THE SIXTH RIVER: A JOURNAL FROM THE PARTITION OF INDIA
By Fikr Taunsvi. Translated from the original Urdu by Maaz Bin Bilal
Speaking Tiger, 2019, pp. 173, Rs.499.00
Fikr Taunsvi or Ram Lal Bhatia was an Urdu language poet and satirist, from western Punjab, in present day Pakistan. Maaz Bin Bilal explains that Bhatia found his name ‘vahiyaaat’ or ‘fake’ and ‘absurd’ and adopted the pen name Fikr Taunsvi in the tradition of Urdu/Hindi language poets—Fikr standing for the reflection and deliberation that was at the root of his poetry, and Taunsvi after Taunsa Sharif, where he belonged—a place known for its Sufi shrines. Bhatia was a devotee of Khwaja Suleiman Rasool, a pīr patronized by both Muslims and Hindus. Taken together, the pen name epitomized contemplative thought and syncretic sensibility, two essential prerequisites for a radicalized, progressive poet of the second quarter of the twentieth century. Occupationally, Taunsvi is known to have broken away from his father’s small-time business as a shopkeeper, because his conscience pricked him on account of his father’s dishonest dealings. Taunsvi was employed with Adab-e-Lateef and later with Savera, both progressive journals, in Lahore.
Chhata Darya, now available in translation as The Sixth River: A Journal from the Partition of India is the spontaneous overflow of a poet’s powerful feeling in prose, as he witnessed /experienced the ruin of Lahore, while every institution was demolished not only in brick and mortar but in spirit and essence during the communal riots of the Partition (of the Punjab). As its pluralistic cultural heritage was being ransacked, Taunsvi resisted leaving his beloved city as long as he possibly could, in a bid to uphold/ become synonymous with the ethos it epitomized. Taunsvi’s diary/journal was written between August and November 1947, concluding soon after his migration to India, the other side of the new line or ‘snake’ drawn by Cyril Radcliffe—the country that became the new home to millions of Hindus who fled their homes. For Taunsvi as for anyone, the ethnic animosity, blood bath and plunder propelled largely by the feeling revenge, hatred and the sense of masculine virility, was quite literally devastating. Taunsvi is a poet-rapporteur—philosophical, emotional, employing abstractions and occasionally lapsing into interior monologue or stream of consciousness style to describe the all-pervasive trauma, while longing wistfully for the opposite. He is critical of ‘Jinnah and Jawaharlal’; sardonically refers to Mahatma Gandhi as ‘Mahatma Buddha’ and throws them the challenge to visit Lahore and face at first hand, a single day of the insanity. He is incisive in his analysis of the political and local affairs. Massacres, burnings, plunder, rape, natural calamities, the din and morbidity of refugee camps and border crossings are recorded, including the arrival of ‘two Progressive ladies’ from India, whom he is keen to meet—very likely, Khadija Mastur and Hajira Masroor who migrated around this time. Taunsvi employs tropes drawn from nature, religion and folklore to elucidate his points. The sixth river is in fact the river of blood and fire that coloured the Punjab, the land of five natural rivers—blood and fire representing hatred, massacres and the plunder that had become the order of the day. Legendary stories of Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal are interwoven into the narrative to elucidate the impending tragedy of a people who once lived harmoniously.
Maaz Bin Bilal provides detailed paratextual material to supplement his translation. A detailed introduction provides biographical, professional and literary information about the writer, and the political and literary trends that influenced him. Bilal’s material is imperative for a better understanding of the milieu within which Taunsvi wrote and to familiarize with trends in Urdu writing, particularly for the contemporary, or the unfamiliar reader. He begins by elucidating the synonyms in the English language, for the pen name ‘Fikr’ and the motives for its adoption; he explicates tanz-o-meza or the tradition of satiric writing in Urdu and situates Taunsvi’s stance in the wake of the communal rioting and the exodus, en masse. He critiques The Sixth River as an ‘[a]stute political commentary’ and comments on Taunsvi’s narrative style. A note on the translation elucidates his translational technique(s). Bilal also retains and translates Taunsvi’s dedication from the source language text and his note supplementing it. These preliminaries provide background material that facilitates an informed approach. The Sixth River . . . is appended by a footnote glossary that runs like a supplementary reading throughout the text and provides a holistic perspective. Bilal explains Taunsvi’s abundant, informal or first name allusions and references to a coterie of poets and associates to movements and political events and aspects/issues generally in regard to the then current ambience. So Arif Abdul Mateen, Mumtaz Mufti, Rajendra Nath Rehbar, Jagdish Rai, Qateel Shifai, Ahmed Rahi among others, are all glossed with relevant biographical detail; popular movements such as the All India Progressive Writers’ Movement or the Anjuman Taraqqi Pasand Mussaniffin-e Hind; the Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq or the ‘Circle of Men/Keepers of Taste’, Anjuman-i-Tarraqui-i-Urdu, an organization for the promotion of the Urdu language, and Paisa Akhbar (Penny Newspaper), a popular Urdu newspaper in British India, are annotated.
Similarly, political manouevrings and/or events are elucidated; historical events and personages, Urdu poetry and some original language usages, which Bilal translates, are also explained. Bilal retains some culturally specific words such as ‘malechha’, ‘kaffir’ and ‘bhagwaan’ which help retain the flavour of the original and delves upon the untranslatability of some of these. To the same end perhaps, he retains Taunsvi’s Urdu language titles to the three sections of the journal along with his translation. The title to the third section ‘Aao Phir Subha ko Dhuundein’ (‘Come, Let us Look for the Dawn Again’) covering the period from 17th October to 8th November, inadvertently recalls Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Yeh dāghdāgh ujālā, yeh shab gazida sahar/ Wo intezār thā jiskā, yeh wō sahar tō nahīñ (‘This stain-covered daybreak, this night bitten dawn,/ This is not that dawn of which there was expectation’), from ‘Subh-e-Āzādī’, August 1947, and indicates that dawn was a trope employed by Urdu poets and writers across the board to express expectations from āzādī, with varying similitudes—the triumph of that dawn remaining, contentious perhaps, even today.
Chhata Darya was first published by Nayā Idārah in 1948. Thereafter it was brought out by Bīswiñ Sadī in 1988 in India. Ample political-historical studies, poetry and fiction center the Partition but relatively fewer weekly records of the mayhem are available/ accessible and in this sense, both, Taunsvi’s account and its translation are significant. Chhata Darya marks the turning point in Taunsvi’s literary career (as a poet turned satirist) in that having confronted the ‘madness’ of the Partition, he was unable to write poetry ever after. Lahore, one of the oldest, culturally rich, legendarily beautiful, progressive and most affluent cities of undivided India suffered the worst riots in a hastily planned Partition plan. Taunsvi’s journal is a week-by-week record of the decimation of tangible, material and intangible, unquantifiable heritage of a people and their city. Noticeably, Taunsvi identifies with the Muslim community rather than as one of the enemy community in predominantly Muslim Lahore. He is perplexed by the newfound enmities and stresses sentiments of forgiveness, even in the midst of chaos and terrible communal fears that loom large. He longs for communal syncretism even as he witnesses its breakdown and cites instances that project the opposite, as beacons of hope. Taunsvi’s journal may also be perceived as preempting Partition fiction.
Bilal’s translation, The Sixth River … isn’t simply an addition to the corpus of already available Partition literature in translation, particularly Progressive literature. Its availability compares with retrieval of a significant Urdu language crossover text that spans politics, sociology, human psychology and literature. Its publication during a time rife by political and communal tension is also relevant—Taunsvi’s syncretic sensibility and his refusal to succumb to hatred and violence during a period of ‘madness’ provide pertinent instruction even today.
Fatima Rizvi is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, Lucknow.