The risk of writing


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THE editor’s concept note for this issue of Seminar underlines the importance of imagining an alternative South Asian space, apart from the historical effects of violent nationalism, colonialism and the Partition. This counter-factual endeavour has become especially difficult due to the pervasive historical trauma that, arguably, is a legacy of the extreme violence that occurred during 1947-48. Even so, manifestations of belated after-effects of the Partition trauma have been recognized of late. The necessity of coming to terms with Partition’s afterlife has been acknowledged, especially in literary engagements with this historical experience and memory.1 Writers across the subcontinent have in different ways undertaken the task of reclaiming ‘A Country of Our Own’, while seeking to interrogate the frontiers put into place at the time of the Partition and push back the contours of arbitrarily determined boundaries.

Significant writings on the Partition have enabled precisely such a reflection on subliminal aspects of the everyday, while envisaging possibilities otherwise rarely considered, often enough focusing on sensitive matters that remained off limits in public discourse. The risk of idealistic or overly utopian projections being co-opted by right wing, majoritarian or statist agendas has also been taken into account. While it is important not to think of history merely as a series of wounds, it is also important not to underplay the existence of lacerations of historical memory and scars upon the self that impede the possibility of articulation and exchange. For traditions of syncretism notwithstanding, and despite the creation of forms dedicated to the realization of beauty during the process of the shaping of the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis over the centuries, the two nation states in the making descended into forms of barbarism and near-genocidal violence which had perhaps never been envisaged even in our worst nightmares during the ethical catastrophe of the Partition.

Dreams such as that of poet Fahmida Riaz in her important memoir, Zinda Bahar Lane, of the flowing lines of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh joining together and making a complete picture, running into each other like watercolours as in the case of the three rivers at Triveni are poignant and moving indeed.2 However, it is also necessary to come to terms with the aridity of the terrain of hate speech, bad passions and mutual animosity, whether in cyberspace or at the level of ground reality. There has been an erosion across South Asia of such shared resources and collective memories as a result of lasting mistrust and suspicion that has bedevilled relationships at the level of the family and society, as well as relations between the two (eventually three) nation states. Indeed, at the Jaipur literary festival in 2011, at a session titled ‘Two Nations, Two Narratives’, Pakistani literary critic Muneeza Shamsie made the important point that, ‘The two narratives on Partition do not meet at all and until they do there cannot be a way forward.’

This has certainly been the case with respect to historical discourses, as the historiography of the Partition in India and Pakistan largely demonstrates, in discussions by Gyan Pandey amongst others.3 Literary representations have, especially since the remarkable contribution of Sa’adat Hasan Manto, been much less concerned with following the nationalistic line, whether Indian or Pakistani, secular or Hindu/Islamic, on the whole. A juxtaposition of an early response depicting the effects of the Partition and a more recent novelistic rendition may be instructive in the context of this initiative of imagining an alternative South Asian selfhood. The next part of this essay thus focuses on selected writings by Fikr Tausvi4 and Zaheda Hina.5


Revisiting the moment of the drawing of boundaries through the lens of an atypical instance of fictive testimony gives a sense of different points of view generated during this formative moment. ‘The Wagah Canal’ is a satirical piece originally written in Urdu by Fikr Tausvi (or Taunsvi, pen-name of Ramlal Bhatia, a columnist and satirist based in Lahore; he migrated to India in November 1947). In this narrative, Tausvi recreates the experience of visiting the Wagah Canal shortly after the Partition, as a refugee. The narrator deliberately ignores the pomp and show associated with the arrival of refugee trucks; instead, he begins searching for ‘the dividing line’. He ironically quotes the prime minister of Great Britain, who speaks of this line as not merely a line, but a sacred bond, which will strengthen the bond of friendship between India and Pakistan.6 However, the narrator is unable to find any trace of such a strong bond. Instead, he notes the predominance, in each nation, of fear of the other.


On his next visit, he sees a three mile long sea of people at the Canal exchanging eatables as well as stories about the suffering they have undergone during the process of displacement, a few months after being ready to destroy each other. Though the narrator believes these tales may be the raw material for future historians, he wonders whether such stories might be included at all, given that they had more melons, mangoes and keema parathas in them, rather than daggers and swords.7 Indeed, the history of Wagah in those days seemed absurd, because it subverted the ideology of the government and encouraged disloyalty, according to him. The narrator thinks of scolding the people for indulging in friendly intercourse, for otherwise all that had been achieved might go down the drain.

The narrator then meets a group of writers from Pakistan, including Sahir Ludhianvi, Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, Ibne Insha and others. They poke fun at each other’s writing affectionately and laugh at the folly of those who wish to forge an intimate relationship between the two countries. Some propose putting up a wall of tigers on one side and a wall of elephants on the other to ensure that the people who shared their melons and mangoes stay at home. Such impracticable suggestions are duly noted, even as at sundown the dividing line appears more clearly. As they part, they see a tree standing erect on the border, almost as if it were a communist. The narrator wonders if the tree’s leaves and branches could be equally divided between India and Pakistan.


Then the Hindu writers travel to Lahore at Sahir’s invitation. Later, the narrator discovers that a politician had forwarded to the powers-that-be the preposterous suggestions made by the writers to poke fun at the law-makers of both countries. On his last visit to Wagah, he sees that the space has become desolate, devoid of mangoes and melons. The tears and tales of woe had retreated to where they belonged, and tigers and elephants had taken their place. One of the tigers tells him that only those people could touch the ‘Wagah beauty’ who had a regular passport, and who could prove that he posed no threat to the security of that ‘beauty’. In conclusion, the narrator makes a futile effort to discover what had happened to the tree standing on the border, for after all he too was a branch of that tree.8

This narrative reminds us of the topsy-turvy situation in the first few years after the Partition; the Wagah Canal is a symbol for the recent division as well as a site for the renewal of connection and dialogue. The relatively open border was soon replaced by a ‘secure’ one, whose ‘beauty’ was estimated in terms of the efficacy of the guardians at keeping people at bay, a prefiguration of the orchestrated symbolic aggression played out at the Wagah border every evening these days during the flag-lowering ceremony. In a remarkably self-reflexive moment, Tausvi shows how the rhetorical and far-fetched suggestions of writers made in a spirit of mockery might become the basis for the planning and execution of grotesque policy decisions (rather than constructive recommendations). Nonetheless, the basis for solidarity remains, however imperilled. The reference to the Progressive Writers’ dogged efforts to sustain conversation and dialogue despite the restrictions of the new permit (and later passport) based regime is especially moving.


The narrator’s tone here shifts from nonchalance to an evocation of melancholy, leavened by a sense of the absurd. Tausvi’s ironic take on the changing situation at the Wagah Canal during this moment of loss summons up a memory in danger of being erased. There was a moment, this narrative suggests, of shared regret and mourning, even an attempt to work through traumatic memories through the exchange of stories of despoliation and loss. This possible trajectory of historical development was superseded and overwritten by the decisions taken by policymakers in the two nation states, which led to the cementing of hostile attitudes, further antagonism and war.

The people themselves seemed to become irrelevant to processes set into motion, symbolized here by the raising of fantastical walls of tigers and elephants, which culminated in further polarization and debasement of cultural and civilizational values. Tausvi reinforces his critique by establishing an aesthetic distance through the use of satire. There is no element of either nostalgia or sentimentality, though. The searing costs of an absence of space for mutual participation in storytelling practices associated with mourning, Tausvi discerns, may be long lasting and continue to reverberate into the future.


The bequest of the Progressive Writers, though diminished, did not altogether disappear. The peace movement and the women’s movement on both sides of the border have made concerted efforts to build bridges, perhaps even reclaim ‘a country of our own’. While geopolitical tensions and the logic of realpolitik widened the chasm between India and Pakistan in particular, imaginative projections of the afterlife of the Partition by second and third-generation writers often sought to reach out across the abyss. A novelistic representation of the effects of Partition-related displacement by Zaheda Hina, a writer whose family migrated from Sasaram in Bihar to Pakistan, bears this out. Hina is also a columnist and commentator on issues such as minority rights for both Pakistani and Indian newspapers, and has been active in both the peace movement and the women’s movement.

The composite culture of yore, the Ganga-Jamni tahzeeb, underpins her writing and thought, as became evident at the launch of All Passion Spent, the translation of Hina’s Urdu novella, Na Janoon Raha na Pari Rahi (1993), in New Delhi in 2011, where she took questions in Hindustani and Urdu. The occasion gave a sense that despite the freezing of exchanges at the official level, the possibility of cross-cultural dialogue remains open, at least to an extent. Hina graciously acknowledged the influence of Qurratulain Hyder (especially Aag ka Dariya)9 on her sensibility and work, instead of citing Pakistani writers as her precursors. Indeed, her emphasis seems to be on carrying forward the legacy of radical humanism of the best of the Progressive Writers, reaching out to the marginalized and the dispossessed. This is no easy task in Pakistan, where the Pakistan ideology as taught in classrooms presents a lopsided view of the history of the nation.


Hina’s novella sensitively negotiates the terrain of the breakdown of trust and communication within families and between communities, especially in the context of forced dislocation. Rather than any affirmation of the utopian visions of (Pakistani) nationalists, we find here a dry-eyed look at the effects of forced migration on minority communities, especially in the interpersonal realm. After her father’s death in Patna, the protagonist, Birjees Dawar Ali, believes that she will find sanctuary with her uncle’s family in Karachi, who had migrated earlier in the wake of the Partition. Unable to discover their whereabouts, Birjees finds refuge instead with the Cowasjees, a Parsi family who provide unexpected succour. The liberality and compassion extended by this family stands in sharp contrast to the mean-spirited outlook of her own kin, whom she does eventually find attempting to make opportunistic alliances with powerful families there.

Birjees understands that her own situation is not unique, as she finds out more about the Parsi community and about their collective experience of dwindling and loss of self-confidence. Cowasjee’s son Manuchehr, a doctor, reminds Birjees of the danger of becoming exclusively preoccupied with her own sorrows. Our ability to recover from trauma may be contingent upon our capacity for empathy and sensitivity to the suffering of other victims of time’s ‘celestial capers’, Hina’s novella seems to suggest.10 Birjees learns about a further secret source of grief for the Cowasjees; their daughter Meenu, had eloped with her Sindhi lover across the border at the time of the Partition, and later took her own life.


Bano Cowasjee begins to suffer from delusions; she believes that Birjees has brought Meenu with her back from India, and regards her as a surrogate, her daughter’s double. The narrative here echoes the deployment of mental illness as trope for the psychic damage inflicted by the Partition in previous works by Manto11 and others. The indubitable sense of being haunted by the past is accentuated by the spectral traces of Meenu in their home. A failure of communication (and the unfulfilled possibility of a romantic relationship) between Manuchehr and herself leads Birjees to depart for Lucknow, where she had earlier trained as a musician, rather than her native Patna; she returns to India with a tremendous sense of fatigue. For many returnees like her, the idea of ‘a country of our own’ was likely to remain fraught with ambivalence.

Nonetheless, in this novella, the narratives of the Partition from both sides of the border do, arguably, come closer, paradoxically as a result of Birjees becoming witness to the historical experience of exile, and displacement of the Parsi community in Pakistan, some of who became embroiled in the event of the Partition, albeit as minority participants. Herself a mohajir, Birjees’ arrival and stay enable a healing process to be initiated for the Parsi family she lives with, despite her eventual departure. This reverse migration has considerable symbolic significance, charting a journey undertaken by Qurratulain Hyder and others in real life. A pan-South Asian perspective here comes to the fore with respect to the imprint of such critical events on minority culture and identity as well as the need for acknowledgement and validation of the pain of others. Paradoxically, it is the minority point of view that may allow for a revaluation and reassessment of the wounds of history.


Literary representations of the differentiated impact of extreme forms of collective violence as well as its more subtle residual effects on friendships and in family life in Partition’s aftermath emanating from minority locations, thus remind us of the perils of nostalgia and the impossibility of a mythic return. The journey back, from what Gyan Pandey once described as the black hole of the Partition, needs to factor in a sense of the dialectical relationship between material and cultural coordinates of this history and contrasting majoritarian narratives that still hinder the possibility of rapprochement between India and Pakistan.

Such fictive testimonies, which at times focus on hidden micro-narratives and ‘little’ histories, suggest a conception of pan-South Asian self-hood that transcends the communitarian or the national. While reconciliation and closure may be truly possible only when historical injustices are addressed collectively, imaginative writing about the Partition across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh indicates a shared and persistent sense of loss and melancholy; hence the compelling need for responsible engagement with and critical testing of historical memory, with all its attendant risks.


* Tarun K. Saint, is the author of Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction. Routledge, New Delhi, 2010.

** This essay is part of ongoing research into Partition testimonies in narrative form.


1. Intizar Husain (1999), Basti (trans. Frances Pritchett). Harper Collins, New Delhi, 1999. Also, A Chronicle of the Peacocks (trans. Alok Bhalla and V. Adil), in Alok Bhalla (ed.), Stories About the Partition of India, Vol. IV. Manohar, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 465-72.

2. Fahmida Riaz, 2000, Zinda Behar Lane (trans. of Zinda Behar Lane). Translated by Aquila Ismail. City Press, Karachi, 1990.

3. Gyanendra Pandey, Remembering Partition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

4. Fikr Tausvi, ‘The Wagah Canal’ (trans. A.S. Judge), in Alok Bhalla (ed.), Stories About the Partition of India, Vol. IV. Manohar, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 357-64.

5. Zaheda Hina, All Passion Spent (trans. Neelam Hussain). Zubaan, New Delhi, 2011. Trans. of Na Janoon Raha na Pari Rahi, 1993.

6. Fikr Tausvi, op cit., pp. 358-59.

7. Ibid., pp. 360-61.

8. Ibid., pp. 362-63.

9. Qurratulain Hyder, River of Fire (trans. of Aag ka Darya, 1959). Translated by the author. Kali, New Delhi, 1998.

10. Zaheda Hina, op cit., pp. 83-90.

11. Sa’adat Hasan Manto, Black Margins: Stories (trans. M. Asaduddin; ed. Muhammad Umar Memon). Katha, New Delhi, 2003.