A heart-rendering excerpt from Anis Kidwai’s moving memoir about post-Partition India, In Freedom’s Shade, originally written in Urdu & translated in English by NIF Author, Professor Ayesha Kidwai
I remember well that first 15 August—the designated day of liberation, rung in by the horrifying shrieks of terror resounding from Calcutta across to East and West Punjab. The day when the corpse of Delhi was being mangled underfoot, the day when women were being dishonoured. A day of freedom, yes, but a freedom slashed and streaked with blood. A day choked by smoke and fire.
The Government House echoed with the victims’ moans and entreaties, yet we were happy. Or, truthfully, we forced ourselves to be happy. All else aside, the long years of struggle had borne fruit. Whatever else had happened, at least the yoke of slavery was undone. Perhaps with this freedom, the demons of communalism would also soon be exorcized. True, the nation was divided but even separate, the two parts could live in peace and prosperity.
But on this day, even this feeble consolation was not to be available to many of us and we were to experience again a sense of servitude, of alienation, of otherness. I went searching for happiness that day but everywhere I went—and Begum Hayatullah and I had scoured the best part of the city by foot, rickshaw, car—there was the same gloom, the pall of despair that stifled the hope we once nurtured.
The tricolour’s flutter could not lift our hearts, nor the roars of ‘Inquilab Zindabad! ’, or celebratory slogans charge us with triumphant pride. Signboards and posters in Hindi seemed to mock us. Hearts and spirits benumbed, our blood was cold.
On that day, India took its first steps back into the past. Foreheads were being anointed with tilaks. Why were brahmins from Banaras being summoned? Why were there frenetic searches for karisto enunciate the Quran? Why was chandan being prepared? Why were those long beards being carefully groomed? What could Buddhist bhikshus possibly have to do in the Government House? Were we to grow accustomed to the sound of wooden khadaus slapping its smooth floors?
Fretting and fuming, I made my way to the Government House that night. At the threshold, my head lifted with pride. This imposing entrance to this magnificent building, on which the tricolour proudly fluttered, was now to be the thoroughfare for all citizens—everything here was now ours, everyone who lived here, our comrade. Just as quickly though, the light in my heart was extinguished. The language being spoken around me was even more alien than English.
As Josh said:
jisko dewon ke siwa koi samajh na sake
zayr mashq ab hai wo andaz-e-bayaan, e saqi
That which can be comprehended by no one but the giants
Is the tongue evidently in use these days, Saqi
Seated all around on chaukis were Buddhist monks, brahmin priests, Muslim clerics, and God knows who else. Many languages In Freedom’s Shade were spoken that day—English, Sanskrit, Arabic, difficult Hindi— but not the sweet tongue that belongs to us all:
jiski har baat mein sau phool mehak uthte hain.
In every expression of which a hundred flowers perfume the air
So much was said that day but none of us understood a word. Like me, the many women seated around, gaped at the spectacle with choked throats and incredulous eyes and, when it was over, returned home feeling as if the ground had shifted beneath our feet. Despite her best efforts, the first governor of independent India, Sarojini Naidu, could not read out the oath of office correctly. All of us who listened were stupefied. Truly, the new dhobi starches even the rags that come his way.
All the years we had waited and struggled, were they all for this moment? Who wanted to resurrect long-buried corpses of the past? Or wanted self-proclaimed stakeholders of religion to reign instead of democracy? Which fool could have aspired to a future in which the past—fat Hindu priests and all—held sway, where a few padres and karis were charged with consoling the minorities?
This was too painful. To witness this spectacle of Brahminism made our hair stand on end. We had been shown a glimpse of the terrible future. And those who had been cynical bystanders for the past twenty years could now gleefully taunt us, ‘Now you see it, don’t you? Hadn’t we said that as soon as freedom is won, India would become a Hindu rashtra? This is why Pakistan is necessary; in fact, it was this mindset that gave birth to Pakistan in the first place!’
Chaudhary Ridaulvi gloated: ‘It’s all there in an article I wrote— the brahmin has always been dominant in India. Buddhism prospered but Brahminism ensured its ultimate obliteration. Islam shone only briefly, soon losing its identity to be coloured in the same hues as Brahminism. Christianity too bowed before Brahminism in the shape of the Theosophical Society, which acknowledges brahmin supremacy. I gather once again the pieces of my shattered heart 7 Brahminism is hegemonic by nature. However much Gandhi may struggle, and all of you rant and rave, India will never be free of the Brahminical order.’
To listen to these taunts required great patience. We held our breath, waited, but no light shone through. Some of us wondered—what about ordinary people? The working classes, the poor, the farmers, the middle classes, how would they find a way out of this labyrinth? Those of us who willingly wore the burqa that the Congress gave us—only to be disappointed with the farce that was being enacted— felt that it was now our responsibility to lift this veil of deceit.
The wily had divined the direction of the wind and where these ominous clouds would unburden themselves. Soon the Muslim Leaguers had cause for celebration. New friends joined them and they were no longer alone in being shorn. On the other side the youth, particularly the headstrong young progressives, began to wrestle with the question: Will the old, trusted hands of the struggle for freedom, who have just routed the British so convincingly, indeed prove useful in these changed circumstances? Should we strengthen their hands or discard them altogether? A new battle was now to be joined, not with foreigners but with our own; it would not be the struggle of the Indian masses but of a handful of the youth who, caked in blood and ashes, would build a new India. But who knew then that the greatest sacrifice would have to be made by the father of the nation?
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House, Anish Kidwai’s In Freedom’s Shade, translated from Urdu into English by NIF Author Ayesha Kidwai. The book is available on Amazon
Appearing for the first time in English translation, In Freedom’s Shade is Anis Kidwai’s moving personal memoir of the first two years of nascent India. It is an activist’s record that reveals both the architecture of the violence during Partition as well as the efforts of ordinary citizens to bring the cycle of reprisal and retribution to a close.
Anis Kidwai’s Azaadi ki Chaaon Mein was initially written in the year 1949, while she worked as a relief worker for partition victims. First published in 1974 and then in 1978 in Urdu and later translated to Hindi and published in 1981, the book was translated in English by her granddaughter Ayesha Kidwai.