India’s Partition and more-than-fictional geographies

“It wasn’t until some years later – when I realized the full scope and dimension of the massacres – that I comprehended the concealed nature of the ice lurking deep beneath the hypnotic and dynamic femininity of Gandhi’s non-violent exterior.” Lenny, in Bapsi Sidhwas’s Cracking India

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Partition of Punjab, 1947 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Partition of India in August 1947 had, at its epicentre, the Punjab – my ancestral home. From 1947 to 1948, it is estimated that over 15 million people were uprooted, and that between 1 and 2 million people were killed in the sectarian violence and mutual genocide between, on the one hand, Hindus and Sikhs, and, on the other, Muslims. As a collection of facts, the horror of what happened that year has never deeply struck me until now. Having recently read Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, I’ve been asking myself: what atrocities would my family and others have witnessed, and indeed been victim to and perpetrated? My parents were young children in 1947 and 1948, in the villages of the Punjab, and only now, as a consequence of my questions, are their own oral histories coming to light; and what they relay has an eerie similarity to what Singh and Sidhwa have already told me.

Train to Pakistan and Cracking India are novels, works of fiction, which offer incredibly rich insights into the social and cultural geographies of everyday life during the time of India’s Partition. These two works are a gateway into a reality, and a way of processing and understanding this reality through empathic emotional connection.

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While the village of Mano Majra, situated on the border of a newly drawn India and Pakistan, in Train to Pakistan is not real, in a sense, the scene set and the subsequent unfolding drama are real.

Mano Majra is a tiny place. It has only three brick buildings, one of which is the home of the moneylender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque.

Although Mano Majra is said to be on the banks of the Sutlej River, it is actually half a mile away from it. In India villages cannot afford to be too close to the banks of rivers. Rivers can change their moods with the seasons and alter their courses without warning. The Sutlej is the largest river in the Punjab.

Mano Majra has always been known for its railway station. Since the bridge has only one track, the station has several sidings where less important trains can wait, to make way for the most important.

Through Singh’s superb character development on this modest geographical stage, the surreal nature of a gradually transpiring barbarity of India’s Partition – at first so remote and abstract, and then all too close – is portrayed at its most human (and inhuman) level. From a train full of butchered corpses pulling in at the train station, to bodies of people and animals floating in the river, to a harmonious and simple village torn apart. The badmash character of Juggut Singh who lives in Mano Majra is also make-believe; he becomes an unexpected moment of hope, as he precariously balances on the bridge, amidst a sinking pit of human depravity and despair.

The following passage includes the character of Iqbal (an outsider and left-wing political agitator, who arrives just before the violence of Partition reaches Mano Majra) and his exchange with Meet Singh, the head of the village Gurdwara.

“Everyone is welcome to his religion. Here next door is a Muslim mosque. When I pray to my Guru, Uncle Imam Baksh calls to Allah. How many religions do they have in Europe?”

“They are all Christians of one kind or another. They do not quarrel about their religions as we do here. They do not really bother very much about religion.”

“So I have heard,” said Meet Singh ponderously. “That is why they have no morals. The sahibs and their wives go about with other sahibs and their wives. That is not good, is it?”

“But they do not tell lies like we do and they are not corrupt and dishonest as so many of us are,” answered Iqbal.

He got out his tin opener and opened a tin of sardines. He spread the fish on a biscuit and continued to talk while he ate.

“Morality, Meet Singhji, is a matter of money. Poor people cannot afford to have morals. So they have religion. …”

Shortly after, Iqbal meets some more villagers.

“Well, Babuji,” began the Muslim, “Tell us something. What is happening in the world? What is all this about Pakistan and Hindustan?”

“We live in this little village and know nothing,” the lambardar put in. “Babuji, tell us, why did the English leave?”

Iqbal did not know how to answer simple questions like these. Independence meant little to nothing to these people. They did not even realise that it was a step forward and that all they needed to do was to take the next step and turn the make-believe political freedom into a real economic one.

Iqbal tried to take the offensive. “Why don’t you people want to be free? Do you want to remain slaves all your lives?”

After a long silence the lambardar answered: “Freedom must be a good thing. But what will we get out of it? Educated people like you, Babu Sahib, will get the jobs the English had. Will we get more lands or more buffaloes?”

“No,” the Muslim said. “Freedom is for the educated people who fought for it. We were slaves of the English, now we will be slaves of the educated Indians – or the Pakistanis.”

Iqbal, full of big political ideas and belief in his own ability to alter the course of history, in the end gives up his fight. In the closing narration of Train to Pakistan, it is the seeming hero who becomes the anti-hero, and the anti-hero the hero.

India is constipated with a lot of humbug. Take religion. For the Hindu, it means little besides caste and cow-protection. For the Muslim, circumcision and kosher meat. For the Sikh, long hair and hatred of the Muslim. For the Christian, Hinduism with a sola topee. For the Parsi, fire-worship and feeding vultures. Ethics, which should be the kernel of a religious code, has been carefully removed.

If you look at things as they are, he told himself, there does not seem to be a code either of man or of God on which one can pattern one’s conduct. Wrong triumphs over right as much as right over wrong. Sometimes its triumphs are greater. What happens ultimately, you do not know. In such circumstances what can you do but cultivate an utter indifference to all values? Nothing matters. Nothing whatever…

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For me, Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India is an even more powerful read. During Partition, the kidnapping, rape, disfigurement, and dismemberment of women were widespread. Those who survived became known as fallen women, burdened by shame and familial disownment. Through Sidhwa’s central characters of Ayah and the Ice Candy Man – as seen through the lens of the book’s narrator, a young girl called Lenny – such horror is startlingly depicted. And through the feminism and strength of Lenny’s Godmother comes hope.

The book starts with Lenny’s mental map, her geography.

My world is compressed. Warris Road, lined with rain gutters, lies between Queens Road and Jail Road: both wide, clean, orderly streets at the affluent fringes of Lahore.

A dialectic of Lenny’s childhood naivety and maturing wisdom gives the book’s narration a hauntingly beautiful and authentic feel to the Partition in Lahore (a city which fell on the Pakistan side of the Punjab).

There is much disturbing talk. India is going to be broken. Can one break a country? And what happens if they break it where our house is? Or crack it further up on Warris Road? How will I ever get to Godmother’s then?

It is sudden. One day everybody is themselves – and the next day they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian. People shrink, dwindling into symbols. Ayah is no longer just my all-encompassing Ayah – she is also a token. A Hindu.

Lenny’s Warris Road is transformed.

Processions are becoming a part of the street scene. …

Adi and I slip past the attention of our vigilants and join the tiny tinpot processions that are spawned on Warris Road. We shout ourselves hoarse crying, “Jai Hind! Jai Hind!” or “Pakistan Zindabad!” depending on the whim or the allegiance of the principal crier.

Even at this point, poor Lenny has little to no idea of the barbarism that is about to be unleashed and of her own accidental role in this for her beloved nanny, Ayah.

In the empirical study Midnight Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition, Nisid Haraji (2015, page xviii- xix) reflects:

“Nearly seventy years later, Partition has become a byword for horror. Instead of joining hands at their twinned births, India and Pakistan would be engulfed by some of the worst sectarian massacres the modern world has ever seen. Non-Muslims [Sikhs and Hindus] on one side of the new border in the Punjab and Muslims on the other descended with sword and spear and torch on the minorities that lived among them. An appalling slaughter ensued. Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits. Foot caravans of destitute refugees fleeing the violence stretched for 50 miles or more. As the peasants trudged along wearily, mounted guerrillas charged out of the tall crops that lined the road and culled them like sheep. Special refugee trains, filled to bursting when they set out, suffered repeated ambushes along the way. All too often they crossed the border in funereal silence, blood seeping from under their carriage doors.”