The promised tryst: Understanding Partition through fiction

We look at six works from both sides of the border to understand how fiction has dealt with Partition and its aftermath

August 14, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

No time for goodbyes: Displaced people in Balloki, now in Pakistan, during Partition.

No time for goodbyes: Displaced people in Balloki, now in Pakistan, during Partition.

Parsing Partition is a national pastime. A stream of personal accounts, historical analyses, films, documentaries and novels on the theme has appeared since 1947 and with the 75th anniversary approaching, there will doubtless be more. Daisy Rockwell tries to explain why in the Afterword to her translation of Khadija Mastur’s A Promised Land : “Like the Holocaust, or the American Civil War, or the French Revolution or any other epochal conflict that has shredded the fabric of society and caused many deaths, it is both a deep psychic preoccupation and an attractive literary device.” Partition has figured prominently in Indian fiction — mainly in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and English — from the late 1940s onwards and always had a wide Indian readership. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) took it to the international stage.

Here we look at five novels and a short story on the Punjab Partition (the Bengal Partition would need an article to itself) by acclaimed Indian and Pakistani authors and ask ourselves: what does fiction tell us about this life-changing event?

Crux of the horror

After 1947, writers on both sides of the new border felt the need to record the cataclysmic events as well as to memorialise a way of life lost to them forever. While their responses to the idea of Partition varied, nearly all Indian and Pakistani writers dwelt on the horror of uprooting reluctant, bewildered people from their ancestral homes. Khushwant Singh’s acclaimed Train to Pakistan (1956) is set in early August 1947 in the village of Mano Manja close to the new border. The villagers are the first to see the train carrying butchered Hindu corpses arrive at their station.

Tensions rise and rumours of a plot to avenge the murdered refugees sweep the village. Meanwhile, news of Sikhs killing Muslims in Ambala and Kanpur starts circulating, and Muslim villagers who had initially refused to leave their homes have second thoughts: “For the first time Pakistan came to mean a refuge... where there were no Sikhs.” Herded onto army trucks, “there was no time to make arrangements. There was no time to say goodbye.”

In Singh’s portrayal, communities co-existed fairly peacefully, with a degree of mutual respect, in pre-Partition Mano Manja. Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man (1988) too invokes a calm, beautiful pre-Partition Lahore. Here, Lenny, from a middle-class Parsi family, enjoys an idyllic childhood, pampered by her pretty Hindu Ayah who flirts decorously with the Ice Candy Man, oblivious to the darkness within him. Rage and obsession lurk under the surface of this little sunlit world and are released by the broader violence of Partition with terrible consequences. “I lobbed grenades into the windows of Sikhs and Hindus I’d known all my life,” boasts the Ice Candy Man, touching the crux of the horror — it’s people you know who become your killers.

Step back and ponder

At the core of nearly every Partition novel is the sadness for a world lost forever — whether you stay or go, that syncretic, old, delicately balanced universe has vanished in the tide of violence. “The Mehtas have gone. The Guptas have gone. The Malhotras have gone,” mourns Lenny’s godmother as she contemplates a Lahore she no longer recognises. Lenny’s family remains in Lahore as the Radcliffe Committee meets at its famous Faletti’s Hotel to draw lines on a map that will decide destinies: “I am Pakistani,” exclaims Lenny. “In a snap. Just like that.”

While Partition permanently altered realities in the subcontinent, some accounts question the realities themselves. Saadat Hasan Manto’s justly celebrated short story, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ (1955), showcases the fundamental bizarreness of the idea of Partition when the inhabitants of a lunatic asylum have to be divided between India and Pakistan. One of them climbs a tree and declares this is where he’ll stay as he does not want to live “in either Hindustan or Pakistan”. Manto forces the reader to step back and contemplate a reality in which a few unknown leaders thousands of miles away can announce to an entire population that they have to leave behind everything they’ve known and loved for an uncertain, probably unpleasant, future.

A violent force

History’s inexorable progress is upfronted in the inventive, fast-paced and often funny Looking Through Glass (1995) by Mukul Kesavan. The protagonist accidentally falls through the sleepers of a railway bridge into a river and finds himself inexplicably in 1942. Saved by kind-hearted Mansoor who takes him home to a rambling Lucknow haveli , he becomes involved with the actions of his rescuer’s family and friends as the country gears up for the Quit India movement.

The reader is taken through a series of cleverly interconnected stories and locations as diverse as Mysore and Shimla as India lurches towards Independence. Unable to influence events, the narrator conjures up the quintessential and horribly familiar images of what he knows will happen in 1947: “Murder, arson, rape, flight, migration, butchered trains, refugees, dispossession, enemy aliens... in short, Partition.”

Partition, then, is sometimes used as a metaphor for a violent force beyond the control of ordinary people, which they have to unwillingly accommodate. Set in the early 1940s, Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard (published in Urdu in 1962, translated by Daisy Rockwell in 2018) looks at the claustrophobic lives of women confined largely to the inner courtyards of their home in a small U.P. town. The women are at one remove from the momentous political movements in which their men participate and which will radically influence their futures.

Intelligent, pragmatic and courageous Aliya is determined to shape her own fate, different from her father’s, whose hatred of British colonialism lands him in jail; her angry, disappointed, manipulative mother; her aunts and cousins with their incessant petty quarrels. Nor will she allow herself — though tempted — to fall prey to the smarmy blandishments of her cousin Jameel. No, she will train as a teacher and go out into the wide world. Partition for her is liberation. Moving to Lahore in 1947, Aliya escapes the women’s courtyard once and for all.

Losing home

Running like a thread through all these stories is rage at leaders who uncaringly determine the fates of millions. Ammi in Looking Through Glass ponders, “Nehru and Jinnah want to change the world so they need to give their dreams a name... I like the world the way it is.” The child Lenny in Ice Candy Man , taken by her excited parents to one of Gandhi’s rallies, detects “the concealed nature of the ice lurking beneath the hypnotic and dynamic femininity of Gandhi’s non-violent exterior.” And the magistrate in Train to Pakistan , desperate to prevent more killings, reflects bitterly on how people said Nehru “is a great man... and how handsome... Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, you made your tryst — and so did many others.”

“The Partition novel has always provided a route to understand what seems otherwise inexpressible,” says Ambar Chatterjee, former commissioning editor for Penguin India’s Classics list and now a literary agent. He says the centre of gravity has shifted in contemporary Partition novels, which tend to focus more on the psychological impact of the event, but it remains “a way of expressing the pain of being robbed of a place that was home.”

Though the sense of loss is shared by both countries, there is also an interesting difference of views here, which we in India often don’t recognise. While the overriding narrative in India is that Partition was a tragedy visited on us by the British, in Pakistan 1947 is celebrated as liberation, the beginning of a new nation that Jinnah and other Muslim League leaders had fought for and won. In Kamila Shamsie’s Salt and Saffron (2000), set in the 1990s, the heroine, Aliya, is told by one of her Indian relatives in London: “And for the record, I think Pakistan was a big mistake.” Aliya retorts, “For the record, I don’t. Glad we’ve got that part of the conversation over with.”

But in both India and Pakistan, that conversation never stops.

The writer is former Deputy Publisher at Penguin Random House India and author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City.

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