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Savage Harvest


A birth soaked in blood
ARKESH AJAY | Issue Dated: March 16, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Savage Harvest | Mohinder Singh Sarna | Navtej Sarna | North India | 1947-Punjab |

How many stories would it take before the malignance of what happened in North India in 1947 would be washed out of the subcontinent’s bloodstreams? It has been sixty-seven years hence, and writers across borders and beyond, in languages spoken in the geographies concerned and more, have written countless pages of prose and poetry, decrying the sudden absence of humanity, or in some cases celebrating the rare display of it; and yet, it has not been enough. It has not been enough, because try as it might, the written word couldn’t find in itself the ability to purge our consciences of the bestiality of what followed the partition of India and Pakistan.

But still there have been authors, such as one of the most revered names of modern Punjabi literature, Mohinder Singh Sarna, who brought to us heart-wrenching stories from those times, stories that alternately shake or reaffirm your faith in humanity. Sarna lived through these times, and had to leave his hometown of Rawalpindi to make way for what now was called India. As he lay holed up in his house that suddenly found itself in the new country of Pakistan, he witnessed the “whirlwind of riots, rape, pillage and killing”, the “misery of refugee caravans going in both directions”, and the “senseless vengeful violence”. Through his writings over the next few decades, Sarna kept pouring out parts of his brutalized soul either in an attempt to “write away some of the pain”, or to make us understand what men can sometimes become, when the cloak of civilization gives away.

Savage Harvest is a collection of thirty such short stories, handpicked by his son Navtej Sarna, and translated into English. Sarna’s ouvre is immense, and the weight of his legacy even bigger. Therefore anyone, especially his own son, is faced with a mountainous task as he embarks on carving a book out of his works. To begin with, there is one question that offers no easy answers – which stories to leave out, for all of his writing contains such soul and import. Navtej Sarna, by virtue of his proximity to the author, picks out the stories he believes the latter would have liked to include in such a collection.

But then there is an even greater challenge - capturing in the English translation, the living, breathing relationship Mohinder Sarna shares with the Punjabi language. The translator doesn’t shy away from accepting his limitations in this pursuit. Mohinder Sarna had at his command a nuanced understanding of the language of his choice, the richness of which often lay in the “words and phrases that the current generation has lost”, thereby rendering the translator’s task all the more difficult. This is where the book falters – often the translation is simplistic, and sometimes it reads too literal. While the author’s language was simple, it was never without layers. And even with the best attempts the translator makes, more often than not, that vitality seems to be lost, or at best not realized in its entirety. Having said that, there are stories like A Village Called Laddewala Varaich, which spring at you with the beauty of its prose. They also leave you wishing for all stories to have had the same crispness of language.

That not withstanding, the collection is still a powerful one, for all the stories have a common purpose – they serve what the author calls his duty - to rage a battle against “the enemies of humanity and to nurture human values”. There are stories of barbarity and brutality, that contain such harrowing accounts that reading them would make you shudder and transport you to the crimson-sprayed green fields on both sides of the 1947-Punjab. But more than them, you would be absorbed by the stories of hope. The author had remarked once, that his stories “pass knee-deep through the dark quicksand of blood and crushed bones, but they keep their head, on which they carry their bundle of hope, clearly above the quicksand”. And therefore even amidst horrid depravation of the soul, Sarna’s world finds space for characters that do not lose their humanity. For every Savage Harvest, there is A Defender of Humanity. In Hope, through an unnamed old man, we reaffirm our faith in the inevitable victory of life over forces of destruction, however intimidating their countenance might be.

It is this reaffirmation that gives this book its raison d’etre. Given that all the stories have the same theme may cause reader some fatigue, and the translation could have been done better in order to avoid that monotony from setting in. And yet, given the humanity that these stories contain, humanity that like “a stubborn stump of wood refuses to burn”, it may be worth our collective while to spend some time with them.

Author: Mohinder Singh Sarna (Translated by Navtej Sarna)
Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 978-8-1291-2487-6
Pages: 264
Price: Rs 295
Publisher: Rupa

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017