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Saturday, 21 April 2012

Partition Volumes, ed by Alok Bhalla -- A Review

Stories about the Partition of India, Volumes I –III & IV, edited by Alok Bhalla, Manohar, 2012, Rs 1295+Rs995.

That there are multiple histories rather than a history of the partition is borne out by studying the literature produced in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Contrary to popular perception, there is no generalized or undifferentiated response to the partition among those who have chronicled it. Reactions vary from nostalgic lament for a lost age to attaching blame and apportioning responsibility for the terrible misfortunes that had befallen all those who had been affected, in some way or the other, by the events of 1947. While there is a general agreement that the murder and mayhem that accompanied the partition was a human tragedy of epic proportions, there is far more ambivalence in the ways of dealing or accepting the consequences of partition. While the majority of writers made a conscious effort to hold up the tattered fabric of secularism in the face of communalism, bitter and painful memories also find expression, especially in a range of first-person accounts, diaries, etc. It seems difficult to discern a commonality of concerns nor any coherence and unity of thought save the obvious assertion that countless innocent lives were lost due to the political decisions of a mere handful. 

In the wake of continuing interest in the partition, both among the students of history and the literary historians, not to mention the average reader, a spate of anthologies on the partition have appeared. And, anthologies, as a necessity, must have a peg, ideological or otherwise. Their editors have tried, in different ways and through different voices, to highlight different aspects of a single, traumatic, shared experience. In a sense, therefore, each anthology and its editor invariably has an ‘agenda’. Often, these ‘agendas’ appear to be at cross-purposes with each other.

Alok Bhalla, one of the ablest and most diligent chroniclers of the many partition narratives, points out the ‘real sorrow’ of the partition, namely that it ‘brought to an abrupt end a long and communally shared history.’ In his deeply insightful Introduction to the four volumes of stories, he shows a clear-eyed understanding of the tensions within the communities which occasionally burst into spurts of outrage yet did not, he believes, impair ‘the rich heterogeneity of the life of the two communities.’ That is, till the partition; at the ‘ordinary and local levels, even as late as 1946,’ Bhalla notes, the daily life of the Hindus and Muslim remained ‘so richly interwoven as to have formed a rich archive of customs and practices, that explains why there is a single, common note which informs nearly all the stories written about the partition and the horror it unleashed—a note of utter bewilderment.’ And it is this bewilderment that is common across barriers of ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities, not to say religious ones, that comes out in this selection of stories translated from Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Bangla.

A necessary fall-out of partition was migration. The displacement, dislocation, uprootedness and alienation that came in the wake of the transfer of power are documented in stories such as Intizar Husain’s ‘An Unwritten Epic’. As in the depiction of partition-related violence, some writers catalogue the horrors witnessed on the way and the difficulties in finding safe refuges on the other side of newly-demarcated borders; others depict it as hijrat, an experience akin to the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina and therefore an experience that transcends human sufferings. Still others view it as salutary experiences with the potential to draw lessons from past mistakes. Several stories are personal and cathartic, too. A compulsive scraping of wounds, a cataloguing of unimaginable horrors and a depiction of a sick, momentarily depraved society (as in several of Manto’s stories) is, often, the creative writer’s only way of exorcising the evil within. It served the needs of its times in a rough and ready sort of way but it was patchy, uneven, often incoherent in its pain or anger or bewilderment.  Also worrying is the lack of historical awareness among some of the writers.  References to political events, resolutions, statements, etc. are vague; the focus is on the ‘impact’ of partition on the common people rather than why the political leaders failed to resolve their disputes over power sharing and ended up carving the country along religious lines. By and large, the writers have been content to write of consequences rather than reasons, effects rather than causes, of partition.

Much of partition literature falls under what has been termed waqti adab, topical literature. Given the propensity of most writers to focus on violence and communal tensions, in Urdu these stories have been called fasadat ke afsane, or riot literature, again serving to deflect the attention from partition per se and turning the cause-and-effect equation upside down. Historians have argued for the need to view partition-related violence as distinct from the communal riots that preceded and followed it given the military precision with which they were planned. The riots, on the other hands, were largely spontaneous and sporadic, triggered often by something small and inconsequential though both had devastating effects such as the rape and abduction of women, desecration of holy places, loss of life and property and the generation of a mindless, ingenerate, primitive violence. This violence lies at the heart of much of partition literature and has been the cause of a great deal of debate among literary historians. Its value lies beyond literary voyeurism; it does, I believe, provide the historian with some sensitive insights into the impact of violence on ordinary people. And a collection such as this shows us how literature and history are intertwined and how the study of one can enrich the other. The answer lies not in forgetting or erasing the horrors of the past but in heeding and recalling right, for as Bhalla writes: ‘I have put together this anthology of stories about the partition not in order to exorcise the past, but in the hope of initiating an ethical inquiry into the history of my age and place.’

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