Revisiting the ‘Partition Literature’
by C. M. Naim
I should first congratulate the two editors, Sukrita Paul Kumar of the University of Delhi (Zakir Husain College) and Frank Stewart of the University of Hawaii, for putting together this special issue of Mànoa. Entitled ‘Crossing Over,’ it makes for a fine anthology of what in South Asia is commonly called the literature of the Partition. No anthology can be comprehensive; it can at best try to be representative. And that, this anthology is. The authors chosen here are fair representatives of the three linguistic/literary traditions—Urdu, Hindi, and Punjabi—considered to be most relevant. Thematically too it is representative, as the editors lay out in their brief but most useful introduction. It also tries to be different from most other such anthologies, by paying attention not only to what happened in Punjab, but also to the two separate, though somewhat similar, sets of events in East Bengal: (1) the Partition in 1947, and (2) the secession from Pakistan in 1971. Both events caused much devastation.
This anthology comes out at a time (August 2007) when the subcontinent is celebrating 60 years of independence. Sadly, this month many of us are mourning the death of a great writer, Qurratulain Hyder, whose novels and novellas in Urdu provide some of the most profound insights into what life came to be for millions in the Subcontinent in the aftermath of the Partition. To my limited knowledge, she was the only writer in any South Asia language who wrote with equally convincing force about the lives and events in every one of the three new nations: Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
I had the privilege of translating two of her novellas some years back, and I would like to paraphrase here a small portion of what I wrote then as an introduction:
The days and months that preceded and followed August 1947 . . . were filled with most horrific acts of physical violence. . . . It was also a time of other, equally rampant violent deeds that, for all their not being patently physical, were nevertheless similarly scarring. These were violations of love and trust; they wounded and maimed the psyches of their victims, while leaving the bodies intact. That season of betrayals lasted longer than a few months. For many, it continues even now, sixty years later.
The betrayals were of many kinds. The most blatant and well recorded were in the arena of public life—the betrayals, big and small, by the political leaders. There was the abandonment by the Muslim League leaders of U.P. and Bihar of the very people whom they had vociferously claimed to represent, when those leaders rushed off to Pakistan to grab positions of power. Then there were the stalwarts of the Indian National Congress, who abandoned their avowed ideals when they accepted—some would say, with an ungainly haste—the division of the country, in order to pursue their own vision of a highly centralized polity.
At the level of personal lives, too, there were equally numerous and severe betrayals. One may rightly say, of course, that the physical violence let loose during those ‘communal riots’ was nothing but an extreme violation of the trust that should have existed between human beings.
Not physically damaging but no less scarring were the innumerable, seemingly innocuous incidents that occurred between neighbors, between friends, even between members of the same family. These were betrayals of established ties and expectations. As masses of people moved from one country to the other, a person suddenly found his neighbor gone, though there had been no threat of violence; or a friend was shocked to discover that his boon companion had emigrated overnight to some distant place. And who can say that those who went away did not ever feel a twinge of pain or guilt for what they had done to the trust that others had placed in them?”
Most selections in this anthology pay attention to the interactions of the latter kind, which was also the hallmark of Miss Hyder’s inimitable writings on the Partition.
Now I’d like to take advantage of this opportunity to bring up three matters for your possible consideration. There was first a time when ‘Partition Literature’ was believed to consist of what had been written in Urdu and Hindi; then what was written in Punjabi entered into our consciousness; and now, thankfully, no anthology on the subject would leave out Bengali writings. I wonder if it would not be worthwhile now to further widen the range? Perhaps there are some fascinating narratives even in the languages that are not linked to the areas where borders were created and blood was shed. Where ordinary human life went on as before—or so we believe was the case. I’m curious to know what thoughtful writers in Kannada, Malayalam, and Marathi, for example, wrote in 1947, not so much about what they read was happening elsewhere as about what they observed was happening in their own peaceful neighborhoods. We need to know much more than what we do now, in order to gain a more nuanced understanding of that massive and nebulous experience we so often abbreviate as the Partition experience. We need to have that knowledge not for the sake of knowing alone, but also to exorcise the demons that still lurk amongst us.
The lasting impact of the trauma suffered by millions of South Asians in 1947 could be seen in the fact that even sixty years later, come the month of August, we saw more headlines saying ‘Sixty Years of Partition’ than ‘Sixty Years of Independence’. That, at least, was my experience as I surfed the web the previous two week. The Partition seems to have become a permanent blight affecting the body politics in South Asia. In its most ubiquitous form, the blight displays itself when powerful people filled with nationalist zeal invoke the Partition to excuse, or explain away, some blatantly oppressive action of their own. An invocation of the Partition also comes handy to those who see some benefit in stopping others from starting anew, with a somewhat cleaner slate. I’m referring to the communal extremists in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, who will not allow others to create new and fruitful interactions between different communities within the separate boundaries of the three nations, as well as across the borders and among the three nation themselves. In raising this issue, I’m perhaps trying to invoke the question that Faiz Ahmad Faiz raised in the poem he wrote after visiting Bangladesh for the first and last time, three years after the bloodbath that had accompanied the emergence of that nation:
kab nazar meN aaegi be-daaG sabze ki bahaar
khuun ke dhabbe dhuleNge kitnii barsaatoN ke baad
When will we set our eyes on a stretch of spotless green?
How many rainy seasons will it take to wash away the bloodspots?
I believe that when, in 1947, Faiz labeled ‘freedom’s dawn’ as poisoned and scarred—yih daaG daaG ujaalaa yih shab-gaziidah sahar—he could not have had in mind only the territorial partition and the unspeakable violence that came with it. After all, we should remember that Faiz ended the poem with a call:
najaat-e diidah-o-dil ki ghaRii nahiiN aa'ii
chale chalo kih vuh manzil abhii nahiiN aa'ii
Hearts and eyes are not yet free, keep moving on.
The place we sought has not arrived. Keep moving on.
In other words, the failures of the South Asian people and their political leaders at the end of the colonial rule in South Asia should not be seen only through the prism of the Partition as a holocaust. We should simultaneously question the territorial nationalism that was then universally espoused, whether the proponents called it Muslim or Indian. As we look around, we can see that the consequences of that territorial imperative disguised as the ‘nation state’ are still with us. Certainly as much as are the consequences of what we call the Partition.
Lastly, let us also consider the possibility that a story of the Partition
can also be a story of personal fulfillment. If a so-called ‘menial’ or
chhoTaa aadmii, left one caste/class-ridden society and found some
way to become a ‘gentleman’ or baRaa aadmii in another equally caste/class-ridden
society, should we only mock him and not pat him on the back? Must we only
feel sorry for those who lost everything, and give no thought to those
who, during the same process that we call the Partition, gained something
that the socio-economic traditions and structures, so often and conveniently
mourned in much of the Partition literature, would have denied them had
the Partition not taken place?