Witnessing Partition: Interrogating colonialist and nationalist historiography

Dr. Meenakshi Malhotra talks about Witnessing Partition by Tarun K.Saint, which according to her, is a valuable addition to the corpus of Partition literature

In his book ‘’Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction’’(2020), Tarun K. Saint attempts the ambitious literary enterprise of a sweeping account of the major literary writing generated by the partition of 1947, when two separate countries, India and Pakistan were created. A moment which should have been a joyous celebration of freedom from colonial rule, turned into a tragic moment of violent and acrimonious division.

Tarun Saint interrogates and discusses partition, especially of Punjab,(on the Western border),  through the variegated prism of both fiction and non- fictional narratives, which he refers to as ‘’fictive testimonies’’. Placing the ideas of ‘’witnessing’’ and ‘’testimony’’ as central to his analysis, the book examines the experiences of partition through the writings of Khushwant Singh, Attia Hussein, Rahi Masoom Reza, Anita Desai and  others. It focuses on the modes of fictive testimony that sought to give voice to the inarticulable, the experiences which silenced the subjects and wounded their rational faculties.  These experiences included those of trauma and violence, of loss and longing, and of division and displacement.

The author discusses representational techniques and formal innovations in writing across three generations of 20th century writers in India and Pakistan. He does this in the backdrop and context of theoretical debates on history, memory, witnessing and trauma.

The book remains crucial in shaping our understanding of the ways in which contemporary politics and culture have been shaped by the partition, and the way the memories and recollections of partition violence , experienced by people living through them, have been represented in fiction and fictive testimony. The author makes the point that these ‘testimonies’, albeit fictional, have both memorialised the events and  provided  a  filter through which the workings of memory, of traumatic and ‘’unclaimed experience’’, enters the realm of the representable . According  to  Alok Bhalla , the book reminds the reader ‘’about two contemporary ethical and political concerns’’: the fraught relationship between religious, nationalist and racial politics and  second, genocide, and the ethical stance taken by ‘satyagrahis’ who refuse hysterical demands for aggression and revenge.      

In the introduction, the author points out the shift in partition historiography from the study of archival materials relating to the transfer of power and high politics to focusing not on leaders but the active participants of history, of those at the receiving end, like refugees and migrants. New perspectives have generated a greater interest in oral testimony and literary sources, often ‘fictive’ testimonies. The accounts of violence and trauma which were recounted in terms of statistics and third person accounts yielded, in this scenario, to literary sources and fictive accounts with remembered narratives of the horror and trauma that people had lived through, often told in the first person.

By lending credibility to ‘fictive’ memoirs and testimony accounts, the author interrogates both colonialist as well as nationalist historiography. Dictated by the attempts of colonialist historiography to portray colonial rule in a benign light, and the tendency  of  nationalist history to attribute all problems to the colonial policy of ‘divide and rule’, these modes of history writing tend to be limited and reductive .

Negotiating this unclaimed trauma and its residues, as psychologists point out, is essential to the wellbeing of people who carry memories(sometimes generational) of people who have not only lived through trauma and suffering but their subsequent generations as well. 

The context for a rethinking of historiography in India has been attributed by the historian Gyan Pandey to a move away from the Nehruvian(Nehru was India’s first prime minister) vision of a modern secular state and a consolidation of ‘’right-wing, religious community based politics’’. (Saint,2020:6) At the same time, major changes occurred within the field of historiography that dismantled many of the earlier paradigms and ways of studying history, which was often monumentalist, supposedly neutral and objective. In Pandey’s and many other historian’s view, the gap between historical ’events’ and survivor accounts, monumentalist and everyday , subaltern accounts of history, between history and memory,  had to be bridged.

As suggested earlier, fictive testimony seems an appropriate literary form and vehicle to articulate and give voice to unclaimed traumatic experience, the residues of which continue to impact the everyday and shape the present.  Negotiating this unclaimed trauma and its residues, as psychologists point out, is essential to the wellbeing of people who carry memories(sometimes generational) of people who have not only lived through trauma and suffering but their subsequent generations as well. 

Given a context of pervasive silence and selective memorialisation, the author is aware of the ‘’difficulties of bearing witness in literary form to the catastrophic dislocation of the Partition’’, which are highlighted in the course of the book. “Unlike a testimony in a court of law’’ that is the ‘’basis  for judgment,’’ the author argues that ‘fictive’ testimony as a ‘’paradoxical mode of truth-telling’’(Saint:2) may reflect the suffering and trauma which does not get documented elsewhere, partly due to a collapse of appropriate language and vocabulary to  narrate a hitherto unprecedented experience.

Partition, unlike the Holocaust, did not have clearly demarcated groups of perpetrators and victims.

The book also sensitively explores the reasons for the long silence on  traumatic  experience, which led to a situation in the subcontinent, where there were no memorials or memorialisation, no museums, no attempts at preservation of cultural artefacts. While this lack of interest in the archive may be suggestive of a mindset  which lacks a historical consciousness, the author attributes historically specific reasons  for this long silence and the  gap in historiography. Partition, unlike the Holocaust, did not have clearly demarcated groups of perpetrators and victims. Instead the groups were almost interchangeable and a mirror image of each other, a fact pointed out in Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Shadow Lines’, where he interrogates borders and boundaries.

‘’Witnessing Partition’’ is a valuable addition to the corpus of Partition literature. There are perceptive accounts of feminist historiography, pioneered by Ritu Menon, Urvashi Butalia and  Kamla Bhasin. There is significant work done by Veena Das, Ashis Nandy and Shail Mayaram, among a host of other scholars, which raises questions about memory and the ethics of remembrance. A lot of this work was conducted through reading fictional texts  but  also  through an adoption of the methodologies of oral history. Survivors and their families who had been part of the mass migration, were interviewed, invited to remember and narrate their experiences. Butalia makes a significant point about the perils of remembering/recollection. She points out that the reluctance to remember is not just attributable to the horrific nature of the violence, but also to people’s own complicity in that history. The other aspects focused on by Butalia and Ritu Menon are on the gendered aspect of Partition narratives; Menon also focuses on the mode of the ‘fragment’ rather than extended official memory, drawing attention to the absence of feminist historiography of the Partition.(Saint,144) Both Ritu Menon and Saint point out the perils of delving into memory, which may be appropriated in the service of narrow ideological ends.

If memory, presumably based on facts, can be fallible, it is invariably fiction. Whether  it is the short stories of Sadat Hasan Manto or the longer fiction of Krishna Baldev Vaid, through its irony, symbols, paradoxes and obliquities, which captures and refracts the trauma experienced by the people in the immediate aftermath of partition, in what was probably the largest mass migration in human history. It is to the author’s credit that he is able to convey the panoramic sweep of partition literature, even as he discusses, in a nuanced way, the idea of ‘’witnessing’’ which, while drawn from juridical discourse, informs partition literature, and is, in turn, informed by a rich body of theoretical material on the subject. Drawing on history, literature and psychology, the book is not only a  pioneering trans and interdisciplinary work on the Partition, but also suggests the way forward for more work on the area.

Reviewer’s Bio

Dr. Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. She  has edited two books on Women and Life writing, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender in literature and feminist theory at national and international levels. Some of her recent publications include articles in ‘Women and Gender Studies in  India: Crossings’ (Routledge,2019)  in ‘The State of Hurt’ (SAGE,2016), in ‘Ways of Seeing/Ways of Queering’, (Interdisciplinary Press,2016), in ‘Unveiling Desire‘(Rutgers University Press, 2018) and ‘Ecofeminism and its Discontents’ (Primus,2018). She has also been an editorial consultant for ICSE textbooks (Grades1-8)with Pearson publishers. She can be reached at meenakshi.chat@gmail.com.



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