And All With the Best of Intentions
In his review, Roger says that most Americans probably have no awareness of the historical events covered here. If they do, it is because they have no memory of the end of [i]Gandhi[/i]. However, I suspect that most Americans have no memory of the end of [i]Gandhi[/i], even assuming they've seen it at all. (Aside from last year, I saw it in history class in high school.) This is disheartening. However, I think it is true that Americans see most of the world as divided into continent-sized chunks. All Europe is the same. All Africa is the same. All of the Americas south of Texas are the same. And so forth. And there's no need to care about any of their histories until they directly impact us. And we don't think Indian history has ever directly impacted us. Oh, we know who Gandhi is, and it's all very enlightened of us to have so honoured a movie about him, but really, how many Americans do you think even know why Gandhi was protesting in his nonviolent, deeply inspiring way?
Lenny Sethna (Maia Sethna) is an upper class Parsee girl growing up in Lahore. Her ayah, Shanta (Nandita Das), is a beautiful Hindu woman--well, we saw her yesterday as a beautiful Hindu woman as well. Shanta has a group of friends with whom she goes to the park, men of varying religious beliefs. Hindu and Muslim and Sikh, oh my. They joke about politics and religion, but of course they are above the viciousness spreading among their countrymen. And when the British pull out of India, giving it independence, things become terribly unsettled. Hindu and Muslim decide that each must be completely autonomous, and it is the other religion's adherents which are causing all the trouble. People who used to sit peacefully in the park together of a sunny day are now perfectly willing to let firemen spray gasoline on burning houses instead of water. Shanta, Hindu, loves and is loved by Hassan the masseur (Rahul Khanna), Muslim. Theirs is but one story out of literally millions, but it is the one Lenny witnesses personally and the one she will live with all her days.
I have always been of Elizabeth I's camp on the subject. Let everyone go to the Devil in their own way. Before the British left, it did not matter if Shanta and Hassan were of different religions. It might make things complicated with their families and the raising of their children, but no one had to die over it. Yes, Dil Navaz the ice candy man (Aamir Khan) would still have been jealous, as he, too, loved Shanda, but the events would not and could not have played out as they did in the anarchy of the Partition. It makes me rather curious as to how many petty rivalries which would have been left alone in any other time were settled with bloodshed in the knowledge that there would be no retribution. I have read killers' testimony from Rwanda and know that it happened there; I have no reason to doubt it happened here. Religion can disguise any number of motivations. After all, who cares what happens to an Unbeliever?
Even more sadly, though, the Parsee Sethna family believes they can remain neutral. They believe that they can shelter their servants, no matter their religion, and that the violence and anger won't touch them. They compare themselves to the Swiss in that regard. It is only their great good fortune that they have been Parsee as long as they have. Converts, no matter how old their conversion, are suspicious. They think the violence can therefore pass around them, leaving them untouched by it. They think everything will go back to normal, too, which it hasn't yet and may never do. The way it is now is the new normal, I suppose. There have always been Hindus in Lahore, and there is no reason to believe that there will not always be Hindus in Lahore, right? And doubtless, to the South, someone was saying the same thing about Muslims in their city. Clearly, one of the things lost in the Partition was illusions of human kindness. Innocence. For heaven's sake, Lenny sees a man pulled in half between a pair of trucks.
In any other time, this could have been yet another story about an innocent love developing between two young people and seen through the eyes of a child. In any other time, there would be tenderness and joy. Instead, there was one of the greatest displacements of people in known history, which the film points out to us. And, though I haven't read it, I'm reasonably sure that's the point of the original novel by Bapsi Sidhwa, which is said to be semi-autobiographical. Lenny could have had a happy, privileged childhood and grown into a beautiful woman under the auspices of her ayah, who herself would have had children and lived a happy life. And yet her ayah was Hindu in a city of Muslims, and their world was being torn apart around them. Gandhi died over it himself--killed by a Hindu who couldn't stand that a great Hindu icon was encouraging peace with the hated Muslims. The world is a terrible place sometimes.