Friday, July 10, 2015

Review of Midnight's Furies by Nisid Hajari

Anyone growing up in India during the 1960s and 1970s has probably heard the horrifying stories of the events surrounding the 1947 India-Pakistan partition. The most scary ones I remember are about trains packed with dead bodies coming into Lahore (dead Muslims) and into India (dead Hindus). My own parents lived in Lahore, or in the part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan; they were lucky to avoid the massacre---they used to spend their summer in Shimla, and had moved en masse in June, so that when August 1947 came around, they escaped the killings. They left their Lahore home in June, for the summer holidays in Shimla, and never went back---the Pakistanis who took over the home kept their clothes and possessions in a trunk for them to retrieve decades later. My mother's father, Shyamlal Meini, an industrialist, made many dangerous car trips between Shimla and the to-be-formed Pakistan during the summer of 1947 to move his money out of there to India.

And then there were the wars with Pakistan. I remember when we were instructed to paste brown paper on all glass windows to block the lights out during nighttime, in case Pakistani bombers attacked Delhi. I think I was seven or so, and although it was fun to stick rectangles of brown paper on all the windows, it didn't really sink in what a bombing would do. My father (he died in September last year), was a physicist at the National Physical Laboratory in Delhi, and was also involved in R&D related to the war, although I don't know what exactly it was about.

The Khalistan movement and the terror the Sikhs unleashed in India is another salient memory from my time in India.  A turning point came when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard, and the population of Delhi started to systematically kill Sikhs and their families in retaliation; Sikhs were strung up to hang on a bridge right on the street outside our apartment. It seems like the only response we have in India, despite our supposed 5000 or whatever years of culture, to injustice and brutality is more brutality. That's how the partition played out, and that's how 1984 played out. And there have been more such killings since then. The hatred seems to be passed on from one generation to the next; I recently met a childhood friend who invoked the partition and what the Muslims did to his family to justify his feelings about the fate all Muslims should experience.

The partition seems to control our attitudes and beliefs even today. A lot of Punjabis moved into Delhi, replacing the refined and restrained Muslim culture with a new, brash, and VERY LOUD, aggressive Punjabi style of doing things. At least until I was in India in the early and mid 1990s, it was fashionable to make fun of Punjabis for their brashness and aggressiveness. I had Jain and Muslim friends who openly mocked Punjabis in front of me, and mocked me for being Punjabi (and yes, I am as brash and aggressive as they come---and believe me, I am holding back). Using words in Hindi that are derived from Punjabi is a sure way to elicit derision from one of these groups. Punjabis were and maybe still are considered fair game in Delhi, by non-Punjabis of course.  The Hindi language changed after the Punjabis arrived in Delhi; and purists from central India routinely make fun of the way Punjabis like me pronounce certain words like "read" (paRa, not the correct paRha), occasionally introduce tones and odd accenting patterns into Hindi, and use the ergative case marking incorrectly, almost certainly a borrowing from Punjabi. Sneering at groups other than one's own is an Indian speciality, and the arrival of the Punjabis in Delhi provided a lot of free mocking-value for the other groups who thought themselves superior to these barbarians. It didn't help that the Punjabis ended up dominating many aspects of the economy in Delhi. Of course, the Punjabis sneer at others too, for being Merchant caste money-grubbers and weak-minded ditherers, among other things. So nobody really is blameless in this culture of defining one's cultural "team".

This book, Midnight's Furies, by Nisid Hajari, is an astonishing chronicle of the events that led to the partition:

Fantastically fast paced and well written, I had a very hard time putting this book down to work during the day. The main thing I learnt, which I didn't know much about until now, was the sheer incompetence and short-sightedness of all parties involved in the partition: Nehru, Gandhi, Jinnah, the entire British imperial machinery, Churchill (Hindus: "a beastly people with a beastly religion"). Jinnah and Nehru are both blamed in this book for making the situation worse and for precipitating the partition. I can see how that might happen; even if they had been more accommodating with each other, and just mildly rational human beings, they had no experience in nation-building. I can imagine that anyone who has to deal with a situation like this is going to make mistakes.  What surprised me was how badly the British---who have some experience in nation-building from scratch, especially other people's nations---handled the hand-over of India to the Indians. I guess the British didn't even see the Indians as particularly human ("a beastly people with a beastly religion"), so it didn't really matter to them either way whether they lived or died.  The big lesson I learnt from this book was that leadership matters. If you are leading the way, whether it's something big or small, you have to be bigger than yourself. You have to put aside your sense of self-importance, and be willing to recognize that you are sometimes wrong, and then you have to correct course. A lot of what happened---except for the criminal British incompetence---was because of people not being willing to back down and conceding a point in the face of overwhelming evidence. Rather reminiscent of the way we do science in most fields.

The story that Hajari tells was carefully omitted from my history textbooks in school, or at least the details were whitewashed. Of course everyone knew about the partition; the machinations that led to it were kept pretty obscure in the textbooks I had to read. If instead of making us memorize the names, special characteristics, and dates of creation of various temples, had the school history books just told this story, my history lessons in school would have been much more useful. In many ways, this book reminded me of the classic Lies my Teacher Told me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong:

The only thing that disappointed me about Nisid Hajari is his enthusiastic support for that plagiarist, Fareed Zakaria. South Asians love to plagiarize, and so Zakaria's plagiarism in itself is not surprising or remarkable. But I am very uncomfortable with Hajari's association with Zakaria.

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