Book: Savage Harvest
Author: Mohinder Singh Sarna
Translated by Navtej Sarna
Price: Rs 295
Punjabi literature has a momentous body of writings on Partition by writers who had witnessed or were affected by the tragedy, including Amrita Pritam, Kartar Singh Duggal, Kulwant Singh Virk and Gulzar Singh Sandhu. Savage Harvest is a collection of short stories by Mohinder Singh Sarna (1923-2001), who witnessed those turbulent times and lost members of his family in the violence. This fine translation by his son Navtej Sarna brings the work to English readers.
The book jacket, with a photograph of hundreds of migrants on rooftops of ill-fated trains, reminds one of a poem by contemporary Punjabi poet Parminderjit: We have harvested wounds aplenty this time/ Even if we keep sharing them for a lifetime/ The crop will not be exhausted…
The 30 stories in this collection are not only about the tragedy but also highlight the hope of communal amity through characters like Basant the Fool, who forgoes a chance to live by giving his air ticket to a girl. Or, Shabbir, a teenager with a passion for wrestling, who fights his uncle to save an abducted girl. In 'A Village Called Laddewala Varaich', Khuda Baksh, the old headman of the village, unable to stop his kin from loot, plunder and rape, hangs himself to death. The glimmer of hope the writer highlights is affirmed by the dedication: "To the defenders of humanity."
In his memoirs, Sarna wrote: "Commentators and critics have appreciated my Partition stories more than the other stories. Perhaps this is because I passed through the cataclysm unprotected. I was an eyewitness to the massacres, those acts of fanaticism and barbarity. The blows of barbarism fell more on my soul than on my body. I saw blood spurting from the jugular vein of humanity." Though he initially thought writing had no meaning in the face of such tragedy, he went on to write several collections of short stories, four novels, epic poems and his autobiography.
An officer in the Indian Audit and Accounts Service and a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Award, among others, Sarna led a quiet life, never striving for the fame that was the lot of his more flamboyant contemporaries. Yet his poetic vision is visible from the haunting images in his stories — like the salwar of the 15-year-old Jagiro hanging on a pole, the stilled eyes of Khuda Baksh fixed on his village, or Dina, the blacksmith, bent in fear over the furnace, forging the axes that will slay hundreds.
For Navtej, the translation has been an act of love and faith. He says: "It is something of a miracle that Sarna managed to keep intact his hope in humanity in his treatment of the Partition." This translation brings to English readers the balm of hope that accompanied the harvest of wounds.
Dutt is a Punjabi poet