Literature has documented the lasting psychological effects of partition as no official document can.
Seventy-five years after the Partition, his memory remains strong and graphic. Though few remain who have lived through its horrors, it stubbornly lingers beneath the surface of the present, seething through cracks and crevices, resisting erasure. Nowhere is this more evident than in the literature, both fiction and non-fiction, that the subcontinent has produced since 1947. Even contemporary fiction writers in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and English refer to it repeatedly – the score is used as a literary device, a metaphor, or as a plot driver in an astonishing number of stories, novels, and screenplays.
To take a fairly recent example, in the novel by Karuna Ezara Parikh The heart first asks for pleasure (2020), an Indian girl and a Pakistani boy fall in love in the peaceful surroundings of a small Welsh town. This commonplace event has dire consequences as it reawakens the forces unleashed by the division of a distant subcontinent decades ago. The big wheels of free will and loyalty, patriotism and faith are set in motion in this sunny Cardiff park when these unfortunate youngsters, alone, far from home, start chatting casually.
Short Film Poster, Toba Tek Singh (2018), directed by Ketan Mehta.
The score is a palpable presence, especially in the works of writers from Punjab and Bengal – the zero points of the score. Some reminisce about the event itself, talking about streets stained with blood and littered with rotting bodies as friends turned into murderers overnight. Some record its political repercussions as two newly born nations struggled to define themselves to each other and to the rest of the world. But the most significant aspect of partition literature is the way it records the psychological effects of the breakup, going beyond what the history books tell us. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto, who survived the riots and emigrated from Bombay to Lahore after 1947.
In his short story “Toba Tek Singh” (1955), set in the days immediately following Partition, no one seems to understand what hit them. The setting is rightly an insane asylum whose inmates are to be split between India and Pakistan. One of the residents, Bishen Singh, climbs a tree and stays put, saying he doesn’t want to live “neither in Hindustan nor in Pakistan”. Manto’s satire makes us contemplate the vital question: who is really mad here? By drawing a border, the village of Bishen, once in India, is now in Pakistan while his family has been moved to India. The absurdity could have been funny without the consequences.
men as monsters
For those who have left, the loss of their place of birth and the often chaotic and violent departure will mark them for life. At Khushwant Singh Train to Pakistan (1956), perhaps the best-known score novel, is set in the small declared Indian border village of Mano Majra. In a heartbreaking passage, the village Lambardar tells his old friend, the Iman, that he is no longer sure he can protect the Muslims of the village from the Hindu mobs. The Imam consoles his crying friend and tells his fellow Muslims to leave: “It will take more than one night to empty the houses that it took our father and our grandfathers to do.
Even those who considered the partition as the announcement of the birth of a nation, found the consequences less jubilant than expected. Besides, how to accept that a stranger thousands of miles away decides his fate with the stroke of a pen? At Bapsi Sidhwa ice candy (1988), Cyril Radcliffe draws the border with a large pen in the Faletti Hotel in Lahore. With this line, he condemns millions of people to displacement and countless others to death. Lenny, the eight-year-old narrator of ice candy, wakes up one morning in Lahore and learns that she is now a citizen of a new nation: “I am Pakistani. In the blink of an eye. Just like that.”
She’s not unhappy, just surprised because the night before she had been something else. Lenny’s godmother mourns a world that has changed irrevocably, with most of her neighbors gone. But what is more striking is how the score turned men into monsters. “I threw grenades at the windows of Sikhs and Hindus I’ve known all my life,” boasts the Ice Candy Man. Did the score trigger a disease that had always been there, just waiting for the right opportunity to reveal itself?
Promised land (translated from 1987 Urdu novel Zameen by Daisy Rockwell in 2019) by Urdu writer from Pakistan, Khadija Mastur, begins in the Walton refugee camp in Lahore in 1947 in a way that reminds us of Manto’s stories: a grieving old man screams and tears the hair.
Then we meet Nazim, who had been part of the Pakistani movement in India, arriving full of hope and idealism in the newly created nation. During his welfare work in the refugee camps, he meets Sajidah, whose father has just died, and persuades her – almost harasses her – to come and live with her parents and brother in their large bungalow, which had belonged to a departing Hindu. family.
Cool-headed Sajidah realizes it is safer to stay with Nazim’s dysfunctional family and complete her education, though she can understand that Nazim, despite his virtues, is as patriarchal as his clan. Nazim, a socialist, patriot and idealist, opposes his brother, Kazim, who enters the civil service and willingly indulges in corruption. “What will happen,” Nazim mused sadly, “when people like Karim continue to hold power in this pure land?” The question still remains unanswered.
Rumblings in the East
The ghosts of Partition also haunt the eastern frontier. The seminal novel by Amitav Ghosh shadow lines (1988) is an intense exploration of the nature of belonging, loyalty and the impact of shadow lines – the boundaries arbitrarily delineating identities. The schoolboy narrator knows that his grandmother, Tha’mma, grew up in Dhaka and his uncle still lives there, but that’s in the background.
He is preoccupied with school, his feelings for the inaccessible Ila, his radio and his cousin Tridib who tells him fantastic stories. But behind this childhood idyll hides the insecurity of all refugees: there is a hint of terror in her parents’ voices when they tell her to study hard. Their generation is the one that learned that anything 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 his uncle. Tridib accompanies her, as well as her English friend May. The repercussions of what happens in Dhaka will mark them for life: as central as this event is, the undercurrent of the whole narrative is that arbitrarily decided demarcations will lead to tensions within and without. Tha’mma has always felt that “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 beyond the border there was another reality. What if the realities were the same? So what are borders really for?
In much of the literature on partition, the refugee cannot overcome 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 that of exile, of disbelonging. The most recent addition to this work, winner of the International Booker Prize of Geetanjali Shree sand tomb (translated by Daisy Rockwell) takes a long time to reach its partition destination. Most of its 700 pages is a vast discursive and inventive stroll around the caravanserai of family, political, arboreal, governmental and other mores, but there is a thrust, a sort of breadcrumb trail, leading to the final climax. .
It wasn’t until Ma and Beti reunited in Peshawar that the closely guarded secrets of Ma’s life began to emerge, secrets centering on the score and those terrible months of 1947. Shree says the score in his book works like “a binder” and it is not a “score novel”. Yet the score is the unfinished business of Ma’s life, and the narrative follows her efforts to solve it. sand tomb maybe about the big issues of existence, but it’s also a story of two countries and people being pushed from place to place regardless of how they feel. “No country,” writes Shree, “has been able to determine today who has the right to live where, who belongs where, and whom the law favors.”
“In much of the literature on partition, the refugee cannot overcome the grief of loss – of a landscape, of memories, of a whole way of life.”
Of course, memorable historical events trigger passionate reactions. The Holocaust is an example; the American Civil War another. For the Indian subcontinent, it is 1947. As Daisy Rockwell puts it, when such era conflicts “ripped apart the social fabric and caused many deaths… [they become] both a deep psychic preoccupation and an appealing literary device. However, the whole body of Indian literature since independence is not informed by the score.
If we do a quick survey of post-independence Indian writing, we find a series of books on the partition of Punjab in the first two decades or so: Train to Pakistanby Yashpal Jhutha Sach (1960, translated into English by It’s not that dawn in 2010) or that of Attia Hosain Sunlight on a broken column (1961). Then there’s a lull until Salman Rushdie appears midnight children in 1981.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, the English-speaking elite in Delhi and elsewhere attempted to solve the puzzles of independence. For example, Nayantara Sahgal in Storm in Chandigarh (1969) or Anita Desai in Clear daylight (1980) explored what civil servants, politicians and journalists thought of their new roles as leaders and opinion makers in independent India. RK Narayan, Manohar Malgonkar, Kamala Markandaya and others explored how a traditional, patriarchal and hierarchical society grappled with change and the emergence of new forces.
About ten years later, came Bhisham Sahni tamas (1974) on the Partition riots; the film Garm Hava (1973), directed by MS Sathyu and adapted from an unpublished short story in Urdu by Ismat Chughtai; hindi tv series Buniyaad (literally Foundationbroadcast in 1986) written by Manohar Shyam Joshi, covering life in India between 1916 and 1978.
When midnight children was published in 1981, it brought Score and its impact to an international readership, but in India, Score had never really left the consciousness. The repercussions of this historic moment are still being worked out; any consensus on the events of 75 years ago is still a long way off, 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 Improbable City .