Despite the apparent relative ease with which Sweden and Switzerland, as well as a handful of other territories in Europe, walked the tightrope of neutrality during the Second World War this must have been an exceptionally difficult balancing act to manage. On the one hand both were hemmed in by nations committed either to the righteous cause or that of the aggressors. On the other, the neutral stance often reeks of tacit acceptance of the actions of those who would seek to subjugate or, worse, quasi collaboration. Seven decades on from the Second World War, the Swedish nation has not yet had the courage to fully acknowledge the aid she directly, or less directly, offered the Nazis during their pillage of Europe.
The wealthy Parsee family at the centre of Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), the second film in her Elements trilogy and adapted from the Bapsi Sidhwa novel Cracking India, is caught in a position not dissimilar to a land that refuses to show its hand when all around it turmoil is raging. Lying by the side of his spouse one night, the bespectacled father of the family Rustom goes so far as to extol the example of Switzerland. They, meaning him and his immediate circle, will be all right provided they embrace that spirit, he tells his uncertain wife Bunty. In their current predicament aloofness is an unwise hem to cling to, as Bunty rightly surmises, but with World War Two having recently wound down her husband could be forgiven for having the Swiss approach fresh in the mind.
It is 1947, the setting the city of Lahore. Rustom and Bunty’s polio afflicted eight-year-old daughter Lenny is narrating the story of the time through her adult self. The innocence and peacefulness of her youth is being threatened in a nation on the brink of self-rule. The tragedy in the making is that India is not in a position to undertake the transition peacefully, a fact the ruling British conveniently sweep aside in their eagerness to depart and have done with what has for far too long been a losing proposition.
Theirs is a typically arrogant colonial power betrayal, epitomised in an early scene when a British policeman expresses views that so rile a Sikh fellow guest at a dinner in the Parsee household that the latter flies at the Englishman with one of his eating utensils. Lenny has a Hindu nanny or Ayah, Shanta, a young Hindu beauty who counts among her friends the Moslems Hassan and Dil. They are in turn part of a larger group of friends that includes Sikh adherents and other Moslems and Hindus, some of whom work for the Parsee family. Their ease with each other, over meals, in public spaces, smacks of tolerance and acceptance long fostered.
But the mutual goodwill is fraying at the seams with independence and the challenges of self-rule literally days away. The once relaxed friends come close to brawling as they contemplate the immediate future and all that the partitioning of their homeland into Hindustan and Pakistan will mean. Barbarous acts occur in their midst. A night train enters the railway station bearing the corpses of countless slain Moslem men. From a rooftop vantage point, Hassan, Dil, Shanta and Lenny witness the drawing and quartering of a Moslem man by a rabid Hindu pack. Shanta shields Lenny’s eyes but the girl has seen more than enough. Later, with the aid of her cousin, she destroys one of her dolls in like fashion.
Lenny’s loyalties are not exclusive. She hero worships both the ‘Ice Candy Man’ Dil and the masseur Hassan, knowing very well both are in love with Shanta. The two endeavour to win her in their individual ways. But Dil is the one who sets greatest store by his efforts. In a last-ditch attempt to gain her hand in marriage he confides to Shanta his awareness that there is a beast in him – he decries it as the same beast lurking in all men, Hindu, Moslem and Sikh alike – an animal he will be unable to tame without her loving understanding and help. But Shanta will not be swayed. She feels more naturally drawn to the gentle Hassan and by this time she has agreed to be his wife.
Dil is a reasonable man but Shanta’s decision rocks him and he unapologetically goes on to fulfil his prophecy for himself. As shattering as this denouement is, Ms Mehta closes the middle film of her assured trilogy with images the equal of any that have preceded it. It quietly speaks volumes about the scars bound to linger forever in the lives of innocent ones for whom sectarian divisions, or any divisions whatsoever, mean nothing, those who would much rather play, as the uncomprehending interned Moslem boy (he has recently witnessed his mother’s rape and murder) asks Lenny and her cousin to play marbles with him at the close of an encounter between the three. This is a story of purity shattered at a time of social and political upheaval.