Convergent Views on Divergent Experiences
By Zuleikha Cassobhoy
When Pakistanis and Indians write on the same subject their views are most often contradictory and divergent, but Tales of Two Cities, authored by well-known journalists from the two neighboring countries, reflects harmony in the thinking of the two writers, Kuldip Nayar and Asif Noorani. They are both desirous of cordial relationship between the countries and both condemn in equal measure fanaticism and intolerance between the Muslims and the Hindus (also Sikhs) that came to the fore at the time of Partition, when the largest transmigration of people in recorded history took place.
The convergence of views of the two authors is despite that fact that they come from two different backgrounds. Kuldip Nayar, who was 24, migrated from Sialkot to Delhi amidst bloodshed, violence, rape and mayhem, while Asif Noorani was merely five when India was partitioned and saw a much more peaceful Bombay from where he migrated in 1950 with his parents and siblings on board the steamship Sabarmati.
His mother was upset because she left her father and siblings behind. But the eight-year old was excited at the prospects of a voyage to an unknown land. Nayar’s style is what Mathew Arnold describes as high seriousness, while Noorani’s sense of humor seldom forsakes him. He finds something interesting to refer to even when he is narrating the story of his being stranded in Bombay during the 1965 war. He has, as David Page – the editor of the book – points out, a fine eye for detail. Kuldip Nayar’s view is more politics-based, while Asif Noorani, who is steeped in music, literature and films, writes from his perspective.
It is heartening to note that Nayar who was uprooted with his family from Sialkot and who had to see difficult times, nursed no grudge against the Muslims but it is less surprising in the case of Asif Noorani that he harbored no ill-feeling towards the Hindus because he spent his formative years in highly cosmopolitan Mumbai. His family, though practicing Muslim, was secular in its outlook. It was during the riots in the city that he was afflicted by fear but two noble souls among the Hindus allayed his fears.
In one such riot he saw, from the safe confines of the second floor balcony of his grandfather’s flat, the murder of a Hindu by an Afghan. The gruesome tragedy haunted him for many years.
Nayar saw much more horrifying scenes than Noorani. His narration of a caravan of Hindus and Sikhs, victims of several tragedies, crossing the border as a similar caravan of Muslims having undergone the same plight coming from the opposite direction, was moving to put it mildly. In his masterpiece novelette Ghaddar, Krishn Chandar had described a similar scene.
Under the influence of his close friend, Shafquat, Nayar had got a crescent and star (the emblem of Muslims) tattooed on his arm, which was to cause him some anxious moments when a group of militant Sikhs decided to kill him, taking him to be a Muslim. He was saved at the last moment by a sharnarthi (refugee), who had been a patient of Kuldip Nayar’s father, a doctor with a thriving medical practice in Sialkot.
Noorani had lovingly narrated the experiences in Model Town, a posh locality built by the Hindus and Sikhs a few years before Partition. Their bungalows carried their name plates embedded on the gate posts when the writer moved there as an eight year old. It was a far cry from the hustle bustle of Bombay, where pasteurized milk was delivered at their doorstep but in Model Town, the eight year old boy had to take a pail in the morning to get freshly squeezed milk.
Noorani’s family moved from Lahore to Karachi in 1953 and his narrative of Karachi’s transformation is also worth reading. How the city was transformed from a sleepy town to one of the most crowded mega-cities of the world. The vast majority of people who moved to the city were initially from across the newly created border. Urdu thus became the lingua franca of the city. Coincidentally, both the authors of the book, published by India’s prestigious publishing house, Rolibooks, are great lovers of Urdu.
All said, the book is both informative and readable. It is the fourth in the series termed Cross Border Talks. It is among the top ten selling books in Pakistan and should be doing well in India as well.
(Readers in North America can order a copy of the book for US$ 15 from www.DesiStore.com)