Two Cities, Shared History

REVIEWS, 12 May 2014

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

I just finished reading and relishing the book Tales of Two Cities (2008, edited by David Page, published by Roli Books under the series Cross Border Talks).

The book is about the journey of two prominent South Asians – Kuldip Nayar from India and Asif Noorani from Pakistan. Theirs are not simply stories of travel but voyages – physical, emotional and spiritual – deeply embedded in the history of partition of the British India. This book, hence, is a narrative of history of India and Pakistan – the birth pangs of the two nations, the role of religion in history making and also about an integrated identity and onslaughts on it. Equally importantly, this book is not only about tragedies of Nayar and Noorani but also about tragedies of millions of Indians and Pakistanis, who crossed the abruptly created border, suffered and died.

Nayar recounts his days in Sialkot and how he was active in friend circles, leading a peace committee to fight communal hatred that was gaining momentum in the wake of the partition. He talks about his Muslim friends and how at the wish of his best friend, Shafquat, he tattooed the Islamic insignia – the crescent and star – on his right arm. His father was a dentist in the town and popular among the local populace. The fever of partition was going high and along with the hatred among the Hindus and the Muslims. Nayar argues that the partition of the subcontinent on religious basis fostered the hatred and provided much of its rationale. He raises this issue before the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who visited Lahore College before three years of the partition. Nayar that time was a Law student in the college. To his question, how would he ensure that the Muslims and the Hindus live together once Pakistan is created, Jinnah replied that once the states are created Pakistan and India would remain as friends as France and Britain after many years of war.

“The few weeks of madness (during the partition) on both sides of the border embittered relations between the two countries for generations to come…Fear and mistrust of each other made even trivial matters major issues”, Nayar writes.

He remains nostalgic about his native place. He describes in detail the surrounding of his house and the town. Though a Hindu, Nayar describes how his family was worshipping a Pir (a Muslim Saint) in the backyard of his house and how the Hindus and the Muslims were sharing each others’ joy and sorrow, only to be sullied by the communal hatred and violence. He tells how his father, then 65, was hurled a brick by a Muslim boy (whom he had cured from typhoid few weeks back) while returning back from office on a tonga. The boy named Bashir, accompanied by his parents, came to Nayar’s house next day to seek forgiveness for his act. Nayar argues that the arrival of the Muslim refugees from India who had tragic experiences at the hands of the Hindus and the Sikhs further spurred the communal violence. Those refugees encouraged and actively engaged in violence.

Nayar is also critical about the Indian leadership during partition. He believes that some Indian leaders were apathetic towards the conditions of the Muslims as they believed that the Muslims got a separate state as they wanted. He also mentions India not transferring the agreed upon assets to Pakistan, which furthered the bitterness. Nayar, however, speaks highly of India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and argues he was a thorough secularist. Nehru went to the streets of Delhi with kurta and pajama with a stick in hand to stop communal violence. He points out as most of the Muslim leadership shifted to Pakistan the remaining Muslims in India looked to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad for leadership. Azad in one of his speeches at Lahore College had argued that the partition would not serve the cause of peace in the subcontinent.

Though the wounds of the partition are deep, Nayar believes, they can be healed through friendship and cooperation. He is active in promoting peace between the two countries. He is also an advocate of friendly relationship between the two Punjabs in India and Pakistan.

Asif Noorani – a journalist, film critic, columnist, is adept in combining humor and hard fact with subtle messages. Like Nayar, he was born in an affluent family in Bombay and went to school and befriended kids from different religions. As a child he believed all are Muslims and a Hindu must be a Shia or Sunni! This is pure simplicity which we also experience in different ways in childhood. Noorani describes his childhood in a multicultural and multiethnic setting in Bombay, and remembers some of the gory scenes of communal violence. One needs to remember that Bombay was not as affected by partition-related violence as Punjab.

His family travelled to Karachi in 1950, three years after the partition. It was more an economic factor than political and communal that pushed his family to leave Bombay. His father had suffered losses in Bombay as his partner in the medical store had shifted to Pakistan and the new partner was not cooperative. Noorani’s description of Lahore, particularly the model town locality where his family initially settled, is vivid. This locality was mostly developed by the Hindus and Sikhs before the partition, and Noorani tells us how some of the houses have Hindu names engraved in the marble plaques.

Later his family migrated to Karachi. He describes how families migrating from different parts of India had settled in the city. These refugees had not forgotten their native places in India. They named their new habitations as per their old places in India. So there were Benaras colony, Kokan society, Bihar colony and Dilli colony in Karachi! Here, it is important to observe how the identity of the people remained with them despite their dislocation. Not only that, the migrant people, particularly the women preferred to call each other in the name of the locality they belonged to in India. So, his mother was Bumbai wali behan. There was also a Jhansi ki Rani, the lady who migrated from the Indian town Jhansi!

Noorani’s narration of the 1965 war and his confinement to Bombay is heartrending. Though he was worried about possible internment or possibility of being a prisoner of war, he remained composed throughout. During his Bombay days he had a brief interaction with the noted Bollywood actor Dilip Kumar. His encounters with the Indian officials including one Takle were a mixture of tribulation and humor. It shows how the officials despite the conflict between the two countries were not in the same mold. While some preferred to be rigid like the official who did not send his passport to Delhi for the stamp, others like Takle showed the humane side and offered Noorani tea and biscuits and shared jokes.

Noorani tells us the multiethnic and pluralistic culture of Karachi. It is the city in Pakistan which has the maximum number of minorities. He tells how on one occasion when communal frenzy was at high, Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan rushed to the Burnes Road with kurta and pajama to stop the violence.

Noorani and Nayar also recount the story of their respective cities which they called their homes after the partition. They cast a balanced picture of the cities of Karachi and Delhi. Though these cities have grown manifold and become cosmopolitan, they have increasingly encountered problems such as environment pollution, overcrowding, unemployment, etc. Both Noorani and Nayar are optimists. That optimism has motivated them to pursue their life-long goal – peace between India and Pakistan. Theirs is a shared story, shared history, identity and culture, which the border created in 1947 could not rupture.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and an Indian commentator. His areas of interest include conflict transformation and peacebuilding in South and Central Asia. He is a Fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development, University of Massachusetts Boston. His edited book Conflict and Peace in Eurasia was published by Routledge in 2013.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 12 May 2014.

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