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Semeen Ali

Anirudh Kala
The Unsafe Asylum – Stories of Partition and Madness
Collection of Short Stories
New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2018
ISBN: 978-93-87693-25-8
Pp 245 | 350

One of the finest books on Partition

We tend to write off, rather, we tend to assume and overlook things that mean something else. When I came across this book, I just thought of that one writer who had already written a story on mental illness – Toba Tek Singh. Manto through his writings on Partition had opened up wounds that he proceeded to sear deeply into the minds of his readers – readers who might not have been or were not witnesses to the horrors that were felt across the two countries. Anirudh Kala’s book takes this further. It is not a Toba Tek Singh even if thematically it may seem to be at first glance. The book present itself as a collection of short stories but that is just a façade for a cleverly arranged novel. The short stories are all merging into a single narrative with no obvious protagonists as is the case in one’s life in general. The book turns into a stage with each character playing his/her role. What makes this book stand out from the rest is the way each character has been treated with care and in detail. How Partition continues to haunt people. The questions that arise as one moves further inside the book come with their answers in the most unexpected ways. It is this very quality of the book that does not compromise on the way it presents itself.

“They might even have speculated amongst themselves that a mental hospital was a safer place than the world outside in that summer of 1947.”  

These thoughts of a psychiatrist whose letters to respective families of his patients to come and collect them goes without a response from the families concerned; sets the tone of the book. Rulda and Fattu – the two patients in question carry on with their lives inside an asylum. These two characters keeping coming up throughout the narrative- running across the book in the background.

“‘We are at least predictable!’ said Fattu condescendingly.

‘Not always.’ Rulda was a fair man.

‘Well, we are predictably unpredictable. Outsiders are unpredictably unpredictable. That makes us more predictable. They should be inside and us outside.’

‘But they are so many. All of them cannot fit in here.’ Rulda objected to the logistics of the proposition. ‘So many people cannot be mad.’

‘Why?’ Fattu wanted to know, swatting a mosquito on his arm.

‘The majority has to be sane,’ Rulda did not sound fully convinced himself.

‘Why?’ Fattu persisted monotonously.

‘Because if most people were insane, the world would come crashing down.’ Rulda thought it was a rather good argument.

‘Maybe it is crashing down as we speak,’ Fattu observed.”

And crashing down it does as the book gives a glimpse of the riots that were caused by Partition. The senseless killings and repentance by a few that followed has been well documented in the book. How a man who decided to kill a number of people as a revenge for the death of his child is haunted by his actions for years to come –

“The thought that had and confused and tormented him for half his life was simple: ‘the man who did “that” was me. But this is not who I am.’”

Years later the son of one of his victims visits him and the conversation between the two is one to be read and reflected upon. There is no forgiveness that is asked for and there is none that is granted. The beauty of that conversation between the two leaves nothing to be assumed. The writer is sensitive to the workings of a mind- this book is not a black and white portrayal of the riots. It sensitizes the readers to the grey areas that one tends to overlook. The ones who kill are also victims.

The differentiations that are harped about through various mediums of communication, between India and Pakistan seem to fade away for characters in this book. The real and the imagined differences between the two sides are brought out beautifully as one of the characters Prakash decides to take a ‘Pakistani’ orange back home to show to his parents but is surprised to know that they cannot be told apart from the Indian ones. It is not only the similarities at a mundane level that have been looked at- but also the suffering and the loss that has been experienced from both the sides. How families who did not want to leave their homes had to be sent to the other country on the basis of their religion. We forget that not all wanted to migrate but that migration was forced upon quite a number of people. This book sheds light on how people became Mohajirs (those from India who moved to Pakistan) as well as the difficulties faced by those who moved from Pakistan to India.

In one of the instances, Harpreet who converted to Firdaus and is now being sent back to India says –

“Honour! My foot! Where were the countries when my house was burnt? When my family was made to flee and I was carried away like a sack of potatoes by a man who lusted for me? I appealed to the government then. Nobody gave a damn about my honour. Why should I give a damn about any country’s honour? Don’t I have any opinion about whether I want to go back or not? If I say that I am happy where I am, and nobody is forcing me to stay and that I have a job here which I rather like, does that have no meaning?”

If sending to the other side is met with resistance then there is also resistance by the ones who live in the host country towards the new migrants –

“No other doctor likes the Day Deputy because he is an Urdu – speaking Mohajir from Meerut and not a Punjabi. Every other day he’d find a slip of paper on his table advising him to go to Karachi, where all the non- Punjabi refugees from India went to settle, or so they said.”

It is not an easy read for someone who has fixed notions about what Partition was all about. One has to be brave to face the realities that emerge from this book.

“The fact is that most of us who belong neither here nor there are quite messed up, which is fine, because who isn’t a little messed up. I mean, those of us who are unlucky enough to know this have a need to sort it out. The insight is very incomplete, so very compelling. Of course, religion is just one of the many ways to go about it.”

The book deals with madness- not only at the clinical level but at the level of the two countries whose decision set on track one of the biggest tragedies of the twentieth century. The madness of such a decision had its repercussions.

“‘The big exchange happened three years ago’, I reminded him.

‘It started then but it is not finished. Mentals are the rear end of mankind.’

‘Are we mankind? Do we count even as the rear end?’ I asked.

‘Of course we count. Even the chairs and the tables count. The horses count. Everything that can be counted counts and has to be meticulously counted and fairly divided between the two countries. Even us.’”

The relationship that Rulda and Fattu share reminds one of the one shared (if it can be called a relationship) by Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s play – Waiting for Godot. The conversations between Didi (Vladimir) and Gogo (Estragon) that result in a feeling of nothingness- the suffering and that life has no meaning echoes in the background when Rulda and Fattu converse.

It is not just these two that feel the senselessness of it. It is also the generations that follow that carry the weight of the Partition. The migration to a place like England post Partition and yet the burden of the suffering by one’s ancestors that haunt one’s mind.

“It is eerie to know that the way I feel and behave has a stamp, even if in a small measure, of what our pre historic ancestors felt when they saw a thunderbolt hit a tree.”

The book begins in June 1947 Lahore and ends in 1984 riots in Delhi. The voices that enmesh within this span of time – each echo can be heard distinctively. It is like the cover of this book – a room within a room in one’s mind and yet every room has its own uniqueness and adds to the overall fabric of the story. What starts off as a need to move away from an asylum ends with Rulda standing on the roads of a riot filled Delhi asking a taxi driver –

“Is there a mental hospital in this city?”

The Unsafe Asylum will take you down to the depths of a human mind. It is not a light read but is one of the finest books I have come across this year. Read it to understand what Partition really meant for some or maybe for many voices that remained unheard.


Issue 82 (Nov-Dec 2018)

Book Reviews
  • Ashish Negi: ‘The Trees Told Me So’
  • Gagan Bihari Purohit: After the Storm
  • Girija Suri: Manto Saheb – Friends and Enemies on the Great Maverick
  • Gopal Lahiri: Soothing Serenades – Straight from the Heart
  • Lakshmi Kannan: Poonachi or the Story of a Black Goat
  • Revathi Raj Iyer: Claudia
  • Semeen Ali: The Unsafe Asylum – Stories of Partition and Madness
  • Shiv Sethi: Agnyatha – The Memoir of Tipu’s Unknown Commander
  • Sushmita Mukherjee: The Profane
  • Usha Kishore: Kalidasa Ritusamharam – A Gathering of Seasons