A People Ravaged: Peeling off the Many Layers of Partition Trauma

First published in The Wire

Literature, Gender, and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence
Debali Mookerjea-Leonard
Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017

In writing my first novel, whose protagonist is a young refugee woman from East Pakistan, I employed the device of coincidence to achieve a happy ending. Doing so wasn’t a sudden rush on my part to end what had become a protracted writing project but a well thought-out conclusion. It was not to be. When they read it, two of my trusted beta readers quashed it summarily, citing it as lazy and escapist. Even though incredible incidents can happen in real life, one of them advised, in a work of fiction, coincidences are hard to pull off convincingly.

An incident Debali Mookerjea-Leonard mentions in the preface to Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition: The Paradox of Independence starkly bears out this paradox.

Shortly after the All India Muslim League’s call for Direct Action in Calcutta in 1946, the author’s grandfather was stranded in Howrah station as public transport had been suspended in the wake of the sectarian clashes. He eventually got a ride from a kind Muslim family who had a private car, but had to climb on the footboard as the vehicle was full. To ensure his safety, he was given a flag of the Muslim League and advised to shout “Pakistan Zindabad” when passing through Muslim neighbourhoods. He did, and reached his home safely.

The insanity that gripped the subcontinent a year later when India was partitioned has been arduously chronicled in historical archives. In the privileging of journalistic reportage and record-keeping, personal histories surrounding the traumatic event haven’t received much attention until recently. The initiatives of Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin, and Jashodhara Bagchi, among others come to mind.

Mookerjea-Leonard’s book is an important intervention in this regard, not only because of its meticulous research and compelling arguments but because it sits in that nebulous middle – a no man’s land if you will – of fact and fiction. The author examines with incisive rigour fictional works on Partition and juxtaposes them against factual information and recent recordings of oral histories. As someone not directly affected by the event, hers is a lens that is both objective and earnest.

The works discussed in Literature, Gender and the Trauma of Partition are mostly from Bengal, which the author calls the “neglected shelves” of Bengali literature, written by writers from both sides of the Radcliffe divide. As she mentions in the Preface, this book is her tribute to her city, Calcutta. It is also a conscious effort to shine a light on the sufferings of those at the eastern end of the divide, as the tragedy of Partition in Bengal has been either underrepresented or misrepresented when compared to Partition in Punjab. This could well be attributed to, as Mookerjea-Leonard is cognisant of, the predominant and recurrent theme ofdisplacement in the east as opposed to that of horrific violence in the west.

Read the rest in The Wire.
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Of Martyrs, Marigolds and Mayhem (Book Review)

Of Martyrs and Marigolds

Aquila Ismail

Create Space

Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Martyrs-And-Marigolds-Aquila-Ismail/dp/1463694822

Sixty-five years ago, India was freed of two centuries of British rule. The freedom, however, came with massive human tragedy. The country was divided into what is present-day India and Pakistan, on the basis of religion. The Partition of India resulted in some of the heaviest bloodshed witnessed in the history of the subcontinent. More than 12 million people were displaced as a result of the division. Sadly, the bloodletting that started at the time of Partition did not die down with the passage of time. In the years and decades to follow, the monster of communal tension assumed numerous sinister faces across the subcontinent and continues to rear its head to this day.

One manifestation of this simmering tension was the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, triggered by the Liberation War–a conflict between the Pakistani army and East Pakistanis. The actual war lasted only 13 days, making it one of the shortest wars in history. But the events leading up to it had started long before, culminating in the formation of a new country called Bangladesh. These events and their consequences–tragic and irreversible–are at the core of Aquila Ismail’s debut novel, “Of Martyrs and Marigolds.”

The novel narrates the story of a young girl, Suri, and her family–Urdu-speaking Muslims who had moved to East Pakistan from India at the time of Partition. It is estimated that between 2,000,000 and 3,000,000 civilians were killed in Bangladesh, and as many as 400,000 women were raped by the Pakistani armed forces. The conflict led a further eight to ten million people from the erstwhile East Pakistan seek refuge in neighbouring India.

The story of Bangladesh is mired in geographical, ethnic and linguistic complexities. In the division of India and Pakistan, the latter got parts of Punjab and Bengal, separated from each other by more than a thousand miles. Language emerged as a major bone of contention, with the majority East Pakistani population demanding Bengali to be made an official language. The language resistance that saw students becoming martyrs forms the backdrop of “Of Martyrs and Marigolds” as the story of Suri’s love affair with Rumi, a Bengali Muslim boy, unfolds.

The narrative, through rich detailing, reveals the liberal outlook of Suri’s father, a civil servant in the Pakistani administration. All through, Suri’s family remains supportive of the legitimate democratic movements in East Pakistan and critical of the high-handed and arbitrary ways of the West Pakistan leadership, which eventually unleashes military action upon its own people in East Pakistan. Numerous novels and short stories have brought to light the horrors of the atrocities committed by the Pak army on Bengalis.

In March of 1971, the tables turned with the same army conceding defeat to the Indian army. Along with freedom to Bengalis in the form of the new country of Bangladesh, this also brought reprisals against non-Bengalis, many of whom were believed to have colluded with the Pakistani military. However, as is the sad fallout in any conflict involving two communities, a lot of innocent civilians bore the brunt of the backlash too. Suri’s family represents one of many such Urdu-speaking units that got caught in the crossfire and were rendered helpless and homeless overnight.

“Of Martyrs and Marigold” impresses with its flourish of imagery–the verdant landscape of East Bengal, its folk songs, and cuisines happily share the pages with the Western influences–English literature, baseball, the Beatles to name a few–in Suri’s life. Remarkable too is the sensitivity with which a delicate subject that continues to generate strong reactions among people within the Indian subcontinent and outside it has been handled. The author’s sincere narrative stays away from vitriol or any suggestion of hate mongering, relying instead on a helpless victim’s heartfelt questioning of her fate.

The descriptions of reprisals against Urdu-speaking East Pakistanis are vivid to almost a disturbing effect. As in most conflicts, women are the worst sufferers, as they face both ends of the sword–the wrath inflicted upon those being targeted and a further sexual violence in the form of rape and physical torture. Ismail depicts instances of such violence with chilling workmanship. A few chapters towards the end present these horrors with excruciating details that continue to haunt the reader long after the book has been put down.

Some of the dialogues in the novel sound stilted and the pace of action slows down in the middle. The multiplicity of characters sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to follow the storyline, but this gets easily overlooked by the overall force of the story. “Of Martyrs and Marigolds” definitely instills hope in the reader for more such moving tales from Aquila Ismail’s pen.