Events that define the times—be it the Russian Revolution, French Revolution, American Civil War, or Partition—always inspire great literature. The Partition of India was described by Lord Mountbatten as ‘one of the greatest administrative operations in history’. From Khushwant Singh’s seminal Train to Pakistan (1956) and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas (Darkness, Ignorance, 1974) that moved hearts in its televised version in the days of Doordarshan, to Salman Rushdie’s Booker of Booker-winning novel Midnight’s Children (1981), the rebellious Saadat Hasan Manto’s epoch-defining character—Toba Tek Singh, and of course, the laments by Faiz Ahmad Faiz in Azadi (Freedom’s Dawn, 1947), cleaving of the two nations has continued to inspire creative outpourings by writers.
Perhaps it is a way to channel the deep trauma or just another way to reach out to the past; but as a muse Partition will always exist for the writers of the subcontinent. Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices (brought out by Bloomsbury)records first-hand testimonies, revealing Partition’s legacy in Britain today.
“The early migrants brought their stories of Partition with them but never spoke about them. I reveal the accounts of people who were witnesses to the bloody end of an Empire—and whose lives were shaped by that event. These are stories of people who live among us in Britain. Given the traumatic nature of some of the stories, we spoke to faith leaders, local organisations, academics, regional papers, and did call-outs on national and Indian language radio. Often it was the children or grandchildren who would make the initial contact.”
The author goes on to add how in Pakistan and India, oral history projects are more advanced, while in Britain they are just emerging. She says that when people came to Britain in the post-war years, they were working in the factories and foundries, Indians and Pakistanis side by side. “They were working together to be accepted, to fight for equal pay, and against racism. Differences, especially religious ones, which were so pronounced on the Indian subcontinent, were not so relevant in Britain.”
A while back, the legendary Jnanpith Award and Sahitya Akademi Award-winner Krishna Sobti’s much-acclaimed A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There was translated into English from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell. Dealing with the aftermath of Partition, this part-memoir, part-novel, part-feminist essay, speaks of the difficult times of refugees—of which a young Krishna was a part. A powerful tale of loss and dislocation, the book also speaks about this spirited young woman determined to build a new identity. Around the same time, Anirudh Kala’s Unsafe Asylum was released.
A collection of inter-linked short stories, this takes as its premise the exchange between both the countries of Hindu and Muslim patients from the mental hospitals. The protagonist becomes troubled and then fascinated by finding the missing stories of these patients. He soon realises that the effect of Partition continues and wonders if such events can continue to happen every day. Taking a page out of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, literally, Veena Hiranandani’s The Night Diary views the trauma of that era through the eyes of a 12-year-old. Written in the form of letters to her deceased mother, the pre-teen reveals how life is changing due to the great divide. Like most authors writing on Partition, Veena’s inspiration came from those close to her—in her case, her father’s journey—something like Kavita’s inspiration.
Unlike some authors who dwell on the politics of the age, Sohan Koonar in his book Paper Lions (a Speaking Tiger publication) approaches the theme differently. He penned the book for second and third-generation ‘Indo-Other Nationals’ with the hope that they get a better understanding of India’s history. “My version focuses on the street-level effect and damage it did rather than the politics and religious dynamics at the highest levels of India’s pre-independence polity. The mayhem and the sins committed become burdens of the soul that haunt one of the protagonists throughout his life. Some readers see this as a karmic price to be paid for sins committed in this world. In my novel, Partition is just one stepping stone to the coming of age of modern India. It is a major cataclysmic event that reshapes Greater Punjab and sunders it into Pakistani Punjab in the west and later the Indian side into Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh,” he says.
As Aanchal Malhotra so forcefully writes in Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, “Partition memory is particularly pliable. Within it, the act of forgetting, either inevitably or purposefully, seems to play as much a part as remembering itself.”