This is an ambitious and innovative production but, perhaps ironically for a collection clearly based around a single theme, lacking in clarity and purpose, says Elen Turner.
This book represents an ambitious project: to tell stories of the Partition of India through graphic narratives. It contains twenty-eight short pieces on different aspects of the Partition in 1947, from various locations. Present-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are all represented, and while most of the texts were originally written in English, a number have been translated from Urdu, Hindi and Bangla. The majority of entries are collaborations between a writer and an illustrator/artist, often in different locations, particularly across national borders.
A gamut of experiences of Partition are represented: life in refugee camps, the continuing difficulty of India-Pakistan cross-border travel, homelessness in both the physical and the psychological senses, the fundamental similarities between Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, despite political rhetoric.
One aspect that was largely missing was the portrayal or narration of corporeal violence, something that has been a mainstay of Partition histories since the 1940s. Indian feminist writers and historians, since around the turn of the twenty-first century, have forced a re-examination of what Partition meant to the individuals caught up in it. Part of this was to demonstrate that as well as the violence that erupted on an unprecedented scale, the loss of a sense of home and place of belonging was a psychological effect of Partition that cannot be underestimated in its severity and ramifications. So, This Side, That Side’s focus on these concerns of belonging and identity could be seen to fit within this strand of Partition revisionist historiography.
The ‘retelling’ of Partition histories is nothing new anymore, however. The age of the authors included is, then, far more significant in how the work turned out than a conscious attempt to fit within Partition revisionism. The authors are mostly young: from the included photographs the majority look under fifty. Partition to them and their generation(s) was something that happened in language, from tales of loss and longing narrated from parents and grandparents. It was not something seen or witnessed. Furthermore, the severed territories themselves were not seen because of travel restrictions. So This Side, That Side’s putting into pictures what has been knowable to post-midnight’s children only in words can be seen as the book’s greatest success.
As the majority of the stories were written by one person, and illustrated by another, the tone of the narratives didn’t always match the style of illustration. Most of the illustrations themselves were attractive and interesting, with a lot of diversity of style represented: stark pen and ink, collage, photo essays, paper cut-outs, and more conventional comic-book style with boxes neatly lined up side-by-side and speech bubbles spilling over the parameters. The visuals are strong, but the written narratives are not always, with a lot of repetition of subject matter and abrupt endings.
The commissioned nature of This Side, That Side means that it does not feel like an organic whole. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with commissioned collections of works in any genre: the fact of commission and selection does, of course, suggest that the topic is urgent enough to have caught the attention of professionals who have the drive to select, edit, and nurture a collection to fruition. However, with This Side, That Side the question of why the editor and publisher felt a collection of graphic narratives on Partition was warranted was never fully answered. Other than literally visualising a part of South Asian history that is slowly being lost to living memory, and therefore perhaps engaging readers who otherwise wouldn’t read the history or literature of Partition, the anthology contains little that was previously untold. This is an ambitious and innovative production but, perhaps ironically for a collection clearly based around a single theme, lacking in clarity and purpose.
Elen Turner is an editor, writer and reader currently based in Kathmandu. She has a PhD in Literature and Gender Studies from the Australian National University, and writes a blog on South Asian literature.