The Pain of Partition, as Seen in the Literature of Many Languages

As the country waves flags and celebrates the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it is also time to take stock. What did India’s founders and citizens dream of, how has India fared, what have been our challenges and successes?

The Wire’s reporters and contributors bring stories of the period, of the traumas but also the hopes of Indians, as seen in personal accounts, in culture, in the economy and in the sciences. How did the modern state of India come about, what does the flag represent? How did literature and cinema tackle the trauma of Partition? 

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Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty


Hindi

Jhootha Sach (Two Volumes) by Yashpal: It is novel of epic dimensions because it is a work of literature and political sociology rolled into one. By creating a complex web of characters, Yashpal, who was a close comrade of Bhagat Singh and later turned into a Marxist, has brought out in sharp relief what went wrong that made the Partition happen and depicts the political generation that set in in the post-Partition India.

Tamas by Bhisham Sahni: Like Yashpal, Bhisham Sahni too was a Punjabi who was uprooted from his comfortable existence in Rawalpindi and had experienced the horrors of Partition first hand. Little wonder that the Bhiwandi riots of 1973 deeply affected him and he was inspired to write this novel which is a subtle, sensitive and moving account of the Partition.

Aadha Gaanv by Rahi Masoom Raza: In contrast to most other Partition novels, Aadhaa Gaanv was written by Rahi Masoom Raza, a Muslim who deeply felt his rootedness in his village in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur district and did not have to migrate but who was a helpless witness to the way Pakistani ideology easily gripped the youth even in a remote village.

Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan by Krishna Sobti: Krishna Sobti published this novel in 2017 when she was in her early 90s. This novel deals, in a creative manner, with her experiences of getting uprooted from Gujarat in West Pakistan, arriving in Delhi as a “refugee”, and taking up an assignment as a governess in the ruling family of the erstwhile princely state of Sirohi in Gujarat in India.

Punjabi

Nanak Singh: Nanak Singh is really the benign banyan in the world of Punjabi letters. Born in 1897 in Chak Hameed, Peshawar, in the present-day Pakistan, he lived through the cataclysmic event of Partition. Inspired by the Singh Sabha movement in his initial years and later by Munshi Prem Chand and the Progressives, he exhibits a developed humanist streak in his writings. His novels Khun de Sohile (1949) (Hymns in Blood) and Agg di Khed (1948) (The Game of Fire) are replete with anguish around the hitherto unimagined violence that Punjab witnessed during Partition.

Kartar Singh Duggal: Nahun te Maas (Nails and Flesh) 1950 delineates the composite communities that flourished in towns and villages before Partition and how they were forced to separate along artificially created boundaries. Partition constitutes a rupture in the land of Punjab that had been known for its syncretic spirit and was a nursery of Sikhism and Sufism. Man Pardesi (Heart is a Traveller) and Ab Na Baso Eh Gaon (No More Will I Live in This Village) reveal the many ruptures in the private lives of people who lived in harmony before Partition.

Surinder Singh Narula: Din Duniya depicts the commercial, social and cultural life of the city of Lahore on the eve of Partition and what transpires as a consequence of the division. Dil Dariya (Ocean of Heart), situated in Delhi, similarly explores Gandhian socialism as a possible solution to the extreme violence unleashed on the streets during Partition.

Amrita Pritam: In Pinjar (1950), Pritam presents a woman-centric view of Partition. It highlights the plight of a woman who is kidnapped and later, when she is able to reunite with her family with much struggle, is ironically rejected by them because of the ‘dishonour she has brought to the family’.

Sohan Singh Sital: Sital is connected to the dhadi style of devotional singing, apart from being one of the veteran voices in the world of letters. Tutan Wala Khoo, literally The Well Amidst Mulberry Trees, set in Kasur, is a story of a village where the syncretic bonds between Hindu-Muslim communities are real and thriving, and Partition causes a disruption in their everyday harmonious coexistence.

Niranjan Singh Tasneem: Jadon Saver Hoi is set in the tumultuous decades of the 1940s and explores the complexities of love across communities in a deeply divisive time.

English

Train to Pakistan, Khushwant Singh: Set in the fictional border town of Mano Manjra, in which people have lived together peacefully for ages until rumours of Partition, and then the actual event of Partition itself, tears the community apart.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie: The novel famously starts with its narrator being born at the stroke of the midnight hour, and thus “handcuffed to history” – so it’s not strictly speaking a “Partition novel”. But it does circle back to his grandparents and parents in pre-Independent India, touching upon the effects of Partition and the riots that followed. One character, who rails against Partition, points to the half-an-hour time difference between the new nations: “Those Leaguers plan to abscond with a whole thirty minutes!”

The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh: Set in London, Dhaka and Kolkata, and not primarily about Partition per se, but the event casts a long shadow in the remembrances of a fractured family and their friends.

Clear Light of Day, Anita Desai: Set in Old Delhi, ranging between the past (the time of Partition) and the present, covering fissures and misunderstandings in the lives of a family over the years. Supposed to be at least partly autobiographical.

Ice Candy Man, Bapsi Sidhwa: Set in Lahore during the mid-1940s onwards, and thus directly dealing with the events of Partition, through the prism of the coming of age of a young Parsi girl.

Sunlight on a Broken Column, Attia Hossain: Again semi-autobiographical, and with actual Partition not making up a bulk of the narrative, but about a woman finding her voice and agency in the years leading up to 1947 and then after. This was a part of the 70 titles of The Big Jubilee Read chosen to commemorate the reign of Queen Elizabeth earlier this year.

Apart from the above five, some others that come to mind are: Looking Through Glass, Mukul Kesavan; What the Body Remembers, Shauna Singh Baldwin; A Bend in the Ganges, Manohar Malgonkar; and Difficult Daughter, Manju Kapoor.

Urdu

Aag Ka Darya by Qurratulain Hyder: This historical novel by the Sahitya Akademi Award winning writer is one of the most important Urdu novels covering partition of the Indian subcontinent. The author not only details the trauma of the partition but also provides a detailed context of it. Hyder deals with the socio-cultural history of the subcontinent, spanning over two thousand years and ending with the partition and its impact. Originally published in 1959, in English it is available as River of Fire.

Aangan by Khadija Mastoor: Like Aag ka Darya, it is also a historical, set in 1940s. However, it is very different from most of the ‘Partition literature’. According to literary critic Asif Farrukhi, “Aangan remains low-key, perhaps deliberately so, focusing on girls and women and, of course, men as well, chronicling the disturbances and havoc created in their lives by political events.” Originally published in 1962, in English it is available as The Women’s Courtyard.

Ghaddaar by Krishan Chander: Set in August-September 1947, this is one of the lesser known but a very significant novels detailing the partition. Literary critic Rakhshanda Jalil who translated it in English in 2017 says it is certainly the most compact yet moving piece of writing in his oeuvre. Originally published in 1962, in English it is available as Traitor.

Udaas Naslein by Abdullah Hussein: It is considered one of the best novels in written Urdu, which also touches upon the theme of partition. It is known for its realistic portrayal of modern and contemporary sensitivity, apart from wonderfully capturing the tragedy of rural Punjab.

Social scientist-translator Raza Naim, who has written the introduction to the reissued English edition (2016) of the novel, says it “may be read on three levels”.

Apart from the above novels, there are dozens of short stories which deal with the tragedy of partition. Several writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Intizar Hussain, Hayataullah Ansari, Qurratulain Hyder and others have written about it. Some of the most striking short stories about partition and its fall out are by Manto. He has extensively written about it. His short stories such as Thanda Gosht, Toba Tek Singh, Khol Do, Yazeed, Anjaam Bakhair, Khuda Ki Qasam, Harnaam Kaur are considered as must read as far as partition literature is considered. In Intizar Hussain’s writings also, one finds pain of the partition.

Bengali

Agunpakhi (The Firebird) by Hasan Azizul Huq, translated in English by Arunava Sinha
Dayamoyeer Katha (A Life Long Ago) by Sunanda Sikdar, translated to English by Anchita Ghatak

The two texts of Hasan Azizul Huq and Sunanda Sikdar which were published almost back to back, the first in 2006 and the other in 2008 trace the history of Partition from the period before 1947 to what happened after. It maps the dislocation, relocation, acculturation and adjustments of women who suddenly found themselves caught up in the political-social-economic upheaval that changed relationships of family, caste, class and gender.

In Agunpakhi, the nameless woman suddenly finds herself in a vortex of violence and the clamour surrounding it – Lorke Lenge Pakistan. Her response is “what will you do with it once you win it? Do you even know where Pakistan will be?” She discovers that after marriage, “Once I joined the drudgery, there was to be no end to it. If they said right, I had to go right. If they said left, I had to go left. …Am I a person or a person’s shadow? And even then, is that my own shadow?”

In Dayamoyeer Katha, the dislocation, relocation, acculturation and adjustment is an elegy of movement from Dighpait, a village in East Bengal of “ripuchis” (refugees) Muslim families that crossed into the newly created East Pakistan and the Hindu families that left for West Bengal. Dayamoyee’s transformation begins with her renaming as Sunanda. When she relocates to the metropolis as part of the flood of refugees, she says “For many years, I felt compelled to deny the profound truth of my life. Instead I rushed to become a part of the city and its life, so that people around me thought I was normal and comfortable. In truth, it wasn’t easy.”

Khwabnama (Saga of Dreams) by Akhtaruzzaman Elias

Elias has created an extraordinary tale of magical realism, blending memory with reality, a legend with history and the struggle of marginalised people with the stories of their ancestors. It is a deeply political novel, presenting a series of vignettes from undivided Bengal/India of the 1940s to Partition, Independence and after. While most novels depend upon the development and struggles of individuals to tell their stories, Khwabnama relies on the shared experience of people to tell a story about Partition.

The plot is woven around the Tebhaga peasant rebellion, in which sharecroppers demanded a larger share of the farm produce. Against this background, Elias unfolds the story of the fisherman-farmer Tamiz, whose life is one of crushing poverty, hunger and injustice. He embodies all that is painfully real among the underprivileged.Running through this grimness is a thin thread of the magical. The ghosts of a long-dead sepoy called Munshi and a wandering fakir called Cherag Ali flit in and out of the plot, pulling readers into mystical spaces where fish turn to sheep, waterbodies form and unform whimsically, and music takes unlikely shapes.

Epaar Ganga Opaar Ganga by Jyotirmoyee Devi

This is a complex history of dislocation and relocation, of rupture that is best described. “Thus, in the Hindu city of Calcutta, Hindu Sutara who was first displaced and then saved by Muslims experiences another form of exile, rupture and violence. This is not a direct stab-wound from which the blood gushes out but a kind of internal haemorrhage leaving the person lonely and agonized. Compared to this state, her refuge in Tamijkaka’s house was better because there she was at least a part of a web of human ties. She was not (to quote the author): “A nuisance, a Pakistani refugee-nuisance.” Sutara loses her parents in the violence of Partition in Noakahli district and is rescued by a Muslim family, who help her recover and then help her join the rest of her family in Kolkata. There she is an outcast, a woman defiled by her association with her Muslim rescuers.

Puraba Paschim (East West) by Sunil Gangopadhyay

This is about the middle class, principally Hindu, reaction to Partition, across time and boundaries. The river Padma is a divider and a connector between the East and the West and symbolises the flow of events and time. The notion of “home,” before and after Partition is a powerful signifier of dislocation, relocation, dispossession and impoverishment. The novel spans the years preceding Partition to 1971, when Bengalis in East Pakistan liberated themselves from the dominance of West Pakistan, to establish Bangladesh as a separate State where the inhabitants could express their pride in their identity, culture and language.

Sindhi books

Pakhiara Valarakhan Vichriyaa (Birds Separated From Their Flock) by Gobind Malhi

This 1953 book written by Gobind Malhi fresh from his own Partition experience, has hero Sanwal refusing to leave Sindh even when all his family and friends do. The book describes the situation of Partition vividly, and through Sanwal’s dogged determination not to succumb to a political categorisation of religion, the author conveys the Sindhi Sufi ethos which puts humanity above all. Translated into English as The Anguish of Separation by Sindhishaan and published by Shobha Chandnani in 2014.

Yerwada jailajyu kahaaniyoon by Rita Shahani

Written in 1999, Shahani drew on the bedtime stories her husband Vishnu would tell their children about his life as a freedom fighter. This book uses different voices with different perspectives to present an all-round view of the Indian freedom struggle, the RSS, the bitterness at the loss of Sindh – on 15 August 1947, Vishnu ripped up the flag in anguish – and some changes that took place after Independence. Translated into English as Tales from Yerwada Jail by Saaz Aggarwal with the author in 2014.

One of the most prolific, original and vibrant Sindhi writers of recent times, a feminist role model, was Popati Hiranandani. Her autobiography and selected stories, The Pages of My Life, was translated from Sindhi by Jyoti Panjwani in 2010. Popati writes about her life in Hyderabad as a young girl, and her mother’s struggles to take care of the family after her father died. She describes the escape from violence and the traumatic resettlement, followed by her life as a writer in independent India. The stories are a fictionalised extension of the autobiography and their main themes are gender, Partition and social injustice.

Sindhi novels about Partition are few, but there was a huge outpouring of short stories and poetry in the anguished aftermath of separation, loss and struggle. Unbordered Memories, a collection of short stories, was translated by Rita Kothari in 2009. Freedom and Fissures, an anthology of Sindhi Partition poetry was translated by Anju Makhija and Menka Shivdasani with the poet Arjan ‘Shad’ Mirchandani in 1998.

Hem’s father is the mukhi of Tharushah. Away at Shantiniketan when Partition takes place, he becomes a successful and well-paid journalist in independent India. However, the feeling of being lost and not fitting in persists. This book is about his anguish, his conviction that he needs Sindh as much as Sindh needs him. He wanders through Kachchh, crosses the salt desert towards the border, and is never seen again. Tarandara Badal (clouds transgress borders) was written in the late 1990s by Krishin Khatwani, himself a student at Shantiniketan when Partition took place

Contributions by Kuldeep Kumar, Sakoon Singh, Mahtab Alam, Sanjay Sipahimalani, Shikha Mukherjee and Saaz Agarwal.

This article was first published on The Wire.