Book review: Divided by Partition United by Resilience – 21 Inspirational Stories from 1947, ed. Mallika Ahluwalia

Reviewed by Gouri Athale

Title: Divided by Partition United by Resilience
Editor: Mallika Ahluwalia
Publisher: Rupa Publications India (2018)
Pages: 210 (Paperback)

The title says it all, these are the first person accounts of people who suffered the partitioning of their provinces (now called states) and of some, like those from Sindh and Northwest Frontier Province, who lost even that province/state.

An important and positive contribution of this book is that it reminds us that our history does not end with gaining independence; that history continues to be made even after 1947. The anthology has stories mainly on the fallout of partition of the Punjab, a few from Sind and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and just one story from Bengal. Yet, this is the most touching, heart wrenching, made worse because it is so rarely heard. There ought to have been more, since Bengal was first partitioned in 1905 and then again in 1947.

For most Indians born after 1991, partition is believed to have affected only the Punjab, because that is a well-documented story and it happened in one stroke, around August 1947. Bengal, on the other hand, had as great a trauma in 1947 but refugees came in waves, going on well up to 1971, which leaves Sindh, or Sind, where there was no partition. The entire state was given away so that those who came as refugees from Sindh lost not only their property, their culture but also their entire state, making them state-less. Bengal and Punjab got some part of their old states so they didn’t lose their identity totally in the form of a home state.

This collection of short stories, told most of the time in the first person, gives the impression that partition happened across many more than the two states; it makes no differentiation between Sindh and the NWFP (which weren’t partitioned) and Punjab and Bengal, which were.

The 21 stories in this collection are of well-known, high profile people, starting with a former Prime Minister, a former Deputy Prime Minister, the brother of a former Prime Minister, men successful in the corporate world…. which is why Manoranjan Byapari’s straight-from-the-gut story touches a chord because it a story rarely heard, that too from Bengal, which rarely figures in the conversation on the events of 1947. And Byapari belongs to a so-called `low’ caste, making him doubly dispossessed: losing the familiar and a void in its place.

This anthology is neither the first nor will it be the last on the partition of two states (tragic though it was, only Punjab and Bengal got partitioned, not the entire country so it cannot be the `partition of India’). But this is the Indian side of the story. Is there just as large a storehouse of stories on the other side? Most of the stories here recount the two-way nature of the movement of people. Have those who’ve gone from India to Pakistan (and now Bangladesh) written of their travails in such large numbers, with a similar feeling of longing and angst?

Hamida Habibullah’s narrative is a case in point. Ms Habibullah came from a zamindar family of Lucknow, married into another zamindar family and some of her husband’s siblings migrated to (West) Pakistan. She, her husband (and their children) and his mother did not. This reminded me of a story by another high profile Muslim from the same locality and similar background. He said they had too much property here to leave it all and go to Pakistan where they would have nothing. So those who went from India to Pakistan were either the very poor, with nothing to hold them back here or were ideologically driven. Hence it is unlikely that despite the two-way movement of people, there is a similar literary store or this deep longing for pre-1947 times.

The slim, 179-page book is an easy read although there’s nothing new here; the story’s been heard many times over. The simplistic tone of the narration claims that it was always `outsiders’ who ignited violence; there was complete harmony among Hindu and Muslim neighbourhoods in rural or urban undivided Punjab till people, rumour mongers and others looking to grab property, etc., came from other towns and villages (outsiders) to inflame these well-integrated communities. We continue to hear this in every case where law and order breakdown: that someone else from outside came and ignited passions in areas where peace and harmony reigned.

This is hard to swallow; the partition of Bengal in 1905 was not peaceful (with no records of ‘outsiders’ inciting the violence; whatever happened, was done locally). In Punjab, there were historical memories of brutal subjugation by the Mughals. This tension, lying just under the surface between the communities, flared up when there was also property at stake so this convenient myth of an ‘outsider’ who came and incited peaceful communities doesn’t ring true.

Stories collated in the book resonate with the title of the book: of a people divided who yet proved resilient. This resilience is not restricted to the success stories narrated here. We have them around us: most of us have heard of Sindhi refugee colonies in the small towns of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and their successes. The Punjabi story has been told repeatedly. It is of course Bengal which is the most under-represented in this genre, despite having gone through the same trauma (twice). The resilience of the Bengali refugee is perhaps known within the community (West and East Bengalis have distinct names for each community, based on their geographical origin) but not to a wider audience. This book could have attempted to bridge that gap; regretfully, it hasn’t.

The stories and experiences in the book have been collated by the Partition Museum, set up in Amritsar by Mallika Ahluwalia, who has also brought together this collection. She has of course selected the most high profile people, displaying their achievements despite a crippling handicap. Other stories, smaller in scale, are just as inspirational, being everyday stories of everyday people. Yes, history mustn’t be forgotten but it should not overshadow the present or future.



Gouri Athale is a Pune based freelance journalist.


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