‘Tales of Two Cities’ Launched in SF Bay Area
By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
Asif Noorani presents his book to Dr. Maheen Adamson,
a senior member of the Urdu Academy
Urdu Academy of North America is a literary organization but it has a broader mission of promoting peace and harmony between India and Pakistan. In pursuance of its greater objective the Academy, on May 18th, 2009, sponsored the launching of the best-seller cross-border dialogue book, Tales of Two Cities.
Distinguished Pakistani journalist and critic, Asif Noorani, who co-authored this book with eminent Indian journalist Kuldip Nayer, graced the occasion and amused the audience with his graphic presentation of now a best seller book.
The name of the book is borrowed from Charles Dickens’ classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities (1859) that is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. It depicts the plight of the French proletariat under the brutal oppression of the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution and the corresponding savage brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution.
Like the Dickens novel, Tales of Two Cities which is actually a tale of five cities across two countries (Sialkot, Delhi, Mumbai, Lahore and Karachi), has a political mission. Tales Of Two Cities is the fourth volume in the series Cross-Border Talks, in which eminent Indians and Pakistanis discuss issues that divide them. Other titles were: Diplomatic Divide, Divided by Democracy and Fault Lines of Nationhood. The volumes are published simultaneously in both countries to encourage discussion at the same time.
Tales of Two Cities sets out to tell that story — of independence, of upheaval and migration and of new beginnings — through the eyes of two eyewitnesses, whose families were uprooted and who were forced to start new lives in new states in those unpropitious circumstances.
Kuldip Nayar was 24 years old in 1947 when he, along with his family, had to leave Sialkot in the wake of riots and violence. Though the family had initially decided to stay in Pakistan, the communal fire left them with little choice and they had to leave everything they owned there to come to India as refugees.
Kuldip Nayar writes about the migration of his family from Sialkot to Delhi. He gave a graphic account of his family’s arrival at the Attari border: “It was great to be alive. There was still daylight. As I looked out, relieved and happy, I saw people walking in the opposite direction. They were Muslims. I saw the same pain etched on their faces. They trudged along with their belongings bundled on their heads and their frightened children trailing behind. They too had left behind their home and hearth, friends and hopes. They too had been broken on the wrack of history. A caravan from our side was going to Pakistan. We stopped to make way for them. They too stopped. But no one spoke. We looked at one another with sympathy, not fear. A strange understanding cropped up between us. It was a spontaneous kinship, of hurt, loss and helplessness. Both were refugees.”
Asif Noorani writes about his family's migration from Mumbai to Pakistan. He was only five years old at the time of the Partition. He remembers the riots in Bombay. But his family lived in riots-ridden Bombay for three more years before his father decided to migrate to Pakistan. However, like Kuldip Nayar, his departure from India was not fearful: “On 3 September 1950 we left for the Princess Dock and boarded the Scindia Steamship Company's S.S. Sabarmati. My maternal grandfather ... was shattered. My mother, the elder of his two daughters, was a pillar of strength to him, and here she was grief-stricken on board a ship, which was to take her, her husband and their kids to an unknown destination. ... As for me, the voyage was exciting. It was the end of a long struggle to get the elusive no objection certificate and the permit to go to Pakistan.”
Asif Noorani is not only a prolific writer but a very good orator. His cheerful and ecstatic reading of excerpts from the Tales of Two Cities at the launching of his book in San Jose elated the audience. He recalls his days in Bombay with this episode: “My best friend in those days at St Joseph’s was a boy called Subhash Thorat. All I remember of him, apart from his name, is his crew cut and a question that I asked him: ‘Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’ He replied: ‘I don’t know. I’ll ask my father.’ I somehow thought that Hindus could be Shias or Sunnis too. I wasn’t sure who I was. I still wonder how the classification of the two main Islamic sects entered my mind, for ours was a secular-minded family of practicing Muslims. Sects, castes and communal differences didn’t matter to my elders, which is something I inherited from them.”
The end of this episode exhilarated the audience. “The same question was asked four or five years later in Lahore after we migrated to Pakistan but this time I was at the receiving end. A girl from my class, with whom I shared my sweets, posed the same question. ‘I guess I am a Sunni,’ I said. ‘Well, then I am a Shia. Remember! I can’t marry a Sunni boy,’ she responded with a grim face. I wasn’t particularly interested in marrying her, at least not at the age of ten, but I did lament the loss of an option.”
I believe that the Urdu Academy event in San Jose was the most appropriate forum to launch this book because Silicon Valley has a strong people-to-people contact movement to bring peace and harmony between India and Pakistan. There are a number of groups which are very active to achieve durable peace in South Asia through people-to-people movement. In 2005 San Francisco-based United Religions Initiative (URI) unsuccessfully initiated a peace train from India to Pakistan. According to Tashie Zaheer, President of the Urdu Academy, people-to-people contact has taken an added importance in the current tense and volatile situation between the two nuclear neighbors. He was happy that the Urdu Academy was able to make a positive contribution towards peace in South Asia by introducing Tales of Two Cities in the Silicon Valley. He believes that this book will help in promoting a positive dialogue between the two communities in the wake of the ongoing game of allegations and counter-allegations that has further deteriorated the already tenuous link between the two impoverished countries.