Book Review | ‘Simsim’: An Elegy for Tragedy of Sindhi Hindus
Most of the fiction focused on the partition in India portrays the pain of either Punjab or Bengal, but only a few books speak of the sufferings of Sindhis. Geet Chaturvedi’s ‘Simsim’, translated by Anita Gopalan, is one of those few books that looks at India’s partition through the sensitive eyes of a Sindhi traumatised by it.
The sufferings of Basar Mal Jetharam Purswani, the elderly hero of Simsim, are many, including being a partition migrant. Sindh was never divided. It remained entirely in Pakistan, but the Sindhis came to India. They had lost their motherland and suffered the curse of becoming refugees, and yet the sufferings of Sindhi Hindus did not form the subject of major narratives. Unlike Punjab and Bengal, not even an inch of Sindh was left with the Sindhis. Basar Mal in the book Simsim says in a monologue, ‘…Memory is my homeland. No one can take it away from me. Those who lose their homeland have memory as their homeland.’
Geet’s works provide delightful insights into the theme of memory, and Simsim is his latest offering. This literary fiction is a unique artistic blend of memory, fiction and reality. Geet’s writing has Naipaul-like elegantly structured sentences having Proust-ish depth and Coetzee-like thoughtful alertness, and we experience it in translation that allows us to hold the prose a little deeper and get a look at Anita’s own connection to the language.
This novel runs in two time periods, 1947-48 and 2007. At the time of Partition, Basar Mal is an 18-year-old young man, living in the town of Larkana in Sindh. When the riots break out, his family packs their belongings to leave for India and reaches the Karachi Refugee Camp. But Basar Mal, without telling anyone, secretly returns to Larkana to bring along his love Jaam with him to India. He finds Jaam’s house ravaged by rioters and no sign of Jaam. In his attempts to find her, he takes many dramatic risks, and in turn gets exposed to unknown aspects of politics, communalism, greed and violence. He says, ‘I got to look at a world where, behind every beautiful form, there was a stench—smirking, sneering, malicious in its filthy odours.’ But he fails in his search. Saving his life, he somehow reaches Mumbai. By then he has lost everything. In Mumbai, a wandering dervish tells him, ‘Son, what you’ve lost, you’ll find again in books.’ Basar Mal succeeds in starting a library—Sindhu Library, where through books, he tries to keep alive the culture, language and memories of his Sindh. The author says—Give one breath, and a book will live a thousand years. There were enough breaths. The library bloomed. An ancient civilization inhabited these breaths.
Cut to 2007- A young graduate, troubled by restrictions at home falls in love with the face of a girl at a yellow window. Right opposite the window is Sindhu Library. The young man befriends old Basar Mal of the library and uses his visits to watch the girl at the yellow window from the library, creating fantasies as his imagination pleases. There is just an uncanny hint of the yellow window opposite the library and the girl having a resemblance to Basar Mal’s Larkana window and his old love.
The young man’s relationship with his father is full of conflicts. The old-fashioned father wants the son to do whatever job he gets, but the young man says, he wants to start big with a fat package. His desires are disapproved of by his father, resulting in clashes. The bitter atmosphere at home drives him to spend time on the streets and in the library.
The land mafia of Mumbai is eyeing the vast land of the library. Basar Mal receives repeated death threats, which bother him so much that he draws an interesting conclusion in his brief moments of contemplation. He says every king invading other kingdoms was actually the land mafia, whose only objective was to occupy other’s land. A determined Basar Mal refuses to give his land to the mafia. He says this land belongs to my children. He thinks his books are his children.
Books are a big part of Simsim. Anita says in her thoughtful translator’s note, ‘Simsim is an elegy for books.’ Reading the three chapters describing the moving stories of the journey and sufferings of books by a chatty book cover, a uniquely fascinating character in the novel, Anita’s statement feels absolutely right. The book cover says, ‘I am a book, and as a matter of fact, it is I who have saved the story of the earliest human ancestors. But would a human know the world’s first book? Does it even survive?’
There is a poignant scene where, with moonlight falling across the room, the books are dancing holding each other’s hand. ‘Dance is a hope,’ the book cover says, ‘dance is also a wait.’
The cover underscores the fact that every class of people in every part of the world has, at one time or another, taken out their enmity through books. It says, ‘No part of the world remained where books didn’t burn. Sometimes, the mullah of a mosque burned them. Sometimes, the padre of a church. Or sometimes, the mahant of a temple…’
Geet is known for his creative experimentation with language, with fine characterisations, breath-taking sentences and almost cinematic sequences. The tone of Simsim is essentially the tone of loss, despair and compassion. It makes his language musical. Anita has kept the linguistic music intact. Receiving Geet’s language in Anita’s translation is an experience in itself.
Simsim is a story of rescuing the faint flame of love from the storm of destruction and violence. Geet says, ‘The world is saved by love. It is also saved by the memory of love’.
Basar Mal’s wife Jalo is briefly present in the book, but the magic of her personality is felt throughout. No one remembers when or how the bubbly, young Jalo changed into a silent, old Mangan’s Ma, the mother of a child who was never born, talking only to her plastic doll.
The characters are the ordinary people around us, but memorable in their presence and poignant in their impact. This sublime work, called Simsim, is a symphony played by several characters, a poem inscribed on the sands of memory with a twig of prose. Writing a sparsely explored subject like the tragedy of Sindhi Hindus who came to India from Pakistan in a thought-provoking, experimental and unconventional style is breaking new ground in the world of fiction.
Introductions of the Authors
Geet Chaturvedi is a poet, novelist, and essayist. He is one of the most widely read contemporary Hindi authors. The recipient of numerous literary prizes, including the Syed Haidar Raza Fellowship for fiction writing, he was named among the Ten Best Young Writers of India by The Indian Express. He won the 2021 Vatayan-UK Literary Award for his contribution to Hindi literature. His works have been translated into 22 languages.
Anita Gopalan is a writer, translator, and stock trader. She is the recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and a fellowship in English literature from the Ministry of Culture. She is the translator of Geet Chaturvedi’s ‘The Memory of Now’ (Anomalous Press, USA). She has been published in AGNI, PEN America, Tupelo Quarterly, World Literature Today, Asymptote, Two Lines, Words Without Borders, Modern Poetry in Translation, and elsewhere.