Mystery, Mayhem, and Trauma: A Reading List for India’s 1947 Partition
Shilpi Suneja Recommends Yasmin Khan, Vazira Zamindar, Bapsi Sidhwa, and More
Because we never spoke of it, I’ve had to imagine the conversation:
Me: “Why have you never told me anything about Partition?”
My grandfather: “What is there to know?”
My grandfather’s reply would indicate both a lack and a surplus—a surplus of memories and visions of vehicles big and strong, pedestrians, pedals, cattle caravans with which he and millions like him made the journey from newly created Pakistan to newly created India. The “what is there to know” would also indicate a lack of language in which to tell these stories, the impossibility of retelling, an attempt at minimizing the massiveness of the tragedy. The “what is there to know,” is an epistemological conundrum, a questioning back of the generation who survived Partition to the generation who might seem clueless about it: you tell me what it is you don’t know, and I’ll tell you about it.
This is where I need my grandfather and my grandmother, my granduncles and grandaunts, my uncles and aunts. I need history to speak to me, because I don’t know what I don’t know about Partition. The “what is there to know” is how I think of my grandfather, and of those who survived Partition. The single greatest mass migration of modern times, probably the greatest trauma shared by all three generations, and yet we don’t speak of it.
What was Partition? And more importantly, what is it now? In official narratives, the events that lead to the end of British colonial rule and the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947 has been carefully tucked behind the veil of independence with its cavalcade of celebratory fireworks and a false narrative of non-violent overthrow of colonial rule. But thanks to the incredible excavatory work of social scientists, poets, writers, archivists, and filmmakers, we now understand Partition more fully: it was a division, an etching of haphazard boundaries.
It was also a completely unplanned, uncontrolled and mayhemic transfer of populations that caused the loss of one million lives and the uprooting of thirteen million. Partition was civil war. It was a demand for a separate homeland for minorities in light of Hindu majority power. It was also a failure of awkwardly applying European nation-state politics to South Asia. It was weaponizing and politicizing religion. It was the forging of new political destinies. It was the creation of two national armies.
What is the Partition now? It is a difficult legacy, it is memories of resentments, it’s the cause of border wars. It’s the othering of minority neighbors. It’s what causes a Hindu schoolteacher to instruct his Hindu students to slap their Muslim classmate. In 2023. On video. So that it goes viral. It’s hate, it’s India’s own Islamophobia. It’s imperative we acknowledge that Partition both was and is.
I arrived at this understanding of Partition—as a trauma narrative, and as a living thing regenerating itself over and over with each generation—with the help of certain key texts, a handful of which are shared below.
Ritu Menon, Kamala Bhasin, Borders & Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition
Because the history of men is not the same as the history of women, and because men are almost always asked first and tend to speak first, this book is essential reading to understand the gendered nature of Partition violence. Caught in between the borders and boundaries of religion, community, and nation, tasked with upholding family honor, the women tell a decidedly different story.
From bearing “permissible violence”—drowned and killed by their own fathers and brothers to save family honor, or even asked to commit suicide to save that honor—to forced violence—rape, mutilation, abduction, conversion at the hands of “enemy” men, forced restoration by the hands of the state, women’s bodies become the very sites of contestation where entire nations define their ideas of identity, honor, selfhood, sovereignty.
Out of the array of incredulous violence inflicted upon women, the most incredulous is probably that by the state, in the form of the Abducted Persons Recovery and Restoration Bill. Passed in the parliaments of both India and Pakistan, the bill gave the governments carte blanche to extract with the help of police force all those persons reported abducted or missing by their families.
As a result, thousands of women were handcuffed and yanked away from their new families (who may or may not have inflicted sexual violence upon them), yanked away from the children they birthed in those unions, and force-rehabilitated into their families of origin, that more often than not, did not want them back. These “restored” women had no legal recourse, no choice in the matter of where they could live, which border they wanted to belong.
Khan has an engaging way of writing history, and this book causes your jaw to drop several times. Here’s the opening, for example: “South Asians learned that the British Indian empire would be partitioned on 3 June 1947” (a mere two months before Independence!) And another: “They heard about it on the radio, from relations and friends, by reading newspaper and, later, through government pamphlets.” And another: “perhaps hundreds of thousands, didn’t hear the news for many weeks.”
Khan offers a comprehensive overview of the incidents preceding and following the decision to divide the lands, folding in the insouciance, inefficacy, intractability, and haphazardness of the leaders and the crisis upon crisis that the millions were subjected to from moment to moment. The minutia of details she has assembled are astounding: the caravans of millions on foot and what they carried, the state of the refugee camps on both sides of the border and their rations. Khan also analyzes what Partition means to the subcontinent now, and how its legacy continues to fire up right-wing ideologies on both sides of the border.
Vazira Zamindar, The Long Partition
Zamindar’s book examines the years after the division, what happened to the millions of displaced refugees, how they were treated by the state, and what their treatment—for example, the privileging of Hindu refugees over Muslim denizens—meant for the moral and ideological character of the state. In the calculus of Partition, for the business of rehabilitation, one community’s loss meant the profit of the other’s, one’s restoration meant the exodus of the other. The Hindu refugees pouring in from the gash of the new border needed homes, and many times these homes were forcefully taken from Muslims who hadn’t departed to Pakistan.
Sometimes the governments stepped in and allotted homes that hadn’t been vacated. In many cases, Muslims were forcefully moved out of their homes and put into newly demarcated “Muslim zones.” Even if loyal to India and wanting to remain behind, many were forced to migrate to Pakistan. Once they landed in Pakistan, they weren’t greeted with open arms, because the refugees who’d arrived before them were already facing a housing crisis. Muslims who did not migrate to Pakistan had no remaining advocates in India, just like the creators of Pakistan had feared.
And what of those who had family on the other side of the border? Travel permits, which later turned into passports, demanded that citizens pick one side. Some were arrested for traveling and labeled foreigners in their own homelands. Passports are meant to control the movement of people. The are meant to distinguish citizens from aliens. Instead of making the India-Pakistan border a soft one so that relatives, goodwill, and culture could flow easily from one to the other, the governments decided to make it a hard border.
You could have a sick daughter on the other side of the border, you could have your family saint’s ashes on the other side of the border, but good luck getting a visa. This books makes it crystal clear: Partition piled injustice upon injustice on the Muslims who remained behind in India.
Bapsi Sidhwa, Cracking India
What do the grand, heartbreaking events of Partition look like when seen from the eyes of a ten-year-old girl? What did they do to her carefully assembled circle of friends, a circle that includes men and women from multiple faiths and castes? What do they do to the tranquility of Queens Park, the stately homes on Jail Road? What do they do to her gorgeous Ayah, in love with the handsome Hindu masseur and coveted by the ambitious Muslim ice-candy man?
The microcosm of Lahore, of one little girl’s heterogenous, syncretic world is shattered into smithereens by Partition. Sidhwa’s novel has been required reading for ages, and has been turned into a moving film by Canada’s Deepa Mehta with music by A.R. Rehman.
M. S. Sathyu, Garam Hava
It is impossible to talk Partition literature without mentioning M.S. Sathyu’s heartbreaking film, Garam Hava (Hot Winds) (1973). Based on the beloved Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai’s short story, the film portrays one Indian Muslim family’s rapid socioeconomic erosion in the months following Partition. The patriarch of the family, Salim Mirza, played by the incomparable Balraj Sahni has had to bid farewell to more and more members of his family leaving for Pakistan.
His shoe business is about to fold because Hindu moneylenders are refusing him loans. Muslims have been leaving for Pakistan and can’t be trusted. A case in point, Salim Mirza’s older brother, Halim, who too leaves for Pakistan, taking with him his son and Salim Mirza’s daughter Amina’s beloved and betrothed. Halim has the legal ownership to their shared home, and now that he’s left for Pakistan, the Indian government waltzes right in and allots the house to a Hindu refugee family.
Salim Mirza and his family are forced to look for alternate accommodations. The son of another family member begins to court Amina, but when he too leaves for Pakistan, and later reveals that like Halim’s son, he too has been promised to the daughter of a prominent Pakistani family, Amina does not survive the second heartbreak. She commits suicide. Heartbreaks continue to pile on in this film, but respite comes in the form of haunting Sufi music, and via the scene in which Salim Mirza’s dying mother is carried back into the home she was forced to vacate so that her soul can find release.
House of Caravans by Shilpi Suneja is available via Milkweed.