Hymns in Blood: Book Review by Asha Seth

Author: Nanak Singh | Genre: Historical Fiction, Indian Literature | Pages: 264 | Publisher: Harper Perennial

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1947, Chakri. An idyllic village on the banks of the Soan near Rawalpindi, surrounded by stalks of golden wheat and festive songs. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs eagerly await the end of winter and get together to prepare for Lohri. Amidst this joyous bustle, Baba Bhana, the erudite village elder, worries about the future of his foster daughter, Naseem. Life comes to a halt when news of a possible partition of India reaches the village.

Amid a frenzy of communal violence, Baba Bhana and his family must reluctantly leave their beloved village. They embark on a long and dangerous journey, slowly coming to terms with the fact that their lives may be changing forever. Khoon de Sohile, first published in February 1948, and now translated for the first time into English, provides a timely reminder of the grief and trauma that a religious divide brings in its wake.

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In this translated tale of partition, the author has kept true to his words the unfolding of events during the catastrophic phase of Indian partition and this tale is that of the tragedy that befell the families and communities in Chakri, a hamlet in pre-partition Punjab. Ripe with rumors of partition, how communal hatred caught fire in the hearts of the local peace-loving simpletons of the village and burnt all alike leaving behind a scarred past for those who survive their long-lost families. The easy and lucid translation brings to life the story of Bana Bhana, a local man of repute, his son and adopted family, and how they were forced to leave behind everything dear to save life precious.

The wildfire that spread through the region fueled by petty politics, cast in the molds of religion, spared no one, and children, women, men, all were drenched in the bloodbath from mass massacres, and equally heinous atrocities are described in such sharp details that one can only imagine. The language and diction are so powerfully graphic in nature that the events leading up to the partition and genocide shake the core of the reader.

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The characters struggle to do right in the face of turmoil and are constantly faced by villains of humanity in this story, that show no mercy and leave them bloodied. Baba Bhana, Bhatta, Naseem, Yusuf are all formidable characters and you do feel sorry for their fate the way it unfolds when it does. The settings are sublime and ambiance pristine and equally dark and gritty toward the end. The festivals and culture of the Punjabi community in India is very well depicted and despite all the horrifying developments nearing partition, they tend to warm your heart.

Man, becomes a maniac, and loses all sense of sanity and humanity and is willing to commit crimes of indelible natures upon the slightest provocation, and this remains applicable even today, and this fact is very well illustrated through the writer’s narration.

Have you read ‘Hymns in Blood’? Do share your thoughts in the comments below.

Happy reading till we meet next. Until then, carpe diem! 

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