A Study of Trends in Indian Partition Literature Essay

The Partition of India was the geographical division of colonial India into two bordering nation states of India and Pakistan based on religious demographics.1 It was proposed as an unsavoury but necessary accompaniment to the Independence of India from the British Empire. However, it was not only a diplomatic and administrative exercise but rather had a long-lasting psychological impact on the human population of these areas. Though Bapu2 was firmly against this idea, it was reluctantly accepted by Nehru and Jinnah as the only solution to the growing communal divide between the Muslim and Hindu communities.

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3 However, what the political class had never predicted was the unprecedented amount of bloodshed, violence and widespread civil unrest that followed in its wake. Even years after this event, the perpetrators and the victims are still baffled as to the cause of this “madness”4 that gripped civilized society. In the aftermath, historians pretended to ignore it terming it unfortunate but somewhat inevitable while literature tried to come to terms with its bestiality and future implications.

The authorial response of the first generation was severely limited however due to a level of emotional attachment and involvement in the subject matter.

They lacked perspective and varied in two ways: either they were very brief and lacked empathy or tended to be voyeuristic in nature. The official responses attempted to historicise Partition through statistics, facts and figures while literature, to the contrary attempted to give voice to subaltern perspectives personalising victim narratives. Despite such a movement, it was not until the 70’s that it was realised that hardly any attention was paid to the experiences of women during Partition. There was a deep reluctance to address the gender atrocities committed during Partition and it manifested itself through the invisibilisation of women voices. Although it had been clear from the start that the worst sufferers of Partition violence had been women5, a stoic silence upon the tragic reality had been maintained.

Many of these women had led forgotten lives and their trauma suppressed in an attempt to forget the onslaught upon their bodies and minds. Therefore, renewed efforts began to document and portray the forgotten stories of such women. But it was a complex problem in many ways. Partition had had a multifaceted impact on the women of India and Pakistan that not only defined their coming lives but also impacted the future generations as psycho-somatic memories and construction of familial structures post-Partition.6 Literature took the initiative of this task: there were two major strains of women oriented Partition narratives that emerged in the period thus. One school of thought dealt with Partition as a backdrop to the “larger narrative”.

In such stories, the lives of the main characters were highlighted and their lives were allegorised to represent the trauma of the nation itself. The stories of their existence were represented dually: as human beings involved in personal dramas and as social creatures part of a larger mainframe. Their places within the higher superstructure and as creatures dominated by the larger contexts were analysed by writers. A startling example of this was “The Clear Light Of Day” by Anita Desai which never referred to Partition in specific incidents but rather subtle, broken reflections into the people whose day-to-day lives were affected by the growing communal tension and changing socio-political equations.

It refers to the ties of family, friendship, kinship and love that were abruptly ruptured by the literal division of the nation. There were novels such as “Ice-Candy Man” by Bapsi Sidhwa that looks at Partition from the ‘outside’. The narrator Lenny is imbued with unique qualities that were highly unconventional for the times. She was a child, hence she had a limited worldview, a Parsee, hence not religiously biased and neither a participant, physically disabled, therefore able to sympathise with the suffering of others and, a girl therefore her narration is unapologetically gender-conscious. What she learns, is all by association.

The story is a sharp attack on official discourses that denied the suffering of millions of people. Lenny’s story is not only her own but a mirroring of girl-children everywhere that were faced with questions with identity, sexuality, community and nation as a whole and how they shaped individual lives. A child is brutally honest and spares nobody and nothing. She has no inbuilt prejudices so she can speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. As a result of such experimental tales, women felt ready to finally speak up. But, their attempts were met with more resistance than expected.

They were themselves reluctant to speak about they went through; it was too painful but combined with societal pressures, their mouths had been almost sealed shut from fear. For daring to break this unspoken taboo, some of them faced severe consequences and were even disowned by their own families for besmirching the family name. But such actions often took a huge toll on their mental and physical health and though they had survived, they hadn’t healed. As a result of mass migration, women were abruptly uprooted from their homes to move to a strange and unfamiliar place.

They had to build their lives and homes anew, sometimes with no support system. Many of these women were so bereaved at losing their home and hearth, that they could never recover from this sense of loss. Women in traditional society had since ancient days been tasked with looking after the home. Since they were not allowed to venture outside their domain7, the home had been almost personified for them. It was a living breathing space. The only place which they could rightfully stake claim to and which was a source of comfort and solace for them. They were so tangibly attached to their land that family was synonymous with home and her identity came to be defined by her place in the home. Hence when forced to migrate, their sense of unsettlement and upheaval was immense. They could never return to their past lives and change was not so easy for these women who had never been given the opportunity to trespass their comfort zones.

Some stories that movingly illustrated the dilemmas of such women are “Jadein” by Ismat Chughtai, “Sikka Badal Gaya” by Krishna Sobti Sahni and “The Thirst Of Rivers” by Joginder Paul . These women had to undergo the process of relocating their selves. Many women like Bebe from “The Thirst…” refused to leave their homes assured of its protection from evils outside. However, their families were broken up with some members choosing to stay back and some leaving for a new land. Due to differences in opinion, family members become estranged and refused to talk to each other or had problems meeting each other due to large geographical distances.

Often, migrants did not have enough money to travel back and forth and permits were hard to come by. Due to mutual hostilities, communication across borders was sketchy at best. Hence, many a times, a natural void between families occurred. All the while, the matriarch of the family remained a silent witness to events. The family ties that she had spent all her life building up and nurturing were breaking up right before her eyes and she was helpless, unable to act or intervene.

Who would listen to her? Partition had served to further communal tension and hardening religious identities than perhaps any event in the history of India or Pakistan. People who had lived together for several millennia with tranquillity were suddenly made conscious of their differences from each other. They who had been friends earlier were suddenly staunch enemies and women bore the brunt of these realizations. In “Peshawar Express”8, one such incident is narrated when at Wazirabad station, where Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities had celebrated Baisakhi together for ages becomes a site of base humiliation and gruesome celebration; the women of the Hindu and Sikhs communities were paraded around naked as if they were nothing but objects of gratification for the general public.

These women had become mere shells, their souls long dead. In Kamleshwar’s “Kitne Pakistan”, the author ruminates upon the fruitlessness of Partition and the breaking of bonds of families, love and friendships due to its occurrence. It is the story of a Muslim girl, Bano who falls in love with a Hindu boy, Mangal but is not able to marry him because of religious dogmas. She is told that she will cause communal riots. There is a hidden implication in this viewpoint that seems to say that the cause of every mishappening must be a woman somehow. Rules for men and women in traditional dogmatic societies are different It is ironic that men are not chastised for forcibly marrying a man of the other religion but they will not allow their daughters to choose her spouse on her own and he may never belong to another religion.

There is rampant hypocrisy and hollowness in societal mores regarding women. Bano is married off to Muneer who unable to provide for his family with his own hard work resorts to selling his own wife’s body to earn money. The shamefulness of this situation is beyond imagination. These are not falsifications as advocated by fundamental religious leaders but a retelling of many women’s lives. Another kind of psychological trauma that many women underwent was the loss of a child. Many women were forced to leave their children by their husband and children during flight. Children became a burden during this time.

They had to be cared for especially with crucial funds required by the family going for their supplies. Also, escapees with children were more vulnerable to attacks by rioters since they not only had to look after themselves but look after their child as well. There are real life cases documented by Urvashi Bhutalia in her book, “The Other Side Of Silence” wherein women of Muslim as well as Hindu communities were forced to desert their infants that could raise an alarm in the rioters by making noise. Sikh men told tales of killing their children, asking the author, if they should be saving themselves or their daughters?

Clearly, man’s inherent selfishness had come to the fore where no one mattered more than the self. Many children were abducted during the widespread chaos to be sold off as domestic help or prostituted in the streets. Women who lost their children during this time were incessantly plagued by guilt and grief. One such woman was Kulsum from “Pali”9 who lost her child and along with him, her mental balance as well. She was blanketed completely by her grief and only the return of her child restored her sanity. But meanwhile, Zenab who had taken care of her son, Dilip when she found him lost had developed a motherly bond with him and cannot bear parting with him. She knows that she has no biological claim over him but what the mind knows, the heart does not. Eventually, she has to reconcile herself with the reality of her situation.

But her life will forever be shadowed by this sadness. Women who were forced by circumstances to give up their child were forever haunted by their own actions and decisions. They were always in search of redemption and peace and could not reconcile themselves to the loss of their offspring. One example of this can be seen in “The Abandoned Child”10. Infant as well as toddler girls were left by the roadside or killed by their families to avoid making them a target. The life story of one such girl is narrated in “Where Did She Belong” by Suraiya Quasim wherein the protagonist Munni is not sure of her religious or national identity. She is pushed into prostitution by her so-called ‘saviour’11 , who only wants to use her for economic gain.

She is deceived by two of her customers who pretend to love her, but leave her bereft when Partition happens. Nobody asks for her or enquires as to her whereabouts. She is deceived by everyone in her life, ultimately. There were also cases of women who were injured and deceived by members of their own community. People who had been their well-wishers and whom they trusted implicitly, took advantage of their vulnerability and preyed on their bodies. Ayesha’s12 story is the ultimate tragedy of such a ‘lady’13. In guise of protecting her and reuniting Ayesha with her daughter, Nurul takes her with him to Pakistan but betrays her trust by prostituting her instead. She is cursed to a life of assault, on her body and her mind.

Her saviour turns out to her destructor. She dies a life of desolation, her own brethren refusing to come to her aid and never seeing her child again. Afroz too in “I Am Game”14 falls weak due to her instincts of providing and caring for daughter. Seeing no option left for herself and her child, she agrees to prostitution. This depicts to us the sad state of affairs during Partition, when uncertainty and insecurity reigned supreme. Man, woman or children, all had to protect themselves on their own and women for the sake of their families were forced into professions of exploitation to earn their keep.

Besides these atrocities, women were also subjected to particularly vulgar sexual attacks. Writers like Ashis Nandy, Veena Das, and Mushirul Hasan describe the bizarre and horrific nature of sexual violence afflicted on women. It was pornographic in its varied forms. Their bodies were mutilated, disfigured, slogans15 branded on them like they were animals, their wombs sliced open and their foetuses savagely butchered. Women were reduced to spoils of war who were never allowed to unburden themselves or be free. They were reduced to a part of the multitude, just one of many.

Many victims had been traumatised to an extent that they lost themselves to insanity. They could not cope with their reality. Many underwent derealisation16 wherein after the superficial wounds had mended, they started to deny that anything had ever happened to them. It became something of a nightmare, horrific but fantastical. Literature becomes a cathartic medium for many such women, a chance to narrate their tale. Such memoirs also provided a base for Partition scholars to analyse the feminine subject in social and historical contexts of that time period. Partition has often been termed as the dark underbelly17 of Independence but what it really exposed was the base attitudes of patriarchal Indian society, be it any religion.

It revealed how women were equated with the community they belonged to. Though the violence was inter-religious in nature, the modes of inflicting violence were one and the same. All ethics were forgotten in the frenzy of religious vendetta. Revenge was used as an excuse to inflict wounds. They were the contested sites between two opposing factions and were devoid of any agency. One example may be an incident in “The City Of Sorrow”18 , where a man is forced to strip his sister naked by someone of the other religion. When given a chance to retaliate, he forces his tormentor to strip his own wife naked.

Hence, the revenge is complete but ironically, in both cases, the women were the innocent parties who became the medium of exacting justice. They were expected to uphold familial and communal honour and were sacrificed at the altar of “izzat”19 if they were in danger of being captured by the enemy. The concept of honour was internalised20 hence any stain on it was beyond tolerance by patriarchal society. Therefore, to insult and hurt communal sentiments, it was natural that in order to debase the enemy and shed him of his honour, women of his community were targeted systematically.

There were also women who had been indoctrinated to such an extent by religious propaganda that they committed suicide, misled into thinking that they were fulfilling their duty as women. This tradition dates back to the time of ancient Rajputs whose women committed Johar21 to sustain their honour. Hence, it has been a concept propagated throughout the history of religions, Hinduism especially. Bhishma Sahni in “Tamas” and Jyotirmoyee in “The River Churning” present such incidents where women of Hindu and Sikh communities drown themselves in wells in order to “save”22 themselves. Women of the family were the most precious possessions and were to be protected at all costs.

However, when they presented an obstacle in the escape of their family, they were brutally “martyred”23 without compunctions by the family itself. The men of the family did it all in order to save themselves first and to prevent dealing with the hassle of looking after these women. Such people had no conscience in them. This is demonstrated in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s novel “What The Body Remembers” where the daughter-in-law of a Sikh family, Kusum is mercilessly killed by her father-in-law and furthermore chopped into pieces to prevent her from being “contaminated”24 by Muslims.

Her womb is also removed as a symbolic gesture to signify her being pure25. We can therefore read into the implied fear and repulsion of a child born of an inter-religious union. Hence, Kusum is a victim of her own family’s moral code. Such incidents are not hyperbolic in nature but rather fictionalized accounts of reality. Women who were misfortunate enough to fall into the hands of the “other”26 and raped by them could never again return to their roots. They were dirtied and treated as untouchable because they had lost their chastity to the enemy. In “The River Churning”, the protagonist, Sutara is treated as a lower caste untouchable would be27.

Though never raped, even staying in a Muslim household had damned her. She had become polluted like Sita. Like Sita, she became a victim of “social morality”.28 If women had become pregnant somehow, it was even worse for them. They were miscarried forcibly and if the child was born somehow, he or she was never accepted as a part of the family. Women themselves had to come to terms with their reality. They had to learn to let go of their self-loathing which often took root in their minds. They had to live with a child who was a constant reminder of their suffering. Yet, women learned to let go and forgive but their families could not move past this situation. The woman was given the choice of either abandoning her children or her family.

Therefore, she was kept trapped in overlapping identities of woman, mother and daughter. There was no time to consider the interests of the self. The children of such women were often physically, mentally and verbally abused all throughout their lives. They were the victims of religious hatred. It left deep scars on their psyche that could never be repaired. They were often castigated for having lived and their mothers looked at with contempt for not having died in order to preserve themselves. Women often started hating their own selves when faced with a constant stream of disgust and repulsion. It is said that “Rape is the only crime where the victim is held guilty” and these women were the prime examples of this adage.

They were made to feel guilty, demeaned and dehumanized to such an extent that they often felt that dying would perhaps have been a better option. Women were at the highest risk of being abducted during migration across borders. These women stranded on the wrong side were forcibly converted and married off to their abductors. They were raped repeatedly or sold off as entertainment. Women were objectified as commodities and their bodies became alien to their own selves. They were not their own persons but mere belongings. Anis Kidwai in her novel, “Azaadi Ki Chaon Mein” writes starkly about these girls who were nothing but stuff to be shared among the men who were, but slaves of their lust.

In his short story, Open It!, Saadat Hasan Manto further elaborates upon the savagery doled out to these women. The main protagonist, Sakina had been ravaged to such an extent that she had lost her personality and her sanity. She was alive only physically, but emotionally and mentally dead. She knew nothing but what she had been forced to go through again and again. Her senses had been so wrecked that she only expects men to want one thing from her i.e. her body. This story presents a horrifying picture to the reader who is compelled to question if Sakina will ever recover from her trauma. Other women were forcibly married off to their abductors and underwent alienation of the self. They were conflicted as to their identities.

On one hand, they felt abhorrence for their abductors. On the other hand, such marriages often bore children which caused these women to war with their motherly instincts. Ultimately losing all hope of rescue or restoration, these women had resigned to their life but, again, they were expected to return at the behest of the respective governments of the two countries. Women had become mere tools of diplomatic manoeuvring between the hostile governments who were under immense political pressure to retrieve the population of women that had been left behind or abducted during Partition.

One such woman’s tale is narrated in “Exile”29 where the woman narrator is forcibly married to her abductor, Gurpal, a man who regards her as nothing more than a maid that he brought to serve his mother (Badi Ma). What is even more poignant is the fact that Badi Ma, a woman herself is not able to empathise with her Bahu30 or show kindness towards her. She is merely there to serve their needs, like a tool. Ironically, Gurpal who is clearly devoted towards his mother evidently has no guilt about ill-treating a woman of another community.

We can see here the oppressive influence of patriarchal society that does not allow for women to exercise an opinion of their own. The narrator has never been able to accept Gurpal as her husband. In nine years she has never able to understand why her brother, whom she dearly loves has not come to rescue her. She feels lonely and abandoned by her loved ones. She longs for her home and wants her life to end at last so she can be at peace. When the soldiers arrive to rescue her, she knows that she cannot return since she will not be accepted back as a ‘mother’. And she cannot leave her children. Hence she hides from the soldiers.

Her apprehension of the other option can be justified by reading “Lajwanti”31 whose tragedy is shrouded by complete silence. She was treated abominably by her husband, Sunderlal who asserts his domination over her body and mind by beating her like an animal. She bore it all as part of her wifely duties clearly adhering to traditional norms of domesticity. But when she is abducted during Partition chaos, her husband, perhaps, feeling remorse for how he had treated her, became a campaigner for the rights of abductee women.

He advocates their rehabilitation and reacceptance into society but when his wife, Lajo is restored to him, he distances himself from her and sets her on the pedestal of a goddess. She feels alienated, lonely and longs for her old life where she could at least interact with her husband. In the present, her husband wants her to forget her sufferings and not to speak of them. But can the past really be forgotten as easily as he wanted it to be? Many women who had built new lives for themselves post-Partition often came face to face with their pasts when their lost loved ones returned back to them. In this situation, what was the woman to do? Should she abandon her present life to return to her past happiness? This is obviously a problem to which there is no clear-cut solution.

But it was often expected of women to move on from their pasts and not look back but even they are living, breathing human beings with feelings and emotions. These may be unwanted but cannot be so easily banished from the mind. Women end up feeling conflicted all throughout their lives. One text that accurately depicts one such situation is “A Visitor From Pakistan”32 where the protagonist Saraswati is trapped between her first husband, Baldev whom she had thought dead; and her husband at present, Sunderdas who had saved her and her parents during the riots.

Her own mother chastises her for even talking to Baldev so then who will understand her predicament? She is blamed for something that she is not even responsible for. Partition left a long-lasting impact on the women who witnessed and suffered through it. They passed on the lessons they learned to their daughters hoping for a better future for them. It is an important part of women’s history and it should be analysed carefully to change the conservative thought processes of Indian society to avoid women from becoming subjects of patriarchal oppression and break the repetitive patterns of history.

END NOTES : 1. India and Pakistan were divided along the Radcliffe Line with Muslim majority areas seceded to Pakistan and Hindu-Sikh majority areas to India. 2. Mahatma Gandhi was deemed the “Father Of The Nation” and hence affectionately called Bapu by the general populace. 3. J.L. Nehru and M.A. Jinnah were leaders of the Congress party and Muslim League respectively. They were not agreeable to sharing power in the united govt. of sovereign India and hence the only option was to divide the country with both parties ruling over their majority vote areas.

4. The metaphor of madness was used by many Partition writers like Saadat Hasan Manto in “Toba Tek Singh” to describe the religious hatred that changed normal people into rioters, rapists and murderers. 5. J.L. Nehru stated this in The International Women’s Conference in 1947 alluding to the extreme violence perpetrated upon women in North India. 6. Ideas postulated by Carl Jung and supported by Freudian theories. 7. Women were kept under purdah and not allowed to meet with people outside the family. Women lived in separate quarters of the house called the ‘antahpur’ which was solely in their control. 8. written by Krishan Chander

9. written by Bhishma Sahni
10. written by Gurmukh Singh Musafir
11. Ironic since Munni’s saviour is herself a victim of circumstances and Munni is just a way to earn more money. 12. “A Grave Turned Inside Out” by Ibrahim Jalees
13. Ayesha was the lady of a noble family but debased to the level of a common prostitute. Shows that societal hierarchies were suspended during Partition. 14. written by Sultan Jamil Nasim

15. The slogans Hindustan Zindabad and Pakistan Zindabad were carved onto their bodies as validating gestures of the victimiser’s own national identity. 16. Derealisation is a psychological condition where the subject deludes himself/herself into thinking that their present reality is illusory and unreal and that reality is different. 17. Independence was achieved after a long struggle, so there was jubilation among the people but at the same time, this happiness was marred by the grief of Partition and its aftermath. 18. written by Intizar Hussain

19. Izzat is one of the basic concepts of Hindu womanhood where a woman’s honour is defined by her chastity and any outrage of her modesty stains her honour as well as her family’s. The family’s honour is an extension of the woman’s honour. 20. Internalisation is the process of integration of certain values as part of the self-identification. It becomes a part of one’s self-image.

21. Johar is the ancient Rajput tradition of women jumping into huge fire-pits to save their honour from the enemy’s army if defeat seemed imminent. 22. Women jumped into wells to protect themselves from rape and mutilation. Dying chaste was preferred to living a life of humiliation. Hence, they were saved in the eyes of society. 23. Women who committed suicide were venerated because they were believed to have died for a noble cause. Hence, their deaths received social sanction and appreciation. 24. If women were raped, their bodies no longer remained solely of their religion. And, hence, inter-religious taboos were applied to such women. Hence chopping of the bodies signified that no one of the other side had had sex with her or would be able to.

25. The womb was removed to signify that it did not carry a Muslim bastard child and her ability to do so is removed from her. 26. During conflict, the opposing faction is alienated and presented as someone strange and unfamiliar to the minds of the mob. This requires dehumanization of the people from the other side so that they do not evoke emotions of sympathy.

27. The taboos associated with untouchability are not allowing them to eat and drink from the same vessels and prevent from touching them. 28. Sita was banished from Ayodhya because even though she was pure, the people of Ram’s kingdom did not believe her. Doubts were cast on her character since she had lived in Ravana’s Lanka for a long time. 29. Written by Jamila Hashmi

30. When a bahu arrives in her marital household, she is bedecked with jewels, dressed in finery and serenaded by shehnai. She is full of happiness and hope. Here, the narrator is exactly opposed to this situation and yet, ironically she has become the bahu of a family. 31. written by Rajinder Singh Bedi

32. written by Ramlal


1. “Partition In Fiction: Gendered Perspectives”, Isabella Bruschi, New Delhi, Atlantic Publishers & Distributors (P) Ltd.,2010 2. In The Heat Of Fratricide: The Literature Of India’s Partition Burning Freshly (A Review Article)”,Jason Francisco 3. “Stories About The Partition Of India”, Vol. 1.,Ed. By Alok Bhalla, Delhi,Harper Collins, 1994 4. Re-Membering Woman: Partition,Gender And Reorientations, “Narrating Partition:Texts,
Interpretations And Ideas”, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Indialog Publications,2004

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