Resh, a Mumbai-based writer, shares six more books about the partition of India.
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It was a mess. When the British ended their 200 years of colonial rule, the Indian subcontinent was chaotic, bloody and hungry. The year was 1947. New borders were drawn in haste by a barrister (Radcliffe) who had never visited India before. Land was divided and the people had to choose (not much of a choice, really) a new home, based on their religion. Muslims journeyed to West and East Pakistan (East Pakistan is now Bangladesh) and Hindus aggregated in the new India. Refugees poured in, and out. They arrived crammed on trains, bullock carts, trucks, a few by air or ship, many on foot. Some stayed back, of course. The statistics are shocking—12 million people migrated, more than 1 million were dead, largely due to communal violence, 75 - 100 thousand women were abducted, raped and killed. Women, like in the wars of olden days, were collateral material. Hindu women were forcibly converted, abducted and raped. Muslim women were raped in public and killed for revenge.
Here comes the importance of partition literature, to inform the unimaginable horrors that followed a shattered country. The classics of Partition literature written by women include Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa (Summaiyya talks more about it on Ep. 69 of Reading Women), Pinjar by Amrita Pritam, and Zindaginama by Krishna Sobti. The Britishers left us with free countries, but not before sprinkling religious intolerance that always settled, like fine dust, its effects seen to this very day. And we read, to know more, and hope that history never repeats itself.
Largely set in the inner courtyard of the house where women gather to gossip and trivial squabbles bubble, the novel follows Aliyah in the 1940s. There are toxic women, men disappointed by their political ideologies and educated, career-driven women. The Mastur sisters were called the “Brontes of Urdu literature” (more so because of their sorrowful lives), and Khadija Mastur’s novel is delightfully feministic, painful, and gives a single woman the agency to define her life.
One more by Mastur in this list because she captures the mutilated reality of Partition so brilliantly. A Promised Land, starts with the aid committee distributing ‘split chickpea dal and soft, warm, rotis’ in the Walton Camp, where Aliyah of The Women’s Courtyardworked. Our new heroine is Sajidah, the year 1947, in Lahore. Sajidah and Taji are abducted to a house, but the former is spared sexual abuse because she is educated. I love this more than The Women’s Courtyardbecause its urgent, brutal narration feels like being scalded in hot oil. Mastur notes women were always behind regressive patriarchal households, before and after the Partition, through a wife who gets beaten for dowry, recurring abortions of a raped ‘tramp’ maid, corrupt bureaucrats, shoddy refugee rehabilitations and unlawful property amassments.
When Punjab was partitioned, it could not be divided in a way that would satisfy Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs residing there. A letter, a necklace, a utensil; sometimes that’s the only thing smuggled into a new, strange land. What crosses your mind when a train full of dead bodies (a recurring scene) arrives at the station where you are planning to flee from? Aanchal has presented a wonderful report of the nostalgia-soaked generation, those proud of their new land, the longing and anguish, sometimes relief; of people who hail from present day India and Pakistan, rich and poor, men and women. This collection of real-life essays of hurried night journeys, and abandoned houses had me weeping uncontrollably.
The orphaned Laila is brought up in an orthodox, talukdari (aristocratic land owners) family comprising her grandfather and aunts. The family, and hence Laila, follow the purdah system which means women maintain separate quarters. But when the patriarch dies, his son, Hamid (supposedly liberal but actually authoritarian), takes the reigns of the house and things change (for good or worse). The novel, similar to Hosain’s own life, traces the history of Lucknow from 1932 to 1952. Trivia: Hosain is grand-aunt to British novelist, Kamila Shamsie.
The Das siblings grow up in the 1940s with absentee parents (bridge addict, Mr. Das, and narcissistic Mrs. Das). Daily life gets complicated in the post-Independence period—death visits the family, debates on Hindu vs Muslim colleges arise, and the fascination of a Das (Raja) to Urdu poetry and his landowner’s Muslim daughter is unwelcome. The overburdened oldest, Bim, an anxiety ridden Tara, a mentally challenged Baba and a widowed, alcoholic aunt add colour to the novel. Shifting between 1947 and the 1970s, Desai highlights how a historical event and unfamiliar political and cultural principles can disintegrate a middle-class Bengali family and subject it to long lasting consequences.
Indian Summer looks at the history of the subcontinent and the last days of the British Raj through a few key characters who played an important role. This is the book you might like if you want to indulge in the partition like a bed time story, not as horribly bloody, yet tragic. There is the scandalous relationship between Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India and Edwina, wife of Lord Mountbatten, the persuasive Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, the unrelenting Gandhi, leader of the masses and the last Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. Love affairs, a marriage, and bitter enmity seeps into the partition story, whose far fledged effects cause havoc even today.
The inexperienced Radcliffe fled from India before the Radcliffe line, that marked the new boundaries, was formally revealed, destroying his papers and exclaiming, “There will be roughly 80 million people with a grievance who will begin looking for me. I do not want them to find me.” But we find what he may have feared, in the words of these writers.