This side that side
Drawing borders - crossing borders
"This Side That Side" is an anthology published in 2013, which was created at the initiative of the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi and Yoda Press. In about 30 graphic stories the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as the resulting impact is discussed.
Sonya Fatah has been living in Delhi for seven years but still does not have her own bank account. She is no stranger here, yet sometimes she feels like a leper. ‘All these restrictions that are imposed on me, it’s bullshit,’ curses the journalist. She is Pakistani and therefore in a special position. ‘Many of my countrymen take on false identities because they see no other solution,’ says the 36-year-old. She herself can live relatively openly, as she is married to an Indian whom she got to know while she was studying in New York. But visiting her relatives in Pakistan is extremely difficult. Stringent rules apply for visas to be issued to the citizens of the two countries. Often applicants simply do not get an answer. ‘It is simpler to visit one’s relatives in a third country than at home,’ says Sonya. Recently, the father of a friend who lives in the neighbouring country suffered a heart attack. Even then, the friend was not given a visa to travel.
To understand the complex situation faced by families such as Sonya’s one needs to be familiar with the history of India. In 1947, British colonial rule in the subcontinent came to an end. The former colony was divided into India, West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan) and East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) on the basis of the different religions in the region, namely Islam and Hinduism.
As independence from England appeared increasingly likely, Muslim leaders demanded the creation of a separate Muslim state. The Hindus, for their part, called for a divided country. But, according to Sonya Fatah, ‘large sections of the population did not share this wish.’ This came as no surprise. After all, many people of different origins were personally related and the religions co-existed, closely intermeshed with one another. Nevertheless, the political leaders in the 1940s, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a Muslim, and, Jawaharlal Nehru, a Hindu, could not agree on a common country and agreed to divide the country according to a plan drawn up by the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. Partition resembled civil war and hundreds of thousands lost their lives. Around 20 million people were deported, displaced or resettled.
Sonya Fatah’s parents, too, had to leave their home in what is today India. As they were Muslims and lived close to the border, they had to relocate to Karachi in Pakistan. ‘They were afraid of the violence that was flaring up and fled to Pakistan in self-defence,’ says Sonya. Her family too was split up by the Partition of India, she says. ‘Parts of my family and therefore of my own past are simply no longer accessible to me.’ The consequences of Partition can be felt even today and will continue to have an impact for generations to come. ‘Only when I was a student did I understand the extent of the tragedy then and even now for millions of people,’ says Sonya.
Many artists and authors deal with the issue constantly. A unique work, to which Sonya has also contributed, was put together over the last few years as a collaborative initiative of the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi and Yoda Press: This Side That Side, a collection of graphic stories, was published by Yoda Press in late 2013.
The idea for the book developed during a series of events in 2007 that dealt with the Partition of India. The Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, along with Yoda Press and Vishwajyoti Ghosh the curator shared an open call for submissions with hundreds of authors, graphic artists, filmmakers and illustrators with whom they were in contact, whether they wanted to be involved in the book that was being planned. ‘We wanted to know about the effect that Partition continues to have today, about what had become of the old enmities and fault lines, whether old wounds continue to fester and how things have developed over the last decades,’ says Farah Batool of the Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, who coordinated the project. The result was 30 graphic stories, most of them created in tandem, as a collaborative effort between an author who wrote the text and an artist who drew the graphics. ‘In many cases, the two came from different countries,’ says Batool.
The artists also describe their own experiences and tell the stories of their families. In her graphic story Karachi-Delhi Katha, Sonya Fatah gives us a double insight into her environment. Part of the story takes place in Karachi where her parents live and part of it in Delhi. In Karachi, she has her parents’ domestic help and husband make an appearance. The two talk about the difficulties involved in living in Pakistan as Hindus, about the pressure of having to accept Muslim customs. They discuss whether it would not be better to migrate to India but are in two minds, as they would have to live illegally and underground in India.
The second story is about the fate of a domestic help whom Sonya Fatah got to know in Delhi. She is a Muslim woman from Bangladesh who was disillusioned with her family and moved illegally to Delhi. In the graphic story, the domestic help first tells Sonya how she has to keep out of sight. She then obtains her residence permit through dubious channels and her face, which until now has been unidentifiable, is revealed.
Both stories have open endings. In the final graphic, Sonya is on her balcony wondering about where she stands regarding the attempts to move between the two countries, reflected in the stories of the domestic workers. Her sympathies tend to lie with the domestic help who has realised her dream of relocating and she ends with the following thought: ‘Our people have always moved across these boundaries, either escaping wicked pasts or searching for their faiths and futures. Why stop now?’ Sonya’s attitude in the story matches her opinion in real life: ‘Millions of people live here with false documents. But I don’t see that as a crime. Because mobility on the other side is suppressed far too much by the system.’
Another graphic story, in fact the first in This Side That Side, uses a parable to describe the origins of the problem. There is a baby in the story and it is not clear to which mother it belongs. As a solution, the baby is simply divided into pieces, because two mothers cannot have a common baby – just as two or more religions in India in 1947 were also not allowed to share one country.
The book project This Side That Side was curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, a cartoonist, filmmaker and successful author from New Delhi. Vishwa, as he calls himself, has two of his own stories in the book, one called Cabaret Weimar, which was a collaboration with Rabbi Shergill. In the story, he creates a vision of the future that plays out in 2047, 100 years after Partition. The characters in his story come from all three countries and, over the years, have developed a tremendous pride in their respective countries, which extends to nationalism. In pictures that are often comical, Vishwa shows how this nationalism is celebrated in the form of shows, performances and cabaret. As the title suggests, he establishes parallels with the Weimar Republic and with Berlin in the 1920s.
The second story is about Vishwa’s own past. His family is from East Pakistan, the country that became independent Bangladesh after bloody conflict and the Bangladesh war in the early 1970s. As Hindus, his grandparents felt compelled at the time to leave their home. They first moved to Calcutta and then settled down in Delhi. In Delhi they were able to live as legal refugees. It was no longer possible to go back and so Vishwa’s family was also cut off from its past. Vishwa remembers a story of his grandmother that portrays the dilemma. ‘She always told me about her large and beautiful house in Bangladesh. For me it was like a fairytale – unreal and unreachable. Yet also true because the house really did exist.’
In Delhi, his grandparents were responsible for much of his upbringing, as both parents had to work. He lived a relatively uncomplicated childhood, as he and his family had been recognised as refugees. Moreover, his relatives said little about the problems of Partition and the move. ‘“Forget the past, life has to carry on” – this attitude was widespread among the refugees,’ says Vishwa.
He first came into contact with the refugee issue when his grandmother helped bring children from refugee camps to Delhi for a school education. ‘Yet, even then I always experienced “refugee” only as a word that had been ascribed to others although we ourselves were also refugees.’ His memories of the time in the refugee shelter in Lajpat Nagar in Delhi have been documented in the graphic story called A Good Education.
During the book project, Vishwa learned a great deal more as a result of working with artists from all three countries. ‘I was surprised by how little we known about each other.’ After working on the book, he feels there is a stronger tie with the people in the neighbouring countries. ‘We must put borders and politics aside and focus on people. There is tremendous interest in an exchange and there is enormous hospitality. We feel we are related, beyond religion, culture, food, literature, film and art – this is what binds us.’
These ties are substantiated not least also by This Side That Side, the successfully completed cross-border book project.