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“Staring into the Void”  

(The TLS, August 2017)  

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Staring into the void
By Hirsh Sawhney
Published in the TLS, August 8, 2017
(Cover Story for Special Issue on the 70th Anniversary of Indian Independence)

In 2013 Google released an advertisement featuring an elderly Hindu man in Delhi, Baldev, who is reminiscing about a Muslim playmate, Yusuf, from his childhood in Lahore. Baldev hasn’t seen Yusuf in many decades, having migrated from Pakistan to India during Partition, and he misses him. Baldev’s attentive granddaughter, Suman, uses Google to search for Yusuf and manages to track down his Pakistani grandson, Ali. The pair arrange for Yusuf to travel from Lahore to Delhi.  With the help of Google, Ali easily figures out how to attain a visa for Yusuf, who is soon standing at Baldev’s doorstep. The long-lost friends embrace; the Google logo flashes. Soon the old men are getting blissfully drenched together beneath a rainy sky. Thanks to technological progress, they have been able to overcome decades of trauma, geopolitical strife and communal discord.  

Various commentators in India, the United States, Canada and Malaysia have showered praise on this advert, and it has been viewed more than 13 million times. But despite its laudable message of cross-border religious harmony, it is perhaps more notable for its lacunae, which reveal a great deal about the way in which Partition is remembered today. For example, the advert centres on two men, though Partition disproportionately affected the lives of women. Furthermore, it doesn’t contain the slightest trace of the British Empire, even though it was Britain, in conjunction with the Indian leaders it favoured at various points during colonial rule, who imposed Partition on the country without adequately preparing it. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs sometimes experienced tension before colonialism, but Britain deliberately engineered policies that fomented strife between these groups in order to manage its imperial holdings more effectively. It pitted the Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Congress Party of Mohandas Gandhi against one another, putting India on a crash course towards division and destruction. 

The elisions in the advert aren’t surprising. The diminishment of imperial responsibility for the woes of Partition has a long history. In an article about Indian independence in 1947, Time magazine praised the justness of a British legal system in the Raj that denied basic human rights to ordinary Indians. It claimed that “by the time the British reached India, both Hindu and Moslem were deeply immersed in hate”. The Atlantic, in 1958, asserted that “long before the British conquered India, the Hindus had resented their Muslim Mogul masters”. Around the same time, Anglo-American readers were delighting in Khushwant Singh’s finely constructed Partition novel Train to Pakistan (1956) – a book that contains not a single British character. The fact that Singh’s family made a fortune collaborating with the Raj perhaps explains this omission.  

In recent decades, scholars such as Gyanendra Pandey and Yasmin Khan have helped to unravel the complex role the British played in encouraging the religious discord that still beleaguers South Asia today, and yet the tendency to downplay the role of the colonizer in Partition persists in many English-language texts. Even seemingly nuanced accounts can’t seem to shake off this habit.  Take Nisid Hajari’s book Midnight’s Furies (2015), which received thunderous acclaim in the US, UK and India. It presents provocative evidence of British imperialists actively fanning the flames of communal discord by paying off Muslim clerics to preach against the Congress Party, and yet the author seems reluctant to rigorously scrutinize British actions and attitudes leading up to Partition. He often makes light of the role of imperial actors, such as Viceroy Mountbatten; he rehashes old tropes about the “deep roots” of divisions between Hindus and Muslims, mentioning age-old  “frictions” stemming from the destruction of “flower-strewn temples” by “Muslim conquerors”. Various scholars, including Audrey Truschke and RomilaThapar, have demonstrated the tenuousness of such claims. Thapar, for example, has pointed out that alleged Hindu grievances about the eleventh-century destruction of the Somnath temple were first aired in Britain’s Parliament; only after this point do records begin to reference “the Hindu trauma”.

It is true, as many critics have pointed out, that South Asian thinkers and politicians would do well to reckon with the culpability of their own leaders and citizens in carrying out Partition and perpetuating religious violence. As the legacy of twentieth-century imperialism continues to inform our current moment of global instability, it is similarly imperative for Anglo-American audiences to see through the simplicities epitomized by Google’s Partition commercial.  


Readers seeking incisive and multifaceted perspectives on Partition can turn to various English translations of literature written in Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and other regional languages in the second half of the twentieth century – texts that were famously dismissed by Salman Rushdie in his anthology Mirrorwork (1997) as weaker and less important than “Indo Anglian” literature and ought to be better known by Anglo-American readers. Many authors  working outside of English during this era – including Mahasweta Devi, Intizar Husain and Ismat Chugtai – were busy crafting irreverent, cosmopolitan narratives that grappled with the impact of colonialism on South Asian systems and psyches decades before these themes became fashionable in London or New York. The novelist Qurratulain Hyder, who wrote in Urdu, casts a spotlight on radical anti-colonial revolutionaries – some of whom were women – who have been sidelined by conventional Anglo-American writers and historians. In her epic novel River of Fire (1959), translated into English in 1998, she even pokes fun at the problematic relationship between market forces and literature. In light of Britain having lost its empire, she writes, “there’s going to be a great demand for nostalgic novels about the Raj”, prognosticating the Raj revivalism of novelists such as M. M. Kaye and today’s infinitely expanding garbage heap of Raj-related films and television programmes.  

The Hindi-language writer Bhisham Sahni wrote scathing tales about India’s experience of colonialism. In one story a man who shouts anti-colonial slogans while inside a British cantonment later has his skull bashed in by the Raj’s henchmen. Meanwhile, Sahni satirizes the tendency of elite Indians to mimic their colonial masters, ridiculing a character who begins to read Indian philosophy once it has been made fashionable by Aldous Huxley. Sahni, born in 1915 to a Hindu family in Rawalpindi, was a member of the Congress who participated in the Quit India movement and was  imprisoned by the British. For a period, he became a communist and relocated to the Soviet Union. He is the author of one of India’s most famous Partition novels, Tamas (1971), first translated into English in 1981 and recently re-translated by Daisy Rockwell, which is set in the spring of 1947 in an  unnamed city in west Punjab. The novel’s depictions of urban Indian life are affectionate without  being cloying. Labourers from nearby villages dine at outdoor restaurants where “the fragrance of  spicy meat curries emanated from large metal pots”. Locals attend “dogfights every Sunday in the  winter, where people would place bets”. Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs have amicable relationships, and some treat each other like siblings. The novel lacks a central protagonist and instead contains a  sprawling cast of characters from different classes and communities. Sahni doesn’t provide much  narrative commentary, instead deploying wryly observed dialogue to ridicule the pettiness and dogmatic tendencies of all his characters, irrespective of their political affiliations. Muslim Leaguers  claim that their co-religionists who support Congress are actually dogs who live off Hindu “scraps”,  and Hindu zealots say that the Congress is “propping Muslims up” and prepare to pour cauldrons of burning oil on Muslims. Congress supporters and communists harp on about the British dividing  Hindus and Muslims, while another character believes the British to be “very wise” and “far thinking”. A poor labourer laughs at such sentiments, explaining that he has “carried loads before”  and he’ll “carry them after freedom too”.  

At the beginning of the novel, Nathu, a Dalit who skins animals for a living, is reluctantly  attempting to slay a pig; Murad Ali, a Muslim with ambiguous political affiliations, has paid him five  rupees to carry out this task, explaining that a local veterinarian requires the animal for some  mysterious reason. The pig, however, ends up on the front steps of a local mosque, and tensions begin to mount. Soon the city is engulfed in flames, and a group of representatives from different  communities pays a visit to the Deputy Commissioner, a British civil servant named Richard, who  presides over the region. Richard is “an expert in Indian history” and “a connoisseur of Indian art”,  and he personally believes that Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs have more in common than not. Despite  this he privately comments that the Empire “doesn’t look for people’s similarities” and is instead “interested in seeing how they differ from one another”. He explains that it’s preferable that the  Indians fight among themselves, not against the British. Through Richard, Sahni critiques the  suppression of moral sensibility in pursuit of wealth and professional glory; he demonstrates how thoughtful but complacent intellectuals can end up propagating the agendas of oppressive powers.  

Richard reacts callously to the envoy of concerned Indians, refusing to mobilize the army or  the police. Thanks to his calculated detachment, riots break out in the city, and Muslims, Sikhs and  Hindus who were previously neighbours begin killing each other. An adolescent influenced by  fanatical Hindu ideologues murders an elderly Muslim man who seeks to protect him. A gang of  Muslims forces a Sikh man to convert and circumcises him. After several days of plunder, murder  and rape a British aeroplane finally circles overhead, and the violence comes to an abrupt halt. Sahni  seems to deride the British government for its grotesque inaction as well as its racist polity that has  endowed South Asians with a profound sense of inferiority. He also mocks the feeble mentalities of  his South Asian characters, who only stop brutalizing one another once they are subjected to the  gaze of their paternalistic white overlords.  


Tamas provides glimpses into the way in which Partition was experienced by women. A  group of male characters gang-rapes a woman who dies while being violated; a Muslim woman  ignores religious divides to provide sanctuary to a persecuted Sikh couple. And yet the novel’s  female characters are bit players; we are offered little insight into their interior worlds. Many present day authors – as well as the advertisers at Google – have been even worse at representing women  during this period. Some relegate the rape, abduction and dismemberment of women to a few lines.  In Midnight’s Furies Hajari refers to the brutality inflicted on women only glancingly; his book  contains no specific chapter on women, nor do the words “women” or “rape” appear in its index. Many traditional histories of Partition prefer to focus on the political players of the era, and, as Urvashi Butalia points out in her enlightening book The Other Side of Silence (2000), fail to examine  how “dislocation and trauma” shaped the actual lives of ordinary people, especially women. Butalia  notes that “about 75,000 women are thought to have been abducted and raped by men of religions different from their own (and indeed sometimes by men of their own religion)”. Thanks to Butalia’s  work and the efforts of the pioneering Indian publisher and writer Ritu Menon in books such  as Borders and Boundaries (1998), the female experience of Partition has become a more significant  part of the conversation.  

Butalia explains that “just as a whole generation of women were destroyed by Partition, so  also Partition provided an opportunity for many to move into the public sphere in a hitherto  unprecedented way”. One of these women was Anis Kidwai, the author of a sophisticated memoir  called In Freedom’s Shade, originally published in Urdu in 1974. Kidwai was born to a Muslim family  of downtrodden landowners in 1906 and later served as a member of India’s upper house of  parliament. After her husband died in suspicious circumstances during the violence of Partition, she  moved to Delhi to seek counsel from Gandhi. She then dedicated her life to aiding Hindu refugees  from Pakistan and distressed Muslims in India. Her book vividly captures the deplorable state of the  refugee camps that occupied the grounds of famous Delhi monuments after Partition, where tens of  thousands of people endured illness and hunger. Kidwai presents haunting images of the women  and children she encountered at the camps. She describes starving young girls holding starving  infants, waiting in long lines for a couple of ounces of milk, and a young woman sitting beside her daughter who was “swathed in bandages and splints, groaning”. This woman couldn’t comfort her  daughter because she had lost both of her own hands, “one arm hacked off at the wrist, the other at  the elbow”.  

Indian Muslims who wished to remain in India, according to Kidwai, faced terrible  difficulties. They were forced out of their homes by Hindu refugees from Pakistan, and they were  sometimes forced to convert to Hinduism. But Kidwai is even-handed in her criticisms, taking  members of most religious communities and political parties to task. She is horrified to discover that  Muslims leaving for Pakistan sometimes abandoned their elderly female relatives at refugee camps.  Though she is a faithful Muslim, she is critical of clerics who are apathetic, or corrupt when it comes  to relief work. And despite being an ardent Congress supporter, she doesn’t hesitate to accuse  Congress workers of indifference towards Hindu and Sikh refugees and Muslim “sanctuary seekers”.  Her critical lens only dulls when it comes to Gandhi, whom she views as a kind of deity, ignoring his  well-documented misogyny. Despite the bleakness of Kidwai’s book, her humble, self-aware stories  about social workers bridging religious divides and banding together to mitigate some of the pain of  Partition are inspiring. They remind readers that, although women are nearly invisible in mainstream  Partition narratives, some of them overcame the trauma to make significant contributions to life in  post-colonial South Asia. The Punjabi novel Pinjar (1950), a pioneering feminist text translated in  2003 by Khushwant Singh, similarly fills important gaps in our awareness of the female experience  of Partition. Pritam, who was born into a Sikh family, maintained a correspondence with Ho Chi  Minh and travelled widely through the Soviet Bloc. Her memoirs speak to both the challenge and  promise of inter-religious harmony in South Asia. When she was a child, her father had Muslim  friends over to the house, but her grandmother made them drink from separate glasses. Young  Pritam, in protest, decided to drink from these same prohibited glasses, and her defiant actions put  an end to the custom.    


In Pinjar, the protagonist, Puro, is a Hindu teenager whose family earns its living in Thailand. Several years before Partition she is living in a Punjabi village and engaged to a prosperous local  Hindu. One day she is harvesting okra when Rashida, a Muslim, makes away with her on horseback.  Rashida doesn’t harm Puro and eventually explains that he has abducted her to settle an old feud. Years before, Puro’s family had kidnapped Rashida’s aunt and disgraced his relatives because they  weren’t able to pay off a debt. Puro manages to escape, and Pritam takes aim at the misogyny of  Punjabi culture when recounting her heroine’s return home. Puro’s father laments the fact that  nobody will now marry her, and her mother exclaims: “Daughter, it would have been better if you  had died at birth!” Puro has no choice but to marry Rashida. He rapes her, and they have a child  together. She is despairing, and begins to see her society’s oppressive gender roles for what they are.  Unlike Sahni’s characters, she feels no ire for the British. Instead, she comes to loathe the cruelty of  men, who seem to “gnaw a woman’s body like a dog gnawing a bone”. As Partition comes to pass, her intellectual awakening enables her to see the folly of the newly created political boundaries and  to empathize with all exploited women, irrespective of their religious identities. She adopts the child  of a dead homeless woman, and, with the help of Rashida – who displays remorse and kindness – devises an ingenious plan to rescue an abducted relative.  

At the end of the novel, Puro is reunited with her long-lost brother at a Lahore refugee  camp, but they have “nothing to say to each other. All they could do was to cry like children and wipe their tears away with the backs of their hands”. These bleak concluding sentiments recall the  end of Tamas, in which “nobody could think of anything to do besides staring into the void, shaking  his head”. Likewise, in the final pages of Kidwai’s memoir, the author worries that basic “ethical and  moral norms” have been undermined by Partition, as have society’s “fundamental truths”. Though the endings of these stories are less rosy than the one provided by Google, perhaps their candid depiction of despair and perplexity in the face of the chaos and horror is more useful when it comes  to overcoming the trauma of Partition.  


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