Soumana Biswas: Impact of Testimonies in Partition Fiction
Understanding Postmemory: Impact of testimonies on post-testimonial on Partition fiction authors
‘Till recently, we as a nation, in fact have been sleepwalking through these decades until an odd film or a novel, or the actuality of a riot awakens us to momentarily remember and refer back to the nightmare of the Partition. The nation has grown up, ritually counting and celebrating birthdays—its own and of the great souls that won it the freedom—while systematically consigning the Partition to oblivion’. (Ravikant 2001:160)
Partition is that bloody wound that accompanied the independence of India and the newly formed nation of Pakistan; but the historical and political representations of that event are such that they are incapable of bringing the complete truth of the event to the forefront as they form the official narrative of the newly formed nations. This leads to the creation of silenced spaces and in the midst of the silence of the plight of the thousands of men, women and children; it was Partition fiction which took up the task of lending voices to these silenced spaces. Partition fiction thus can be said to have fulfilled the function of testimonies by lending voice to those whose voices have been suppressed by the dominant official order. And among these suppressed voices, it is the women who are the worst sufferers as they were the ones who were raped, abducted, mutilated, branded with nationalist and religious slogans in the name of family as well as national honour. But in the year 1998, the testimonies of the survivors of Partition, mainly those of the women, children and the marginalised were published by Urvashi Butalia in her work The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India and those specifically of women were published by Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin in their book Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. So the authors of Partition fiction after the year 1998 had the testimonies of the survivors of Partition recorded in written form at their disposal, where the survivors of the catastrophic event talked about their painful plight in their own voices. In this paper, I would like to take into account two novels which have been published after the publication of the testimonies in 1998 and the two novels are Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What the Body Remembers (1999) and Amit Majmudar’s Partitions (2011).
So, in the presence of testimonies in recorded form where the survivors themselves have spoken, the role of these two post-testimonial novels need to be taken into consideration, as the survivors themselves have spoken about their own plight. The immediate response can be that these novels can fill the gaps that are present even in the testimonies, as there are moments of silence even in the testimonies. One instance of such silence is given by Butalia when she says: ‘…there was virtually no way in which I could speak to women who had been raped and/or abducted. Not only had they very effectively been rendered invisible, but many of them wanted to stay that way, their stories held closely to them. It was as if the memory of the rape, the experience of abduction, was in some way shameful and had therefore to be relegated to the realm of amnesia’ (Butalia, 1998: 354-355). Further, Butalia is also aware of the problems of working with memory as through her interviews she has dealt with the way people have remembered the Partition. She knows that memory is never ‘pure’ or ‘unmediated’ and moreover a considerable amount of time (almost four decades) had lapsed between the event and the moment when the survivors were being interviewed. But even while keeping in mind these questions about the testimonies, these are memories of the people who had themselves undergone the disastrous event of Partition.
Both the novelists that I have chosen to work with, Baldwin and Majmudar have acknowledged their indebtedness to the work of Urvashi Butalia The Other Side of Silence and it has to be kept in mind that these are two authors who have chosen to write about an event which preceded their birth. So keeping in mind the nature of memories that have been transferred to them through the testimonies, what needs to be analysed is the way they have mingled those ‘transferred memories’ with their creativity to produce their novels. Marianne Hirsch coined the term ‘postmemory’ with regard to such transferred memories in the case of Holocaust in her essay ‘The Generation of Postmemory’ where she defines postmemory as ‘the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences that they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviours among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right’. Hirsch has reached this definition by taking into account the works of second generation authors and artists on Holocaust and these second generation writers specifically include the children of the survivors of the Holocaust.
So if the term ‘postmemory’ has to be applied to the writers of Partition fiction, and in particular to the two authors—Baldwin and Majmudar—many other specifications have to be included to the definition of the term. In the case of Baldwin, a second generation Canadian living in Milwaukee of Indian origin, the family connection to the event can be established as she herself says in an interview: ‘The kernel of the story was my family history’i and has also acknowledged her grandmother Raminder Sarup Singh for sharing her memories of the event with her; but Baldwin has bestowed more importance to research as she says: ‘Writing a novel set in present-day Pakistan or writing about Indian immigrants to North America is an exploration that engages and educates me, but does not express direct experience. As a reader, I appreciate a writer who uses writing, research, and imagination to launch herself beyond direct experience,…’ii. Further she has also acknowledged that she has interviewed many survivors on both sides of the border which mainly included women and thus has not only relied on the recorded testimonies in the work of Butalia; in an interview she says: ‘The problem any academic or artist has in describing Partition, is that the stories of 17 million displaced people came to one side of the Indo-Pak border while the setting was left on the other. Only cross border collaborations and third-country nationals can effect research in both India and Pakistan. I travelled with my husband in Pakistan to research the setting, with interview appointments set up by generous cyber friends in Pakistan. Everywhere I was conscious that all trace of more than 4 million Sikhs who once lived there is gone, a result of the events of 1947 that would today be described by the dubious term "ethnic cleansing." A mere 1000 Sikhs live in Pakistan today (per the Pakistani newspaper Dawn). Conversely, in Pakistan I found that those who were kindest in showing us around, and who certainly had no reason to be kind to a Sikh writer asking personal questions, were Muslim refugees displaced by Sikhs and Hindus during the Partition, driven over the border and who still, after more than 50 years, find themselves living as second-class citizens in Pakistan today.iii’ Baldwin has thus intermingled family history, field research, information from history books and also from published testimonies with her creativity to form her work of fiction. But in the case of the other author Majmudar, the family connection to Partition is not present as he himself says: ‘My family stayed unharmed during Partition, my parents were not born then, and my relatives tell no stories about that time, so whatever I know about it, I read in books’ (Majmudar 2011: 213). But even after pronouncing his non-relatedness to the catastrophic event, what is interesting to note is the way in which Majmudar, a diagnostic radiologist who lives in Columbus, Ohio, has painstakingly tried to connect himself somehow to the Partition of India. He does so by narrating his family history and says that his parents were born in Junagadh and though the Muslim nawab of Junagadh chose to join the nation of Pakistan at the time of independence, Junagadh was annexed by the Indian army. He further says that his family name ‘Majmudar’ was one which was bestowed upon his family by the Muslim nawab as a sign of favour as one of his forefathers taught the young princes. He concludes by saying: “I point this out because I like how it gives my ancestry a duality—a Hindu family whose very name was chosen by a Muslim benefactor, and whose home can be thought of as either Indian or Pakistani, or both’ (ibid 214). So it can be seen that even in Majmudar, there is a need for legitimacy on his part to write about the Partition, and thus this almost far-fetched attempt to connect himself somehow to the event. But the deep personal sense that Marianne Hirsch’s definition of ‘postmemory’ carries within itself in relation to second generation Holocaust writers will be rendered absent if the term is applied to these two Partition fiction writers. Thus the term ‘postmemory’ when used in case of Baldwin and Majmudar can mean the transmission of traumatic memories through testimonies, historical documents or interviews conducted by the authors themselves without the presence of any strong familial connection to those memories.
Thus keeping in mind this background of the authors and the factors that have shaped their novels, the two novels can be approached and seen as to how much effect the recorded testimonies had on their works. Interestingly, both the novels of Baldwin and Majmudar are their debut novels and while on the one hand Baldwin has portrayed the whole journey towards the birth of the nation of Pakistan, Majmudar has based his story at a point when Pakistan has already become a reality.
Baldwin in her novel What the Body Remembers has covered the time period from 1928 to 1947 in an attempt to give a picture of the country both before and after the Partition. By providing a picture of the life before Partition, Baldwin has thus tried to direct the reader’s attention towards the utter havoc and disturbance that Partition brought with it. The story of Baldwin’s novel revolves around the two Sikh women characters, Roop and Satya, in a polygamous marriage with Sardarji, the Indian bureaucrat and land owner. The names of the two characters Roop and Satya are complete pointers towards the way they are presented in the novel. While Roop on the one hand means beauty and is presented as one with ‘Pothwari skin, smooth as a new apricot’, ‘wide, heavily lashed brown eyes’ and ‘red lips’ (Baldwin 1999: 5), Satya which means truth is presented as one who always speaks her mind and does so even in front of Sardarji, her husband. Jealousies ensue between the two characters and each ensnares Sardarji with their specific qualities. In a review of the novel, Anurima Banerji says: ‘In What the Body Remembers, the struggles between the man and his two wives, cast in opposition to each other—Truth and the Body— serve as a metaphor for the splitting of India by the British: Sardarji, the patriarchal conqueror who divides and rules Roop and Satya, is a manifestation of the imperial conqueror, who divides and rules the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh quams (nationalities), eventually creating India and Pakistan.’
(http://www.manushi.in/docs/478.%20Book%20Review%20%20What%20the%20Body%20Remembers.pdf. p. 2.)
Another important issue that the novel discusses is the position of the Sikh community at the time of Partition. While the politics of Partition was being played out based on Hindu and Muslim rivalry, the people belonging to other communities were stuck in a middle ground. For example, the Sikh community, as portrayed in this novel, was targeted against by the Muslims who might have been their friend and neighbour for long years and they themselves felt the need to practice their religion more strongly in the presence of such strong religious sentiments of the other communities around them. It is interesting to note how Baldwin presents the dilemma of the Sikh through the question that Sardarji poses, which becomes the rhetorical question that plagued all Sikhs. The way in which Sardarji tries to put forward his point when he asks: ‘Yes, but how will minorities like the Sikhs be protected? ... And the Akali Party has been insisting on a Sikhistan since its resolution last year. No one takes them seriously’ (Baldwin 1999: 467) and is ignored by Rai Alam Khan, the Muslim, Meher Chander, the Hindu and Mr Farquharson, the Englishman starkly points out the fact that no one was bothered about the fate of the Sikhs and they were stuck between the fact that they were neither Hindus nor Muslims.
The last part of the novel which takes into account the events of 1947 present heart wrenching details of Partition violence and trauma along with the plight of the characters of the novel and this can be due to the fact that the author is more aware of such occurrences due to the information provided by the testimonies that are available to her. At the end of the novel, the way in which Roop’s father Bachan Singh and her brother Jeevan remember the silenced episode of the fate of Roop’s sister-in-law Kusum is almost a kind of transmission of memory to a person who was not present when the event took place. Roop becomes a witness to patriarchal remembering and Baldwin can be seen to be consciously drawing from the testimonies of the perpetrators of honour killing from the work of Butalia. Thus Baldwin’s novel presents different types of remembering of events before and after the catastrophic event of Partition.
The title of the novel encompasses all these various kinds of remembering and as Baldwin has herself explained in an interview that the title is multilayered. At the surface level, Roop which means body, form or shape is the one who remembers throughout the novel and thus the novel embodies “what she remembers, is meant to remember, is expected to remember” and further Baldwin explains that Roop by ‘remembering Kusum and all the women like her who were sacrificed during Partition would make history more whole.’ The next level of remembering is what Baldwin refers to as ‘At another level, the metaphor of the 30s and 40s in undivided India was the body - the country as body, woman as womb for the tribe. And the story (of Partition and loss of the country's "children") is what the whole country remembers as part of its creation story, its birth pangs.’iv Thus through this novel, Baldwin seems to continue in the same lines as Butalia—that is of filling in the gaps and silences present in the history of Partition. Further Baldwin peppers her narrative with various Hindustani words in order to make her narration authentic, even though she herself vehemently denies such an authorial politics.
In contrast to Baldwin’s work then Majmudar’s novel Partitions is written completely in polished English without any peppering of words from any other language. The fact that Majmudar is an award-winning poet becomes apparent time and again through the poetic descriptions that are provided by him. For example, the way in which he describes the border is significant: ‘It is too early in the border’s life cycle: it hasn’t budded checkpoints and manned booths yet, hasn’t sprouted its barbed-wire thorns’ (Majmudar 2011: 143). Though Pakistan has become a reality when the action of the novel begins, Masud, the Muslim character in the novel refers to Pakistan as the ‘conjured country’ (ibid 55) and this points out the fact that though Pakistan might have become a reality in terms of maps, history and politics, it had still not become ‘real’ in the minds of the displaced population. As the title of the novel suggests, Majmudar’s novel deals with many stories of Partition and hence the plural, Partitions. The novel weaves together the plight of Hindu twin brothers Shankar and Kesav, a Sikh girl named Simran and a benevolent Muslim doctor named Ibrahim Masud. Unlike Baldwin’s novel, Majmudar’s novel is not located in any concrete geographical location and only India and Pakistan as a whole are mentioned.
In Baldwin’s novel where Delhi is described as ‘indifferent’ (Baldwin 1999: 546) and the post-Partition riots of Delhi show it as anything but an embodiment of safety, Majmudar presents Delhi from the point of view of children who still have the ability to hope for a haven of safety in the far away place called Delhi.
The three stories in Majmudar’s novel are woven together by the disembodied presence or rather the soul of the twin’s dead father, Roshan Jaitly and as he takes the story forward, we come to know that he comes from a Brahmin family and that he had become ‘contaminated’ when he had married Sonia, a woman much younger to him and much below his social status as she was one of unknown social standing and was one who had been sheltered by the church. Thus the novel takes into account the plight of two young boys or rather children, the plight of a young Sikh girl and that of a Muslim doctor and finally at the end of the novel the plight of Sonia—the girl from the margins. The characters of Majmudar’s novel, thus, can be seen to be taken almost directly from the category of survivors that Butalia had interviewed in her work and to which Majmudar has acknowledged his indebtedness.
The young boys, Keshav and Shankar, lose their mother, Sonia, at the train station and as was the fate of children in the turbulent times of Partition, they are kidnapped and sold to a middle-aged Muslim woman. But they manage to escape and encounter the figure of Maya Rani whom Majmudar has based on the real life figure of Maya Rani, as interviewed by Butalia. Later, they meet Masud in the course of their journey. Thus, the direct influence of Butalia’s work is clearly visible in Majmudar’s work.
Thus after the analysis of the two novels, the questions that arise are that whether or not the distance which both these authors of post-testimonial fiction enjoy from the actual event on which they have chosen to write, has allowed them to represent the event more distinctly or have they just created mere mechanical representations of the event. The further questions can be that the testimonies are supposed to provide them with more information and hence make them conscious of what they represent, but have they in any way curbed their creativity and whether or not these fictional works question the ‘truth’ of the testimonies in any way. And thus, finally through the paper, I have tried to point out how interestingly postmemory has travelled to these authors mainly through the testimonies and how they have fore-grounded their authorial politics in order to justify their choice of Partition of 1947 as a subject matter for their novels.
[iv] Refer to Shauna Singh Baldwin’s Interview <http://www.shaunasinghbaldwin.com/Interview-BenPatchsea-WhatTheBodyRemembers.html>
- Baldwin, Shauna Singh. 1999. What the Body Remembers, New Delhi, Rupa Publications India Private Ltd.
- Butalia, Urvashi. 1998. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, New Delhi, Penguin Books.
- Majmudar, Amit. 2011. Partitions, Oxford, Oneworld Publications.
- Ravikant. 2011 ‘Partition: Strategies of Oblivion, Ways of Remembering’ in Translating Partition, (ed. Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint),Katha, New Delhi, p 160.
- Banerji, Anurima. Review of What the Body Remembers . Manushi, Date of access – 1 February 2017.
- Hirsch, Marianne. ‘The Generation of Postmemory’. Poetics Today, Date of access – 1 February 2017.