Choosing Hope over Desperation
Sukrita Paul Kumar
HYMNS IN BLOOD by Nanak Singh. Translated from the original Punjabi by Navdeep Suri Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins, New Delhi, 2022, 235 pp., 499.00
July 2022, volume 46, No 7

Even when read in English translation, the immediacy of experience yielded page after page in the novel, Hymns in Blood, is remarkable, especially so since it is the throbbing story of something cataclysmic that happened as long back as nearly seventy-five years ago in 1947, during Partition. Undoubtedly, this speaks for the power of the novel written originally by Nanak Singh, the master story teller in Punjabi; but also indeed, it demonstrates the translator’s skills of transporting the vibrancy of the experience from the writer’s robust Punjabi to an English that is endowed with an idiomatic cultural proximity to the original. The reader gets pulled into the cultural weave of the context, empathizes with the characters and suffers their pain and life-shaking emotional turmoils.

In his Foreword to the novel, Nanak Singh poignantly remarks, ‘This book isn’t just a novel; it is a reflection of an ache in my heart, the scream from the pits of my stomach, the wail from the depths of my soul.’ His pen wrote not with ink but with the tears from his eyes, he said. In the writing of the novel he manages to transfer a similar intensity of feeling to the reader. What is heartrending is the sheer realization that such gruesome violence could erupt amongst erstwhile amicable neighbours. The events of Partition had left people baffled. Except for a few writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto, most writers who had witnessed or experienced the unsavoury reality of Partition required extraordinary mental grit to pull out these scenes from their consciousness and muster courage to write about them by and by, sometimes many years later. In the case of a writer such as Nanak Singh, he was compelled to write not so much by the tragedy suffered by the Hindus or the Muslims or Sikhs but with what he witnessed: humanity itself collapsing as the biggest casualty. By some strange force, as he said, he wrote at the instance of a calling by what he perceived. Writing usually seeks ‘distancing’ for a balanced perspective and an effective expression. Nanak Singh was able to somehow acquire an adequate mental distancing from what had deeply shaken him to the roots to chart out the powerful novel, Hymns in Blood. He had seen the festival of colour, Holi, turn into a macabre play of fountains of the crimson red of human blood.

Though the novel is not autobiographical in terms of the specific story line, it is also not a figment of pure imagination. Even if the narration does not read like history or as a factual sequence of events lived by real characters, the depiction of division of hearts, the breaking of relationships and the forced migrations to have a deeply convincing and authentic ring. As the Hindi writer Krishna Sobti put it in the context of her own novel, here too ‘History that is not/And history that is’. It was not possible to digest the fact that the cultural cohesiveness of yore could suddenly become a  kind of Utopia, the possibility of future. Perhaps therein lay the seed of Nanak Singh’s writerly vision behind the novel that delineates the compelling power of the relationship between Naseem the young Muslim woman and the fatherly figure of Baba Bhana through the novel.

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