Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness by Anirudh Kala

I bought this book on a whim while I was in Delhi for a conference. I wandered into BariSons Booksellers and came out with this, and a few other books. I bought it hoping I was going to read some fiction that drew from the real-life events of India’s brutal Partition, that occurred in 1947. I was expecting some fascinating insights into a topic that I had never heard or thought about before—the question of what happened to patients of mental hospitals during the great swap of humanity that occurred during Partition. The first couple of chapters were promising. I was intrigued and appalled. I learnt about terrible things that happened; I was drawn in by characters and interesting plots: all hallmarks of a good book. But soon I started to become frustrated and somewhat confused. At first I thought it was because there was too much assumed knowledge in the stories—about Indian geography and place names etc. One story was set in Shimla and I was secretly chuffed because I had just returned from a trip there so I could picture the regions where the story took place. This was not the case for other stories. But I soon realised that it wasn’t simply my lack of geographical and historical knowledge that was turning the read into a chore. I was frustrated with the confusing and confused narrative arc and the seemingly endless stream of characters. This was supposed to be a book of short stories, but it wasn’t. The same characters appeared in multiple different stories at different points in time so it felt like there was supposed to be narrative arc. And yet it certainly wasn’t a novel either.

I read until the beginning of the last chapter and then just gave up. I was sick of meeting characters, beginning to get to know them and their stories, and then having them taken away from me so I could meet yet another character, who I would never really get to know, and I was tired of being confused.
Partition is ripe for stories and has been mined pretty successfully by some authors (for example, Partition riot stories appear in Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and post- Partition conflicts appear in his Such a Long Journey; part of the narrative in Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day takes place during Partition, etc.)  The stories of what happened to the patients in mental hospitals should be told, so Anirudh Kala was definitely on to a good idea. Shame he didn’t pull it off.

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