Review of "Midnight's Furies"

Nisid Hajari, Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. Houghton Mifflin, 2015.

The year 1947 marked a shift in international order in the aftermath of the second world war. At the forefront of this change was the emergence of two dominions, India and Pakistan, previously British India. While Pakistan was born out of the ideals of religious nationalism, India was dedicated to the fundamentals of secularism. Subsequently, the subcontinent experienced the largest forced migration, displacing almost six million refugees to new borders and a new identity. How did the common goal of self-governance transform into a rift between communities? How would the partition of the subcontinent affect the future of Indo-Pak relations? In Midnight Furies, Nisid Hajari attempts to answer these questions through his dramatic, often anecdotalist, and tragically entertaining style of writing.

Traditionally, one would be skeptical of reading a book on partition that is nearly seventy years removed from the actual event. However, while there is a shortsighted time frame, and a large emphasis on individual leaders affecting the relationship between the two new countries, the book specifically focuses on two important themes. First, in addition to a basic history lesson, Hajari puts the reader in the metaphoric driver's seat by punctuating his objective analysis with the personal experiences of individuals through anecdotes. Secondly, Hajari is able to humanize the revered leaders of the time. The details of their communication, the absurdities of their egos, and the depiction of their personal lives reveals their human flaws and tendencies, which is often overlooked when describing leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. It was the experience of individuals that gave Partition the propensity to leave a legacy for the future of India and Pakistan. Hajari intends to make it more than “just a memory” of something that happened seventy years ago.

He begins the book with an incident involving Sikhs that planned to destroy a train with Muslim passengers. Hajari immediately draws the reader in by describing the “grim” expressions on the perpetrators faces as they checked their revolvers. He then goes into more depth, detailing personal belongings such as “ribbon-tied files; photo albums, toys, china, and prayer rugs” of the Muslim passengers that soon would succumb to the “firm press” (Prologue xiv) of the detonator. It is a gripping scene that holds the attention of the audience.

The first chapter details the pogrom between Hindus, Muslims and the minority Sikhs in the August 1946 “Great Calcutta Killing” that ensued after a local Bengali leader’s antagonizing and rallying speech aimed to divide the communities. The leader had capitalized on the “to kill or be killed” rhetoric to rattle the Muslim minority. Hajari accentuates the individual experience of this incident through the eyes of a Hindu shopkeeper, Nanda Lal.

“Nanda Lal watched, frozen in place, as thugs piled out and ransacked a nearby furniture store owned by a Hindu like himself.  They tossed mattresses and chairs into the street and set them on fire. Then a hail of stones came pelting up the road toward him. Lal turned and fled.” (14)

Hajari’s anecdotal style must be commended for its engagement with the audience. Through his storytelling, the author is able to fit in objective analysis of Jinnah and Nehru’s unenthusiastic communications, their public relations campaigns, and their respective goals to lead as the “ambassador of unity.” His anecdotes display the disturbing reality that resulted from Jinnah and Nehru’s failure to coalesce politically; ordinary citizens were quickly transformed into committed flag-bearers of a grass-root project promoting religious communal violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

Another unique aspect of this book is its very real depiction of the leaders of the time. In India, Jawaharlal Nehru is revered, lovingly called Chacha (Uncle) Nehru, and is often remembered with his signature Gulaab on his chest. In Pakistan, Jinnah is honored as the Quaid-e-Azam (Great Leader). However, Hajari is critical when describing these national heroes. In their role in creating the divide between India and Pakistan, Hajari alludes to their “inexperience, and ineptness, vanity, intellectual arrogance, unspoken prejudice, and plain, petty dislike of another.” (xviii)  Hajari is especially critical of Nehru’s political aims and his half-heartedness in including Jinnah’s political aims within his own. Hajari is unique in showing that Nehru and Jinnah both had bad qualities that their nations often don’t acknowledge – India and Pakistan tend to use these bad qualities to leverage their own versions of history.

However, Hajari while downplaying the Olympian-like leaders of the time exposes a key weakness in the premise of his point that Nehru and Jinnah are to blame for the rift between Hindus and Muslims, or India and Pakistan. His argument is weak in an already far-reaching theory. While countries’ policies can be influenced by the doctrine of an individual member of the elite, it is hard to magnify that influence. Nehru’s goals of forming secular India or Jinnah’s mission to have “a future in which they [Muslims] had control over their own destiny” cannot solely determine the future of India and Pakistan’s future policies. While providing advice for the future he alludes to the legacy of the two countries and its future leaders as the “heirs” of Nehru and Jinnah. No one can deny that these leaders were pivotal in the birth of their respective countries, However, there are other factors to consider as well. During partition there was an unequal division of the military between India and Pakistan. This led Pakistan to  build its military that ingrained a sense of paranoia towards a hostile takeover from India, and that itself is a significant point of conflict that is a legacy of the the partition. The borders created by Sir Radcliffe reconstructed strategic points, trade ports and water resources that not only affected the economies of the country, but also fabricated new communities near the Eastern and Western borders of India.

The second issue of the book is its very short time frame.  By using the word “legacy” in the title itself, Hajari extends the reader an invitation to understand the effects that are handed down to the future of the subcontinent.  While the author is able to extract the effects of partition, he ceases to prove whether this legacy is still alive. The timeline chosen to explain the legacy is short and unclear. Partition had much larger, long standing effects on the two countries in terms of the unequal separation of military and resources, and the border disputes that still riddle the relationship between India and Pakistan in the 21st Century.

The book also dedicates a significant time to the 1937 elections, the 1940 Resolution that formalized the sovereignty and autonomy of Pakistan as a separate nation, the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1942, and the Sikh Jathas or “death squads” that arose in fear of their communities in Punjab being split in between West Pakistan and northwestern state of Punjab in India.

It is important to give Nisid Hajari credit in exfoliating the partition, an event far-removed from 21st century youth, who only have their grandparents’ experiences and stories as a first hand account. Midnight Furies is an excellent read to understand the intricacies of negotiations between the elites in the transformative period of the subcontinent’s history. Hajari also must be commended for highlighting rather than underplaying the highly traumatic and devastating experience that was the partition of 1947.