Women writing their experience of Partition make visible stories of loss, displacement and longing usually ignored in mainstream narratives.
In the early 1950s, Sunanda Sikdar's family left their village of Digpait in what became East Pakistan, to cross the border into India. In Dayamoyeer Katha, her charming and episodic memoir of the time, Sikdar describes how, as a child, she was so devastated at having to leave the people, the village, the land and the animals she loved, that she swore she would never speak about Digpait again. Decades later, when she married, the family's old Muslim retainer, known affectionately as Dada, borrowed money to travel to Kolkata for her wedding and so moved was she by this that the dams broke and she began to write.
As Sikdar's family was preparing to leave Digpait, many thousands of miles away, in Delhi, another woman, Anis Kidwai, was seeking to make meaning of her life. Widowed by the murder of her husband, Shafi Ahmed Kidwai in Mussoorie in the violence of Partition, Anis Kidwai came to Delhi and there she met Gandhi who advised her to stop crying and to do some work. Taking this to heart, Kidwai worked with abducted women and in the transit camps for Muslim refugees in Delhi. Her moving and intense memoir, Azadi ki Chaon Mein, written in 1949, was published only in 1974, partly because Kidwai herself was reluctant to put it into the public domain, fearing that the stories may lead to further violence.
In Gujarat, another woman, Kamlaben Patel, had similar stories to tell in her hard-hitting memoir, Mool Sukete Ukhde (Torn from the Roots). Kamlaben worked with abducted women in Lahore between 1947 and 1952 and recorded their stories, their joys and sorrows. These formed the substance of her memoir, once again published long after it was written for fear of its likely consequences.
In West Pakistan, Shaista Ikramullah's memoir, From Purdah to Parliament, published in 1963, described the life of one of the best known parliamentarians in the post-Partition era, capturing the journey from India to Pakistan, from the Congress to the Muslim League and provided a unique insight into post Partition politics.
The 1980s saw the publication of an unusual autobiography, Munhinje Hayatia Ja Sona Ropa, by Popati Hiranandani, the eminent Sindhi poet and essayist whose life too was profoundly affected by the Partition.
Each account documented a unique journey, with Partition sometimes forming the backdrop and sometimes the substance of the story. Taken together, these and many other memoirs and autobiographies by women — including for example the accounts written by Mridula Sarabhai and Ashoka Gupta on Noakhali — direct the reader to the ‘other' histories of Partition, those that do not form the substance of standard, conventional histories. They address loss and displacement, dislocation and violation, the longing for a home and yearning for a life gone by.
These are themes that get picked up also in fiction by women, written at the time, or years later, sometimes out of direct experience and at others out of the literary and narrative distillation of that experience. Writing on women's narratives of Partition, Ananya Jahanara Kabir quotes from the preface to Krishna Sobti's masterful work, Zindaginama in which the author evokes Punjab, the land and its rivers as a woman from whose breasts blood drips rather than milk, and offers a farewell.
To the water of waters
To the Punjab of five waters
To Jhelum's and Chenab's waters
To the memory of one's ancestors
The children of whose blood and milk
Will never again play
Never again play
With this earth
In whatever language you are reading — Urdu, Hindi, Gurmukhi, Bengali, Sindhi, English — works of fiction by women writers form a rich and varied archive and resource on Partition. Even a cursory glance yields an important line-up of names: Quratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Khadija and Hajra Mastoor, Mumtaz Shah Nawaz — writing in the shadow of ancestors like Nazr Sajjad Hyder and Muhammadi Begum; or others such as Amrita Pritam, Krishna Sobti, Attia Hossain, Nayantara Sahgal, Jyotirmoy Devi, Bapsi Sidhwa, Sarah Suleri, Zaheda Hina, Altaf Fatima.
In more recent times, a new and younger generation of writers has begun to explore the many facets of this important history — names like Kamila Shamsie, Uzma Aslam Khan, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Meera Syal come easily to mind. While the reference to Partition may not be as direct (except in the work of Shauna Singh Baldwin) as say in the works of Sobti and Amrita Pritam, the history is never absent and its long shadow looms over much of what happens in the contemporary world of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis in their own countries and outside.
In recent years, the work of women scholars has also helped to open up Partition histories by bringing in the human dimension of history and addressing issues such as sexual violation, forbidden love, physical dislocation, motherhood, questions of ‘honour' and ‘sacrifice' — subjects which until now have been taboo for historical research. Often based on oral narratives and testimonies, these works come very close to the sorts of issues that are raised by fiction writers, and indeed, fictional accounts strengthen and supplement the new historical research on Partition.
As often happens with women's writing, this rich seam has not been given its due, and with few exceptions, these works have remained somewhat outside the frame of mainstream fiction and non-fiction writings on Partition. And yet, they have important insights to offer — a child's view of the violence as in Bapsi Sidhwa's work, the closing off of Chinese trade as in Altaf Fatima's work, the memory of other migrations and other dislocations as in Zaheda Hina's work, the transformation of the inner courtyard as in Khadija Mastur's work. Perhaps the passage of time — we are, after all, well beyond six decades now — will ensure that these works of fiction, non-fiction, history, that throw light on the gendered dimensions of Partition history, will be given the importance they so well deserve.
Keywords: partition literature