you as a child told by your parents, ‘Don’t play with that girl because she is a Muslim? Don’t go to her house or eat food with her?’

KS: No, I was never forbidden to do so. In our houses in Delhi and Shimla there was no discrimination. Nor was there any discrimination in Gujarat. We addressed the Muslims who worked in our house as mamus (uncles). In the village, however, they were never allowed to enter the kitchens of Hindu households. That’s all. No one minded this till politics started playing it up as an example of Hindu arrogance. But whenever we went to the houses of our Muslim friends, we had no hesitation in eating food with them.

AB: There was, however, talk about ‘Hindu paani’ and ‘Muslim paani’.

KS: Oh, yes! Dhabas used separate plates and glasses for Hindus and Muslims. However, the same dhabas served food to both communities. As children, we were not forbidden from going into Muslim areas, only we were not allowed to wear frocks or skirts. I suspect that social tensions increased once Punjab came under the influence of the Arya Samaj.


AB: I’d like to know a little more about why you think that the emergence of Pakistan was inevitable. Historians like I.H. Qureshi in Pakistan have maintained a similar position. They assert that historically Muslims were always distinct and separate from Hindus. Therefore, after independence, the formation of Pakistan was a foregone conclusion. Is that true? Is there sufficient historical evidence to suggest that the Muslims of India always saw themselves as distinct enough to form a separate nation-state? Weren’t a majority of Indian Muslims converts? Further, do we have authentic records of communal riots before the 1880s? There were, of course, incidents of violence between the two communities. But there were also social mechanisms for containing communal tensions. Indeed, it’s arguable that till about the 1890s there was a viable composite culture in India.

KS: I think that when a historian decides to take sides, he can justify anything (laughs). Memories of those times can always be falsified. In the histories of the partition, ‘culture’ is one word that has been abused constantly and mercilessly. ‘Secular’ is not a term I’d like to use for the way of life that existed before the partition. The weave of that common culture was so strong and dense that it still lingers, not as a memory, but as a source of inner strength.

In spite of political tensions, people lived in harmony with each other. Each respected the other’s otherness. Both were wholly self-assured about the threads that held them together, threads like a common language, dialects and a way of life, none of which bore any reference to religious identities.

Let me tell you a story that I have recounted in greater detail in Zindaginama. In the 15th century, there was a Sufi named Miyan Meer Sahib. It’s said that he laid the foundation of Amritsar. He was a great friend of a Hindu saint, Jaggu Bhagat. In those days Sufis and holy men were highly respected. Anyway, Miyan Sahib and Jaggu Bhagat had great respect for each other. They were neighbours. Whenever Miyan Sahib called Jaggu Bhagat, he would leave everything and go to him at once. The same was true of Jaggu Bhagat. One day, however, it so happened that when Miyan Sahib called him, Jaggu Bhagat didn’t go at once. Curious, Miyan Sahib walked across to his friend’s house and saw that he was busy cooking in his kitchen. Jaggu Bhagat looked up but continued to stir the pot. Miyan Sahib waited for some time patiently. Each moment of silence, however, seemed to him to be unbearably long. Unable to contain himself, he finally said, ‘Bhagatji, you have been cooking for a long time. Now please stop.’ Jaggu Bhagat replied — and it’s possible there is some truth in this story — ‘You came to my house and didn’t hug me.’ Miyan Sahib said, ‘And you think that your kitchen is more important than I am. From now on, even if we continue to live in this neighbourhood, we shall never speak to each other again.’ It’s said that the two continued to live in the same town, and in the same neighbourhood, but they never met each other again. As you can see, there is always the possibility of a profound misunderstanding between people. So, while it’s true to say that Hindus and Muslims lived with each other peacefully it’s not true to say that they also didn’t see themselves as distinct and separate from each other.


AB: When I interviewed Intizar Husain a few years ago, he said two important things in this context. First, that he sees himself as a Shia who still had one foot in Karbala and another in Ayodhya. Second, that he always feels there is a Hindu sitting inside him. It’s because of this kinship with Hindu traditions that when he thinks about questions of tradition and history, he insists that both Hindus and Muslims talk about Meera Bai and Kabir, Amir Khusro and Tulsi Das as a part of the same heritage. He is sure that we can still learn from Hindu and Muslim traditions of the Indian subcontinent. If he’s right in asserting that historically there was so much give and take between Hindus and Muslims that they could exchange ideas at the profoundest philosophical level, then it’s difficult to talk about the emergence of Pakistan as inevitable. There seems to be a contradiction between Intizar Husain’s version of India’s composite culture and Qureshi’s history of Muslim separatism.

KS: I think there is some truth in both versions — or rather that they are both partially true. Indeed, Intizar Sahib is right when he invokes Kabir and Tulsi Das, Meera Bai, Bulle Shah or Baba Farid to talk about our cultural complexity in such a beautiful way. Both Hindus and Muslims regarded Sakhi Sarvar as holy, but they didn’t make concessions to each other even when they lived as neighbours.

You must remember that once people become conscious of their separate identities, their modes of living and expectations change. The same thing happened to the relations between Muslims and Hindus. Now that there is talk of granting women 30% reservation in various spheres, their status at home is bound to change. Don’t you think that I’ll assert myself if I know that I will always get a job (laughs)! The same thing happened to the relations between Hindus and Muslims. Once upon a time there was an accepted and traditional way of defining relations with each other. New political awareness brought with it new expectations — raised new questions about our inherited assumptions. In this respect Punjab was different. Consider, for example, our accepted notion that brahmins exercise a great social influence on our social life. In Punjab they were never very important. The ‘best’ brahmins joined the police force — the Majahans, for instance, were listed amongst the martial communities. A brahmin too had to prove his might! (laughs)

It’s true, however, that in many areas of life Hindus and Muslims were close to each other. Yet, they were also distinct from each other in many respects. It’s a mistake to assume that they were completely integrated. Besides, when people get educated, they also become conscious of their identities. This process had begun to happen amongst the Muslims. Their educated sections had begun to inculcate a new consciousness of their political identity. If we go back in time, we find the National Congress and the Muslim League moving in contrary directions. The Muslim League was working for a separate state for Muslims, and the Hindus in the Congress, with their defensive psyche, were protecting some of their cherished ideals. Whatever their political strategies, their symbols, too, were different. This sense of a separate Muslim identity had begun to be felt fairly early in the twentieth century — in Punjab, at least.


AB: Do you really believe that the national movement was an assertion of Hindu nationalism?

KS: Yes, to a great extent, it was Hindu nationalism. Consider works like Anandmath or songs like ‘Bande Mataram’. The Hindus were upset by the partition of Bengal, but the reorganisation of states was not a new thing. The North-West Frontier Province had been carved out of Punjab by the British. Surely, there was nothing particularly wrong with the division of Bengal. It would have been accepted had there not been such a fierce, and almost hysterical, opposition to it. The partition was repealed. That certainly upset the Muslims. It gave them a reason to feel that the Hindus were likely to oppose any move that favoured them. If the partition of Bengal had not been repealed, it’s possible that the Muslims wouldn’t have demanded Pakistan.

AB: You must have known many Muslims who felt that this was their land as much as it was the land of the Hindus.

KS: Yes, indeed. Even Jinnah felt that Bengal or Punjab could never be divided. I’m merely trying to suggest that at the political level there was a growing distance between the Hindus and the Muslims. But at the social and cultural level the two communities were very close. The moment we started to play the politics of separate electorates, however, the British seized the chance to aggravate the rift between the two communities.

Let me tell you about Khwaja Khizar of Punjab. He was the pir of the rivers. It was said that his eternal boat, though invisible, always floated on the rivers and helped people to go across. Hindus and Muslims both had faith in Khwaja Khizar.

Our family had great faith in the powers of Baba Farid. There was one corner for him in our house and nothing was done without first invoking his blessings — no wedding or mundan was performed without praying to him. We also visited his mazar. Neither Hindus nor Muslims hesitated to name their sons Farid. It was, of course, a Muslim name. It was the same with Bulle Shah. Both were part of our cultural tradition. No one asked if they were Hindu or Muslim.

AB: Recently, I met Sant Singh Sekhon, who told me something startling. He said that in rural Punjab no Muslim was allowed to read the azan publicly. Is that true?

KS: Certainly not. My novel, Zindaginama, opens with the azan. It was an important part of village life. There was no hostility towards the practice. We respected it. Absolutely. Remember that the Hindus always went to the holy places of the Muslims to receive blessings. Pregnant women visited the mazars of the pirs etc.

AB: Did Muslims visit Hindu shrines?

KS: Yes. I have seen Muslims in gurudwaras. They used to sit along with others wearing red Turkish caps. No one coerced them into going there. This was not an unusual sight, but it created curiosity and interest among us children. It was their otherness that fascinated me. Even today I feel that the texture of life of the two communities was so strong in the past that despite the politics of the partition it’s still a subject of interest.

The Muslims fascinated me. When I was growing up, I was always told that if I wanted to learn how to behave I should observe their manners. They were a sophisticated people. The Hindus were intelligent and hard working, but the Muslims were lively and gracious. They didn’t engage in unnecessary hair-splitting like we did. Their sternness attracted me.

These days, when we want to feel good, we tell ourselves that Pakistan has failed to establish a democracy – that, compared to them, we haven’t done so badly. I feel very uncomfortable with that kind of talk. Let me share something with you. During the first Indo-Pakistan war, I was taken to a thana that had been captured by Indian soldiers. There were papers scattered everywhere and the Indians were busy cleaning up the place. I was profoundly disturbed when I saw two army caps belonging to soldiers of the Baluch regiment on the floor. I picked them up because I couldn’t bear to see them lying there. Temperamentally, I like army people. I like to think about different regiments, and seeing those army caps lying on the floor upset me. I knew they belonged to Pakistani soldiers, yet I felt they were my people, they belonged to our side.

This idea that people across the border are a part of us can never be erased from our memories. I remember seeing a photograph of a few Pakistani soldiers who had been captured during the war. It was published on the front page of a newspaper. The men were six feet tall. I felt they were people I knew. They reminded me of the men I used to call mammuIt didn’t occur to me that they were Muslims or Pakistanis.

First published in The Beacon.

Alok Bhalla is a literary critic, poet, translator and editor based in New Delhi.