For India and Pakistan, independence came with a blood-soaked legacy that still casts a shadow over the relationship between the two countries. Partition caused immense suffering to those caught in the vortex of mayhem, the ordinary people whose individual tragedies have rarely been chronicled. In her Partition Trilogy, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar puts a human face to this tragedy, juxtaposing the difficulties of ordinary citizens against the moral quandaries of the political leaders who were the architects of Partition.
Hyderabad, part 2 of the trilogy which released on 20 September, is the story of the richest princely state ruled by the world’s wealthiest man, Nawab Mir Osman Ali Khan Siddiqi, and the year-long drama that unfolded after the British left, ultimately ending with accession to the Indian Union.
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Mir Osman Ali, who ruled the predominantly Hindu populace of Hyderabad for 37 years after ascending the throne at the age of 25, was the seventh ruler of the Asaf Jahi dynasty. During their 250-year-old hold over Hyderabad, the Asaf Jahis had built the state into a centre of Islamic learning and a strong contender for a caliphate, owing to their unwavering loyalty to the Mughals, and, later, the British. The nizam hoped, foolhardily, that the Crown would grant Hyderabad independence, rewarding him for the dynasty’s fealty since the 1857 War of Independence. Snubbed by the British, the nizam pinned his hopes on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who also wanted Hyderabad to stay independent. By delaying negotiations with Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, the nizam hoped to use the time to build military strength and force India to accept Hyderabad’s sovereignty. If that didn’t happen, he planned to accede to Pakistan, a proposition that would delight Jinnah.
It is in this period of political machinations and palace intrigue that Sodhi sets her thriller, a story of excess, “flush with opium and harem, poison and propaganda, coterie and court ingredients, war and women”. Through it all, however, she never loses sight of the ordinary citizen, the average Hyderabadi who got caught in the crossfire. The nizam’s endgame was followed by a bloodbath, as gruesome as the ones in Bengal and Punjab in 1947. According to the 1948 Sunderlal Committee report, released only in 2013, at least 27,000-40,000 people lost their lives during and after the “police action”, as the military intervention in Hyderabad in 1948 came to be known. In an interview with Lounge, Sodhi discusses writing about the human cost of violence, telling the history of the forgotten, and the writing devices and techniques that bring her narrative to life. Edited excerpts:
Hyderabad recounts the drama that unfolded in 1947-48. Did you set out to chronicle the triangular contest between the new Union government, the nizam and his private militia of Razakars, and Communist forces?
Hyderabad was a complex book to write. In Lahore (part 1 of the trilogy), the stakeholders were split between Delhi and Lahore, political leaders and common people. In Hyderabad, they multiplied: a resolute Sardar Patel and Pandit Nehru; the nizam, seventh of his dynasty; Syed Muhammad Qasim Razvi and the militant Razakars; the Hindu Mahasabha and Arya Samaj; the Telangana peasants’ struggle and multiple Communist groups…every day, the book challenged me. The story of Hyderabad is largely forgotten. I hope my book reminds readers of what was at stake in 1947 and prompts a reflection on the distance we have traversed in the last 75 years.
Like Lahore, Hyderabad features common people like Uzma, the confidante of Princess Niloufer, and Jaabili, the peasant and Communist, alongside key historical characters. Did you accord them equal footing to bring to the fore stories of people who have been reduced to the footnotes of history? How did you strike a balance between the real and the imagined?
The Partition Trilogy is an exploration of the events, exigencies and decisions that led to the independence of India, its concomitant partition, and the accession of princely states. Lahore, book 1, is set in the months leading up to independence; Hyderabad and Kashmir, books 2 and 3, are set in the 15 months thereafter (Kashmir is expected in 2023). Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Dickie Mountbatten share space in the trilogy with ordinary people from the places that were affected by Partition and the reorganisation of states. This device allows me to show the life-altering impact in Lahore/Hyderabad/Kashmir of decisions being taken in Delhi. Whilst the big decisions about what to give and what to keep were being taken by the political leaders in Delhi, the common people in the contested land were not consulted.
Whilst researching and writing the Partition Trilogy, I had two goals. One was to put faces to those who lived and lost, especially the women. Second was to faithfully, with great historical accuracy, render the multiple dilemmas faced by our leaders as time galloped to 15 August.
In the retelling of mega events like independence and Partition, individual stories get flattened by the road-roller of history. I was committed to privileging those individual stories by stacking the coolie Mehmood, the maid Uzma, the gun-runner Cotton, beside historical luminaries like Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten.
The two novels as well as some of your previous books explain how women’s bodies become battlegrounds in wars. Is this one of your central preoccupations?
The history of independent India has literally been “his” story. My novels attempt to reconstruct (hi)story and add the missing, suppressed, and absent stories of women. As Niki in The Radiance Of A Thousand Suns (2019) says: “Men’s stories become a society’s narrative and our heritage; women’s stories are forced underground, sealed and locked.”… we should have more literature around women. Representation matters.
Why did you use the creative semi-non-fiction technique American writer Saidiya Hartman has termed “critical fabulation”?
In the riverine border town (Ferozepur, Punjab) where I grew up, every household had a Partition story to tell. When I moved out of Punjab, I realised how little most Indians knew of the monumental event that resulted in the largest modern human migration. With the weaponisation of history, there was added ignorance about the realpolitik our leaders had engaged in to wrest independence. Meanwhile, I had researched Partition for two decades and was wondering how best to structure my trilogy when Saidiya Hartman began teaching at my college (City College, New York). She had developed a style of creative semi-non-fiction, critical fabulation, to bring the suppressed voices of the past to the surface by means of hard research. I decided it would serve me well when writing my Partition Trilogy.
Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology Of New Writing: Select Short Stories By Women Writers.