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'Zeherkhurani': Nirmala Bhuradia's Latest Novel Holds a Mirror to Our Times Consumed by Hate

This Hindi novel underlines that even decades after unprecedented brutalities and violence in the wake of India’s partition, humanity seems to have refused to learn any lesson.
Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty.

The recently published novel Zeherkhurani (2023) by Nirmala Bhuradia depicts the horrendous implications of putting religion to the worst abuse in the pursuit of remorseless power politics. Bhuradia is an Indore-based fiction writer and journalist and a known name in the Hindi literary world.

The novel underlines that even decades after unprecedented brutalities and violence in the wake of India’s partition, humanity seems to have refused to learn any lesson. The competitive communal politics aggravated by the colonial state and their global power politics ruined the subcontinent.

In recent decades, the fury of communal hatred and violence has resurfaced in more horrendous forms across the subcontinent. Historian Papiya Ghosh (1958-2006) aptly called it “subcontinental majoritarianism”.

Why Zeherkhurani stands out

Cover photo of the book ‘Zeherkhurani’.

One may ask what is so fresh about the theme and treatment in this novel Zeherkhurani when there are many fictional books available, written by the tallest names in the Indian literary arena in different languages – particularly in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.

In the existing, better known powerful stories (of Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi), we hardly find the plight of Sindhi Hindu migrants who reside on our side of the border. And of course, the contemporary resurgence of hatred, violence and identity-politics, exacerbated much by the media and all pervasive social media is a novelty about the novel, in terms of theme.

At the same time, the treatment of the theme is dexterous. The story has been weaved brilliantly. The pains inflicted upon the many tragic characters, mostly women and some men, are something that the readers are bound to feel so very deeply and strongly.

Also read: In a World of Borders, One’s Search for a Home Can Tell a Story

The Sindh 

In the notable historical studies on the partition of the subcontinent, Sindh is concerned as a provincial territory which remained wholly with Pakistan unlike Punjab and Bengal. The Hindus of Sindh had to suffer either from the subjugation of the Muslim majoritarianism or had to migrate to parts which were to fall in India after August 14-15, 1947.

As the garm hawa (hot air) of hatred, violence, rape and plunder blew, they were uprooted. Their journey from Karachi to Bombay and other parts of India, including Central India (Madhya Pradesh) turned out to be quite horrific. They were hardly familiar with places beyond their birthplace Sindh.

Their settlement within India made them realise that even among their own co-religionists they were mocked, marginalised, discriminated, and they were looked upon with contempt for their distinct language/dialect, accents, culture, appearances, sartorial styles, etc. Their children studying in schools had to suffer from various kinds of segregation and ostracisation. Yet, they rebuilt their lives in trade and education, with their hard work and with dignity.

Sarah F.D. Ansari’s books

A significant historical study on Sindh is highlighted by Sarah F.D. Ansari in her works. She wrote two books consecutively on late colonial and then on post-colonial period. These are, however, mostly on the Muslims who were (and are) anyway majority in the province.

Ansari’s book Sufi Saints and State Power: The Pirs of Sind, 1843–1947 (1992) examines the system of political control constructed by the British in Sind between 1843 and 1947. She throws light on the local Muslim religious elite, the pirs or hereditary sufi saints, whose participation in the system ensured the politics of vivisecting the Indian subcontinent, in particular.

In Life After Partition: Migration, Community and Strife in Sindh 1947 –1962 (2005), she examines the historical background – studying the years following partition – as ethnic politics had come to dominate Sindh by the 1990s with calls for Karachi to become a fifth province in its right.

Zeherkhurani stands out since it attempts to fill specific gaps of fictional articulation while historical exploration of the plight of the Sindhi Hindus among the Hindu majority of India is perhaps still awaited.

The Zeherkhurani story 

The central protagonist of the story is an inquisitive and interrogative girl Minali alias Minni, born in 1960, who grows up as a fiercely rational and a believer in pluralist coexistence. She chooses journalism as a profession which gets depressingly sallied by the time Minni and her husband reach their 50s. Theirs is an almost lonely battle against the highly polarised society. The polarisation is because of many stereotypes against religious communities, fed mostly by communalised media owned by greedy corporates.

Minni’s cousin, Manohar, a hoodlum, lumpen, and eve-teaser grows up to become an important cadre of a communalised political party which eventually gets elected to power, riding on the wave of communal polarisation, hatred and violence.

Manufacturing rumours, history, falsehood and concoctions are something his politics thrives on. Remarkably, Nirmala’s handling of the causation of partition is very good. This is one of the rare novels in which the British culpability in India’s partition has been brought out most clearly. For instance, when the British Governor of Punjab E. M. Jenkins (1896-1985) was frustrated by Khizr Hayat Khan Tiwana’s opposition to the partition, Tiwana’s government was toppled and the League’s was installed.

Important aspects highlighted

The story doesn’t shy away from highlighting the radicalisation of Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s, internecine sectarian violence and absolute derailment of the economic progress, social fabric in tatters, as much as India is also increasingly becoming its mirror-image, transforming its republic into a theocracy. The fictional depiction acts as a reminder of the research essay by V.S. Kalra and Waqas Butt, ‘If I Speak, They Will Kill Me, to Remain Silent Is to Die’: Poetry of resistance in General Zia’s Pakistan (1977–88) (2019).

Incidentally, during the very same decades, India too has been witnessing a consistent rise and expansion of identitarian forces. It resurged in the name of crusading against authoritarianism called Emergency. Some of these forces of resistance preferred to call themselves “Smugglers of Truth”, who found lots of support and funds from the expatriates.

About the regressivism and bigotry of the affluent Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), the scholar-journalist Arvind N Das (1949-2000) had once written a column, “Long Distance Nationalism” (Frontline, November 4, 1994). The expression is borrowed from Benedict Anderson’s 1983 book, Imagined Communities. The roles of the “Smugglers of Truth” have been exposed in recent research (2018). The rapid communalisation culminated into the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and ever since then, bigotry, hatred, strife and pogroms kept becoming more a socio-political mainstream than a margin.

The novel Zeherkhurani possibly attempts to pin hope of a good future on the rationalist-pluralist women (and men) intelligentsia and journalists. This optimism, though not misplaced, needs some quantum of reservation.

The educated middle classes and the affluent ones are not necessarily committed to humanitarianism and justice. Greed for name, fame, pelf and power of these classes across the globe has pushed the world into the vortex of bigotry, fanaticism, hatred and violence. This has aggravated in recent decades even more.

For instance, Byung-Chul Han’s recent book(let), Psychopolitics, “is a fascinating and well-written treatise on subjects that feel beaten to death, and is situated within a radical culture seemingly damned to futility by capitalist realism and one incapable of generating productive, useful strategy or platforms” of resistance and solidarity.

Fiction writers may derive creative insights from such works capturing the harsh realities of our times. Bhuradia is one such fiction writer of our times who is engaged in the pursuit of fictional articulation of the contemporary horrors of humans against fellow humans.

The critical observations

The last seven chapters of the novel, depicting the recent decades, have become a little less creative in terms of artistic finesse. Nonetheless, the novel does hold a mirror before all of us about the way we are, as of now, and what we are likely to become in the near future, if we don’t work towards rescuing the pluralist India.

The novel seems to be concerned with depicting only the minorities, including the minorities within the minorities. Thus, Sindhi Hindu families on the margins of Hindu majority society, Bohras among the Muslims, with their own regressive cultural practices and subjugation of women, all in the name of a particular version of religion, and the Sikhs find their stories of suffering in this novel. Dalits left in Pakistan too have found a mention.

The eventual disintegration of the once vivacious Mangal Bhawan and the Fatima Manzil, find a brilliant creative articulation. Intra-community oppressions (and horrific patriarchy perpetuating with growing superstitions) against the rationalists and pluralists are the running themes in the novel.

The state- (and religion-) driven feeding of communal poison is a running theme throughout the story and stories within the story of the novel.

Also read: The Gods in Our Kitchens

The emotional aspect 

The book highlights how polarisation, madness, violence and tremendous brutalities make victims mentally sick. For instance, the character of the child Banta is written in such a manner that it will make readers cry on multiple occasions.

Banta, separated from his parents, is subjected to mutilations and torture several times. Each time the boy is made to change his religious identity, he is face to face with the rioters of the rival identity. Even his part pretension and part reality of having become dumb, or resorting to become luminal in identitarian terms (such as chanting Bulley Shah’s poetry: Bulleyh Kih Jaana Main Kaun) doesn’t ensure his safety at the hands of the violent religious orthodoxy of various hues.

Eventually, despite having been circumcised, his Sikh identity gets revealed and he ends up losing even the circumcised organ altogether. With this horrific loss, he does get re-united with his father, who has already abandoned his mother, as she was abducted.

Mental illness has been inflicted upon such victims by the society. With such characters in the story, one is reminded of Michel Focault’s 1961 edition of the book, Madness and Civilization, wherein he says, “Modern man no longer communicates with the madman … There is no common language, or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the 18th century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange, between madness and reason, was carried out.”

Yet, the novel is not only about the darker aspects. It doesn’t fail to capture the anecdotes of people rising against the violence and hatred and helping their neighbourhood defying the politically foisted religious divides and polarisation. Such characters and anecdotes give a little respite from the horrific sufferings of the humans that runs through the story and it also offers hope that such dark phases shall pass away sooner than later.

Overall, the novel is a diagnosis of and a very damning charge-sheet against the crime of hatred and violence being committed by humans against humans in our times. It’s definitely a must-read.

Mohammad Sajjad teaches History at Aligarh Muslim University and is the author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours. He tweets @sajjadhist

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