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Partition narratives

Translating Partition, a collection of stories and critical commentaries, brings out the trauma of Partition. But it cannot be a substitute for political and social histories of the event, says NONICA DATTA.

WHAT constitutes "Partition Literature" nowadays does not emerge from archives and interviews alone, but also comes out of the imaginative use of literary sources that present a divided nation and describe the trauma of partition. Putting together anthologies of such literature can be a stimulating exercise yielding fruitful creative results. A new genre of literature, starting with Alok Bhalla's volumes, comprising a large range of Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi stories, reflects the anguish of a generation caught up in the crossfire of a virtual civil war that is often compared with the holocaust.

Translating Partition has three sections: the first consists of eight stories, some of which have already been much published. I see no reason why "How Many Pakistans" by Kamleshwar and "Toba Tek Singh" by Manto should figure here. "Phoenix Fled" by Attia Hosain is also out of place; perhaps it would have been better to include excerpts from the same author's novel, Sunlight On a Broken Column. Bhisham Sahni's "Pali", a story of a child first converted to Islam, and then "purified" by Hinduism, is moving. Surendra Prakash's story "Dream Images" depicts the subjectivity of a partition refugee, who transcends the brutality of division through "memory and shadows". Manto's letter to Nehru does not really carry conviction. Besides, how that constitutes a story is not clear.

Following the stories is an important section consisting of critical commentaries on them. I believe the essays by Anuradha Marwah Roy and M. Asaddudin are weighty. For the latter, translating Surendra Prakash's "Dream Images" is "an act of cultural recall and retrieval". (This story appears as "Khayal Surat" in the first section, but Asaddudin refers to it as "Khwab Surat"!)

The final section, what the editors call a "Partition Overview", includes contributions by the famous Urdu professor Naiyer Masud, an interesting reading of the Kanpur newspaper Vartaman by Saumya Gupta, and an essay by Bodh Prakash on the woman protagonist in partition literature. Ravi Kant, the co-editor, provides glimpses of what he calls "Strategies of Oblivion". He convincingly critiques the existing historical scholarship on partition, yet he takes no note of the recent "revisionist" historical trends best exemplified in the writings of the historian Ayesha Jalal. Frankly, all the five essays in this section are diffuse, lacking in a broad perspective.

The emotional and aesthetic effect of partition literature is immutable, but it cannot replace the social and political histories of the event. It can only supplement them. The creative energy embodied in Translating Partition brings with it a readiness to confront important issues which many professional historians may simply refuse to address. It certainly is a useful venture. Yet, it hardly serves to introduce any fresh perspective to our understanding of how creative writers responded to the cataclysmic events of August 1947. Such anthologies should not be seen as a substitute for serious and rigorous explorations into an event that casts its shadow over many aspects of contemporary politics and society. We need sustained and steady researches to seek answers to many unanswered questions. Though literature sensitises us to many facets of the partition story, it does not reflect the complexities of Indian society in the 1940s. It also cannot fully unfold the factors that went into the making of a collective communitarian consciousness that proved in the end to be a decisive factor in the partition of the country.

In short, such a project of storytelling can be pitted against partition's destruction, for it invokes imaginative life against death; renewal of hope against cartographical division. But in the end fiction is fiction - it is not history.

Translating Partition, edited by Ravi Kant and Tarun K. Saint, Katha, 2001, p.238, Rs. 250.

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