Book Review: Title: A Bonsai Tree; Author: Narendra Luther; Publisher: Niyogi Books; Pages: 227
Many books have been written on India’s partition but here is a first-hand account of the horror by a migrant from what is now Pakistan, who went on to become one of the first officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS).
The autobiography of Narendra Luther, now 85, is a gripping story encompassing heartrending events of partition, the life of a migrant on the Indian side of Punjab, his struggle to fulfill his dream, his experiences as an administrator and his love for Urdu, Hyderabad and humour.
This is the 14th book in English from the man considered to be an authority on Hyderabad’s history and culture — and a symbol of the city’s “Ganga Jamuni tehzeeb”.
He has dedicated the book to his Budha Goraya ancestral village in Sialkot district, now in Pakistan. Born in Hoshiarpur in 1932, Luther recalls how his father Mela Ram, a government teacher, used to translate “ayats” of the Quran and “slokas” from the Gita and explain their contents.
Luther did his primary schooling in Dharam Pura, a suburb of Lahore, with Urdu as the medium of instruction. He grew up in the Muslim majority area of Punjab, where people used to live in harmony till relations were strained by heightened political activity in the run-up to India’s freedom.
In 1947, his father was transferred to Rawalpindi when Luther was in Class 10. He was witness to the mayhem and bloodbath which began in March that year. Armed with a broken and rusted sword, he was one of the youths who were asked to do night patrolling in their Krishan Nagar Hindu locality.
It was a Muslim officer who gave shelter to the family. Luther recalls that he took a Muslim name Akram while his brother Vijay became Aslam to save their lives.
The author presents a bone-chilling account of the family’s escape along with many others by train from Rawalpindi to Amritsar. The travellers survived hunger and thirst and, most importantly, the killings by riotous mobs en route to the Indian side of Punjab.
Despite losing all their property, the family drew comfort from the fact that none of its members was killed and no woman from the family was abducted or molested. The author recalls that they did not lose the secular values in which they were nurtured.
The book details the struggle by the young student, who later rose to become the Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh before retiring in 1991. At university, he fell in love with Bindi, also a migrant from Pakistan, and later married her.
When Luther was allotted to Andhra Pradesh, a new chapter began as the newly-married couple reached Visakhapatnam.
With a lot of anecdotes, the author explains the socio-economic and political environment he experienced in Pakistan, later in Indian Punjab and subsequently in different places in Andhra Pradesh and finally in Hyderabad, where he settled down.
It’s no easy task to be candid while writing about all one has gone through and even more difficult to write about the trauma near and dear ones had suffered. Luther has done all this and much more.
He intertwined the description of evolving socio-political environment and administration with life on the personal front.
He poured out his heart when his only son became a drug addict during his college days. The story reflects the helplessness he felt when his son slipped back into addiction every time it looked he would come out of it.
When transferred to Hyderabad in 1958, Luther wondered whether it was compensation for the loss of Lahore. “It was a popular saying in Punjab that one who had not seen Lahore had not yet been born! Coming to Hyderabad, I felt twice born.”
He fell in love with the city for its cosmopolitan culture, Urdu language and poetry, rich history and heritage and became part of the social circle even while discharging official duties in key positions. As special officer at the municipal corporation, he used to act on petitions received in Urdu.
It was in Hyderabad he turned a humorist. He narrated an incident when he arrived at a dinner at 8 p.m. and was told by a servant that “saab paani nahaa rahe hain”. “It meant that our host was taking bath with water — a saying peculiar to Hyderabadis. I asked the servant if I was at the right place. He replied that there was going to be a dinner, not evening tea.”
Towards the end, Luther expresses his joy over his son Rahul not only overcoming the addiction but setting up a rehabilitation centre for other addicts.
In sum, a good read.