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Where is Toba Tek Singh?: Rereading Partition literature

Journey to exile: A photograph taken during the Partition exodus.

Journey to exile: A photograph taken during the Partition exodus.   | Photo Credit: Gandhi Smriti

As we celebrate the 72nd year of independence, reading literature centred on the traumatic experience of Partition might offer closure while showing us a way to avoid mistakes of the past

What place do you come from?’ This is an oft-asked question even today when Partition survivors — now a very senior generation of people — meet, both in India and Pakistan. The question brings out their compelling desire to re-establish some contact, if not with their place of origin then at least with someone who may have come from the same town or city as themselves from across the border. Notice how the strong sense of place in Manto’s short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’ gets further accentuated when it is revealed that the eponymous protagonist shares his name with that of the town — it is an example of complete identification of the person with the place to which he belonged. Partition severed this relationship physically, but this also led to the psychological bond getting even stronger. It is this lingering connection that literature centred on Partition explores repeatedly, whether through fictionalised accounts or through narratives recorded in the voice of the survivors.

Resounding silence

“This is Lucknow”: thus begins Joginder Paul’s Urdu novella, Sleepwalkers. This is a statement made about Karachi, but the Mohajirs had carried Lucknow in their minds to Pakistan. The sense of territoriality also holds within itself a sense of specific ancestry, norms, moral order and a special cultural inheritance that lived beyond Partition. The massive migration of people in 1947 meant many a story emerging from the experience of exile.

The exodus of kafilas (large groups of people) had no defined destination, it was a journey to exile and homelessness. To suffer an exodus of this nature, for people who cherished the long-entrenched notion of neighbourhood as family, was disconcerting.

To make it worse, it was a journey through a grotesque dance of violence. “The child who reached safety is dead, it cannot speak. The living child, who could have spoken, has been lost on the way.” This sentence from Gulzar’s story, ‘Raavi Paar’, speaks of the resounding silence of those who became permanently exiled. Their journey into their selves remained what Intizar Husain calls a forever “unwritten epic”.

It is these disowned memories that are skilfully retrieved by the creative writer and given a language. At times when the trauma runs too deep, it is projected on to myths or ancient stories so that it can express itself effectively. For instance, in Jamila Hashmi’s story, ‘Banished’, the acute alienation of a woman married to the man who abducted her is projected as the story of Sita whose exile is never going to end.

As we celebrate the 72nd year of independence, a comprehension of Partition experiences through engagement with its literary representations might help restore some peace that seems to be increasingly slipping from our grasp. When aesthetics is overshadowed by political propaganda and religious fanaticism, literature quietly retreats to the confines of the academia or an exclusive readership. Then society at large gets deprived of the insights to be found between the covers of books that may have sensitively captured life experiences. This shrinks our ability to think empathetically and makes us liable to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Therapeutic value

How could one not be moved by the fate of the child in Bhisham Sahni’s ‘Pali’, a story in which the little boy undergoes religious conversion twice and is trapped in the meaninglessness of dogmatic religious affiliations? The process of demonising the ‘other’ through the politics of division leaves Dauji, a character in Ashfaq Ahmad’s story ‘Gadaria’ (‘The Shepherd’), with no place to go.

Dauji is a Hindu Pandit seeped in Persian language and culture. He is humiliated and mobbed during the riots. One has to know the story of the harmonious Ganga-Jamuni culture from the inside to be able to get to understand Dauji’s plight.

While journalistic reportage in the immediate aftermath of Partition thrived on descriptions of savagery and indulged in the “pornography of violence,” creative literature sought to temper the rawness by taking a compassionate stance.

We get to feel the tension of the riots and the mutual fear between the two communities in Gulzar’s Urdu story ‘Khauf’ (‘Fear’); the delicate handling of violence and its psychosis by Manto in such stories as ‘Khol Do’ (‘Open it’) arouses repugnance for what happened during Partition. In getting re-presented like this, violence acquires a therapeutic value.

Urvashi Butalia, Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon and many other contemporary writers have recorded the stories of survivors of Partition violence — these are often confessional chronicles of unacknowledged experience. In these, sharing itself becomes an act of empowerment. And notwithstanding the distortions of memory or the change of perception over time, recalling and articulation become an indirect acknowledgement of the suffering for many. Fictional narratives, when juxtaposed with subjective and confessional sharing, unfurl additional layers of the same experience.

Shared worldviews

Existing side by side with individual experiences of Partition are novels that speak of its impact on collective society: Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas, a searing portrait of the plight of the Sikh, Muslim and Hindu families caught in the Partition turbulence, for example. Krishna Sobti’s novel Zindaginama brings out the flourishing composite culture of undivided India from the early years of the 20th century till 1947 through a vibrant depiction of life and relationships among varied religious cultures.

While cultural differences were not dismissed, there was mutual respect for one another. Shared legends, songs, rituals and festivals underlined harmony rather than animosity in everyday living. The language of the novel — a vibrant mix of Punjabi, Persian, Hindi and Urdu — exemplifies the inter-culturality which is Zindaginama’s content.

Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya (The River of Fire), a post-Partition novel with a macro vision, traces the history of negotiation and the process of mutual negotiation of cultural practices of both Hindus and Muslims. It demonstrates the gradual development of composite culture convincingly through a sharing of rituals, languages and essential worldviews, with a smattering of occasional strife and conflict.

Why do Indian writers keep going back to Partition? Is it the incomprehensibility of the event as it took place in the writer’s own life or is it bafflement at the collective tragedy? Is it written as a testament to the degeneration of humanity? Is it catharsis that is sought? Is Partition perceived as the soil in which the seeds of communal divide were sown? Do the personal, political, national and cultural crises all come together in the large body of Partition literature produced over the last seven decades? That Partition still continues to haunt us is proved by the fact that we keep writing about it to this day, trying to articulate the unspeakable, thus remaining under its long shadow forever.

Sometimes Partition narratives are accused of sentimentalism, of wallowing in nostalgia for a lost golden age of multi-culturalism. The criticism may not be unwarranted but let’s give it a wide berth. Why not nostalgia if it can save humanity from communal strife and brutality?

The writer is a poet, translator and critic of Partition literature.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 12:32:48 PM |

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