Particularities of Partition II

Posted by lapata on February 20, 2010 · 14 mins read

[Acknowledgments: This paper was part of a conference panel; I want to thank my fantastic co-panelists: Abhijeet Paul and Anis Ahmed who wrote about Bengali literature; and the unfailingly insightful Aditya Adarkar, our discussant. I want to especially thank Richard Delacy, whose many keen insights into the use and abuse of Manto have most definitely informed my thinking. And, perhaps most importantly of all, my students in the many Partition lit courses I taught at Loyola University Chicago, where I was a visiting - where are you visiting from, Dr. Lapata? - assistant professor for five action-packed years.]

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 essay, so various are the works that could come under that heading. Manto's at times very, very short stories relating to the Partition, especially the famous collection Siyah Hashiye (“Black fringes”), deal with the here and now, glimpses of the moment of partition violence and mayhem. Hindi author Bhisham Sahni's Tamas explores the anatomy of a communal riot in an almost clinical fashion. Yashpal, in Jhutha Sac (“False truth”), a Hindi novel of nearly a thousand pages, leads us through the disintegration of a dysfunctional family and the eventual rehabilitation and scattering of its component parts in a post-Partition world. Joginder Pal in his slight Urdu novella Khvabrau (“Sleepwalkers”) leads us through the 'dream life' of partition refugees in Karachi who think they are still in Lucknow.

These works differ very much in form, in agenda, in style, in focus. All of these works present powerful portraits of all different aspects of the enormity of the Partition. But are they driven by tragedy? Are they portraits of pain? I am not entirely sure that this would be a fair characterization. If we look at the entire oeuvre of each author, we find that their Partition writings fit into larger agendas. There is always a danger of treating the realistic progressivist prose of so many writers in Hindi and Urdu in the twentieth century as journalistic or ethnographic writing, stripping it of its literary-ness. Neither Yashpal nor Manto, for example, were eyewitnesses to the Partition violence that they so eloquently describe. Both relied on oral narratives and the newspaper archive for their realistic descriptions, but all the same, their Partition writings fit into wider agendas, tropes and styles within their own writing and the literary and aesthetic imperatives of the day.

Anyone who has delved into Manto's pre- and post-Partition phases of writing knows that Manto's abiding interest was with the seamy underside of humanity: the bestiality of human beings and their moral and social hypocrisy. Reading through Manto's collected works, one is struck by the presence of story after story of sexual perversion and indescribable sexual escapades on the part of ostensibly decent, upstanding members of polite society, paired with an entire oeuvre of stories about prostitutes of fine upstanding character and fastidious habits. Tales of misogyny and sexual violence against women pervade his work, not just in the writings about the Partition. Manto was often inspired by news stories of depravity and wrote stories based on particularly intriguing reports. According to a memoir by his nephew Hamid Jalal one of Manto's last wishes was to write a story on

…the tragic death of a lonely young woman whose nude body had been found on the roadside in Gujrat. ... According to newspaper reports published that day she and her little baby had died of exposure after she had been kidnapped from a waiting room of a bus terminal, ravished by over half a dozen brutes and allowed to run out of their den, without a stitch of clothing, into the freezing wintery night. ((Saadat Hasan Manto. Black Milk: A Collection of Short Stories (Lahore: Sang- e-Meel Publications, 1997): 33))

For Manto, one might surmise, the Partition fit with a pre-existing authorial agenda and inspiration-gathering method. The news reports, the dark hints at depravity and the hearsay circulating in Bombay and Lahore in those days would have fueled his writing naturally.

Of Manto's many Partition stories, Siyah Hashiye, is, as a collection, particularly hard-hitting in its illustration of Manto's views on humanity. A magnificent patchwork of short, short stories, the collection shows us glimpses into the moment of Partition. The stories illustrate for the most part the heinous and mercenary stupidity to which human beings can stoop when they get a chance. The shortness of the stories in Siya Hashiye creates the impression that we are entering the moment of a war zone, reminiscent of Francisco Goya's stark etchings of the Peninsular war in Spain, The Disasters of War, a series of snapshots frozen in time. At the same time, Manto's stories are neither journalistic, nor moralizing: instead they are composed in a tone of heavy-handed irony, a pinnacle in his oeuvre for their pithyness and ability to produce disgust and horror in the eye of the beholder. The disasters of war, the atrocities of partition, are for him yet another example of the essential inhumanity in human beings.

For the Hindi writer Yashpal, the events of the Partition and their aftermath also fit well into an existing trajectory. Yashpal, a former freedom fighter in the Bhagat Singh group and a Marxist, literature was a space in which to explore the possibilities for the politicization of individual consciousness and applying Marxist philosophy to daily life. Beginning his novel-writing career with Dada Comrade, the story of a young freedom fighter and union organizer, Yashpal went on to write many progressivist short stories and novels, among them his great novel of the partition, Jhutha Sac. Though the first volume of Jhutha Sac contains a painstaking chronicle of the political and popular events that led to the Partition from the viewpoint of a young Hindu-Khatri Marxist newspaper reporter in Lahore, he gradually shifts his focus to the protagonist's sister, who undergoes a series of atrocities, not the least of which is suffered at the hands of her own family, who arrange her marriage to a despicable RSS volunteer. The main villain emerges as her brother, Puri, the Marxist newspaper reporter, who proves incapable of living out his Marxist ideals in the face of his shame regarding rumors of his sister's romance with a fellow party member who is a Muslim. These rumors endanger his budding relationship with a Brahmin girl and bring to the fore his deeply engrained bourgeois mentality and class consciousness. For Puri, Marxism is something for public life, but not for private life.

By the end of the first volume, the pressures of communal politics, governmental-level decisions, mob violence, and not unimportantly, those of class consciousness, have brought about not only the Partition of India and Pakistan, but also a shift in protagonists. As Puri's small-mindedness causes him to lose his ability to remain true to his political philosophy when it comes to his own sister, his sister becomes the protagonist of the novel. As the narrative progresses, we come to see that the very pressures which expose the fault lines in Puri's political philosophy: national and personal upheaval, class and communal warfare, migration, a changing legal system and economy, are those which strengthen his sister Tara and bring about her emancipation from traditional gender roles, family ties and caste/class boundaries. Tara is repatriated to Delhi to a refugee camp following her abduction, rape and imprisonment, and through a series of events and hard work, manages to work her way up to a respectable government job through which she becomes financially self-sufficient and fulfilled. Yashpal's unflinching portrayal of violence and depravity in Lahore in August of 1947 serve, like nothing I have read or seen elsewhere, to bring the reader into the full panorama of the exodus from the city. Unlike Manto's snapshots, Yashpal's is a sweeping, Tolstoyan canvas. This includes excerpts from political speeches, actual newspaper clippings and scenes set inside the city, in the outlying areas and walking, driving and taking the train over the border, as he painstakingly takes his entire cast of characters through the migration process. Despite the staggering brutality he portrays in his narrative, the underlying ideas of the story remain rooted in a series of explorations into the workability of Marxist philosophies. His eventually unremittingly unflattering portrait of Puri, interestingly a character who seems somewhat autobiographical, becomes an attack on the hypocrisy of the left. But most critical is his portrayal of the victimization of Tara, by her brother's small-mindedness, the sexual violence during the Partition riots and the insensitivity of the state toward abducted women. It is in fact Tara's rehabilitation from this state of complete victimization which creates the possibility for her emancipation from her traditional gender role and eventually gives her a chance to become an economically and emotionally independent member of society. In this sense, it seems fair to say that Yashpal's narration of the Partition is a narration of the revolution which is necessary to wipe away traditional class and gender roles; the hope of the new nation lies in the ashes of the past.

Manto's Siya Hashiye and Yashpal's Jhutha Sac may in some ways capture the experience of pain or cope with the tragedy of the Partition, but it is also important to look at the imperatives of the individual narratives and those of their authorial and literary contexts. Much of the current movement toward scholarship on the Partition and writing about Partition literature is driven by the very real urgency of the political and social climate of communalism today in South Asia. Many authors write of the shocking repetition of patterns of violence which have spurred on their work: Godra, the Babri Masjid, the 1974 anti-Sikh violence, all of these inform our understanding of the legacy of Partition today. But as we seek to inform, remember and educate about the Partition, we should also try not to lose the specificity of individual voices. Partition literature does not bear witness to the events of 1947 in the same way as eyewitness accounts, journalism and oral histories. While “Toba Tek Singh” and other works of fiction may be an excellent way to open up discussion in the classroom, they are not shortcuts to grasping the trauma of displacement and violence during the Partition.

Major historical events lend themselves to fictional narratives precisely because massive population displacements caused by war or other disasters open up spaces in which to experiment with rearranging social hierarchies and imagining unexpected combinations of characters. Such events also bring out the extremes of human behavior, both the valorous and the base. The American Civil War, the Holocaust and the French Revolution, just to name a few, have all inspired a rich and various literature as well. This is not to impugn the motivations or the importance of the growing body of literature set during the Partition, or to imply that the works of Yashpal, for example, should be seen in the same category as some potboiler Civil War romance. But fiction does not fill the gaps in the historical record, good historiography does.


Chaplot | February 20, 2010

truely lived up the expectations of Part 1... hats off...

sepoy | February 20, 2010

The question of historiography is a vexing one. This much is certain, it has failed to do the job. We still do not know a lot of basic facts on numbers, families, places, incidents etc. And little hope for reconstructing it now. What is the archive for the historian: There were no trials for perpetrators of violence, the authorities took no statements, and very little data was gathered - either of migrated families or on recompense (land holdings may give some clue). There are no physical remainders left. Even the trains which ran covered in blood across the Punjab border were scrubbed clean. The houses were destroyed. Street names changed. Physical traces obliterated. In fact, the only physical traces left are the people themselves. And they too shucked their old identities for fear of more violence. Hence, while there are newspaper reports (and newsreel footage) and scattered personal memoirs, but very few eye witness accounts, esp. those written or published at the time. So, it is easy to see why historians ceded the space, immediately, to poets and writers and by the time they re-entered the foray, the best one could hope for was Bhatalia style oral-history. Two recent books attempt to do more. Yasmin Khan's 2007 book, The great Partition: the making of India and Pakistan, doesn't leave the colonial archive but does attempt some synthesis. It leads up to 1947 but then skips over to present. Vazira Zamindar's The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia much more successfully blends familial memory to official archives, begins in 1947 and continues to the mid-50s. So it is possible, in the fourth generation, start a historiographic project to produce micro-and macro histories of the Partition. Can they deal w/ the pain or even the violence of the event itself? That I am not sure about.

Jonathan Dresner | February 20, 2010

Perhaps one way of dealing with the pain and violence of the event would be to take a Paul Cohen approach: separate out the "straight" documentary history from the experiential recreation and the historiographical overlays. (I'm also reminded of Lynn Struve's annotated sourcebook Voices from the Ming-Qing cataclysm, which would be a great model for a collection of sources from this article, and Cook&Cook's exemplary oral history)

gaddeswarup | February 20, 2010

"But fiction does not fill the gaps in the historical record, good historiography does." A layman's question. Recently I was rereading a story of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee ( who, surprisingly, had strong anti-Islamic views) Mahesh and wondered whether any sort of historical discussion can convey such things that he does in so few a pages.

Aligarian | February 20, 2010

Tamas, a novel written by Bhisham Sahni (brother of famous Hindi film hero Balraj Sahni, and a member of Progressive writers Association), is also considered a significant contribution to partition literature. It was later made into a TV miniseries ("Darkness" in English) and became very famous in India in the mid/late 80s for its realistic depiction of the partition of the Indian subcontinent. At one time, it was thought that it should not be broadcast as it may open old wounds and may cause riots. The series tried to keep memories and truths about the partition alive, at a time when many Indians and Pakistanis seemed to be forgetting this historical tragedy, at least in public consciousness. The miniseries became a landmark 297 minute, 35mm film, now shown mostly at Indian Film Festivals. The film is directed by Govind Nihalani with a great cast which included Om Puri, Amrish Puri and Deepa Sahi. This epic looks at Partition from an Indian Punjabi perspective, as the fate of Sikh and Hindu families in West Punjab is emphasized. The first part also underscores the Muslim viewpoint: the provocations they suffered from Sikhs and especially Hindus.

Aligarian | February 20, 2010

Link to TV mini series "Tamas"

Qalandar | February 21, 2010

Re: sepoy's comment above: I think at least part of the difficulty (implicit in the title of Zamiondar's book, and in sepoy's second paragraph) is that official historiography has conceived of the partition as an event -- whereas it was not only an event but a process. In fact the "was" is misleading: it is a process that has been continuing, and thus complicates the task of the historian in the way that writing "histories of the present" always does. Stated differently, partition, forget being safely past, doesn't even seem past....

Quizman | February 22, 2010

"The series tried to keep memories and truths about the partition alive" The series while good overall, was incredibly dubious with regard to its depiction of communists. Since Bhism and Balraj were sympathetic to the party, Bhism presented it in good light. My favorite film on partition actually has nothing to do with the event, but has everything to do with it. The film 'Mammo' was a Shyam Benegal masterpiece. It is the second part of the trilogy which began with Sardari Begum and ended with Zubeida. Khalid Mohd wrote it and it is largely autobiographical. The Gulzar song from Mammo remains a masterpiece.

Tapsi | February 26, 2010

Partition historiography, as one traces it, has travelled from a discussion of its 'high' and 'low' politics (Jalal) to oral histories (Butalia) to more of an engagement with the patterns of violence and it becoming more rooted in the context of communalism today, as you point out. I would argue that in an attempt to 'inform, remember and educate', individual voices are not lost in history, no, but are perhaps better (more comfortably?) addressed in fiction. The latter might be seen as more of a distancing mechanism that then makes this task easier, keeping in mind the lack of a comprehensive archive for the historian to work with. I realise that this is contrary to what you're advocating, and a deeper understanding of the experiential mode is certainly desirable (the point you make of Toba Tek Singh is well taken), but I don't see it as being entirely elided in contemporary histories of the Partition either.

Tapsi | February 26, 2010

Uh oh, could you just ignore my earlier comment? This is what happens when I read negligently, I skipped part 1 and came directly to 2! I'll try and be more careful next time.

The Reluctant Feudalist | July 23, 2010

[...] “Toba Tek Singh” had always been presented to me as ironic, yes, but still an artifact one was meant to read somberly while pondering the tragedy of Partition. It was, in fact, much funnier in Urdu than in English. Translation can make wit ponderous, and though the English translations I had read were good enough, they somehow lost the antic frivolity of the pagalkhana mise-en-scène. In subsequent years after this side-splitting reading, I assigned the story, and a whole collection of Manto stories, to Partition literature classes again and again (an experience I also discuss here and here). [...]

gaddeswarup | October 03, 2010

Just came across the article " The Politics of Translation: Manto's Partition Stories and Khalid Hasan's English Version" by Alok Bhalla

Aligarian | October 04, 2010

"I have been hearing this mantra for quite long but we are different people. We might have shared a common history but we have interpreted it differently,'' the author of 'A Case of Exploding Mangoes' said in the irritated drawl of man who had been woken up from sleep.

lapata | October 04, 2010

Thanks for the links G and A. Loved the description of Hanif at Kovalam!

Surjit Kohli | April 05, 2011

I happened to visit this blog and surprise surprise; gaddeswarup believes Sarat Chandra Chatterjee “had strong anti-Islamic views,” as understood by him after reading the story of Mahesh. No wonder, it makes better sense in the present context than any time before, when I heard Noble lauriate BEN OKRI responding to a question by the BBC a long time ago, that he would like to see a department of CLEAR thinking established in every University of the world. Ambiguity and muddled thinking do bring lot of pain and misunderstanding in the present state of affairs on this planet.

Surjit Kohli | April 06, 2011

Having now read Particularities of Partition I and II my main concern is how to stop such calamities in future not only in south Asia but elsewhere as well on this planet. And I find it extremely difficult that we the inhabitants of this earth will ever succeed in eliminating such tragedies in future. Because, amongst us there are and would always be, people who are ambitious, on the wrong side of sanity, tainted and with lack of clarity in their thinking, who will always create a situation similar to Partition of the sub-continent. As I have read in your paper 'absurdity of the beaureaucracy' and utter callousness of the politicians of the time, trying to be right and correct of the spirit of the agreement between the two governments, brought further pain dis-location and deep anguish, to lots of people on both sides of the border. To emphasize on the point, I would like to mention an incident of a personal knowledge; A couple, on the Indian side, a Hindu man and a Muslim woman, perhaps not married according to law, living happily together with 2/3 children, an outcome of their association, long before the partition took place. Their lives were shattered suddenly when an army truck with Indian soldiers came to their house and took away the crying woman forcibly in the absence of her man, and without the childern.The man tried all possible avenues, pleaded with the authorities, even up to the level of chairperson (a woman) of the exchange program but never got his woman back. And don't forget the classic and enormously well-known case of one Kartar Singh. He actually abducted a Muslim woman on the Indian side during the turmoil but both fell in love with each and married according to Sikh rites. Later, the woman was taken away and sent to Pakistan. Kartar Singh (I hope that was his name) was made of stronger stuff and he travelled to Lahore and after many a hurdles and difficulties, did find his woman. She was still in love with him but the authorities and her family wouldn't let her go. He had only one option left, to take the legal shelter, but lost. Dejected and disappointed, he took his own life by throwing himself under a running train, right in the outskirts of Lahore. When the Lahore residents came to know about the sad end of Kartar Singh, they gathered in thousands and burried him with all pomp and show of a true lover. Lollywood (Lahore film industry) made a film and Time magazine covered the tragedy prominantly and with full details. We are not in a court of law and witnessing a trial being in progress, where a witness is the most essential part of the legal process. An eye witness, who has gone through the horrendous experience of seeing such barbaric acts, may not in fact be able to depict and describe such crimes sufficiently for the purpose. Nevertheless, while Partition literature may not 'bear witness to the events of 1947 in the same way as eyewitness accounts' works of Yashpal and Manto on the subject to my mind, done full justice, with authenticity and historicity to this great tragedy.