Particularities of Partition Literature I

[Sepoy notes: I have badgered Lapata to release some of her academic writings here on CM. They are excellent bits of research and analysis – which deserve a wide, global audience – also because we are talking about a revolution. This paper, Particularities of Partition Literature: Looking Beyond the Master Narratives of Partition Studies, was delivered on the panel “Beyond Nostalgia and Pathology: New Engagements with the Archive of Partition Narratives”, also organized by Daisy Rockwell, at the 32nd Annual Conference on South Asia University of Wisconsin, Madison October 23-26, 2003]

The dawn of independence came littered with the severed limbs and blood-drenched bodies of innocent men, women and children: this is the nightmare from which the subcontinent has never fully recovered. The colossal human tragedy of the partition and its continuing aftermath has been better conveyed by sensitive creative writers and artists—for example in Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stores and Ritwik Ghatak’s films—than by historians. There have been recent, belated attempts by a few historians and anthropologists to capture the experience of pain during the partition.1

Bose and Jalal’s remark on depictions of the partition in their history of modern South Asia does not stand alone in what seems to be a consensus that Partition literature has been more effective at capturing the tragedy of the event than any historian’s account. Other scholars, such as Urvashi Butalia and Gyan Pandey, have made similar remarks in other contexts. In his anthology of Partition-related writings, Inventing Boundaries, Mushirul Hasan echoes this formulation in his introduction:

…literary narratives, whether in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali or Punjabi, are an eloquent witness to ‘an unspeakable and inarticulatable history’. Evoking the sufferings of the innocent, whose pain is more universal and ultimately a vehicle of more honest reconciliation than political discourse, they provide a framework for developing an alternative discourse on inter-community relations.2

The consensus generally seems to focus on a particular point of criticism: that historians have primarily dealt with describing the Partition in terms of facts and figures, and have been unable to capture its impact on the lives of ordinary people. As Hasan observes in Inventing Boundaries, many different people are now working on a host of questions surrounding violence, migration, loss and trauma (p. 13). Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence tackles the issue through largely unedited transcripts of oral narratives by Partition violence survivors, and others have followed suit in attempting different strategies which will help them get closer to what is sometimes termed ‘the human element’. Pandey has called for the examination of Partition literature and personal narratives of Partition violence and dislocation. Pandey, like Bose and Jalal brings up the Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto, and in particular, his short story “Toba Tek Singh.” This puts him in the same company as virtually all anthologies of Partition literature, including those compiled by Hasan, as well as Salman Rushdie, who chose that story alone of all literature written in languages other than English, for Mirrorwork, his anthology of Indian writing since Independence.

For several years, I taught a course on Partition literature using the exact template outlined by Bose, Jalal, Butalia, Pandey and others. The course was usually framed by this notion that Partition literature played an important, perhaps vital, role in filling in the missing pieces that historians had left out of their dry retellings. “Toba Tek Singh” was always at the top of the list.3

The repeated use of the story in so many related contexts makes it an important area of inquiry when we think about the uses to which the genre of Partition literature is put in both criticism and the classroom. “Toba Tek Singh” is read by most literary scholars (Hasan, Mahey) as a darkly humorous allegory for the exchange of populations over the border. More specifically, perhaps, it is an allegory about the exchange and ‘repatriation’ of women that was mandated by the governments of India and Pakistan following the Partition, an issue which has been so excellently researched by both Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon. In “Toba Tek Singh,” an exchange of lunatics is mandated in an insane asylum in Lahore. The main character, Bhishan Singh, cannot understand where his village, Toba Tek Singh, will end up, and when he realizes that it will be in Pakistan, and he is to go to India, he ‘goes mad’ and stations himself in no-man’s-land, refusing to go to either country.

After several years of trying to explain to students why this story perfectly fit the bill called for by the critics of Partition history, I came to the conclusion that not only did it not fit the bill perfectly, but that reading the many works we were examining in this context as a body of literature which supplements flawed historical writings on the Partition did an injustice to the texts themselves and to their authorial and literary contexts. Why should this poignant and witty allegory be viewed as some kind of ‘true’ expression of the experience of pain? It seems more appropriate to read it as a critique of that very thing that vexes the critics of the historiography of Partition: “Toba Tek Singh” is a send-up of the absurdity of the bureaucracy, the ‘facts and figures’ of the administration of the Partition. What perplexes the inmates of the insane asylum (the poor things, they’re crazy, how could they understand the way governments work?) is precisely what confounds the sound of mind outside its walls. The story points to the very conundrum facing historians of Partition: how can you explain anything this crazy? Perhaps what should be argued then, is that “Toba Tek Singh” could be read in the context of Partition history as an allegory of the problem of the historiography of the event. In this sense it is an excellent accompaniment to historical writings.

Arjun Mahey, in an essay on narratives of Partition, both historical and literary, remarks upon the poetics of the historical narratives, which he suggests take on a literary flavor, despite what is widely considered their failure at capturing the experience of pain and trauma. As he observes:

…narrative histories enact the Partition as a tragedy with the appropriate literary language. Thus, titles can immediately alert us to the aesthetic desired even before we have begun to read, and every title is a rhetorical indication of tragedy, that is, of immense suffering consequent upon moral error. A few titles are sufficient intimation of what is going to follow; titles such as Disastrous Twilight, The Roots of Confrontation in South Asia, and The Endgames of Empire.

Even more than the titles, however, the language of historical narratives begins to forfeit its self-imposed neutrality when it comes to the Partition. This is true not only of those histories that are pointedly lurid, and of which … there is no scarcity, but of the responsible chronicles as well. Thus graphic expressions take the place of bland facts: the hordes of forcibly migrating peoples are “fiery” and move across the Punjab “like a dark cloud of locusts” (Wolpert, 1982), are “ablaze,” “frenzied” and raging (Das, 1982), and are “tempestuous” and “blinded” (Chandra quoting Nehru, 1971…). For historians to narrate the Partition as a national tragedy was, it seems, not merely possible or useful. It was inevitable. There was no other stylistic currency available.4

Mahey’s observations bring us back to the quote I read at the beginning from Modern South Asia. Similarly to the examples above, Bose and Jalal switch suddenly from their rather dry narrative style, to a prose ornamented with poetic and visually descriptive language. They speak of the ‘severed limbs and blood-drenched bodies of innocent men, women and children’—the partition is a ‘nightmare’. Indeed the failure of historians and anthropologists has been the inability to capture ‘the experience of pain’ during the partition. Yet, seemingly exhausted from this foray into graphic language, they immediately make the transition into praise for the superior abilities of literary writers to capture what is missing in their own, leaving it to the ‘sensitive creative writers and artists’ (such as Saadat Hasan Manto and Ritwik Ghatak) to capture that pain. Going on to rapidly abdicate their own responsibilities in the telling of the tragedy, they proceed to simply excerpt an entire poem reproduced in both Urdu and English by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, with this transitional introduction: “There are moments…when even the most sensitively crafted history of communities and states pales in comparison to the poetic licence of a Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who captured the mood of the times when he wrote the poem ‘Freedom’s Dawn (August 1947).’” (p. 199).

An interesting aspect to the consistent referencing of literary works as superior to historical narratives (to the point of borrowing their rhetoric) in the context of Partition is that such works have come to occupy a generic category that they might not have under other circumstances. I am speaking here primarily of literature that was not originally written in English, and literature that was written in the decades immediately following the Partition. More recent forays into the production of Partition literature, especially on the part of writers of English need to be viewed in a separate context, as their socio-economic, literary and political context belong to a different generation and landscape. If Partition literature is a genre, then how do we define it? Can a theme, or content, of such a specific nature, mark the boundaries of a literary genre? After all, so many different authors have touched upon the subject, in different languages, using different literary forms and giving greater or lesser focus to the actual moment of partition. If historians have suggested that partition literature, as a thematic genre, does the work of describing or depicting the experience of pain, the tragedy of the partition, how well do the texts of partition literature actually fit into that mold? Do Manto’s stories of the partition describe pain? Or Ghatak’s films?

It almost seems unfair to lump the writings of such a diverse set of authors as those whose work which touches on the Partition, such as Manto, Yashpal, Joginder Pal and Bhisham Sahni, into one category, that of ‘partition literature’. It also seems unfair to even write of their ‘partition literature’ in the same paper, so various are the works that could come under that heading.

[Second and concluding part tomorrow]

  1. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. (NewYork: Routledge, 2003): 198 []
  2. Mushirul Hasan. Inventing Boundaries: Gender, Politics and the Partition of India. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000): 17-18 []
  3. Before going on, I’d like to say as a disclaimer, that I consider all the texts I discuss in the rest of this paper to be worthwhile pieces of writing, both historiographical and literary, and if I seem to pick on readers of “Toba Tek Singh” or on historians such as Bose and Jalal, it is primarily to make a point that I hope might complicate the already rich discussion on Partition literature and issues of narration and representation—like many people, “Toba Tek Singh” is one of my favorite stories and I definitely think that everyone should read it. []
  4. Arjun Mahey, “Partition Narratives: Some Observations,” in Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint (eds), Translating Partition (New Delhi: Katha, 2001): 141 []

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Daisy Rockwell paints under the takhallus, or alias, Lapata (pronounced ‘láh-putt-áh’), which is Urdu for “missing,” or “absconded,” as in “my luggage is missing,” or “the bandits have absconded.”

6 thoughts on “Particularities of Partition Literature I”

  1. Great read, looking forward to the rest of the piece.

    The obstacle of providing a “narrative” that can give readers an idea of how events actually affect people is fascinating and something that applies to journalism today and in the past. It’s interesting that what a lot of historians may be guilty of when documenting the history of Partition is also what journalists are guilty of when documenting current affairs. Do you think the so-called “first-draft” of history has anything to do, of course not entirely but in part, with historians having a hard time not being able to accurately contextualize how the events affected people? For example, if some history is gleaned from newspapers at the time, were they also “dry” and filled with just “facts and figures” as opposed to narratives that produce an entire context to current affairs at the time. Or have historians just not made a concerted effort to give a fuller picture of history?

    I hope I’m making sense here. For instance, so much is written about Pakistan in the press from every corner of the globe but rarely, if ever, do the articles create a greater understanding of Pakistan to outsiders. Rarely do the readers know what it’s like to walk down a street in Pakistan. I’m wondering if this issue of newspapers running dry stories has any influence on how historians subsequently also documented history in a dry manner.
    I’ve studied a lot of press from 1897 onwards and generally it was more narrative and descriptive than a lot of journalism today. No idea what the media landscape was like at the time of Partition in the sub-continent.

    Thanks and apologies for the long-winded comment!

  2. It’s a great observation, which I feel Mr. Sepoy needs to address (AHEM!). But of course fiction can address things like walking down the street, but in the case of Pakistan it so rarely does nowadays, at least in English. That’s why the Life’s Too Short lit review was so great, because it captured more of every day life; also Farooqi’s The Story of a Widow. But I said all that in this article.

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