This Is Not That Dawn: India and Pakistan in the time of Partition

Yashpal's 1,100-page novel presents a searing narrative on a wound that has never quite healed.

A street scene of Lahore in 1946, months before Partition. Margaret Bourke-White / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
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Any reader who has a feeling for the rigours and small miracles of novelistic composition is especially likely to be transported by the awesome narrative freedom and strength of the great long novels of world literature. Having broken through the walls of artistic and formal finitude over hundreds of pages of scene-setting, plot-threading and character tracking, such novels, or novel sequences – IB Singer's The Family Moskat, Proust's In Search of Lost Time, Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence – seem almost to write themselves, continuously unspooling and ramifying in the same way as life. Indeed, it seems a diminution of life to have to break with their company.

On one level, of course, the great long novels represent nothing more than an especially massy story – a map of human motion and connection on a grand scale. But is that all? Their size would be (and sometimes is) worth very little if we did not also take away from them the extended experience of mind, of an encounter with not just a world but a subtle, disembodied intelligence – the narrator – observing and occasionally annotating its ferment. To observe a story-world for weeks, even months, in concert with a novelistic narrator is to return to the world outside the book to find something strangely absent, or limited, or silent about it. Sometimes when we find ourselves missing the characters of a novel, what we are actually missing is the narrator.

This is the experience we take away from the Indian novelist Yashpal's massive novel Jhootha Sach (literally The False Truth), first published in Hindi in two volumes in 1958 and 1960, and now translated into English for the first time as This Is Not That Dawn. The novel is over 1,100 pages long, but it is long only in an absolute sense, not relative to the dozens of characters it describes, the ideas it explores, and the narrative time (and indeed geographical space) it traverses.

Following a family from their roots in a gali, or lane, in the great city of Lahore (now in Pakistan) to a new life in the cities of north India over the 1940s and 1950s, Yashpal's novel takes as its central, world-changing event the partition in 1947 of colonial India into the nation states of India and Pakistan. The bloodbath that resulted from this massive, uncontrolled two-way migration of peoples across the new boundaries of what was formerly undivided Punjab – Hindus streaming east into India from what had now become Pakistan, Muslims west into Pakistan in the fear that they would have no place in a new Indian nation state – took at least a million lives. Partition left a gash on the psyche of the Indian subcontinent that has never quite healed, and that inflames the politics of both countries, as well as Bangladesh, to this day.

The novel's central characters are two siblings, Jaidev and Tara Puri, who live in a small, tightly knit Hindu community in a lane called Bhola Pandhe's Gali in the old walled city of Lahore. Among the ways in which Yashpal's novel links the lives and loves of its middle-class characters to the great churning in the public sphere of Lahore and Delhi in the 1940s is by setting them within the overlapping worlds of journalism, literature and education in Lahore (no other Indian novel is so much in love with the idea of the newspaper, and the newspaper's power as a voice of reason in the public sphere). Puri is an idealistic young writer and journalist who has already served a prison sentence for the cause of the freedom movement. Tara is a college student excited by the intellectual freedom of the university – one that is not available in the world of the gali, with its family and gender hierarchies – but troubled by her engagement to a man she hardly knows.

In the novel’s opening movement, we see Puri (as he is called by the narrator) vexed by his inability to find a job and the social obstacles in the way of his marrying Kanak, the daughter of a prosperous publisher. Tara, meanwhile, feels that her world will come to an end if she is made to marry Somraj Sahni, her loutish fiance. But these problems pale into insignificance compared to the crisis that suddenly appears like a dark cloud over Lahore, as the British prepare to leave India. The Hindus of Bhola Pandhe Gali fear that Lahore might be ceded, as part of the two-nation theory that has gained currency in undivided India, to the new, primarily Muslim nation state of Pakistan.

“What if there’s a Pakistan or there’s a Hindustan? We’re Lahorites, neighbours of Doongi Gali,” declares one of the family’s optimistic friends. But as the book shows, this cosmopolitan vision of history and community has little chance against the drumroll of nationalism, and the combustible fear of the other lying just beneath the surface of the subcontinent’s social life.

Yet the novel also shows us that, at the time, Partition was not imagined to be a complete sealing-off of two geographically and culturally contiguous territories from each other, as turned out to be the case eventually. People left behind their homes, families, cities and countries imagining that they would soon be back once things had settled. But often they never returned, or returned to find that everything they owned had been taken.

The paradox most strikingly explored by the novel is that the very (allegedly foundational) categories of Hinduism and Islam that were the basis of Partition proved powerless, despite their scriptural emphasis on peace and justice, to stop the cataclysms of violence visited by each side upon the other. People of both sides looted, killed and raped, “all in the name of God”, as one character sorrowfully observes.

Repeatedly in This Is Not That Dawn, characters are shown jettisoning their private moral compasses because they are convinced that blood must be spilled to avenge the spilling of blood. Yashpal's novel, on a scale equal to the complexity of the matter at hand, shows us how the question of justice is rarely contemplated by human beings in the abstract, or outside the pressures of time or frame of history – and that in a crisis, this tendency can prove to be mortal while continuing to believe itself moral. These conceptions of "comparative justice" are still doing the rounds of the subcontinent to this day, as during the gruesome religious riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

If This Is Not That Dawn is nevertheless a deeply pleasurable book, it is because it offers a world so vividly imagined that the quotidian acquires the same significance as the apocalyptic. The novel is steeped in meaningful details that reveal the networks and pressures of space, gender ("the afternoons in the galis belonged to the women ... If a male had to come back to the gali for some reason, he would clear his throat loudly to warn the women"), family and tradition in the small, hermetic world of Bhola Pandhe's Gali in Lahore, and then out across the fields of city and nation.

As both Puri and Tara are thrust out into the world – Puri when he leaves Lahore in search of a job; Tara when she is abducted by a Muslim man after escaping from Sahni’s house on the night of her wedding – they are forced to bear the violence and derangement of Partition upon their bodies and then, finding themselves still alive, decide what to make of their battered selves. Although it appears for the longest time that Puri, with his idealism, his love of language, his political vision and his diligence, is the book’s hero, we see him gradually sinking, over a thousand pages, under the weight of his own worldly power in the new Indian republic and somewhat insecure masculinity – an unforgettable narrative arc. Revealingly, it is his involvement with the Indian National Congress that gradually leaches the idealism from Puri.

Instead, it is Tara, the apparently helpless, brutalised victim, who slowly gathers strength and makes an independent life for herself in the Indian capital, Delhi, watching out not just for herself but for other women in trouble. The storyline reveals not just Yashpal’s feminism – once she has a modicum of power and agency, Tara repeatedly resists any attempts to return her back to a normative world of female deference and duty – but also his emphasis on the individual’s right to dissent from the collective.

This Is Not That Dawn was written just a few years after the Indian constitution offered a new vision of rights, responsibilities and secular freedom to Indian citizens – a vision of a political order more egalitarian and enabling than any previously held in the history of the subcontinent. It might be thought to be the narrative and novelistic companion to that document, all the more compelling because its worldview is implied – parcelled out into the experiences and reflections of dozens of characters, and across the novelistic timespan of nearly two decades – and not spelt out from above.

Ten years into the life of the new nation, Yashpal sat down to compose an epic story, scrubbed free of nationalist cant, about the passion and tragedy that attended its birth. In doing so, he produced the first great novel about the ideals and implications of a new view of Indianness, a novel whose mingled vision of realism and idealism rings true to this day.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf, to be published this May in German as Der kleine König von Bombay.