Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Book Review: From Quetta to Delhi - Reena Nanda

"The lilting rhythms of Punjabi folk songs, the Siapewalli, and Naani wailing about her bad kismet caused by the chudail and dain. Partition changed the old traditions of Punjabiyat but in the pages of this book they come alive..."


Have you heard this word before?

Is the modern tandoori-chicken-eating, whiskey-guzzling, perpetually jovial sardar your idea of Punjabi culture, Punjabiyat? Do you know the deep cultural history and the set of ethos and traditions that underlie this 21st century forever-happy, forever-loud community that is spread out not only across the country but the world?

There is much more to Punjabis than the casual hedonists they are portrayed as across media. Even if to know that alone - and to get a little peek into the beliefs and mores of this beautiful and diverse culture - you must read Reena Nanda's memoir, From Quetta to Delhi (A Partition Story).

I'm the child of a Partition-hit family. My interest in the subject was first piqued when I started reading Saadat Hasan Manto's Partition sketches back in 2015. I have read a lot of Partition literature since, about hatred, violence and loss, and about love, brotherhood and unity in the face of extreme adversity. I have listened, with goosebumps, to 70- and 80-something Partition survivors relating their stories of love, loss, and a longing for the lives they had led before the big crossover altered them forever.

Through all of this, the thing that has always been most striking to me is the syncretism that is so deeply entrenched in the culture and belief systems of the subcontinent. Sikh, Muslim, Hindu - their Gods and their religious practices may be different but they have forever inter-mingled and absorbed each other's beliefs and cultural practices into their own. And the author has brought it out really well in her book.

From Quetta to Delhi is the story of the author's mother, Shakunt, who was a little girl growing up in the 1920s in an affluent family of pragmatic, progressive men and religious, superstitious women, in an upscale multi-cultural neighbourhood of Quetta (Balochistan, now part of Pakistan). How the family, originally from Jhang, happened to settle in Quetta, and how they were forced to move back to Jhang, and eventually on to Delhi after the Partition forms the basic plot of the book.

The introduction and the first chapter of the book remain the most interesting parts of the story for me, for they paint a vivid picture of what Balochistan looked and felt like at the turn of the 20th century. The sights and sounds, the clothes, the urban landscape, and most of all, the people, their traditions and ways of living. It was like a whole new window opened up in my world, taking me back into another time in a place far, far away from where I was born, and yet familiar in so many ways. Though my grandparents don't belong to Balochistan, I know their cultural roots, even language, are very similar to what Reena Nanda has so poignantly described in From Quetta to Delhi

The plot is interwoven with a lot of insights into the mores and rather backward (even casteist) beliefs and practices of well-to-do upper-caste Punjabi families. She has also pointed out how the more educated men in the author's family countered those beliefs by inter-dining, forging lasting bonds with friends from other communities, and educating and empowering their daughters. I like the objective retelling of these dichotomies inherent to the Indian society, though at times I sensed an appeasement and justification underlining the author's depiction of these practices. The times we currently live in call for a brutally honest portrayal of age-old practices that have no place in the modern world. I'll admit I was left a bit disappointed.

The speed at which the plot moves also left a lot to be desired. There were times when I felt the story dragged on, and I found myself abandoning the book for several days at a time. It is possible that I may have been preoccupied with work at the moment, but I have often disregarded all work commitments for a book that forced me to - and this one certainly didn't.

From Quetta to Delhi is written in a simplistic style, and to me it seemed as if the author has yet to develop a unique style of her own. Given that it's non-fiction and a memoir, it could have been much more evocative and gripping (cue: Aanchal Malhotra's work on the Partition). But a worthy read for its many merits nevertheless. At 170 pages, it's a really short book and is best read in one go. Take it along on a journey, or read it on a Sunday afternoon with umpteen cups of chai/coffee, maybe?

One extraordinary thing that really struck me about From Quetta to Delhi? It may have been written simply, but the text has been proofread to the T. I didn't spot any errors (which is to say a lot, since I find SO MANY typos in even the best of books). And if you know me even a little, you'll know I am finicky about grammar and proofreading. This book was a delight on that count.

In a nutshell, a beautiful memoir that I have already recommended to a couple of my friends with an interest in Partition stories. I'll end my review with my favourite lines from the book. See if they strike an all-too-familiar chord?

"My family, and other West Punjabis, naturally considered their traumas and travails as unique. But in fact, they had joined the worldwide brotherhood of refugees. And they would not be the last. Future struggles for power and conflicts would continue to ruthlessly crush the ordinary people, who were helpless before their egomaniacal leaders. 'Refugee' would become the leitmotif not only of the twentieth century, but also of the twenty-first. In the anguished, hopeless faces of the Palestinians, Syrians, Kurds, and Yazidis, I see my grandparents and parents."

From Quetta to Delhi (A Partition Story) by Reena Nanda
Published 2018 by Bloomsbury India.
But it here.
Read all my book reviews here.

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