The novel ‘Azadi’ (Freedom) by Chaman Nahal deals with the Partition in 1947 impacting the life of Lala Kanshi Ram, a proud grain merchant of a village in West Punjab, and his family- Prabha Rani (his wife), Arun and Madhubala (their children).
The book is divided into three parts: ‘Lull’, ‘Storm’, and ‘Aftermath’. ‘Lull’ portrays the routine life of the family and their neighbors and how the anticipation of partition began to inflict changes on their living; the ‘Storm’ section depicts the chaotic and violent events of the partition that have forever been impregnated on the minds of the survivors resulting in a dreary ‘Aftermath’.
Nahal himself was a victim of partition and that is why critics reckon that the book is sort of an autobiographical account. Through the narrative of the life of Lala Kanshi Ram and his son Arun, Nahal has vividly and aptly given a representation of a war-torn country and the struggles of the families to maintain a sense of normalcy and peace amidst the chaos and violence of the partition.
The communal hatred which was almost non-existent in the area where Lala lived is suddenly blatantly expressed. Abdul Ghani, a friend of his and a hookah maker, had lived in harmony. The author mentions how, before the partition, nobody seemed to mind or care that Ghani was a Muslim or that Lala was a Hindu- they were all Punjabis and that was essentially the basis of their identity.
However, later Ghani nurtures venomous indignation towards all Hindus, especially Lala Kanshi Ram as the communal passion ascends higher and higher.
The Muslims burn down numerous houses of the other community, murder the Hindu population mercilessly and rape the Hindu women. There is a disturbing scene where the abducted Hindu women are paraded naked while being subjected to ridicule and scorn by the Muslims who gather to watch them in their crushed and humiliated state.
Although the book is mostly from a Hindu perspective, Nahal does provide a somewhat balanced opinion. The novel makes a point that the hatred was not limited to just one group. Sikhs are also depicted as engaging in violence against Muslims, revealing the widespread nature of the conflicts.
However, the stories of Partition that have been carried through people are so often fraught with biases. Either inadvertently or through a clever proliferation of propaganda, the youth of the two countries have inherited a prejudice against the other community, without knowing the whole truth.
At one point in the story, when asked about his passivity, Lala Kanshi Ram said, “I have ceased to hate... What I mean is, whatever the Muslims did to us in Pakistan, we’re doing it to them here... We are all equally guilty. Each of those girls in that procession at Amritsar was someone’s Madhu’.
His words ring a deeper truth- that both sides were equally guilty and therefore before condemning one side for the crimes they committed, it cannot be forgotten that the same had happened in the other part of the country by the other party.
The second part of the novel is the most intense, filled with chilling nuances of the violence that was proudly spread. However, it is the last part with its infused poignancy that lingers in our minds long after we have kept the book aside.
We see one accident on the road and it shakes us from inside, so much so that to be able to express our reaction becomes a herculean task. Imagine seeing one horror after another, especially when it is our near and dear ones who are being subjected to it.
That was one ruin Azadi had caused- people lost the ability to communicate with their families. What they had seen could not just be blotted out from their memories; it created a dark void that could not be filled even with the compensation provided by the government.
In the end, Arun feels a wall between him and his parents, a hostility of a kind, the cause of which he knew not. The three of them live together but are unable to fathom their minds and feel restless about it. They are not able to talk to each other and feel guilty about it; they are not able to express their emotions and feel frustrated about it. An indescribable sadness weighs on their hearts and each feels stifled and crushed.
Can it then really be called ‘Azaadi’ or is it merely the drawing of a crooked line between two territories? Have the people been freed, or have they been tangled in a vicious cycle of dread and horror? Questions like these cannot be ignored, not even when the distance between us and 1947 is large and continues to become larger, because when we dig deeper into ourselves, we can undoubtedly find a compendium of inherited prejudices, stereotypes, and a lot of times, unwarranted hatred.
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