Set in the late 70s and early 80s, Manzar Ahtesham's original Urdu work Sukha Bargad, translated in English 'A Dying Banyan', traces the life of a Muslim boy Suhail and the search for identity by Muslims in India, post partition.
The book tries to follow the life of Suhail, the son of a middle class and secular minded lawyer and his devout tradition minded wife as observed by Rashida, Suhail’s sister. Along the way, through Suhail’s experiences, the book tries to trace the search for identity of a Muslims, post partition.
Suhail and his family lives in Bhopal, a city that has always been Muslim in character and ruled by the Nawabs; but in independent India, its character slowly changes as it is rechristened as the capital of the modern state of Madhya Pradesh. Slowly as the Muslim identity erodes and many Muslims migrate to Pakistan, questions arise in the minds of those who stay back- or circumstances force them to ask questions. The book touches upon the wars of 1965 and 1971 and the peculiar tests the Muslims were put to.
Everyone – the Hindus and the Muslims listened clandestinely to Radio Pakistan ; but if the Hindus listened, they were merely listening to discover what the ’other side’ had to say, but if the Muslims did so, they were traitors who have tuned to the ’enemy’ for news. And yet with so many blood relatives in Pakistan, the Indian Muslims had valid reasons to listen to Radio Pakistan, not because they were traitors but because they had legitimate concerns about the welfare of their families.
also traces the silent beginning of communalism in post-British India
and the somewhat clumsy attempts of Muslims to adapt and adjust. Some like Suhail’s lawyer father held on to their secular ideals; but they had passed their prime and hence were left undisturbed but when Suhail, his son attempted to follow in his footsteps; he very quickly found out that the going was not too easy and that under the veneer of secularism, distinctions flourished and barriers continued to be erected. Muslims reacted in different ways; some migrate out – that is what seems best for a time till Zia ul Huq comes to power in Pakistan, hangs Bhutto and starts promoting a distinctly unpalatable style of Islam; a few retreat deeper into their obscurantist tradition and ghetto culture and few like politician Rajab Ali are rank opportunists – courting the Jana Sangh
one day and giving clarion calls about Islam being in danger the next day.
The ultimate message of the book is perhaps captured best by the relentless downslide of Suhail’s life – unable to make peace with traditionalists, distrusted by the liberals as well as by communal Hindus, he finds succor only in drink and decay even as his sister, Rashida, the narrator looks on helplessly. The ultimate message of the book in the translator –Kuldip Singh’s words is to peep into the heart of minorities, wherever they may be and empathise with their alienation, fears and insecurities and society’s fundamental questioning of anyone who is different - in look, in thought and in belief and the unending agni pariksha
that they have to go through – in every generation.