Mere Bhi Sanamkhane: A Tale of Loss and A Lost Culture

Written originally in Urdu, titled Mere Bhi Sanamkhane and translated by the author herself, My Temples, Too (2004) holds within its folds the essence of what Qurratulain Hyder calls the “ganga-jumni” culture of India – a culture that is composite, harmonious and gracious. Set against the backdrop of the partition of the Indian subcontinent, the novel unfolds predominantly in Lucknow and Delhi, and captures how the all-accommodating and tolerant atmosphere of the multifarious cities is torn apart by a politics of individuality and religious fanaticism. The novel tells the story of young Rakshanda Begum, the idealistic editor of the progressive Muslim magazine “New Era”, of Peechu, her elder brother, Vimal, their friend and radio correspondent, Kiran, the young journalist, Salim, the upwardly mobile doctor, Ginnie Kaul and Diamond. The “Gang” gets together all the time at Ghufran Manzil, the dilapidated house of (Rakshanda’s) forefathers and a silent reminder of past splendour. The narrator describes the group as one that

“…loved to talk. They felt that the cultures and literatures of the world belonged to them, that they were the rightful owners of all civilization … They wanted to learn and do things. They were heart-breakingly young and enthusiastic.” (6)

The novel opens with the political activism of Rakshanda, aka Roshi, and her magazine “New Era” through which she desires to bring about revolutionary socio-political changes. However, there is a continuous lurking around of a sense of foreboding that tells Roshi of an impending doom which will scatter the pieces of her carefully arranged jigsaw puzzle and lead to a complete breakdown of the existing structure. The doom comes in the form of the announcement of partition which brings along with it an unbearable separateness and isolation. A series of political events divide the members of the gang and at the end of the novel everyone is alone: Kiran and Peechu in death; Ginnie in her pilgrimage; Diamond in Lahore; and Roshi in her insanity. Unable to negotiate with the alienation that the partition imposes on her, and the dispersion of the “gang”, Roshi loses her mental balance. Having had her existence always defined by the presence and the protection of the “gang”, a separation from them shoves her into a kind of identity crisis from which she never recovers. Roshi’s crisis in accepting the soio-cultural transformations becomes a symbolic miniature of the crisis faced by the newly divided nation(s).

While My Temples, Too is one among the many narratives that document the psychic rupture faced by the citizens of a partitioned subcontinent, its significance lies in portraying the transition of Lucknow from a city unaffected by the disparities of various religions to a city devastated by a war of religion. Ghufran Manzil, with its diverse inhabitants is a heterotopic melting pot of diverse cultures and a microcosm of a nation undivided by creed. Hyder further blurs the religious identity of the characters by forsaking their proper names and calling them by names that do not carry any religious implication. Roshi, Peechu, Polu, Ginnie, Kiran or Diamond are names which have a certain universality attached to them. The difference that exists between them on grounds of religion is transcended through such an act of addressing. Ghufran Manzil also arranges for programmes such as music conferences at periodic intervals which create a space of social bonhomie. People from various communities come together to participate in a celebration that is secular in nature. The early pages of the novel capture a society where differences exist but there is simultaneously a constant effort to accommodate those differences.

Such a dreamily idealistic world is shaken out of its reverie when hit by the catastrophe of partition. Overnight, a change is observed not only in the citizens of Lucknow but in the atmosphere of the city as well which discards its hospitable nature to become hostile to the Muslims. Roshi, for instance, observes a group of Muslims on the wayside platform who look strangely scared. The shadow of fear on their faces makes her extremely bitter for she realises that the partition has made them strangers in their own country. Kiran, on the other hand, in writing his dispatches from Delhi sadly observes how it has become almost a crime to be a Muslim in Delhi, a city that boasts of being the residence of the Great Mughals, of Nizamuddin Aulia and of Mirza Ghalib. Like other partition narratives here too are scenes of ghastly violence and an all too familiar shudder of horror:

“This year, the romantic rains were mingled with human blood which flowed in torrents on the earth below…. Corpses lay about in the streets or rotted in the sun or became decomposed and swollen in the rain. The bayonets of Gurkha soldiers flashed everywhere as they patrolled the corpse-ridden streets. The blood of the Muslim citizens of Delhi flowed in the lanes, dripped into gutters and mixed with muddy rainwater. It blocked the sewers and flowed in the drains on either side of lanes and roads” (p.156).

The transition of Lucknow, Delhi and the nation at large, from an all-accommodating space to one founded on grounds of religious hostility, results in the physical death of Kiran and Peechu, and in the mental death of Roshi and Ginnie, the latter searching for a lost peace in her spiritual quests but repeatedly denied of it. In depicting the loss of home, culture, brotherhood and value system in the aftermath of partition, Hyder is warning her readers of the pernicious effects of religion, especially if it is awarded more importance than humanity. Hence the timeless appeal of the novel. The relevance of My Temples, Too looms large even when the narrative is taken out of its historical context and placed in the current times of religious fanaticism, where one observes in despair, a repetition of history in the criminalising of a religion and the social alienation of its followers. As the lines of demarcation between politics and religion are steadily blurred, as blatant vendors of communal hatred assume democratic power, as the nation inches towards democratic theocracy, “ghufran’ or ‘mercy’ remains urgently required and yet abjectly absent. The novel forces us to revisit the past but only with a heightened sense of the dangers of the present. Therein lies its relevance.

                                                                                                                         ~ Deblina Hazra

Hyder, Qurratulain. My Temples, Too. New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004. Print.

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