Book review: Lahore by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
When Loar went up in flames
In this book, the first of Sodhi Someshwar`s ambitious Partition trilogy, intense focus is trained on the city that buzzed with commerce, industry, life and living. In the run-up to Partition, Lahore had a large presence of Sikhs, a sizeable population of Hindus, and a Muslim majority who went about doing their business (`assorted spices in Panjab`s masala box`) and if there were tensions, most of it was muted and looked to be resolvable.
Then, Sodhi Someshwar cuts to Delhi, to Mountbatten, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, MA Jinnah and in absentia, the architect of India`s freedom MK Gandhi, as well as Cyril Radcliffe sweating over the map that garnered him nothing but infamy and acrimony afterwards. Much machinations are afoot, of course, and the author uses the device of first showing us what the men who matter decide in Delhi, then showing us the effect of their decisions on the aam janata who live in Lahore.
The story traces the slow and steady conflagration that starts up in Lahore, as witnessed and painfully experienced by Beli Ram, his friend Mehmood, Shammi Joseph, Kishan Singh, a young couple Sepoy Malik and the girl he is secretly courting Tara Malik, and others, all waiting for Loar to `get back its sense.` They watch the rift between the Muslim League and the RSS widen to include the Muslim and the Hindu, then Pakistan and India. They watch the fires consuming everything and everyone, even as they flail about in bewilderment and anger, slowly realising that theirs not to reason why, but only to suffer the catastrophic consequences.
Lands yet to be divided stand on the brink of a civil war while the dogs of communalism are being slowly, steadily let out. Yes there are villains here and villainy done, and we are shown glimpses of how the minds of Nehru, Patel and company work, their angry helplessness in the face of some inevitable actions. Equally, we see just what drives Mountbatten (referred to disconcertingly as `Dickie` through the story) to do what he feels he must do. The British who had `planned to be around for the next 400 years,` engaged in skullduggery and we see just what drove that skullduggery.
The fictional characters are drawn with affection and the reader totally empathises with their feelings of dismay, dread, fear, terror, haplessness. Oftentimes, there are poignant moments of reflection on happenings which make no sense, on how a hitherto peaceful people were now sharply split down the middle. Faith had become a matter of foreskin and at one point, a character muses that `Kishan was named after a Hindu god, his brother Iqbal had a Muslim/Urdu name. And didn’t Guru Nanak take the best of both Hinduism and Islam to create Sikhs?`
The last chapter, placed at the Indo-Pak border, is the chapter for my money, ending this first part of the trilogy in quite an unforgettable manner.
Sodhi Someshwar employs a direct style, and the personal details of the everyday characters leaven the historical accounts well. This is clearly a passion project and must be lauded as such. If Partition is our collective legacy, our tragic heritage, then our young need to know all about it. Just so history will not repeat itself. Because in the end, what remains with the reader is the violence. The unspeakable violence partition engendered by a split of people, property and possessions.
Lahore By Manreet Sodhi Someshwar. HarperCollins Books. 313 pages. Rs 499.
This ran in the Sunday Herald of 14 November 2021.