A chance encounter

August 28, 2022

A trip to Urdu Bazaar and a discussion about writers from the Partition era

A chance encounter


n August 14 every year my sister, Anniqua, and I celebrate Independence from British colonial rule. Despite the fact that we are British subjects through our maternal lineage, we do not mourn the loss of our territories in South Asia. We have chosen to identify with the colonised, not the colonisers.

“I wonder how the Brits felt watching their Empire slip through their fingers,” Anniqua asks.

“They didn’t have much of a choice, did they?” I reply. “In 1941, when Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter with the United States, the British had to loosen their grip on their colonies. Churchill pushed back on Roosevelt’s demands till the very end. If he hadn’t, the USA wouldn’t have given him military support. Then, Germany would have invaded Britain. And then ...”

“And then,” she laughs, finishing my sentence for me. “We would have become citizens of a colonised nation, under a colonised nation,” “Roosevelt’s move was brilliant. The Americans finally checkmated the British.”

When World War II was over, the British were forced to respect the agreement they had signed with the Americans. They had to step back from their colonies and give the natives the option of self-determination. So the sub-continent was divided into two countries: India and Pakistan.

Anniqua and I have heard stories about the Partition since we were little girls. Our Daadi and her sisters volunteered to assist refugees arriving in the now-independent Pakistan from neighbouring India. Trains crossed the new border in both directions carrying thousands of displaced people. They pulled into stations with sticky red liquid seeping through carriage doors, dripping onto the tracks. Fiery sunsets reflected the blood-soaked earth – nothing inside the carriages, but piles of corpses. Our Daadi’s sister once found a newborn baby girl among the bodies. She took her home, raised her, and found her a husband when she was old enough to marry. There were so many stories like this, most without a happy ending.

“Remember the Italian nuns who taught us in Sacred Heart High School? Some of them lived through the Partition too.”

“Yes, of course,” I say. “Sister Gabriel told us that the water in the canals changed colour. Not the yellow-brown of the fertile soil carried down from the hills. It became a deep, dark crimson, bloated humans and body parts floating in it like horrific pool toys.”

“Have you read Siyah haashiye?” she suddenly changes the subject. I know she would rather not dwell on violence. And literary fiction might be an easier topic to discuss.

“Yes”, I say, “and another one too – also by Manto. It’s called The Last Salute, about the World War II experience and the Partition. It’s in one of the books I bought years ago with Mummy, in Urdu Bazaar.”

Urdu Bazaar, is a labyrinth of narrow winding streets just outside the old walled city of Lahore. Horns blaring, cars squeeze past donkey and camel carts loaded with printed material. The greasy fumes of spicy, deep-fried street food hover over the crisp scent of freshly printed books, which spill out of overstocked stores onto barely visible sidewalks. University students hunt for required reading material – or for used copies of Sidney Sheldon novels and Playboy magazines. Children clutch onto newly purchased textbooks just as firmly as their mothers hold on to them. A moment of distraction in this crowded bazaar and one’s prized possessions could disappear forever.

A chance encounter

“I was so unaware, so uninterested in our own history. I wonder what the women in the sub-continent were going through during World War II, and the Partition?

Mummy agreed to come with me even though she prefers tidier shops – in newer, cleaner, parts of Lahore. The British Council Library is more of Mummy’s cup of tea. But today we’re not hunting for English books by English authors. The massive billboards and signs in the bazaar are almost all in Urdu, a language Mummy can speak with relative fluency, but never learned to read or write. For the moment, she is out of her comfort zone. She is also conscious of her visibly non-native appearance. Even though we are covered in a chador, her green eyes and wisps of curly blond hair are visible. Also, we are both head and shoulders taller than the rest of the shoppers. People stare as we walk through the crowded streets.

“At least we’re both the same height,” she says with a smile.

“It doesn’t matter if we stand out like sore thumbs,” I say. “Nothing matters when I’m on a mission.”

“You’re looking for a Punjabi-English dictionary, right?”

“Yes. If they don’t have one here, they’re just not available.”

“Let’s go in here,” Mummy points to a doorway on my right.

A chance encounter

We step inside a store crammed with books. The bookseller, an elderly gentleman with a white beard, sits cross-legged on a wooden platform reading one of his books. He looks up at us over his reading glasses.

“Welcome. Welcome,” he says in English, not taking his eyes off Mummy. “Tea or a soft drink?”

“No, thank you,” I reply for the both of us. “We’ve just had lunch.”

The truth is we would both love a cup of tea, but there are no public washrooms in this part of town, and we might be here for a while. It’s safer to keep our liquid consumption to a minimum.

Continuing confidently in English, he asks what we’re looking for. I tell him. He leans forward and looks up towards the ceiling. There is a square hole with a wooden guard rail around it.

Beta!” he calls out.

A chance encounter

The face of a young boy looks down at us. Behind him are even more stacks of books.

“Go to Ilmi Kitab Khana and ask them for a Punjabi dictionary. If they don’t have one, ask around.” And then, as the boy runs down the stairs and out of the shop, he adds, “And don’t come back till you’ve found one.”

“What can I show you?” he asks, looking at Mummy.

“I can’t read Urdu or Punjabi, so…” Mummy replies in Urdu.

He picks up the book he was reading and passes it to her. “Short stories by Saadat Hasan Manto, with English trans-literation. I’ve read them many times over. Every time I wish there were more Pakistani writers like him.”

“In what way?” I ask, trying not to reveal my ignorance since I haven’t read anything by Manto.

“He was born in British India,” he says, glancing briefly at Mummy, “and was totally opposed to the Partition. Very brave man.”

“He was a political writer, then?” I try to sound interested, hoping his son returns quickly.

Raising his eyebrows as high as they’ll go, he continues: “A commentator on society. The government had him arrested three times – for obscenity.”

Mummy opens her purse and clicks it shut again. I think she wants to leave. Is she bothered by the reference to colonial rule, or obscenity? I’m not sure. The boy hasn’t returned with the dictionary yet. And, the bookseller is not going to stop talking.

“Manto started his writing career with a translation of a short story by Victor Hugo: The Last Day of a Condemned Man. You know Mr Hugo, Madam?”

“Yes, I do,” Mummy replies. “We read his stories at school - but in French.” Then, feeling more at ease, she goes on in great detail about how she studied French literature when she was a schoolgirl in London.

“And now you can read it in Urdu too,” he says smiling from ear to ear.

The elderly bookseller stands up and walks over to some books in the back. He pulls out a paperback from the bottom of the pile and passes her a copy of The Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto.

“Here, Madam. A gift for you. This one is a translation into English.”

She opens it and reads out loud: “If you find my stories intolerably obscene, it is because the society you live in is obscene. With my stories, I only expose the truth”.

“Manto wrote about life.” The bookseller just won’t stop talking. “He told the truth. That’s why they couldn’t get a conviction and send him to jail. Our society is obscene, Madam.”

I desperately try to think of a response, but thankfully the boy has returned holding the book I’m looking for.

The shopkeeper takes it from him and inspects it. From where I sit, I can see it once belonged to a library.

“This is the only Punjabi dictionary available, sister. It’s used. First published in 1884,” he says, reading from the book, “but no torn pages.”

“I’ll take it. How much?” I don’t even attempt to haggle over the price. But he hasn’t finished.

“Just half an hour’s walk from here is where Manto lived. When he left Bombay at the time of the Partition, he stayed in the Lakshmi Building on Beadon Road. You must go there.”

“We will, for sure. Thank you so much for your help.” I smile at him, and we leave.

Out on the street again, Mummy suggests we go to Shezan Bakery for tea. “Or would you rather walk to the Lakshmi Building?”

We decide pastries and a hot cup of tea in an air-conditioned bakery is precisely what we need, so we head back to our car.

“I should have asked the bookseller about female writers from that period,” I say regretfully. “I was so unaware, so uninterested in our own history. I wonder what the women in the sub-continent were going through during World War II, and the Partition?”

“Maybe,” she says, “they chose to keep their experiences to themselves. Remember, their narrative wasn’t straightforward. British India was multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-just-about-everything.”

“True. And there were women, whose men fought for the British, and against the British, with the Germans, and against the Germans, with the Japanese, and against the Japanese, with each other, and against each other. What an emotional roller coaster. I wish we’d thought of this sooner. Most of the women from the time of Independence have already passed on.”

“Oh wait!” Anniqua says, pulling out her phone. We may not have access to that bookseller, but we have something even better - Google.”

In less than a minute, she is reading out names: Bano Qudsia, Afzal Tauseef, Khadija Mastoor, Altaf Fatima, Khalida Hussain, Ada Jafri. And there are so many more.”

“This calls for another visit to Urdu Bazaar. Or to Amazon.com,” I smile.

“Yes, much more convenient.” Anniqua replies, adding, “Better yet, let’s write our own story too. For posterity. The story of two women from an independent Pakistan.”

And so we do.

The writer is the author of CON YANCI When Chickens Fly and blogs at Tillism.com

A chance encounter