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"Parallel lives"
(The TLS, May 2020)  

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Parallel lives: Challenging the idea of ‘mutual belligerence’ between India and Pakistan
The TLS, September 2023 
By Hirsh Sawhney 

Gama the Great was a larger-than-life figure from the pre-Partition heyday of South Asian wrestling. Born Ghulam Muhammad Baksh Butt c.1880 in Amritsar, in undivided Punjab, Gama was from a Muslim family, but was raised by a Hindu wrestler from Lahore after the death of his father. He trained without using barbells, relying on an excruciating regimen of squats, push-ups and exercises with a backbreaking mace. His routines and techniques are said to have inspired Bruce Lee. After gaining fame as an undefeated wrestler in British India, he was brought to England by British promoters, where, Joya Chatterji recounts, he defeated an American world champion, Benjamin Roller, and “reduced the Pole Stanislaus Zbyszko to a defensive stance within minutes”. The public defeat of “white men at tournaments in the heart of London … shook imperial confidence and wounded racial pride”.

When Punjab was partitioned in 1947, Gama, who was in his sixties, unsuccessfully tried to launch a bussing business. He then migrated to Lahore, which was now in Pakistan, where he was given a piece of land as a part of a government rehabilitation scheme. While the Pakistani state covered his medical bills, the Indian industrialist G. D. Birla, one of Gama’s fans, “sent him a retainer of Rs 2,000 a month from across the border”. Though a pall of sadness seems to have descended on the final phases of Gama’s life, Chatterji finds hope in his story. His life is evidence of the inherently transnational essence of the South Asian experience and it exposes the hazy nature of the boundaries imposed by the subcontinent’s twentieth-century partitions.


India and Pakistan are often pitched as mortal enemies that have had irreconcilable differences since their founding in 1947, when Britain granted them independence and recklessly cleaved the subcontinent in two, turning millions of people into refugees and paving the way for genocide. Since then the two states have fought one another in four wars, including the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, which led to a further partitioning of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. Numerous Pakistani generals have led that nation’s government, but in India there has been a tradition of keeping military officials away from high office. India is an ostensibly secular nation, whereas Islam is the state religion of Pakistan.

Despite these apparent divergences, Chatterji, a Delhi-born scholar of South Asian history, sees India and Pakistan as having more similarities than is commonly understood. A fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, who also lives in India, Chatterji was fed xenophobic myths about Pakistan during her childhood. Only as a student in England did she realize that people across the border had similar customs and culinary habits, and that they all shared a kinship as fellow South Asians. Such experiences shaped her world-view and, decades later, culminated in her new book, Shadows at Noon: The South Asian twentieth century, a provocative, pioneering work of political and social history that incorporates ethnography, oral history, literary criticism and memoir. This expansive volume seeks to challenge the myth of these countries’ “incompatible personalities”, “ceaseless animosity” and “mutual belligerence”, and ultimately makes a strong case that to understand modern South Asia, and perhaps even the world at large, we need to study the seemingly distinct nations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as three inextricably linked entities with permeable boundaries.

Chatterji begins this enormous undertaking in the late nineteenth century, probing the archives to paint an indicting portrait of the violence and white supremacy that defined many British imperialists. One British magistrate, Roderick McLeod, seemed to revel in his power to sentence natives to solitary confinement and to use a whip to punish them. In 1883 a public prosecutor, James Hume, returned to his Simla home to find Hurroo Mehter, a Dalit sweeper, having sex with his wife on the bathroom floor. Hume “thrashed” the assailant and filed a case against him, and Mehter, undefended, was sentenced to eight years in jail, though he steadfastly maintained his innocence. Allan Octavian Hume, a relative of the accuser and the founder of the Indian National Congress, later admitted to the viceroy that Mehter and “Mrs Hume had been romantically involved for six months”, but this truth was never made public because “it would undermine the foundation of white colonial order”. The incident certainly offers a chilling portrait of British India’s racist criminal justice system, but Chatterji, always interested in disrupting simplistic binaries and stereotypes, also believes that it complicates the misogynistic caricature of “white wives being standard bearers of Anglo-Indian racism”.

She depicts British imperialists as having wreaked havoc on South Asia and its citizens. Their greedy and myopic policies created deadly famines. They overtaxed the citizenry, driving farmers into debt. They helped to engender the monolithic and oppositional religious identities that would bubble over into unfathomable violence during Partition, through census-taking, politicking and the formation of separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims. But she notes that South Asians themselves were implicated in these processes, and that the elites who would inherit the mantle of state from Britain often operated with as much condescension and callousness towards the general population as their imperial overlords. And not all imperialists, she asserts, were monsters. There were white men such as William Cornish, a British surgeon stationed in Madras, who pushed back on imperial policies that might have made fiscal sense, at least from a British perspective, but would leave poor Indians hungry and malnourished.

The author is certainly not an apologist for the iniquities of imperialism. Rather, she suggests that empire and colony were engaged in a ceaseless dialogue that blurred the boundaries between these entities, so that it remains difficult to disentangle the Raj from seemingly quintessential South Asian things. Bombay’s famous Ganapati festival, for example, until the colonial era “a relatively quiet domestic celebration” devoted to the elephant god Ganesh, was popularized by the Indian nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak as a symbol of Hindu political resistance to imperiali sm. Even rice, suggests Chatterji, that most integral of South Asian dishes, rose to the forefront of the region’s culinary traditions as a consequence of the political economy of empire. Before the nineteenth century, she explains, rice was one of many grains that formed a part of South Asian diets, and not necessarily the most popular one. However, the British wanted rice to be grown as a cash crop for export, and because it was an easy fix for famine relief; landlords were encouraged to grow it at the expense of other, more nutritious foods, leading it to take over the culinary landscape in certain regions.

This book’s most lucid and incisive chapter traces the evolution of different forms of South Asian nationalism, ideologies often crafted by privileged brown men who had been educated by imperial institutions. Early nationalists believed, initially at least, that the British had good intentions and were simply failing to deliver on the idealistic promises of Victorian empire. The “economic nationalism” of these intellectuals and activists, some of whom “drove imported motorcars” while most Indians “subsisted on a handful of unpolished millet”, was centred on the notion that the British, as a consequence of tax burdens and food policy, were impoverishing the common people, and that educated Indians would in fact be better stewards of the welfare of the South Asian masses than white people.

Over the first decades of the twentieth century, however, racist and draconian British policies, increased taxation to fund the First World War and general administrative blundering led to a greater sense of anger towards the Raj, and to the flourishing of more revolutionary forms of nationalism, such as those espoused by Bhagat Singh and his Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, and by Santi Ghosh and Suniti Chowdhury, two politicized sixteen-year old girls who shot dead an unpopular British district magistrate. It was during this period that the Indian National Congress became a popular anti-imperialist organization and came to be dominated by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, both proponents of non-violent resistance. Chatterji reminds us that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Muslim founding father of Pakistan, was a devoted member of the Indian National Congress during the early phases of his political career. Ironically, he opposed the Hindu-dominated Congress’s support of the pan-Islamist Khilafat movement and was initially resistant to the notion of safeguarding Muslim interests by providing them with separate electorates. Jinnah, it seems, was open to keeping India undivided until as late as December 1946. But the Hindu-dominated Congress was “so determined to have it all their own way” that they wouldn’t sign up for such a plan.

After the brutal horrors of independence and Partition, which left tens of millions displaced, more than a million dead and hundreds of thousands of women brutalized, much of the material infrastructure of the British Indian state went to India, leaving the nascent Pakistani nation so threadbare that it initially had to run its central government out of tents. Despite such seismic differences, Chatterji argues that the two postcolonial nations remained on parallel courses. They both faced the problem of keeping extremely diverse populations bundled together in a singular nation. They both had to try to protect the rights of their emergent minority populations. They had to figure out how to make a space for incoming refugees fleeing violence and hardship, and to deal with property left behind by evacuees. They had to try to address the complicated needs of women who were abandoned by their families or kidnapped by members of opposing communities. The sibling nations had no choice but to collaborate to resolve many of these issues, often enacting identical laws to deal with them.

Crucially, both India and Pakistan had to frame domestic policy around famine deterrence, which led them to embrace the agricultural Green Revolution so that they could provide enough food for their burgeoning populations. Chatterji gives a notably clear and even-handed account of how this revolution played out in India, where the nation’s leaders sought to develop high-yielding grains to avoid dependency on food aid from the US at the height of the Cold War. Green Revolution inventions, including a new type of rice created by an American scientist and his multinational team, enabled India to build up “bunker stocks” and “control food prices”. The country eventually accumulated so many sacks of grain that “if piled up one on top of the other, they would have reached the moon”. Yet there was a huge fallout. Genetically engineered rice paddies required investments that only big farmers could afford, so poorer peasants “tended to sell their small holdings” and either work as “landless labourers” or migrate to cities, where, separated from their families, they took on underpaid and insecure jobs. Furthermore, the Green Revolution created a reliance on fertilizers and pesticides that “turned soil toxic, unfit not only for cultivation but for human habitation”. And to provide water for this new type of farming, the government created dams. Though India’s first prime minister, Nehru, looked on these massive structures as quasi-spiritual emblems of his country’s progress and modernity, they destroyed communities and created ecological refugees.

During the 1960s and 1970s, India and Pakistan were facing so many similar issues that two of their leaders, Indira Gandhi and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, used the same slogan, Roti, kapdaa , aur makaan ( “Bread , clothing and a home”) to rally their citizens. These two individuals, who had both studied at Oxford, enacted land reform and nationalized businesses, all in the name of protecting the nation and its ordinary citizens. Leaders from both countries had to contend with protests from ethnolinguistic nationalist movements within their own borders and, like the British before them, they used violence and fear to quell dissent among their people, taking their governments in distinctly autocratic directions. Indira Gandhi imprisoned and tortured her critics during the Emergency, which she enacted between 1975 and 1977 to hold on to power. She censored the press, and her son, Sanjay, forced vasectomies on millions of non-consenting men.

Pakistani leaders, tacitly supported by the Nixon administration, acted with particular cruelty towards the Bengalis of East Pakistan, the nation’s most populous region. In the 1970 general elections, the West Pakistan-based Pakistan People’s Party, led by Bhutto, was defeated by East Pakistan’s Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The West Pakistani establishment, however, did not want to see Sheikh Mujib, a Bengali, at the helm of the nation. In March of 1971, Sheikh Mujib was arrested and Pakistani soldiers yanked “academics out of their homes and shot them dead in front of their families”. They gunned down Bengali students, raped Bengali women and girls, and looted Bengali villages. According to Chatterji, 1.7 million Bengalis died during this period, which would come to be known as the Bangladesh genocide. (Bangladeshi officials contend that 3 million people perished). India, overwhelmed by millions of Bengali refugees, eventually entered the conflict, collaborating with Bengali nationalists to overcome their Pakistani aggressors. It was under these tragic circumstances that the modern nation of Bangladesh came into being.

Though Chatterji vehemently condemns Pakistan’s atrocious treatment of its Bengali citizens, she also calls attention to the violence carried out by Bangladesh’s Bengali majority against so-called collaborators, “Urdu- and Bhojpuri-speaking people who had migrated to East Bengal after partition” and were now a minority “with an attachment to the ‘wrong’ language”. Few members of this minority survived, but some of those who did are now “stateless people” living in camps in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In the 2000s the author visited one of these spaces, Town Hall Camp, whose inhabitants are largely descendants of people from the United Provinces and Bihar who had emigrated to Bengal to work on the railways during colonial times. These marginalized individuals have low-wage jobs and some have never left the camp. Chatterji introduces a camp resident named Salima, a widow in her fifties who worked as a cleaner for an NGO and lived in a tiny room with no windows or vents, along with her adult son and his large family. One of Salima’s grandchildren is disabled. Her husband, a railway worker, was tortured by Bangladeshi nationalists. She tried nursing him back to health, but he eventually succumbed to his injuries.

Such “life history interviews”, which appear frequently throughout the text, infuse this erudite and dialectical book with an affecting streak of emotion (and sometimes even humour). In a section about internal migration, the author seamlessly integrates ethnographic insights about India’s colonial-era cotton industry with the life story of Cajetano, a man born in the 1950s who migrated from a sleepy village in Goa to cosmopolitan Bombay in search of work. He made his way to the cotton mills of Girangaon – which today house luxury shopping malls – where he probably attained a job “by going every morning to the gate of a factory where many Goans were employed, eventually getting in with the help of an acquaintance”, “then clinging on to his job by sheer hard work”. He took up residence alongside other Goans in the chawls, slums that proliferated during the Raj, where twenty or thirty people, mainly men, sometimes shared a single room, working and sleeping in shifts so that everyone could access a bed at some point in the day. Cajetano’s mother, Philomena, soon joined him in the city, running a kitchen and engaging in sex work to earn a living. They made ends meet until Philomena was injured by a kitchen explosion and they returned to Goa to work as servants in the home of a “Cambridge don”. Cajetano, born a Catholic, is now a fanatical devotee of the late guru Sai Baba. Chatterji seems to have come across some of these life histories serendipitously, while others formed a part of her prior scholarship. This methodology speaks to the extremely personal and organic nature of this volume, but it also gives rise to various gaps. We hear directly from one of the brains behind India’s Green Revolution, the Cambridge-educated M. S. Swaminathan, but not from the anti-dam activist Medha Patkar or the farmers who live in “cutoff ” zones created by dams, separated from hospitals and schools by artificial bodies of water. We get a piece of memoir about Chatterji’s Cambridge luncheon with L. K. Advani, a former Indian deputy prime minister and the co-founder of the BJP, who paved the way for the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992, unleashing vast quantities of antiMuslim sentiment into the atmosphere. (Advani came across as genteel and complimented the author’s first book.) Unfortunately we don’t hear from Advani’s Pakistani or Bangladeshi counterparts, or from Muslims victimized by radical Hindu violence in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In fact, Chatterji pays little attention to the religious extremism that has infected politics, often with violent consequences, in all three of her chosen South Asian nations. And in the latter half of Shadows at Noon she devotes a disproportionate amount of time to things Hindu and Indian in a project that is meant to be about three nations inhabited by people with diverse and complicated religious affiliations.

Fortunately, at the end of this invigorating book the author returns to the archives, where she is most nuanced and compelling, telling the story of the wrestler Gama the Great. The historical record provides Joya Chatterji with other, more tangible reasons to be hopeful about the potential for cross-border harmony and reconciliation. The Green Revolution, she discovers, came about as a result of scientific collaboration between researchers from both India and Pakistan, who “had been working in tandem on a shared problem”, though this optimistic facet of Indo-Pak relations hasn’t made it into official histories. Likewise, after much compromise, delegates from both countries were able to hammer out the contentious Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, ensuring that waters from the Indus River flowed from Indian territories to canals and farms in Pakistan. Given the current geopolitical climate, this sense of hope might sound quixotic. But coming from a thinker who has devoted her career to such rigorous and passionate engagement with all things South Asian, we would do well to take her seriously.

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