Title: The Unsafe Asylum: Stories of Partition and Madness
Author: Anirudh Kala
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Publishing Private Ltd.
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Rating: 4 Stars
Stories of the Partition of India always leave you heavy. There is a knot in the chest that refuses to leave. Even though you haven’t witnessed any of it, yet the stories have passed from one generation to another. The generation that witnessed and the generations that had to keep the memory alive, even though these memories are perhaps worth not bringing to the fore.And yet there is the question of never forgetting – memory that should remain rock solid when it comes to tragedy and pain and displacement. Homes were lost. Relationships broken. I cannot imagine what it must be like to witness what our ancestors did during that time and yet they did – they survived broken, fractured and somehow still hopeful.
“The Unsafe Asylum” is a collection of stories (interlinked) of partition and literally the madness surrounding it. Yes, you will be reminded of Manto but Anirudh Kala has a distinct voice that will make you think and leave you with a lot of emotion. I think this collection also adds a lot of weight only because Anirudh is a psychiatrist and has been studying the long-lasting effects of Partition in both India and Pakistan. This collection starts when the Partition is over, blood has been spilled and people displaced. Even the patients in Mental Hospitals. India got its share of Hindu and Sikh patients and Pakistan, the Muslim ones. This book is about the stories of these patients, their lives before and after the Partition and the long-lasting impact of the catastrophe.
At the core of these interconnected stories is Prakash, an Indian psychiatry student who learns of the stories of these patients through one of them, Rulda who was discharged from Lahore’s Mental Hospital. At the same time, Prakash also learns of how he came to be born in 1947, when he visits Lahore. From there, starts another story of the lives of the patients, their stories and how Partition still lingers on, not only in their memory but in everything they do, the way they think and the way they feel.
Kala builds characters that stay. Whether it is a young man who believes that Benazir Bhutto loves him to a woman who passes on her delusions of being chased by a mob to her children, or even if it is a doomed love story – all of these are fixed in your head long after you are done with the book. If anything, also beware that the book will play with your head to a large extent. And yet, the experience of reading this book is excellent. Yes, the topic is not palatable. Yes, it will not be easy. But I strongly believe that literature only builds empathy in people. And for that read it all. Read books that make you laugh. The ones that make you cry. The ones that make you smile. The ones that make you uncomfortable and think of what is going on in the world – past, present and what may come in the future.