Seventy-five years after Partition, its memory remains strong and graphic. Although there are few left who lived through its horrors, it stubbornly lingers below the surface of the present, bubbling up through cracks and fissures, resisting erasure. Nowhere is this more evident than in literature, both fiction and non-fiction, that the subcontinent has produced since 1947. Even contemporary fiction writers in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and English reference it repeatedly—Partition is used as a literary device, a metaphor, or as driver of plot in an astonishing number of stories, novels, and screenplays.
To take a fairly recent example, in Karuna Ezara Parikh’s novel The Heart Asks Pleasure First (2020), an Indian girl and a Pakistani boy fall in love in the placid environs of a small Welsh town. This commonplace event has fearsome consequences as it reawakens the forces unleashed by the division of a distant subcontinent many decades ago. The great wheels of free will and loyalty, patriotism and faith are set in motion in that sunny Cardiff park when these hapless young people, lonely, far from home, casually start chatting.
Partition is a palpable presence especially in the works of writers from both the Punjabs and Bengal—the ground zeroes of Partition. Some go back to the event itself, talking about the streets marked with blood and strewn with rotting bodies as friends turned murderers overnight. Some record its political repercussions as two newly birthed nations struggled to define themselves in relation to each other and the larger world. But the most significant aspect of Partition literature is the way in which it records the psychological effects of the severance, going beyond what history books tell us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, who survived the riots and migrated from Bombay to Lahore after 1947.
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In his short story “Toba Tek Singh” (1955), set in the days immediately following Partition, nobody seems to understand what has struck them. The setting is appropriately a lunatic asylum whose inmates are to be divided between India and Pakistan. One of the residents, Bishen Singh, climbs up a tree and stays put, declaring he does not want to live “in either Hindustan or Pakistan”. Manto’s satire makes us contemplate the vital question: who is really mad here? By the drawing of a border, Bishen’s village, once in India, is now in Pakistan while his family has been moved to India. The absurdity might have been funny had it not been for the consequences.
Men into monsters
For those who left, the loss of their birthplace and the often chaotic, violent manner of departure would mark them for life. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1956), perhaps the best-known Partition novel, is set in the small border village of Mano Majra, which was declared to be in India. In a wrenching passage, the village’s Lambardar tells his old friend, the Iman, that he is no longer sure he can protect the village’s Muslims from Hindu mobs. The Iman consoles his weeping friend and tells his fellow Muslims to leave: “It will take more than a night to clear out of homes it took our father and grandfathers to make.”
Even those who saw Partition as heralding the birth of a nation, found the aftermath less jubilant than expected. Besides, how could one accept a stranger from thousands of miles away deciding their fate with a stroke of his pen? In Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man (1988), Cyril Radcliffe sits drawing the border with a thick pen in Lahore’s Faletti’s Hotel. With that line, he condemns millions to displacement and countless others to death. Lenny, the eight-year-old narrator of Ice Candy Man, wakes up one morning in Lahore and learns she is now the citizen of a new nation: “I’m a Pakistani. In a snap. Just like that.”
She isn’t displeased, just surprised as the night before she’d been something else. Lenny’s godmother mourns a world that has changed irrevocably, with most of her neighbours gone. But what is more striking is the way Partition made monsters of men. “I lobbed grenades into the windows of Sikhs and Hindus I’d known all my life,” boasts the Ice Candy Man. Has Partition unleashed a sickness that had always been there, just waiting for the right opportunity to reveal itself?
Promised Land (translated from the 1987 Urdu novel Zameen by Daisy Rockwell in 2019) by the Urdu writer from Pakistan, Khadija Mastur, begins in the Walton refugee camp of Lahore in 1947 in a way that reminds us of Manto’s stories: a grieving elderly man howls and tears his hair.
Then we meet Nazim, who had been part of the Pakistan movement in India, arriving brimful of hope and idealism in the newly created nation. In the course of his welfare work in the refugee camps he meets Sajidah, whose father has just died, and persuades her—bullies her almost—into coming and living with his parents and brother in their large bungalow, which had belonged to a departing Hindu family.
Cool-headed Sajidah realises that it is safer to stay with Nazim’s dysfunctional family and finish her degree although she can figure out that Nazim, despite his virtues, is as patriarchal as his clan. Socialist, patriotic, idealistic Nazim is contrasted with his brother, Kazim, who joins the civil service and takes readily to corruption. “What will happen,” Nazim reflects dismally, “when people like Karim continue to hold power in this pure land?” The question still remains unanswered.
Rumblings in the east
Partition’s ghosts haunt the eastern border too. Amitav Ghosh’s seminal novel Shadow Lines (1988) is an intense exploration of the nature of belonging, loyalty, and the impact of shadow lines—the borders arbitrarily demarcating identities. The schoolboy narrator knows his grandmother, Tha’mma, grew up in Dhaka and that her uncle still lives there, but that is in the background.
He is preoccupied with school, his feelings for the unattainable Ila, his radio, and his cousin Tridib, who tells him fantastic stories. But beneath this childhood idyll lurks the insecurity of all refugees: there is an edge of terror in his parents’ voices when they tell him to study hard. Theirs is the generation that learnt that everything can be taken away by men wielding pens.
Meanwhile, as tensions rise between Hindus and Muslims in Dhaka, Tha’mma decides to go there and bring back her uncle. Tridib accompanies her, as does his English friend, May. The reverberations of what happens in Dhaka will mark them for life: central though that event is, the undercurrent of the whole narrative is that arbitrarily decided demarcations will lead to tensions within and without. Tha’mma always felt “her place of birth was at odds with her nationality”. “I believed,” says the schoolboy narrator, “in the reality of nations and borders … I believed that across the border there existed another reality.” But what if the realities are similar? Then what are borders really for?
In much of Partition literature, the refugee cannot get over the grief of loss—of a landscape, of memories, of a whole way of life. They can make new lives, even good ones, but their language is of exile, of unbelonging. The most recent addition to this oeuvre, Geetanjali Shree’s International Booker Prize-winning Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell) takes a long time to reach its Partition destination. Most of its 700 pages is a capacious, discursive, inventive amble around the caravanserai of familial, political, arboreal, governmental, and other mores, but there is a thrust, a sort of breadcrumb trail, leading to the eventual climax.
It is only when Ma and Beti find themselves in Peshawar that the closely held secrets of Ma’s life start emerging, secrets that centre on Partition and those terrible months of 1947. Shree says Partition in her book works as “a binder” and it is not a “Partition novel”. Yet Partition is the unfinished business of Ma’s life, and the narrative tracks her efforts to resolve it. Tomb of Sand might be about the grand questions of existence, but it is also the story of two countries and the people who are pushed from one place to the other without regard to what they feel. “Neither country” writes Shree, “has been able to figure out this day who has the right to live where, who belongs where and whom the law favours.”
“In much of Partition literature, the refugee cannot get over the grief of loss—of a landscape, of memories, of a whole way of life.”
Of course, momentous historical events do trigger passionate responses. The Holocaust is one example; the American Civil War another. For the Indian subcontinent, it is 1947. As Daisy Rockwell says, when such epochal conflicts have “shredded the fabric of society and caused many deaths … [they become] both a deep psychic preoccupation and an attractive literary device.” However, the entire body of Indian literature since Independence isn’t informed by Partition.
If we make a cursory survey of post-Independence Indian writing, we find a spate of books on the Punjab Partition in the first two decades or so: Train to Pakistan, Yashpal’s Jhutha Sach (1960, translated into English as This Is Not That Dawn in 2010) or Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on A Broken Column (1961). Then there’s a lull until the appearance of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in 1981.
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In the late 1960s and 1970s, the English-speaking elite writing from Delhi and elsewhere tried to solve the conundrums of Independence. For instance, Nayantara Sahgal in Storm in Chandigarh (1969) or Anita Desai in Clear Light of Day (1980) explored what civil servants, politicians, and journalists made of their new-found roles as rulers and opinion-makers of independent India. R.K. Narayan, Manohar Malgonkar, Kamala Markandaya, and others explored how a traditional, patriarchal, and hierarchical society grappled with change and the emergence of new forces.
A decade or so later came Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (1974) about the Partition riots; the film Garm Hava (1973), directed by M.S. Sathyu and adapted from an unpublished Urdu short story by Ismat Chughtai; the Hindi television serial Buniyaad (literally Foundation, aired in 1986) written by Manohar Shyam Joshi, spanning life in India between 1916 and 1978.
When Midnight’s Children was published in 1981, it took Partition and its impact to an international readership, but in India, Partition had never really left the consciousness. The reverberations of that historical moment are still being worked out; any consensus on the events of 75 years ago is still far away, and there are many, many stories still waiting to be told.
Ranjana Sengupta is an editor and author of Delhi Metropolitan: The Making of an Unlikely City .