Sunday, May 1, 2016

Rakhshanda Jalil - Joginder Paul (1925–2016) was the gentlest storyteller of the Partition

“I have suffered every single one of my stories. I have experienced them in such a way that my characters often appear to be nothing but reflections of my own being. Even when I am no more, I am sure I will remain alive by virtue of my characters. The grain of life is the same, after all. And if it is so, where do people go after they have lived through their own lives?... I went on slipping naturally into the open so that I may realize the desire of my own life in the lives of others.”

This was Joginder Paul writing about his short story collection Khula(Open), published in 1989. His death on April 23, 2016, marks the passing of an era in the short history of the modern Urdu short story.

With his debut collection of short stories, Dharti ka Kaal (The Famine of the Earth, 1961) and his very first novel Ek Boond Lahu Ki (A Drop of Blood, 1962), Paul began his writing career when the great age of the progressive writers was on the decline. Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai and Krishan Chandar – the four pioneering writers of the Urdu short story – had levelled the ground and laid sturdy foundations. The genre of the short story, which had grown from a seedling in the early days of the progressive movement, had become a force to reckon with in contemporary Urdu literature by the time Joginder Paul’s name began to be taken in literary circles.

Born on September 5, 1925 in Sialkot, Paul came to India during Partition. A 14-year stint in the Ministry of Education in Kenya was followed by a teaching spell in Aurangabad. Delhi claimed him as its own in 1978 and he spent the rest of his life here, writing and reading.

The recipient of many awards, such as Urdu Adab Award, Modi Ghalib Award, Shiromani Urdu Sahityakar Award and the All-India Bahadur Shah Zafar Award, Paul is best remembered for his novels Ek Boond Lahu ki and Nadeed, as well as novellas Amad-o-RaftBayanat, and Khabrau. Of these, Khabrau, translated as Sleepwalkers for the Katha perspectives series, is one of the most searing testimonies of those who “survived” the Partition and lived their lives as waking ghosts.

Not just in anger
But unlike the progressives who wrote in white heat about the Partition, there is a gentleness in Paul’s tale. Throughout there is a compassion, a sense of complete empathy with these troubled, night-walking souls who are lost while still at home in their hard-won homeland. Khabrau is unlike any other partition story for its absence of anger and moral outrage; it tells the story of those who have been uprooted from their beloved Lucknow and transplanted in Karachi but cannot leave behind their memories of their homes and streets and chowks. The scent of the mangoes of Malihabad torments them.

Paul is also well known for his use of the afsanchey, or the very short, short story. Their compactness and brevity allows no scope for ambiguity. Taking a quick, piercing look at the world, he drives home his point in no uncertain terms in haiku-like stories titled Parkinson’s DiseaseDeathOne by OneKargil, and Living Happily Ever After.

Paul revisits the terrain of dislocation and displacement when he talks of the high noon of the Punjab militancy. In a short story named Akhri Paath(The Last Lesson), he takes us to a land where fear stalks. Armed assassins are sent to kill a village headman who has been counselling those Sikhs who have chosen the wrong path of insurgency to come back towards a normal peaceful life.

“Is this any life?”
Santa and Banta – the archetypal comic duo who have been immortalised as the Abbott and Costello of modern India through countless jokes – are here transformed into two hired guns. One is a trigger-happy tough nut, the other plagued by doubts. If blithe wilful ignorance is one way of retaining one’s sanity in a world suddenly gone mad, surely asking questions must be the other way?

Santa rues a world where asking questions means showing fear, and showing fear is a sure way of getting killed: “Is this any life? One’s own people have become such strangers that no one even steps forward to try and speak a little sense and make others understand.” An argument breaks out between the two as they are on their way to kill the village headman causing their motorcycle to skid and both end up lying injured and broken on the road.

As they lie there, dying in the middle of the road, Santa gathers his broken breath and whispers, “Bantaya, many gods have put the human race on the wrong path!”

Not all of Paul’s ouvre is about the partition and its tragic, long-term consequences. His concerns are about the here and now as much as they are with a past that shattered peaceful co-existence. A childless woman who suffers at the hands of her suspicious husband; a homeless boy searching for a better future; an old man revealing the secrets of his marriage to his wife of many years; the truth behind a mysterious little tomb; a middle-class family travelling by train and facing undue harassment by various petty officials – these and many other vignettes make Paul’s vast and varied body of work a delightful repository of modern Urdu afsananigari.