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Partition literature: Hope for a different tomorrow

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Partition literature: Hope for a different tomorrow

Author Geetanjali Shree (right) and translator Daisy Rockwell with the 2022 International Booker Prize awards for  ‘Tomb of Sand’, in London on May 26.

Author Geetanjali Shree (right) and translator Daisy Rockwell with the 2022 International Booker Prize awards for ‘Tomb of Sand’, in London on May 26. | Photo Credit: David Cliff

Partition literature helps us make sense of one of the most traumatising events in the country’s history so that we don’t repeat a similar catastrophe in the here and now.

1947, the year that has blood smeared all over it and every whisper of which sends images of violence, death, and grief running through our minds, irrespective of whether we’ve witnessed it first-hand or not. It’s the year of the Partition and the disintegration of a nation into two and, later, three. The Partition of India that led to the creation of Pakistan first and then Bangladesh is one of the most traumatising events in the subcontinent’s history. It left millions displaced, wounded, and murdered. So much so that the effects of its devastation are visible even today, 75 years later, as we find ourselves in the same old predicament of religious polarisation and inhumane discrimination.

Therefore, like any great event in history that has had indelible repercussions, the Partition, too, has inspired many works of incredible literature that chronicles the cataclysmic event from the different sides of the border. From non-fiction accounts like Midnight’s Furies by Nisid Hajari and Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra to fictional works like Train To Pakistan by Khushwant Singh , Pinjar by Amrita Pritam and Ice-Candy Man, also known as Cracking India, by Bapsi Sidhwa , Partition literature has helped generations to make sense of a period in the subcontinent’s history that is quite difficult to fathom in its entirety. Given the enduring nature of such literature, it has given common people the ability to read and acknowledge the destruction across time and place and the causes leading up to it. It reminds us of human failings and the fragility of human conscience that become the reasons for such disastrous events to take place.

Some of the best Partition literature are often an amalgamation of history, politics, facts, and little bit fiction. A trait, however, even more important is the act of humanising this gut-wrenching tragedy. For tragedy as catastrophic as the Partition, it is more often true than not that lives become numbers and losses become statistics. However, literature allows the liberty to convert these figures into feelings and the numbers into nuanced details that bring to life the singular experiences of grief, loss and pain that the people went through during this dark time.

On the move from Balloki (in Pakistan now) to India during the Partition in 1947.
On the move from Balloki (in Pakistan now) to India during the Partition in 1947. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

Such literature collectively works to transcend the unanimous and one-dimensional narrative that has been taught to us by the state and the textbooks. In looking at the tragedy from different angles and perspectives, Partition literature depicts the plurality of singular experiences and how mankind is often poisoned by the same woes again and again. While dwelling into discourse of religion, caste, colour, and discrimination, such stories implore us to look at our past in order to understand our present and manifest a brighter future.

There’s an exceptional paragraph in Khushwant Singh’s Train To Pakistan, that has so much truth to it that it almost seems bizarre: India is constipated with a lot of humbug. Take religion. For the Hindu, it means little besides caste and cow-protection. For the Muslim, circumcision and kosher meat. For the Sikh, long hair and hatred of the Muslim. For the Christian, Hinduism with a sola topee. For the Parsi, fire-worship and feeding vultures. Ethics, which should be the kernel of a religious code, has been carefully removed.

If one were to read this without the context of the Partition, would these words make as much sense? Even 75 years later, we’ve not grown above our differences and we’ve not learned what it means to let love prevail, which is why we need to read, and reread, stories on the Partition of India and see that hatred is taking us nowhere. If we don’t learn from history, then it is quite likely that it will repeat itself.

Take for example, the 1990 exodus of Kashmiri Pandits. Look around you and one can see how it is happening again while the nation remains silent. We may have promoted and made a ruckus out of a propaganda film on the same issue, but we’ve still not learnt what we needed to learn. History repeats itself right before our eyes, but we still can’t see that we need to assess ourselves today through the lens of yesterday in the hope for a better tomorrow. Otherwise we’ll just keep going in circles, filled with sorrow, hatred, and despondency.

The recent monumental International Booker Prize victory of Tomb Of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (translated by Daisy Rockwell) is another heart-wrenching story on the Partition, where an 80-year old woman decides to travel to Pakistan in order to deal and grapple with the trauma of the Partition. The book has now joined the array of Partition stories that explore the colossal migration and its emotional and tangible consequences.

There’s a reason why even after all these years, writers are still writing about the Partition and readers are still reading it. We live in a constantly changing civilisation and in order to understand the very concepts of cultivation, culture, and society, it is vital that we decipher it from past experiences. That is why we go back to one of the bloodiest times in history, to see what went wrong and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Through literature, we make sense of the multi-layered dynamics and semantics of not only the event in question but also of our presents and futures.

Our textbooks and classrooms have not taught us to weigh emotions and measure grief, but prose and poetry have the power to make such heartbeats, and heartbreaks, palpable. It brings to light the fault lines of our existence as it comments on rape and murder, religion and race, mass hysteria and anguish, distance and belongingness, inequality and gender, life and death. It makes us ask the right questions so that when the situation arises, we don’t run out of answers as we scramble for solutions. It holds our hand and pushes us to look beyond the assortment of facts and see the tears, sweat, and blood that still stain our maps and hearts.