Adha Gaon or A Village Divided is a semi-autobiographical novel by Rahi Masoom Raza, whose village, Gangauli, is at the heart of this book. He shows us what the decades of 1930-50s were like at the village level, in the United Provinces (today’s Uttar Pradesh). It is difficult to categorise it as a novel about the Partition because the book is more about the disputes and festivities of Gangauli than the politics around creating Pakistan – and that is exactly Raza’s argument against religious nationalism; that for the Muslims in Gangauli, Pakistan and its creation are not a concern, because all they know is Gangauli, which is their home.
By tracing where his father and his grandfather are from, he makes us ask some important questions; How do we decide where a person is from? How far can or should we trace back their origins? For how many generations and how many centuries? Everyone’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather must have come from somewhere”, but are we from the same place as our ancestors were from many generations ago?
Raza shows us how a village is divided along many lines; of gender, caste, class, religion, and sect. The novel conveys how there is no ‘one’ category of Muslims or Hindus. There are the Shia Saiyids, who are the upper-caste zamindars, the Sunni traders and the weavers, who are considered to be lower caste. Likewise, amongst the Hindus, there is a powerful Thakur upper-caste, the Ahirs, Bhars, and the Chamars, who are the lowest caste in the village. Even the Shia Saiyids of the village are divided amongst themselves, between the Uttar Patti and Dakkhin Patti, whose fierce rivalry drives much of the plot of the novel. In face of the two-nation theory, it raises the question of how Muslims all over India can be treated as one body, when the Muslims of even one village are divided along other lines of caste, gender, etc.?
The novel highlights the discrimination of women and lower castes, inside and outside the home. The emphasis on ‘purity of blood’ in the Saiyid families shows how intertwined the system of caste and the control over women’s sexuality are. Women’s identities are defined by marriage almost completely, but they exercise no agency in deciding their partners. The few women who do choose for themselves are forced to run away or are ostracised by the whole community.
Matters of marriage and women are also closely linked to the power that the zamindars enjoy as a class. The Saiyid zamindars have no qualms about ‘keeping’ a woman of lower caste or sexually engaging with them outside marriage. They can have any woman they desire because their power as zamindars allows them to do so. Due to the benefits they enjoyed under the system, the zamindars have no problem with the British rule and it suits their interests to keep the systems of class and caste oppression in place. So, it follows that they do not support the freedom movement, despite being ‘Indian’. This makes us wonder; who wanted freedom, and from whom? Raza illustrates that, “national identity provides a way of thinking about history, but it is not the only one, and for thinking about exploitation, it is not the best one”.
One of the most significant points that the novel conveys is that, at the village level there was no strong consciousness of a ‘nation’. For most people in Gangauli, their imagination is limited to their immediate surroundings and their region. The customs, traditions and the language that they practice are so specifically regional that, to them, the Moharram rituals of Lucknow, which was also in the United Provinces, seem very different from their own. Raza emphasises that the strongest aspect of identity for the residents of Gangauli is their regionality.
Even in politics, there is no existing pan-Indian Muslim consciousness; Haji Sahib, a weaver, states that “we people belong to the Weavers’ Association. We can’t vote for any Aslim-Muslim League”, highlighting that a person has allegiances based on other aspects of their identity than religion.
In the novel, there is barely any mention of 15th August 1947 or ‘independence’, because nothing changed for the villagers on that day. When there is no consciousness of a ‘nation’, why should ‘independence’ make any difference to them?
More than independence from the British, it is the Partition which affects the Saiyids of Gangauli. The Partition affects the Muslims of Gangauli through the new animosity with which their Hindu neighbours ask them to “go to Pakistan”. Yet, they are rooted in their village, as an older Saiyid explains to the Aligarh-educated youngsters; “our forefathers’ graves…our tazia platforms…our fields and homes are here. I’m not an idiot to be taken in by your “Long live Pakistan!””. When they have no conception of a ‘nation’ or ‘nationality’, it is only natural that the idea of a ‘separate country’ for Muslims does not make sense to them. Even those who understand nationality don’t see (and rightly so) why their national identity should be based on their religious identity.
The abolition of zamindari in the 1950s threatens to topple the lives of the Saiyids in Gangauli. “Whether to create Pakistan or not had been of no meaning to them, but the abolition of zamindari shook the very foundations of their souls”. Although the abolition feels like a drastic change to the zamindars, Raza seems to convey that it did not fundamentally change much for the others in the village. At the village gatherings, “the village’s poor…squatted on the ground, just as they had in the days of the zamindars”. The zamindars’ power persists even after zamindari is gone, because they are politically well-connected and have privileged access to education and capital.
Raza’s novel also highlights the role of education in creating political consciousness. He seems to convey that the notions of Hindu-Muslim enmity are not organically felt, but are ideas injected through formal education and political propaganda. The communalising rhetoric is not as successful in villages like Gangauli as it is in urban cities like Calcutta because, “the simple, straightforward farming community couldn’t understand, even after tours by several holy men,…why and how they should set fire to the houses of Muslims whom they had been living with for centuries”. However, Raza does lament that “for some time now [after Partition] the residents of Gangauli have been dwindling in numbers and the percentage of Sunnis, Shias and Hindus has been growing”.
Raza’s novel is a sensitive and heart-warming response to the rhetoric that Muslims are outsiders and invaders. The book, more than anything else, emphasises his attachment and love for his village. By tracing where his father and his grandfather are from, he makes us ask some important questions; How do we decide where a person is from? How far can or should we trace back their origins? For how many generations and how many centuries? Everyone’s paternal grandfather and great-grandfather must have come from somewhere”, but are we from the same place as our ancestors were from many generations ago? How are Muslims, like Raza, who have grown up in Gangauli any different in their ‘origins’ from the Hindus who have grown up in the same place, just on account of them being Muslim? They are not. The novel, most importantly, shows that one’s identity has many aspects, of which religion is just one, and that therefore, villages and nations cannot be divided only along the lines of religion.