Re-enacting Partition trauma through writing and rewriting

A collection of essays from across disciplines, ‘The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India’ is edited by psychiatrists Sanjeev Jain and Alok Sarin. An excerpt, on writing about Partition:

I next turn to a caustic memoir of the Partition days written in Urdu in 1948 by Fikr Taunsvi, pseudonym of Ramlal Bhatia, a satirist from Lahore who eventually migrated to India in November 1947, titled ‘Chhatta Darya’ (trans.: ‘The Sixth River: A Diary of 1947’). The title of the extract in translation refers to the new, sixth river of hatred and blood that had begun to flow in the Punjab during the Partition. On 11 August 1947, Taunsvi observes the consequences of an act of arson; a building (owned by Bishan Das) had been set on fire where printed copies of the holy Quran were being bound. Taunsvi describes the absurdity of the situation in a matter of fact way. While on the upper floor Bishan Das’ son’s body was being extricated from under a girder, on the ground floor the Quran embodying God’s law was going up in flames, even as Hindus and Muslims struggled to douse the raging fire together. ‘Two swords in one scabbard!’ is Taunsvi’s ironic riposte. The satirist becomes chronicler of this history of interminable divisive politics and unending societal rifts, a tragic farce which culminates in such a grotesque joining of forces in the midst of a social catastrophe, for which the stricken edifice becomes a metaphor, both at the level of base and superstructure.

On 12 August, Fikr finds himself at his friend Jagdish’s house (described here as a lover of Iqbal and votary of Urdu). Jagdish declares his intention to leave Lahore, a city which he has loved all his life. ‘But now it is like a mad dog.’ He asks Taunsvi if he will accompany him to India, given the arrival in Lahore of scores of refugees from Punjab who had stoked the fires of vengeance and begun attacks on the Hindu community. When Taunsvi shares his plan of going to Multan instead, Jagdish is astounded, given that hundreds have been reportedly killed there. He then offers Taunsvi all his possessions for a mere hundred rupees. This causes Taunsvi to flee his friend’s house, thinking all the while about what else could be put up for sale, adopting a mocking tone towards his prospective readers.

Do you want Lahore? The waves of the Ravi? Eight annas for every wave. Ranjit Singh’s mausoleum? Ten annas for a brick. Sitla Mandir? Six annas for every idol. The Mall itself? I’ll take a rupee for every furlong. Speak up. What do you want to buy?’

Taunsvi feels he cannot live in this maddening atmosphere, in which even intellectuals and writers had not been able to come out of their homes, after the closing of the coffee houses. In his writing of this unsettling fictive memoir, Taunsvi thus captures the horror of the Partition moment anew, with fear and apprehension appearing as predominant affects. The consequent debasement and instrumentalisation of human relationships, as well as closing of spaces for dialogue and exchange of ideas, are aspects of the violent transformation afoot, unsparingly depicted here through this atypical mode of ironic testimony.

Despite such attempts by first generation writers to creatively re-enact the Partition trauma (running counter to prevalent nationalist euphoria), the afterlife of the event remains with us. The failure to achieve resolution of this traumatic history becomes evident in the moments when memories of collective violence are replayed to justify reprisal, when phantasms from the past seem to become tangible in the form of hate speech, or the targeting of minority communities, often with the complicity of the state. Sectarian and communal violence since 1947 has often been triggered as a result of facile references to the ‘unfinished business’ of the Partition. Such recrudescence of forms of extreme violence such as in 1984, 1992–93 and 2002 may be symptomatic of failures to adequately engage with the psychic debris left behind after 1947 at the societal level or in imaginative terms.

Contemporary writing has sought to make up for this lack, intuitively sensing the importance of revisiting the moment of rupture and the founding trauma. ‘Dera Baba Nanak’, a short story about the Partition written in Urdu by Joginder Paul in the 1990s (published in 2000), returns to the terrain mapped earlier by Manto in his short stories. The story begins in the retrospective mode, invoking a memory from half a century ago. ‘When an incident breaks through the confines of the body and takes hold of the soul, it remains with it for a lifetime.’ An uncanny dream has haunted the narrator for 50 years—about a herd of cows, behind them radiant children and following them the aged with snow-white beards aflutter like birds, and at the column’s end … someone else. He then recounts the context for this dream. During the Partition violence, his family had been displaced, arriving at village Dera Baba Nanak from Sialkot. Though they had reached their destination, they felt as if they had been dismembered and scattered in all directions. A nameless mentally ill fellow was with them, who would start screaming ‘Don’t kill me. I am a Hindu, look!’, while loosening his pajama strings, at other times shouting out that he was a Muslim. At one point, the man nearly throttled himself, while insisting on retribution for his lost loved ones; he then had to be physically restrained. The narrator observes his strange behaviour, and notes that a lunatic’s mind is hardly empty; rather, it is the onslaught of unexpected thoughts and ideas that drives him crazy. The man next began to pick up scattered body parts and arranged them in the form of a monster, which terrified him. This Frankenstein-like construct, though inanimate, horrified him so much that he dashed away towards the refugee column passing by. It is this sight which haunts the narrator till this day. The cows were placed in front of the caravan of refugees, since the refugees knew that Hindus would not attack them; then walked the children, then the aged, followed by the middle-aged men and women. At this point the narrator notices the lunatic with this group of refugees going, what seems to be, the wrong way; however, all his efforts to draw the attention of the guards to this are in vain.

In my reading of the story, we can sense the looming presence of Manto’s ironic vignettes here, especially ‘Taqseem’ (trans.,‘Fifty-Fifty’), as well as his masterpiece ‘Toba Tek Singh’, especially in terms of the invocation of the metaphors of dismemberment and madness. However, Paul’s tale also reinvents such tropes. In my view, the story captures brilliantly the surfeit of traumatic memories, amounting to hypermnesia that may result from catastrophic events such as the Partition, figured forth in the frantic attempts by the madman to reassemble fragments of body parts. He first mistakes these to be his own, and then seeks to reassemble them to make the whole intelligible. What results is a monstrous parody of humanity, a spectral image so grotesque that it sends the lunatic into a flight which sends him back across the border in the direction from which he came.

(Extract published from ‘Writing and Rewriting Partition’s Afterlife’ by Tarun K Saint in The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India edited by Sanjeev Jain & Alok Sarin with permission from Sage Publications India. Hardback: Rs 850)

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