The Frontlist Show: Beyond the Written Word
Episode 6 - In Conversation with Author Navdeep Singh Suri
Episode 6 | Forgotten trails : Partition of Indiaon Sep 16, 2022
Listen to an extremely fulfilling conversation with Author Navdeep Singh Suri, a former Indian Diplomat. In this episode, we discuss the what, why & how of the partition and the steps we can take to improve our international relations. Do listen till the end to learn more about the father of the Punjabi Novel, Mr. Nanak Singh Ji.
Frontlist: Hello, Doston! Welcome back to The Frontlist Show. You guys must have seen a lot of movies, you guys must have read a lot of articles regarding partition, and a few lucky ones might have heard something from the grandparents or people from the older generation. But today, we're bringing you something that will resonate with every citizen of India and every citizen of Pakistan on an emotional level. We are bringing you straight words from Mr Navdeep Deep Singh Suri, an Indian diplomat. He has been across Washington, DC, and London for diplomatic missions. He has also been an Indian ambassador. And while doing these things, he was trying to preserve his grandfather Mr Nanak Singh Ji's Literary Legacy.
So let's dive into the podcast now!
So it's a pleasure for us that you are joining us today for this podcast session. And I welcome you to The Frontlist Show.
So how are you doing, sir?
Navdeep: Thank you. Very well.
I look forward to our conversation this afternoon.
Frontlist: Just for the listeners. Mr Navdeep Singh is a former diplomat. He has been across various diplomatic missions across Washington, DC, and London. He was also an Indian ambassador, and lately, he has been striving to preserve his grandfather's literary legacy. His grandfather's name was Mr Nanak Singh. And some of his works include "A Life, incomplete," "Hymns in Blood," and various last poems like "Khooni Vaisakhi."
How was your transition from Foreign Department to the literary world?
Navdeep: Well, it wasn't really a transition because I started translating my grandfather's literary works while I was still a diplomat, and the first three, "The Watchmaker," "A Life Incomplete," those were two novels, and the long poem, "Khooni Vaisakhi," were done while I was still doing the diplomat's job and taking time out in the evenings to translate, and the reason was that my grandfather "Nanak Singh Ji" was widely regarded as the father of the Punjabi novel, and clearly a chronicler of his life and of his times over a span of almost 50 years and he is an exceptionally popular figure in Punjabi literature. To describe him in comparative terms in Hindi would be to compare him with Munshi Premchand, and in English, it would be to compare him with Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens. So many of his books are really classics of the Punjabi language. And so I really strongly felt that there was a need to bring his words to a wider audience, and that's why the first book that I picked up was "Pavitar Papi," which was also made into a Hindi film in the 1960s. That was published as "The Watchmaker," then the second one was "A Life Incomplete," and the third one, which is quite remarkable, "Khooni Vaisakhi," which is a long poem that he wrote, and was published in 1920 after he survived the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
Frontlist: When I was researching for this podcast, I actually came across Mr Nanak Singh Ji, and you know, he is actually a legendary figure to me, and after listening to such a beautiful introduction by you, I will definitely look into his work later on.
Navdeep: Sure, sure, please. The purpose of my efforts is to really see some of the stories that he wrote, particularly the two that he wrote on the partition. He wrote two back-to-back novels, "Khoon De Sohile," which I have translated into English as "Hymns in Blood," and "Agg Di Khed," which I'm currently working on as "A Game of Fire." These two were really remarkable stories about the partition. My grandfather, in 1947, was in Amritsar. He was already a celebrated public intellectual who had written several bestsellers by that time. And he wrote these two amazing books, which are both set in the first eight months of 1947, from January to August 1947. And "Hymns in Blood" describes how life in an idyllic little village in the Portohaar area near Rawalpindi is upended once the communal violence begins and how the forced migration of people who have lived in that village for generations takes place from their ancestral lands and the sequel to that which is "A Game of Fire" is set entirely in Amritsar of 1947. So they provide us with remarkable perspectives of what was happening in a region now in Pakistan and what was happening in Amritsar during those fateful months leading up to the partition.
Frontlist: Partition was something that was really harsh on us. It is our bad past, but we can always look for a brighter future, and maybe analyzing the past can help you assess the future better. So moving on from the partition topic, you have worked as a diplomat. So are there any crazy stories you would like to share with our listeners?
Navdeep: Since I was a member of the Indian Foreign Service for 36 years. And very recently, a couple of months back, we were having a discussion about "Hymns in Blood" in London, and because the book is set in this geographical area called Portohaar, I had no idea that in London, there is a Portohaari Association, which includes members of the Punjabi community who initially migrated to India, and then moved to the UK. And they came in strength for the book launch. And it's quite amazing to hear their perspective on the partition and questions about why India and Pakistan can have better relations, why can't we have open borders, why it is so difficult to get visas, etc. So you have to find a topic of the book that you've done that resonate in a place like London. Quite interesting.
Frontlist: Yeah, actually, it sounds really crazy, and so as you have mentioned, you got some insights from foreigners into the topics of our Indian society, our internal topics. So what do you think were the differences between our opinions and their opinions regarding the partition?
Navdeep: Well, for us, obviously, it is far more immediate, far more direct. For many of them, it's something that they might have read about and passed. If I want to explain the partition to them, I say, well, in one way, when you look at the scale of the death and destruction during the partition, think of the Holocaust in Europe, and then you will begin to grasp the scale of what had happened. And the foolishness at one level, the decision of the British to partition such a large and complicated country at literally a few weeks' notice, when people didn't even know where the Radcliffe Line would be drawn based on census data that was far from perfect. But on the other hand, just as I think in Europe, this whole German obsession about their own race and about their own sort of narrative that they had built against the Jewish community led to 6 million Jews being killed in concentration camps across Europe. Remember, that was also happening in the 1940s between 1940 and 1944 essentially, and three years later, you had a partition. And what it really showed is that once you ignite the flames of communal passions, you create an inferno that will not leave anyone untouched. When you read about that period, that how could it happen that families that had lived side by side for generations became sworn enemies within the matter of a few months, people from the same village killing their neighbours from the same city from the same street at targeting their neighbors, what happened, what is this madness. At the same time, a message that comes through from my grandfather's books and particularly through "Hymns in Blood" is that even at the worst of times, humanity still somehow survives, even if it is an isolated pocket. So even while in this particular book, you have Muslims lashing out at Hindus and Sikhs, and there are enough stories of rape and pillage, and murder. But there are also other Muslims who are willing to sacrifice their own lives to save their Hindu or Sikh neighbours, and that's a remarkable story, just as it is in the other book "A Game of Fire", which is in Amritsar where it was the Hindus and Sikhs who were killing the Muslims.[NU1] And yet there are Hindus and Sikhs who were willing to do everything to save them from the carnage. So the message that comes through is twofold. One is to beware of those who will rouse the feelings of religious fervor or polarization or passion because they are, you never know where that it's going to lead us, and the second thing is to respect humanity, which is Mark in my grandfather's books, far more important than religion, he believes that religion is your personal matter, humanity is universal. I think that message of his which has such a healing touch, is as important today as it was when he wrote these books almost 75 years ago.
Frontlist: Right, listening to your words, listening to this message, it just gave me such feel-good vibes to be a better version of yourself and what I think is that so many species into this world and what is a gift that actually separates us from them is the actual tendency to survive. Humans can survive anything. We have witnessed so many wars, we have witnessed partitions, we have witnessed so many diseases, but in the end, humans always survive.
Moving on to the next question. There's always been a kid in me that always wanted to ask this question, and I was just waiting for the right person. If India and Pakistan were never separated, what do you think would be our current scenario? What would be the present right now?
Navdeep: Well, firstly, I think it begs the question, why were they separated? Right? If they had not been separated, then India would have been one of the most important countries, one of the most powerful countries, or the most strategically located country in the world. It would have been the largest country in terms of population, with immense resources and borders that extend from the Afghanistan border all the way to the southeast. But I think the British, in the 1940s, their strategists were aware that India, under the leadership of stalwarts like Nehru and Sardar Patel, would never do their bidding. These leaders were far too independent-minded & because the British wanted somebody who would serve their interests. They felt that was best done by agreeing to Jinnah's demand for Pakistan & sure enough, after the partition, Pakistan became a loyal Western ally, while India remained non-aligned. So to the extent that they wanted to create somebody who would serve their interests, they were successful in the 1950s.
Pakistan was very much in the 60s, a part of Western security alliances like the Central and the Baghdad Pact. It then later was very much an American ally, even while India stuck to its non-aligned stance. One is you need to go back into history to understand why it happened. And what was the game? What was the big game that was being played by the imperialists? But today, I don't think it's realistically possible to think of, again, a united subcontinent. I really don't see that as a realistic possibility at all. But you can approach the substance of it, the essence of it, by building better relations between the three countries India and Bangladesh have demonstrated that despite the partition despite the division, we are very close friends today. You know, our trade is growing, our electricity grids are connected. The rivers are being used for navigation, and trains and buses have started crisscrossing again. Of the two countries. Can we do the same with Pakistan at some point? And I think that it's important that Pakistan gets over its Kashmir obsession and starts acting like a more normal country, in terms of, you know, its willingness to open trading borders and allowing people to travel back and forth freely if we can find ways to soften the borders that were created by the partition. And if we can find ways to enable a greater People-to-People and a greater commercial connect, I think you can't undo the borders of the partition. But you can certainly make it less painful to the people.
Frontlist: Like it can be more transparent to make the flow of communication easier, right?
Navdeep: Yeah, well, I've just returned from Amritsar, and it is quite remarkable to see that Punjab, which was the biggest sufferer, the biggest victim of the partition, seems to be the one that has gotten over the ranker of the partition, and is willing to even keen to establish normal ties between the two parts of Punjab that were divided in 1947. They realize the people that I speak with in Punjab realize that their own prosperity, to a large extent, improves if trade opens up with Pakistan, there is much that we make that we can export to Pakistan, and there is much that we import from other parts from long distances away that we can buy from Pakistan, whether it is cement or cotton or other things. So, you know, trade would benefit both sides. But obviously, I think as a diplomat, as a former diplomat, I recognize that the conditions in Pakistan today are far from ideal. It's a country in turmoil. It needs to be at peace with itself first before it makes peace with its neighbours.
Frontlist: Definitely, Sir. It's such a great insight a country in turmoil should be at peace with itself. First, how can they better their foreign affairs and foreign connections until and unless their own domestic affairs are not in order?
So all the listeners are a part of the younger generation. So we actually have not witnessed what the partition was? Even though there are a lot of accounts in Bollywood movies, a lot of content is available on it. But I wanted to know, what was your experience like at that time?
Navdeep: I personally was born after the partition. I am 63 years old; the partition was 75 years ago. But within our family, we have heard enough accounts of the battered partition. And I can only tell you that no film can capture the utter brutality of the partition, no film would be able to show the manner in which innocent men, women, and children were butchered by both sides, and I think it's important to remember that at the worst of times, as the partition was approaching, you had train loads of refugees going from India towards Pakistan and from Pakistan towards India. And more often than not, those trains were intercepted by armed gangs of one community or the other and with the effort to kill every single person that they could. I think Khushwant Singh's "Train to Pakistan" captures a little bit of this. Still, I can tell you that purely in terms of the scale of violence that occurred, it was horrendous. The costs that were inflicted on the millions of people who were uprooted from homes in which they had lived for generations, and forced to move penniless, with nothing, into a new land, and to be at the mercy of the elements and yet we see remarkable stories that have come out of it. Delhi, for example, grew after the partition because of the influx of people who came from what is now Pakistan.
Frontlist: That's actually really painful to hear this.
As I was doing my research for this particular podcast, I came to know that you were awarded for the innovative use of social media. So actually, I just wanted to share that whenever we scroll through Instagram or any Facebook post, and if it is something nation-sensitive, you can always hear, you can always see the pain, the hate comments between the two nations. So what do you think about how social media amplifies this hate speech between the two nations?
Navdeep: Well, yeah, no question about it. I got those awards in 2010. Because when I was hitting the Public Diplomacy Department in the Ministry of External Affairs, we became the first part of the government of India to go on social media. So the first Twitter post, the first Facebook post, and the first Youtube channel were from our office in July 2010 and relatively early days of social media. But coming to your question, I think that social media does two or three things that may not happen so easily in the real world. One is some of the worst trolls hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. If you look at their profile, they don't even disclose their name and prom. And I think that anonymity gives you a shield, from behind which you can shout the most abusive stuff, which you would perhaps not dare to do if you were face to face with someone. The second thing, I think, is that what social media does is create these echo chambers, right, where I have a default setting that I will follow people who think like me and whose views I can relate to. And it takes that extra effort for me to follow people that I disagree with. So because you think you're listening to people like yourselves, you get trapped in an echo chamber, where everything seems bigger than it is, and you always shut out other points of view that you might be subjected to in the real world. And so, your comments tend to become more extreme, more one-sided, and, yes, more hateful. And unless there is, you and people think there is no cost associated with it, so they can get away with saying the most obnoxious things that reflect very poorly on what they are in real life.
Frontlist: Definitely, social media has enabled it. A lot of careers are based on social media right now. It has enabled people to speak freely earlier like people are more heard now than earlier. Like earlier, only some ministers or some top person would get to be heard from the public. But now everyone can express their opinion freely, although it has its pros and cons.
But I would like to know one last thing from you, what is your message to the millennials or the younger generation in order to them with social media?
Navdeep: My message is a common sense one. Don't believe everything that comes at you on WhatsApp or Twitter. Retain that independence of mind to check, cross-check, and verify before you forward something or retweet something, I have made it a principle, and I'm not a millennial, then I will not forward something that I have not first checked. And sometimes, it takes just that extra one minute to scroll through or do one basic fact check and discover that this is not true. And I don't want to be associated with amplifying something that is not true. So I guess, like any new medium, any medium for that matter, you very correctly said social media enables and democratizes access to information. It gives us an opportunity to engage with everybody. But at the same time, it doesn't take away our responsibility to use our own minds to ascertain the facts. So don't blindly follow anyone - question, reason, verify, and then amplify.
Frontlist: Thank you so much, Navdeep Sir. Definitely, this tip of yours is going to help us so much. Such a large audience, and from the Frontlist family, thank you so much for being part of this show. And I really hope that we can have another conversation in the future.
Thank you. Pleasure speaking with you.
Navdeep: Thank you so much.