#DesiBooksReview 4: The Real and the Metaphysical in Samim Ahmed’s Debut Novel Are Centered on the Bengal Partition

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Saurabh Sharma (They/He) is a Delhi-based writer and freelance journalist. On Instagram/Twitter: @writerly_life. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 4

Seven Heavens by Samim Ahmed; translated by Arunava Sinha | Hachette India | April 15, 2015

“Wound” is far too simplistic and small a word to describe a shapeshifting event in world history that generations continue to receive as an inheritance and a legacy. Perhaps it’s a necessary place, like a pilgrimage, that people often return to for healing. Perhaps it still serves as a fertile ground to excavate fractured histories and document oral narratives, locate a force that binds the divided lands in some ways, and make sense of an irrevocable loss.

While several (and most of them pioneering) works centered on the Partition of India have been published, Kolkata-based Bengali writer Samim Ahmed’s debut novel Saat Aasman, translated into English as Seven Heavens by Arunava Sinha, is a unique work for several reasons. 

First, it’s set in 1940s Bengal and captures the paranoia of the time. One can sense the double whammy Bengal was faced with: the 1943 famine and socio-political tensions arising out of faith-based conflicts. 

Second, while it’s billed as a Partition novel, it is a textured work that invokes Islamic teachings, celebrates Sufism, toys with the murkiness between the wakeful and the dream states of mind, and questions the way we perceive reality. 

That the writer wasn’t afraid of unpacking a complex narrative in his debut work should also be considered a good enough reason to appreciate his literary courage. And the ever-erudite translator Arunava Sinha, who has an eye for such narratives, has rendered this one beautifully in the English language. 

The book’s title draws inspiration from and is symbolic of the Islamic concept of seven levels of heaven. It’s also the book’s structural shell, which is divided into seven chapters. However, it’s difficult to understand whether all of these chapters have a deeply mythologically aligned connection with each heaven per Islamic religious belief. The only connection straightforward enough to decipher is that the “saat asmaan” become the muse of German Mian—one of the principal characters of this novel who, troubled by his confusing dreams, keeps changing their details with each narration. In the absence of anyone who could pay heed to him, he imagines a listener and begins speaking about them.

German Mian is a fascinating character. Born when “wars were raging all over the world,” his mother had named him ‘German’ as a tribute and in gratitude to Germany—the country that supported the Caliph of Turkey, who the mother revered, during the Arab Revolt. Mian carries around his radio and loves to listen to the songs of  K. L. Saigal and Amirbai. Then, his weird dreams and their multiple interpretations offer a metaphysical layer to the story. They also attest to the Freudian notion that American social psychologist Daniel M. Wegner referred to as “thought suppression,” according to which we dream what we try to suppress. The evidence of such suppression, a sort of fear and anxiety, are peppered throughout the book in the form of German Mian’s desires to have a male heir and for the Radcliffe commission to grant Murshidabad to the West Bengal and not the Pakistan side.

Here’s one dream, for example: “The three [Ababil] birds began conversing among themselves. German Mian felt certain they did not belong to this world. They were shaped like distorted maps. Taking off their clothes, they began to bathe in blood and appeared to transform gradually into humans. Humans, women. The ground was splattered with blood.” I interpret these three birds, shaped like distorted maps, as allusions to the three nations about to be violently born. 

And here’s another example of how the author weaves German Mian’s semi-wakeful state with Islam: “Islam pays a lot of attention to this business of coming and going. It talks of the past and the future. Whenever you look, all you see is the past and the future. There is no such thing as the present. German Mian’s dream at half-light was the same.” So, in a way, what appears to be an easy-flowing story of a man who has “never entirely left the world of sleep and descended to the real world” is a multi-layered narrative that goes deep into exploring its characters’ psyches. 

It also helps that the author underlines the three kinds of dreams in Islam—Rahmani (“comes from the lord”), Nafasni (“are created within human minds”), and Shaitani (“come from Iblis and his associates.”) This creates a space for eastern mysticism and western experiment-based approaches to inform each other.

One of the many notable qualities of this novel is how its sentences don’t have patience for drama because, anyway, what was happening at that time could put any fictionalized drama to shame. What these sentences do instead is that they lay bare the reality of the time as it was. Sample this, where the narrator is juxtaposing the inflation and the rising demand for freedom and trying to find what importance one places in either at a time when people were selling their children to buy a maund of rice: “The leaders of the Congress and the Muslim League were silent too. They were busy ushering freedom into the country. That was far more important than rice.”

It also gives voice to the unimaginable atrocities women were subjected to, making it a work that affirms that the battleground of the birth of the three nations was the bodies of women. But Partition was a reality waiting to materialize and the haphazard way it was done invited riots as its logical outcome, as one of the characters reiterates in each of his dialogues: “But riots are inevitable, no one will survive.” Yet they hoped for the better, for a safe haven: their land, their home. German Mian did too, which is why he was willing to journey across the borders, and it’s in this hazy reality that the story is overtaken by the djinns and fairies, who give the classic closure to German Mian’s story.

The work merits our appreciation but it must be said that the story also meanders a lot. It’s a challenge to keep up during its in-between ‘heavens’. In fiction, especially, a lot can be subtly revealed, which is to say that readers must be trusted to be imaginative and willing to make the necessary subtextual connections. For example, noting precisely how many seats Krishak Praja Party won was less significant than fully realizing a character who remains a pale shadow throughout: Kamrunnesa, Mian’s wife. Beyond her habit of documenting her thoughts, which is revealed by a diary entry at the beginning of the book, there’s not enough about this perceptive person in the narrative. Magisterial details of too many (political) events took the attention away from the main story. 

Despite that, Seven Heavens is clever storytelling that can ignite conversations and compel us to ponder on what continues to divide or unite us. This doesn’t necessarily translate into thinking of un-Partition but practicing everyday humanity and keeping animosity at bay. And literature like this work can help us do just that because it emphasizes a collective loss and provides semblances of reconciliation, which the three nations have collectively failed to realize as yet.

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Saurabh Sharma (They/He) is a Delhi-based writer and freelance journalist. On Instagram/Twitter: @writerly_life. Click through for the full bio and contributions.