By Bhaswati Ghosh
Perhaps because it is easy to divide land and difficult to partition rivers – real and the ones that flow as thought-streams, the motif of a river emerges recurrently in This Side That Side: Restorying Partition, an anthology of graphic narratives. Given the ongoing nature of personal histories forged by the Partition of India, re-storying seems not only a worthwhile but even a necessary exercise, if one is to make sense of the histories that stitch the lacerated subconscious of the populace scattered over India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
Curator: Vishwajyoti Ghosh
In his introduction, Vishwajyoti Ghosh, the curator of This Side That Side, says this was a book he wanted to write himself but never could. The endeavour for the anthology began with an open call for submissions and, subsequently, matching writers with illustrators/artists. If the memories of those affected by the barbed wire fences are like smudged picture books, the visual device of graphic narratives must be an appropriate key to unlock the vaults of oral histories families have been passing down generations – mostly by way of storytelling, but sometimes also as more tangible personal effects.
On the cover, the word-pairs “This Side” and “That Side,” mirror each other in bold typesetting; in the background is an airmail envelope with three stamps – one each from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – the offspring of Partition. Significantly present on the top right corner is a little girl playing hopscotch with three squares drawn over the map of undivided India. The girl’s image is from “Border” (Kaiser Haq/Hemant Puri), one of the stories in the anthology.
The pages of This Side That Side brim with such a diversity of graphic art styles that despite the dominance of themes such as loss, despair, and nostalgia running through the stories, each narrative is a fresh experience for the reader.
“The Taboo” (Malini Gupta/Dyuti Mittal) takes one through Cooper’s Camp, one of the largest refugee camps in West Bengal that was set up in 1950. Mittal’s powerful illustration breaks away from the conventional grid structure to recreate the maze that this camp, originally established as a transit camp, has become for its dwellers. But it’s not a hopeless story; Lily, a member of Cooper’s, leaves the camp’s confines to start her own motor repair business and is a role model for other camp dwellers.
In stark contrast is Maria M. Litwa’s “Welcome to Geneva Camp”, adapted from her original multimedia story, “Inside Geneva Camp”. Litwa’s telling photographs present the grimness of Bangladesh’s largest camp, housing nearly 25,000 people. The camp’s inhabitants are mostly Urdu-speaking Biharis, who found themselves at the wrong end of the subcontinental map following the Liberation War of 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh. Wanted neither by Bangladesh nor by Pakistan, the camp’s residents are refugees in their own country. The story features a teenage housewife and two other women sharing their lives in the camp—a fate they didn’t choose but were condemned to, and something they can’t wait to change.
The fatuity of splitting India at the time of its independence is revealed in “90 Upper Mall” (Ahmad Rafay Alam/Martand Khosla). The writer (Alam) and the artist (Khosla) come across each other in London, and, as is often the case with Indians and Pakistanis in a third country, they find common strains in their family histories. The duo juxtaposes photographs, sketches, and architectural blueprints (Khosla is an architect) with Alam’s text to show how the connections between their families run deeper than cursory coincidences. In one of the many instances of exchange of property in the Indian and Pakistani sides of Punjab, Alam’s family get to live in the house that once belonged to Khosla’s grandfather. Alam learns about this only when Khosla barges into his room in London and demands, in mock outrage, rent for his grandfather’s house.
Ghosh, the curator, himself illustrates “A Good Education”, an excerpt from the nonfiction book Aranyalipi (The Forest Chronicles) by the late Amiya Sen. The story relates a social worker’s experiences with East Bengali refugees, who were “rehabilitated” in Dandakaranya in west-central India in the 1950s. Ghosh’s textured strokes are as compelling as the force of the author’s narrative.
“I am told right now 35,000 are living here in Mana Camp. Farmers, sweet-makers, blacksmiths, potters and cobblers from East Bengal. Unlike us, the privileged who moved at the very outset, these are the real lambs of Partition.”
This Side That Side is a repository, not just of exquisite artistic styles – Ikroop Sandhu’s vine-like engrafting of different motifs in Ravish Kumar’s pithy and lyrical story, “Which Side”, with its penetrating line: “This can’t be how nations are made,”; Nitesh Mohanty’s part abstract, part vignette dream-like imagery to render Syeda Farhana’s pensive tale of ache and yearning, “Little Women”; Fariha Rehman’s uncluttered, deliberately attenuated sketches that accompany Mahmood Farooqui’s translation of a short story by Intizar Hussain, “A Letter from India” – but also of various storytelling techniques and intriguing content – letters (“A Letter from India”), fables, (“An Old Fable” – Tabish Khair/Priya Kuriyan), the idea of a circus in both the literal sense as well as a trope (“The Last Circus” – Piya Sen/Deewana), satire (“Cabaret Weimar” – Rabbi Shergill/Vishwajyoti Ghosh; “Bastards of Utopia” – Mehreen Murtaza), and interview (“Making of a Poet” – M. Hasan/Sukanya Ghosh).
This Side That Side isn’t a book scripted by those who make governments or decide how history should be taught in schools. It is, rather, a compendium of histories – remembered, imagined, re-imagined, and retold through the river-like stream of intergenerational kinship. Even more importantly, it is an undivided territory – one that brings stories from the other side – to help one process fractured memories and misconceived realities.
Photo: The Hindu & Bhaswati Ghosh (Book Cover)
Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction and non-fiction. Her website: bhaswatighosh.com.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Inland Labor Migration in India”. Edited by Soma Chatterjee, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada. Find out the hopes, despairs, and issues relating to migrant laborers in India.