Preparation for this trip included reading literature (Canadian authors, of course) situated within or directly related to India. Many years ago, my first memorable exposure was Anita Rau Bandami’s, The Hero’s Walk. Paradoxically, I have a limited recollection of the plot but enough to recommend it to others. More recently, I was subsumed by Anosh Irani’s The Parcel a tough and difficult account of enslaved prostitution and The Song of Kanunsha the story of organized, exploitative begging in Bombay. This past summer was the perfect opportunity to tackle Rohinton Mistry’s more than 700 page opus, A Fine Balance. It’s story recounted the divisive caste system and the persistently discordant gender norms; it’s universal message for thriving, or at a minimum, a lesson in survival.
M.G. Vassanji’s latest novel, A Delhi Obsession, was released in September, providing one more book to contribute some understanding of our destination country. Numerous two page bed side reading evenings, including one re-start, amounted to only about thirty completed pages by the time our plane took flight. A late evening departure and the allure of in-house movies meant the first substantial reading happened here at Basunti Lodge, after a few days in Amritsar. The delay proved fortuitous because the experience of the city and it’s history, particularly it’s central place in the Partition, has enriched and illuminated M.G. Vassanji’s story.
In short, one protagonist, Munir Kahn, is a recently widowed writer whose Muslim family immigrated from Kenya, having escaped the city of Delhi. His wife was Scottish and they raised a daughter in a non-denominational Canadian home in the city of Toronto; early on in the book, she marries an American Jew. Seeking to rekindle a creative morass and rediscover his Indian heritage, Munir visits Delhi and encounters the second main protagonist, Mohini Singh, a Hindi woman in an unhappy marriage to a traditional business man. Their affair is the subject of much personal introspection with the backdrop of the growth of Indian nationalism under the baggage of the Partition.
We learned the details of the Partition on our visit to the museum where the graphic details are displayed in texts and images, first hand accounts of Sikh and Hindi slaughter at the hands of the Muslims. With the independence of India from Britain, Pakistan to the west and Bangladesh to the east were created as Muslim states along semi-objective border lines, an announcement which precipitated the largest mass migration in history. Despite the depiction in the museum, the atrocities occurred on both sides. The constant reminder to Munir prompts him to respond, “no point in telling [them] that there was killing on both sides.” Estimates of the numbers, according to the 1996 edition of the Lonely Planet, informative reading here on the shelves of our Basunti hosts, range from a quarter to half a million dead. The shadow of the Partition remains long and the rise of nationalism, one of Vassanji’s motivation to write his book, can only resurrect the violence it brings.
Our second experiential lesson was a trip to the Wagah-Attari border, equidistant between Lahore in Pakistan and Amritsar. There is a mock display of posturing and strength between the respective armed militia separated by iron gates, in front of 30,000 people daily, to lower each country’s flag and ending in a quick handshake supposedly reminiscent of the agreement to draw the precise border line.
Each side has a permanent u-shaped stadium to house an audience and atmosphere akin to a football (soccer) match. Raucous singing and chanting, pumped up by a circus master, drums and pulsating music, vendors selling drinks and popcorn. Each side takes turn parading out their soldiers and at other times competing with each other to be the loudest and most boisterous; all seemingly in good fun, and and in spite of the history of the Partition.
Whereas others in our party viewed the whole exercise harmless and a healthy form or country pride, Olga and I saw it as a prelude to the potential rallying of the troops in response to not unprecedented government aggression in the wake of rapidly rising nationalistic ideology.
Lest we forget.