I was watching an interview a few days ago that featured Tariq Ali, the great political activist who some would say is the most famous leftist in the world. The interview prompted me to pick up one of his books on my bookshelf. The book is called Conversations With Tariq Ali: Speaking of Empire And Resistance.The conversation is between Tariq Ali and David Barsamian. I would like to present an excerpt from the book that I found particularly touching.
Barsamian comments on how parallels can be made between Pakistan and Israel in that both countries were created out of partition which have resulted in death, destruction and refugees. Tariq Ali responds:
The Israeli example is, of course, very well known because of great Palestinian voices like Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said, and others. Here I would just like to say about Edward, whom I loved dearly – his greatest accomplishment was not his literary theory; it was the fact that Palestine because his cause, and he became the chronicler of a dispossessed nation, a people without a homeland. That’s what won him respect all over the world; he was the only real historian Palestine possessed who was not marked by the corruption and intrigues of Arafat or the other Palestinian leaders. He kept the cause of Palestine alive ad explained what had happened.
As far as the Indian partition is concerned, nearly two million people died – there is a big debate, is it one million or two million? – I say, “Look, I don’t know. Its just as bad.” I use the figure of nearly two million, because we know that the deaths of lots of poor people went unrecorded; they were buried in mass graves. Not a single monument marks the victims of partition: the Muslims, the Hindus and Sikhs who were killed in Bengal and the Punjab. Neither India nor Pakistan honored the victims.
One of the most moving poems written about partition was by and eighteen-year-old- Sikh girl who had to leave Lahore because it was now being partitioned. She saw the killings and burnings. And she wrote this great poem that evokes the memory of the Great Sufi poet Waris Shah, who wrote the epic Heer and Ranjha, which is still sung all over the Punjab in India and Pakistan. Shah, a seventeenth-century mystic poet, wrote about the love of a woman for a man and described the scream of the woman, Heer, forced into a marriage against her will – the first line of Waris Shah’s poem is, “As he mounted the wedding palanquin, she screamed.” That scream dominates Punjabi culture. This eighteen-year-old girl refers to that poem and says, “Waris Shah, when one woman screamed, you wrote hundreds of verses to commemorate her. Today, thousands and thousands of women are dying, corpses are floating down our rivers. Can’t we open a new book from your page to commemorate this and open the eyes of the people? Blood flows down the Chenab – one of the great rivers of the Punjab.” Other poets also described the the partition, as in Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s famous opening lines after partition in 1947: “This mottled dawn, this ugly dawn / This is not what we set out for when we started for independence.” The poets have commemorated it, but the historical memory of the tragedy has not been preserved.
He further goes on to say:
We were cut off from each other. You couldn’t go to India from Pakistan; it was just a tragedy. The borders were always sealed. When I was at Oxford, I made Indian friends; it was the first time I had met Hindus and Sikhs. And then, when I went to India for the first time in the early 1970s, people found out I was in town. I was invited to dinner every single night by Sikh families. The kids would tell me, “Our parents want to see you because they knew your parents.” Sumptuous meals would be prepared, and they would sit me down after dinner with a glass of whiskey in my hand and say, “Just talk about Lahore.” That was really moving.
You can find the interview with Tariq Ali that refered to above here, done by George Stroumboulopoulos of the CBC.