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A bend in the ganges

A bend in the ganges

Author: Manohar Malgonkar
Publication: Sulekha.com
Date: October 30, 2007
URL: http://azygos.sulekha.com/blog/post/2007/10/a-bend-in-the-ganges-by-manohar-malgonkar.htm

A Bend in the ganges is an epic saga of the decade leading to partition and the forces which engineered its bloody consummation plunging Modern India into its darkest hour; where over 3 million people died, over a million women were raped, abducted and mutilated, and several million rendered helpless refugees, left to fend for themselves in the quagmire of post partition existence teeming with poverty, disease and death.

Malgonkar deals with the sensitive and complicated issue of the seemingly sudden transformation of Indian nationalism versus British colonialism into a direct Hindu Muslim conflict which led to the partition of India.

The tale is set a decade prior to partition in a small town of West Punjab. Debi Dayal is the son Tekchand, an Indian cement tycoon; scrupulously honest, loyal to the British government but neither nonchalant over the plight of the nation. He is also a lover of the arts and enjoys an exquisite collection of ancient Hindu artifacts. His beautiful wife, and Debi's mother share an equally blissful relationship and with their daughter Sundari; who is indeed as beautiful and charming as her simple name sounds; life could not have been more perfect. All, but for their son Debi! The son who has every pleasure to boot, and a naturally secured promise of incessant others to follow, chooses the painful path of adopting armed revolution to liberate not only his bonded motherland, but more importantly his own self plagued with the harrowing memory of an attempted rape of his mother by a drunken British soldier during his early teen years. The parents are unable to understand his eccentricities, his fanatical devotion to fighting and fitness. Debi Dayal is close to neither of them; and the only relationship he cares for is with his elder sister. Debi Dyal ventures to be a part of a revolutionary organization headed by Shafi; the daring, and equally cunning mastermind of the gang. Religion is weakness, is his motto and Hindus of the organization eat beef and Muslims plaster pork on their faces to prove their only religion is dedication to the nation by blowing up bridges, Queen Elizabeth Statues and other government paraphernalia. But the crow of communalism rears it ugly but eternal head when Shafi is successfully indoctrinated by a brotherly Muslim comrade to rid the organization of its Hindu accessories, especially Debi Dayal whose charisma and daring is a constant source of consternation for Shafi; for he realizes very soon his own leadership could be at stake. Availing of an opportunistic moment; Shafi betrays 9 of his colleagues, all of them Hindus. Debi Dayal is sentenced to a lifetime imprisonment term in the Andamans. Meanwhile, Sundari is betrothed to a distinguished young gentleman; the latter, an apotheosis of the gentleman of the Raj…. the marriage is a mismatch from day one, with husband betraying the wife for a cheap tart. Sundari moves to Bombay to pick up the pieces of her life but the memory of her beloved brother languishing in the andamans torments her night and day.

The story is beautiful set up with the simultaneous evolution of the character of the Gian; the story's antihero; and antithesis to DebiDayal; born amidst duress; with only an exceptionally supportive but poor brother financing his studies; an ordinary man floundering in vacillation; lacking both courage, vigour and strength so natural to Gian; who just cannot find fault with the British and is a staunch Gandhian, with a seemingly inbuilt mechanism to abhor violence. A chance encounter with Gandhia hypnotizes his soul; for Gandhi is god; the god who would lead India to freedom….and how? The group of Gandhivadis lustily cheer the burning of foreign cloth; and in a moment of supreme inspiration (set by a beautiful woman) Gian sacrifices his most precious possession; a handsome English leather jacket to the flames, to reduce the memory of British attire to ashes….

As we follow the fortunes of Gian, we come across a strong family feud which leads to the murder of Hari; who despite having won a court order(from the impartial incorruptible white British judge) is disposed of his land, and in a violent altercation is murdered…….Gian, in a fit of fury avenges the murder with murder….The same Gian who theoretically eschewed violence, had committed to it the very first time he actually faced a challenge in life. Gian is also sentenced with the dreaded D ticket to the andamans where he meets up Debi Dayal.

The andamans again, is a new experience for both, and they both react different. Debi Dayal will prefer death to a demeaning death in the island jail………Gian is wonderstruck at the incredulity of the British for having designed a destination of reformation even for dreaded criminals like murderers, while a few centuries ago, even a minor robbery could attest a fine involving chopping off some limbs…only a masterful race could visualize such a system…..Gian cannot help notice, that again, the British warden is caring and considerate for the inmates; while his Indian subordinates lose no opportunity to abuse them, despite there being no rhyme or reason for the same. Gian through his meticulous dedication to work, becomes a valuable aid for the warden and is promised of a parole within 3 years, after which he could marry a native of Andaman and live in the colonies forever. But Debi Dayal's obstinate overtures lead him to trouble especially with the Indian officers. His recalcitrant spirit attempts a jailbreak but in a moment of weakness, Gian betrays him….Debi Dayal's body is brutalized, and Gian is strung with remorse….As WW-II breaks out; Andaman falls to the Japanese; and Gian uses the opportunity to escape. Debi Dayal on the other hand coolly accepts the Japanese offer of resuming his insurgent activities; but soon realizes he is a mere pawn in the game of Japanese imperialistic designs. Gian meanwhile returns to East Punjab, meets up Debidayal's father and introducing him as his son's friend, takes up a job in Bombay where the elements conspire to fulfill his youthful dream of earning the love of Sundari. However, in winning Sundari's affections he uses some false pretenses. When DebiDayal finally renounces his Japanese relationships, he realizes it is time for a complete reassessment of the freedom he fought for……

The race for India's freedom contrary to the spirit of India's politically correct history texts was not restricted to the arena of Mahatma Gandhi and his symbolic topi adorned followers, teaching the state of the art charkha weaving and anti modernism to the masses. The ideas of revolution was never unknown to Indians; although the lack of a critical mass led to their inability to sustain a chain reaction, culminating into high explosion. Thousands of Indian revolutionaries from all walks of life; lived, dreamed, and died for the cause of Indian Swaraj; but Gandhi's anathema to violence and his towering presence and control over the inertial superstitious masses and thereby their opinion; meant that the majority of revolutionaries would be classified as misguided patriots, to uphold his understanding of ahimsa.

Man said Somerset Maugham is ultimately a bundle of contradiction. No finer example exists than our father of the nation. Gandhi's dharma of ahimsa, was supposedly only for the strong and not for the weak. Yet, ahimsa was a goal, a perfection to strive for; not a reify which existed with space-time co-ordinates for one to catch hold off. Ahimsa was essential for the animal in man to be killed in order for the man in us to live. But Gandhi never realized that as illustrated by these words of Sri Aurobindo

I believe Gandhi does not know what actually happens to the man's nature when he takes to Satyagraha or non-violence. He thinks that men get purified by it. But when men suffer, or subject themselves to voluntary suffering, what happens is that their vital being gets strengthened. These movements affect the vital being only and not any other part. Now, when you cannot oppose the force that oppresses, you say that you will suffer. That suffering is vital and it gives strength. When the man who has thus suffered gets power he becomes a worse oppressor…. Gandhi's position is that he does not care to remove violence from others; he wants to observe non-violence himself.

This internal inconsistency of Gandhi's thought often reflected in his words. When, communal riots flared up after the khilafat non co-operation movement especially in Moplah where Hindu landlords were being massacred and their wives and daughters raped and mutilated; he could only muster the courage to say that the Muslims were following what their religion taught them. Yet, close to independence, when he comes across a Hindu town where an eerie silence prevailed; where the Hindu women had been raped without resistance from their men-folk; he strongly chastised them for their unmanliness with the words "it is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence"

Was Gandhi himself not responsible for the emasculation of the Hindu race…..Debi Dyal questions his friend Basu, the Bengali revolutionary who was also caught in Shafi's conspiracy and he definitely thought so! When questioned by Debi, on whether the congress movement was as much a failure as their revolutionary movement; Basu answers:

"It is an even greater failure than ours. But will they (the congress) ever admit it? They will take all the credit for achieving independence when the British finally leave, as though all the others have done nothing. But there is a greater failure still in the emasculation of the people, making them into a nation of sheep…The results of what non-violence has done will be seen as soon as the British leave us to our desires. For every Hindu that had to die, five will die because of the doctrine of non-violence has caught on. More women will be raped and abducted because the men will be rendered incapable of defending themselves"

Gandhi himself in a moment of divination had himself posed the question "It almost appears as if we are nursing in our bosom the desire to take revenge the first time we get the opportunity. Can true, voluntary non-violence come out of this seeming forced non-violence of the week. Is it not a futile experiment I am conducting? What if, when the fury bursts not a man, woman or child is safe and every man's hand is raised against his neighbour"

Would terrorism have won freedom at a lesser price. Debi certainly has no illusions regarding the matter….No perhaps not "but at least it would have been an honest sacrifice, honest and manly-not something that had sneaked upon them in the garb of non-violence."

Basu had joined the Hindu Mahasabha, an organization shaped as a reaction to the communal policy of Jinnah's Muslim League. He knows another limitation of the current Hindu consciousness is the subordination of the wife….women never prepared themselves to raise themselves to the occasion and inspire their men for the sake. Basu's own wife is the victim of an acid attack from a Muslim mob which has left her face permanently defaced. Yet, she does not care for revenge and retaliation. She will not demand of her husband to avenge her insult. Perhaps, these Hindu women were more afraid of their potential widowhood than their honour. Ironically, it is in such contrast to the ancient heroines like Draupadi who left no stone unturned in galvanizing her confused husbands into action and total war to avenge the humiliation meted to her by the Kauravas and in the process even extracted a promise from the crafty Krishna.

DebiDyal, decides to teach Shafi, now in Calcutta in company of a beautiful nautch girl a lesson….he steals Mumtaz from her but Shafi manages to injure his hand……..DebiDyal is not interested in women, but Mumtaz with her dogged devotion wins his love and affection. He opts to marry her, and discloses it to her sister Sundari who easily accepts her. But as the ghost of partition dawns close; the subcontinent becomes transformed into the arena of death; as blood spills and mayhem marks the road to freedom

Basu questions the ambivalence of Gandhi when the hour will strike….What will he do "he will go on a fast. A fast to purify himself, perhaps a fast unto death. But will he ever admit failure. That non-violence has failed. And one more thing? What is the future of a country nurtured on non violence in a world of raving violence? How are we to survive? defend our borders? Can a non violent nation have a violent army? How will the fighting spirit manifest in our people"

On the eve of independence; Debi's father delays crossing over….with no armoured guard, he is trapped with his wife and Sundari who has come over? Debi attempts to cross over but his uncircumcised organ reveals his Hinduness in the train……Mumtaz is gangraped and murdered, in front of his eyes as he lays dying.

Meanwhile, Shafi confidently strides into Pakistan. He had always no doubt on this war; which the Muslim league had meticulously planned and predicted, while all the time the congressmen hid in their skirts awaiting a miracle, ignoring the naked truth that stared in their faces "a yr….two yrs….they would then plunge into the war…..The Hindus were planning to do so to….but they are ultimately pacifists at hearts…their leaders fond of extolling secularism. They were soft and shrank from bloodshed. They would never be amatch for Muslims in civil war….. not even the Mahasabhites who were nothing but a reaction to Muslim nationalism."

As the violence reaches a crescendo, Shafi targets Debi Dayal and his family vowing to take Sundari in exchange for Mumtaz. But it is the antihero; Gian who in his search for redemption is led into the terror torn Punjab to save the woman he had always loved and longed for……

Bend in the ganges remains a classic; one of the best novels of partition written till date; a gripping narrative, with a bold gallery of characters and their successful blend into a revolutionary story which redefines the making of the nation and the travesties played amidst its tragedies. The writing is topclass, provocatively constituted yet aesthetically presented. The noted critic and writer K R Srinivasa Iyengar concludes that the shame and agony of the partition, the glory and the defeat of the hour of freedom, the tryst with destiny that was also the death-trap fashioned by the malignant time spirit; the horror and the humiliation; the terror and the pity of it all are the theme of Malgonkar's novel. It is a bolder experiment in artistically fusing the personal and historical perspective in fictional terms…..


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