The Unsafe Asylum – a Book Review

“Is it partition time again? Ma asked when I drove her to the station to put her on a train.
Feeling her heart pounding against my chest, I patted her on the back and said, ‘Don’t be silly. Partitions do not happen every day.’

‘The unsafe asylum – Stories of Partition and madness’ is a collection of 13 interlinked stories with mental hospital and its patients (both in India and Pakistan) at the background, and brings out the various incidents that take place in the lives of these characters over a period of time. The stories begin from June 1947 and cover a span of 40 years ending in 1984.

Anirudh Kala, himself a noted psychiatrist narrates these fictional tales which must be inspired from his own encounters from countless seminars and visits in India and in Pakistan during his visits to the mental health institutions there. When a ‘line of partition’ was drawn by Radcliff, along millions of people who crossed the border in huge numbers, there were also Hindu and Muslim patients who needed to be shifted from mental hospitals of the both these countries. The book revolves around them and their heart-wrenching stories.

The story ‘No forgiveness necessary’ talks how in that summer of 1947, ‘when mental hospital was a safer place than the world outside’ hospital officials for the first time compiled names and addresses of patients from specific religions, so that they can be deported to their ‘own countries’. The story narrated the tale of two best friends Rulda Singh and Fattu (Fateh Khan) who find themselves separated through deportation. While Rulda who was from Rawalpindi, was sent to India, Fattu from Hoshiarpur was detained in Lahore. Even after their discharge, these two friends had imaginary conversations and kept hearing each other’s voices. When normal human beings (who crossed borders) couldn’t face the trauma of being in an unknown land, one can imagine the misery of these mental patients who were thrown into the darkness of the ‘unfamiliar’ post partition.

There is another story called ‘Sita’s bus’ that narrates the tale of a married Sikh woman who was left out during Partition in Sialkot, Pakistan and becomes Firdaus Cheema from Harpreet Cheema after marrying again a Muslim man. She eventually gets pregnant but then the two countries sign an agreement to repatriate each other’s woman. The agreement included ‘consent for abortion’ with a ‘special fund’ allocated for mass abortions from the government. While she was forcibly sent to India, at a refugee camp in Jalandhar, she realized that her baby with her Muslim husband has been aborted as her first husband Manjeet Cheema agreed to accept her, only if she aborted the Muslim man’s child. Harpreet never meets Manjeet, instead she chose to take a bus to Delhi from there and when the bus conductor asked her name, she replied ‘Harpreet’. He asked, ‘Harpreet? Agge pichhe kuch nahi?’ (nothing before or after?) She smiled and said, ‘Agge pichhe kuchh nahi.’

From abortions to mass displacement to hallucinations that affected generations, Kala being the best fit for writing such stories, gives facts and figures that goes on to speak volumes about how their lives were wronged at the hands of the fateful decision of partition.
In the story ‘the mad prophesier’, the charecter of Dr. Prakash Kohli says, ‘about 300 people died in this hospital in 3 years while waiting for their transfer. That is, about half the patients that should have been transferred.’ Such was the violence that even mental patients who had no idea about the world outside where victims of communal violence.

The book gives us, who are far removed from the world where these people reside, an insight that can make one tremble at the sordidness of it all. 
In one such description, the author speaks about how Partition affected Fattu, ‘between curses and stark anatomical description, Fattu talked disjointedly about boys slaughtered in the snow, girls beings shot for singing mahiyas at weddings and a whole lot of cashews in school-children’s satchels being drenched in blood. It was a prolonged jumble of words and sobs after, and then he finally seemed to have exhausted himself. He lay down, spent and motionless.

Another story ‘A spy named Gopal Punjabi’ speaks of a man, who was an Indian spy but changed his loyalty thereafter to ISI just so that he can live and stay in the house he was once born. And as the author writes, in between ‘flag’ and ‘home’, he chose ‘home’. Known as Samiullah Ahmed Pash, minutes before his death, he revealed his real identity to his daughter-in-law Aalia.

Aalia after listening to him was devastated and dumbfounded.

How could a young man give up his country and his faith just to fulfill a childish wish to go back where he had once been happy? Just to be able to live in the house where he was born and where his parents were killed before his eyes? Just to be able to sit for long hours infront of the school he went as a child?

In an interview with the Indian Express author Anirudh Kala says, “Like Rulda and Fattu, there were many who were stuck in mental hospitals in Lahore, Hyderabad, and Peshawar in Pakistan and Agra, Bareilly and Ranchi in India. It was only three years after the Partition that both countries decided to get them back in 1950.”

All the 13 stories take up some issues that resulted due to the great divide and perhaps as a professional working closely with the victim, it was important for Kala to write these stories. “It made me realize that this partition of minds on communal lines can happen again, as it has so many times in the past,”.

Stark, sordid and real to the core, these stories pull out the effects of Partition from the deep recesses of the often ignored and unknown world of Mental hospitals. These characters are not the ones we meet everyday, however, their suffering was no less than ours in those horrid years, infact it was much more.

The Book Buzz strongly recommends the book & rates it 4 stars out 5!

Patna Blues – A Book Review

A coming of age tale of a Muslim Youth…

“Aur bhi dukh hai zamane main mohabbat ke siva,

Rahatein aur bhi hai vasl ki rahat ke siva

(There are many other sorrows in this world besides the agony of love/There are many pleasures in the world Besides the Joy of one’s union with the beloved) – Faiz Ahmad Faiz

For a lower middle class Indian Muslim youth, struggling his way out through the myriads of challenges that comes his way, life is definitely not easy, more so, when there are so many other simultaneous events happening around him. Does he then have the luxury of love or any other ‘frivolous pursuits’? The above couplet by the famous Urdu poet hence aptly summarizes ‘Patna Blues’ – the debut book by author Abdullah Khan. Published by Juggernaut, the 292 pager is a complete roller coaster, fraught with incidents that forms the life journey of Arif – our protagonist.

The story begins in 1992 and stretches till early 2000. Arif Khan is the eldest son in the family of 5 children, whose only desire in life is to become an IAS officer one day. Like many other families in the underdeveloped state of Bihar (especially in the 90’s), Arif’s family too wished most earnestly for him to crack the IAS exams. With an honest father who never allowed any ‘uppar ki kamai’ in his life, and earned just enough for the family to sustain, Arif becoming an IAS one day was everyone’s dream. They lived to see it come true.

However, fate had something else written for Arif, while his preparations were going full swing, he fell for a much married Hindu woman whose daughter was only few years younger than him. His restless and lovelorn heart wouldn’t care to understand the morally incorrect and devastating relationship that he was getting into. It is from here that the dilemmas of life, the ‘to be or not to be’ moments begin for him, never to spare him from its clutches again.  

Though every year, Arif gave his IAS exams well, he couldn’t clear them. Repeated failures and subsequent successes of his own peers weakened his spirit over the period of time.

A series of events rocks Arif’s life from hereon. His father meets with an accident and had to take up voluntary retirement, his brother after trying his luck in Bollywood and losing lot of money in the hands of fraudsters, comes back home. With just the meagre amount coming from the tuition he gave in coaching classes, his sisters and their wedding dowries left the family debt ridden.

Repeated rejections made him uncomfortable in social life. With a relationship that had no destination and a failure that stucks to him like a bad omen, Arif’s battle became two-fold – that of the mind and the heart.

There are events that alludes to the discrimination against Muslims that unfortunately happen in our country through incidents like Arif’s brother getting arrested for a riot in Delhi (suspected for his Muslim faith).

The author tries to put across the various shades of his protagonist, his failures and his subsequent successes and by doing this, he makes Arif a character that we all sympathize with and by the end of the book, we have already lived his life!

We all know Arif, we have seen him in our surroundings, amongst our relations. A very relatable character, brought to life with great craftsmanship rendered by Abdullah Khan.

Arif never clears IAS, nor does he clear any other state civil services examinations that he appeared for subsequently. However, life teaches him the true meaning of ‘success’, of ‘right over wrong’, of ‘truth over falsehood’. At the end of it all, he does a get job though, that of an Urdu translator in the Bihar Government.

“There was a time Arif wouldn’t have accepted anything less than an IAS position, but the situation had changed. Even this humble offer seemed like a Godsend. How dreams change with the passage of time…” (page 272)

A gripping tale and a complete page turner, Abdullah’s Patna Blues makes for a wonderful reading experience. The narrative of Arif’s tribulations, his dilemmas and confusions are a part of our lives too.

“iman mujhe roke hai to kheenche hai mujhe kufr

Kaba mere peechhe hai, kalisha mere aage

(faith restrains me; temptations attract me/ The holy kaba is behind me while the idols are in front of me) –  Ghalib {page 285}.

The little intricacies of small town life has been beautifully described to the minutest detail By the author. The waves of laughter and misery that flows through the nooks and corners of small government quarters, the tales of its inhabitants, their day to day life has been effectively captured in this book which makes for a very cherishable read.

Recommend this book strongly to all readers, young and old!