“Pacey” is the adjective most used to describe Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies, an account of Partition in 1947. And indeed, for a story whose characters and outcome we are all too familiar with, Hajari creates a compelling narrative with great fluidity and even-handedness. He says he wrote the book not to address why the subcontinent was split, or to assign blame for the largest forced migration in history (14 million refugees crossed the borders), but to explore how the experience of Partition carved out such a wide gulf between India and Pakistan.
Reading this book as we approach our 69th year of independence offers several creepy moments of déja vu. Hajari animates these figures of the past with wonderful detail and little-known curiosities, and the result is an unsettling time warp. The reader is invited into a tunnel of history, equipped with the wretched gift of hindsight, and when you look up from the page, it’s a cruel joke to see how all these years later, these two nations are still playing out the same motifs, the same furies. Hajari tells me he doesn’t buy into the idea that India and Pakistan were destined to be rivals. “In theory, one could have created two nations out of the former British Raj without provoking such massive riots. The bloodshed could have brought the two infant nations together in a common effort to restore order.”
Hajari spent many hours among “mice-infested” shelves of libraries and national archives, reading first-person testimonials, newspapers and letters (Nehru’s—“eloquent”, Jinnah’s—“numbingly pedestrian”), looking at photographs, listening to speeches and sound recordings. “It was detective work,” he says, “not only trying to figure out what exactly was happening, how decisions were made, but what moods these characters were in when they were making those decisions, what often mundane considerations (lack of sleep, suffocating humidity, a breakdown in telegraph communications) may have affected them at that moment.” All this makes for an immensely human and textured reading. Add to this Hajari’s gift for the epithet (Churchill is “a Kiplingesque subaltern”) and juicy tidbits (“Endless walla-walla, but damn little fighting,” American General Joseph Stilwell said of Dickie Mountbatten). Although the Nawab of Junagadh and his 800 canines, each of whom had their own apartment, attendant and phone, sealed it for me.
Midnight’s Furies is a prescient book for our times. It’s a difficult read with its kafilas, corpse trains and acres of dead (“vultures feasted so extravagantly they couldn’t fly”). But most importantly it offers us an uncomfortable picture of ourselves. “Ordinary Indians and Pakistanis long ago settled upon their own myopic and mutually contradictory version of events, which largely focus on blaming the other side or the British for provoking slaughter,” Hajari writes. In researching this book, he found the massacres were avoidable. He doesn’t believe in the theory of “spontaneous uprisings”. Instead, he maintains these were organized riots tantamount to ethnic cleansing. This book offers no solutions, it merely holds up a mirror and urges: “It’s time the heirs to Nehru and Jinnah finally put 1947’s furies to rest.”