OPINION: A Generation Remembered

I was reading a short story when I received a book, ‘an enthralling autobiography’. The short story is ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by the great Urdu short-story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto.
26 Feb 2018 11:01
OPINION: A Generation Remembered
A collection of Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories including Toba Tek Singh.

I was reading a short story when I received a book, ‘an enthralling autobiography’. The short story is ‘Toba Tek Singh’ by the great Urdu short-story writer, Saadat Hasan Manto.

The book I got in the post is titled Life on the Run by Diwakar Rao, a former Fijian educationist.

On a recent visit to Karachi, my friend Professor Rafat Hussain, brought me a copy Manto’s collected short stories. It’s a fabulous volume.

Diwakar Rao’s volume was sent by a generous friend from Brisbane.

In my undergraduate days in Delhi I had heard of two sub-continental writers: in Hindi it was Munshi Prem Chand, the author of the classic nov­el, Godaan; and Manto, the author of ‘Toba Tek Singh’.

I hadn’t read either and neither was taught in Delhi University, totally ob­sessed with English literature from Chaucer to the modernists like Eliot, Yeats and Lawrence, and a few au­thors from the USA.

No Indian writer even in English was ever mentioned in our courses, al­though RK Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao were publishing their pio­neering works.

Literary culture of India was not on our English radar. Only Professor Dr M Mitra occasionally mentioned Tagore but never went beyond him.

Such was the ‘blasphemy’ of Eng­lish teaching. Nehru’s, Gandhi’s and Nirad Chaudhuri’s work merited no mention in the classrooms. They had written three of the world’s most fa­mous autobiographies exploring the encounters of Indian psyche with im­perial English hubris.

The philosophical works were done Dr S Radhakrishnan, the Spalding Professor of Philosophy at Oxford.

When I arrived in New Delhi, Gandhi was the assassinated Father of the Na­tion; Nehru was the first Prime Min­ister of free, but vivisected India; and Dr Radhakrishnan was the President of the Republic and our university’s Chancellor.

Toba Tek Singh’ is a short story set during the partition of India. It be­gins: ‘A couple of years after the Parti­tion, it occurred to the respective gov­ernments of India and Pakistan that the inmates of lunatic asylums, like prisoners, should also be exchanged. Muslims lunatics in India should be transferred to Pakistan and Hindu and Sikh lunatics in Pakistani asy­lums should be sent to India….’

The rest of the story is about this madness and involves more than the lunatics. One Bisham Singh symbol­ises the absurdity of the whole enter­prise. It also captures the poignancy of the massive tragedy of the subcon­tinent that shows few signs of abate­ment after 70 years of freedom.

The story ends thus: ‘Just before sunrise, Bisham Singh, the mad man who had stood on his legs for fifteen years, screamed and as officials from two sides rushed towards him, he col­lapsed to the ground. There, behind barbed wire, on one side, lay India and behind more barbed wire, on the other side, lay Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.’

The story, read for the first time by me, touched a chord in me. I thought of the in-between generation of our own little country.

In that mood I got a copy of Life on the Run by one of Fiji’s most well-known teachers, and educationists, Mr Diwakar Rao. His father, recruited from India in 1940, served virtually in every part of Fiji as a teacher.

Diwakar was barely five years old, born in an Indian village with its own ancient rituals and rites, when he ar­rived in the South Seas.

He grew up in Fiji. For the past seven decades, he has been associated with the South Pacific education, social ac­tivities, sports and travel. He has left his mark on the national landscape.

The volume has an engaging, fine foreword by Vijendra Kumar, a former editor – both were hostel mates in Na­tabua school when it was situated in the hills of Natabua.

Reading the passages about Rao’s growing up moved me intensely. It’s a story of his family and friends, his journeys into many worlds, and, above all, his memories of Fiji and a generation of men and women who grew up with him and who contrib­uted so enduringly to the development of what was really a crown colony, if ever there was one.

They gave the best part of their lives to a small country. It was home for they knew no other until the casual, racial brutality of the colonel’s coups.

They might have been frogs in a well? But it was their well and they knew it well.

One of the most moving aspects of this memoir is the names Diwakar drops throughout the 200 pages: of friends, family, students, sportsmen and women: names and faces I’d al­most forgotten but remembered them as I turned the last pages at 4 o’clock in the morning.

Many were my acquaintances also. Diwakar Rao and I taught at SVHS in the early 60s. We were together just for a year – both in love. I left to marry my college sweetheart and Diwakar, on a wet evening, found his.

In between he mentions, with dis­arming honesty, the gentle affections of a young heart in India and Fiji.

Today, thanks mainly to the colo­nel’s two coups in 1987, his family and friends are scattered in many parts of the world.

In remembering them, with tell­ing anecdotes, funny and sad, writ­ten with wit and generosity of mind, the writer has given us glimpses of a world that should have been ours to share and cherish. But fate decreed otherwise:

Jiti baji har gaye hum kismet hi kuch aisi thi —

Pyar ka sauda kar na sake hum, kee­mat he kuch aisi thi.

That we allowed a group of men, mainly men, to destroy that world of ours and our relationships is the trag­edy that Manto also narrates in his magnificent short story encapsulating an epical tragedy.

Partition was a sub-continent’s holo­caust.

How does one portray the breaking of hearts in small islands of a small but unforgettable people, indigenous and immigrants? Rao does it without malice but with considerable political insights on occasions.

We were used to cyclones but never had imagined such hideous betrayals by a soldier in an army we trusted so implicitly; who fed on our salt and sugar, and shared our daily bread.

But, as Diwakar’s life shows, it is when one is expelled from a fool’s paradise that one becomes a wiser, if sadder, man.

When he left Fiji after the coups, the accomplished educationist worked in smaller islands and big cities and travelled to virtually every continent. He widened his world and discovered there was another world: one should never despair. There’s enough place for all of us.

Life on the Run is rich portrait of a fine mind and a genuinely sport­ing spirit. It’s a struggle of memory against power that would want you to forget your inheritance and your birth rights.

True that such things are happening daily and have happened tragically in many parts of our one world.

That it should have happened in Fiji is our particular sorrow – and for many an agony unutterable, not yet fully documented.

The wonder is that the Fijian people have had the resilience and inner ca­pacity to rebuild. A personality like Mr Diwarkar Rao helps us to re-im­agine and remember the world of our fathers and brothers, our family and friends, with words and pictures.

Life on the Run is a superbly remem­bered Fijian memoir – full of tears, joy and hope.

Toba Tek Singh is not the name of a person; it’s, in fact, a nameless place. It doesn’t exist on any map and yet it’s everywhere – in the spaces of the dis­located hearts of dispossessed people.

How lucky, I feel, is the present gen­eration in Fiji that they have been given a common and equal citizenship and the security of their homes and a sense of belongingness.

An immeasurable achievement of the present government: if we do not understand this simple but most sig­nificant fact of life in Fiji of today, then the cynics will be right: ‘Those who do not understand their history will be condemned to repeat it’.

That seems to be the last lesson the popular teacher of Fiji teaches us through his teacher’s narrative and traveller’s journeys: his life-story.

  • Satendra Nandan is currently writing the second part of his autobiography for which he was awarded the Harold White Fellowship of the National Library of Australia. The first part, Requiem for a Rainbow, was published in 2001.

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