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Book Review: SAVAGE HARVEST – Stories of Partition by Mohinder Singh Sarna

January 5, 2014

Knowing an author as a person is so different from knowing the person as an author. MS Sarna I knew was an exceptionally calm and serene human being. Almost through with the ‘Savage Harvest’, the author has reinvented the person I thought I knew. I am not sure how I would have felt had I read these stories in original Punjabi. If only I could read Gurmukhi… But knowing the master craftsman Navtej’s delicate handling of his late father’s gems, I believe I would perhaps register the same intensity and frequency of goosebumps and tears.

Apart from their strong underlying emotive side, these stories also trigger diverse thoughts. How did a social fabric renowned for its ‘unity in diversity’ suddenly hit the boiling point? Why did the colonial masters not think through the end game of the partition? Was it an outcome of poor governance? Or, was it a logical extension of the infamous ‘divide and rule’? Thereby, was Radcliffe line one of their most callous acts?

If the empire failed, why did we choose to behave violently despite ‘an accursed political decision of departing rulers’? In ‘Hope’ the author when alluding to the Hindus and Sikhs migrating from the Northwestern part of the then-country makes a very profound observation. “They had been on the wrong side of the line which had been drawn to divide the country. To come from the wrong to the right side, to cross that bloody line, they had to pay a very heavy price; everybody’s fault was the same, but each one paid a different price.”

And then, regret its ‘sad’ demise? In ‘My Precious One’, Barkate says, ”What evil days are upon us? The days of the British Raj were so good, not even a sparrow could flap its wings out of turn.”

Like in the overall Partition theme, an interplay of irrationality and rationality manifests very intensely in all the stories. While violence is what one associates most with the sub-division of our sub-continent, let us also remember that its unfolding also heightened the conviction of non-violence in its most successful practitioner, the Mahatma. In ‘The Minor Gandhis’, the author brilliantly portrays the thoughts of Begma whose comatose son Sadeq gives up his life on hearing about Gandhiji’s assassination. “He did not want to live in a world where prophets of peace and non-violence were shot to death.”

How did such a calm and serene person deal with such levels of outrage; and despite it all, how did he still manage to stay calm and serene? After a voyage through 30 stories by the person I knew, I believe I finally had an inkling into the mind of the author he was. Unlike many of us he did not dramatise it, despite all its fury and bestiality he had the genius for always spotting a ray of hope in howsoever hopeless a situation. He could sublimate all his sense of anger, disgust and rather bury it deep inside his soul as he dealt with it.

His treatment of violence is generally not just subdued but a distanced theatre, as well. It is not the violent actions of his theme but the prose that inflicts the reader’s soul. It’s the artistry and not the wordsmith in him that turns the tide of hopelessness into hope. What seem like dire situations, as if by miracle, he tips them towards hope and optimism. The miracle is in his craft and more than the craft in his conviction that in the end humanity wins!

I believe all students of Modern Indian history who wish to deep dive into the subject of Partition and wish to get an authentic feel of the theatre must also ‘reap’ the Savage Harvest. 

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