When Silence is Heard: Telling the Stories of Women During the Partition of India
Melody Razak on the Testimonies That Survived
The British Raj left India in the summer of 1947. It was a composite, bitter joy. Independence was pitted against Partition and the land divided along religious lines. India was truncated and Pakistan was born.
The fury of the reckoning that followed, the sheer scale of geographical displacement, changed the structures of society, creating a violent rupture that is present even today. The history of Partition does not belong to a bygone era. It is heartbreakingly too familiar in the present moment—Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Kashmir—and the lines of segregation are indelible.
When I started researching the topic of Partition, I was stunned by the statistics: by the approximately 75,000 women raped and abducted, by the millions killed, by the millions more who walked across the sub-continent in search of new homes. What struck me, and what would later become the beating heart of my novel Moth, were the silences I could feel stirring beneath these facts and numbers. Partition was so much more than the collective stories of the male politicians and historians, the male writers; somewhere in the rubble lay the personal, too often discarded histories of those on the side lines, and it was the women to whom I paid particular attention.
When I listened to the oral interviews of the remaining survivors in the archives of the British Library, I felt instinctively that so much was left unsaid—that in the cracks, in the nuances of their silences, in the unmentionables, lay the story I was searching for. I began to understand that in intimate domestic details, in the objects that were clung to, the rituals especially, lay the only form of expression so many of these women were afforded.
A book instrumental to my research was The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia. Butalia is a feminist Indian publisher, and her collection of personal essays and interviews is luminous. She too remarks on the “half said thing” by female survivors whose stories were difficult to pin down; women who were rarely interviewed without their menfolk present and correcting.
Butalia looks at the female body, stripped, paraded, branded, sexually violated, impregnated, discarded and asks: when the body becomes currency, a means of one side inflicting harm on the other, of polluting their bloodlines and skewering those arcane but all-important notions of honor, that when the physical body is thus reduced, what voice can there be? “I have seen such abnormal things, I kept asking myself, what is there to write, why should I write.”
At the same time, the Indian media and public officials of the time glorified female martyrdom. There is a quote I use in Moth taken from a speech given by President Nehru’s cousin. It comes after the mass suicide at Thoha Khalsa when 93 women jump into a well rather than face rape and conversion by the other side. The words feel all the more disturbing for having been spoken by an educated woman: “The bodies of these beautiful women had become swollen and floated up to the surface of the water … We thought of it as our great fortune that we had been able to visit this site and worship these satis.”
“Sita and Sati, Sati and Sita,” my protagonist the young Alma, chants to herself after she hears news of the incident at the well. Sati is a female figure of Indian mythology much worshipped—more on this later—and Sati is the now outlawed act of female suicide in accordance with a husband’s death.
It is the concept of India as Mother—a concept that I have always felt to be so reassuring and one that I sincerely believe has held me when I have needed it—that also proved to be so problematic when I was writing my story. India as Bharat is a country imagined as the mother. The River Ganges, also female, is a symbol of all the life that flows. The geographical borders of Partition were understandably seen as a violation of this sacred body, and yet, it was the women who bore the brunt of the fallout and their physical human bodies that were defiled.
Amid this tension—of woman as sacred deity against that of woman as meat—where can language place itself?
In her controversial essay, “A Secret Connivance,” published in 1990 in the TLS, Anita Desai explores this concept with skill. She writes that like the cult of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism, India has thousands of cults built, in one form or another, around the Mother Goddess, “….that fecund figure from whom all good things flow—milk, food, warmth, comfort. Her ample bosom and loins, her enticing curves and buxom proportions make her not merely the ideal mother but the ideal woman—consort, lover, plaything. She is the richest source of art of India. Around her exists a huge body of mythology.”
Sita says to her husband, “Surely your fortune is mine….I cannot be cast away like water left in a cup. Dear Rama, I am the humble dust at your feet, perfectly happy.”
Desai argues that an Indian girl raised on these legends believes that she must live as Sita did, no matter the drudgery or abuse. This girl believes that any whisper of rebellion would be an act of rebellion, against not just her father or husband, or society, but against her own myth and as an extension of god himself. Honor and status thus reign supreme.
My recourse in the novel was to use the figure of a goddess, the inimitable Kali, and to place her in direct conversation with a human girl, Alma, in the hopes that their imagined dialogue could explore this dichotomy.
It is important to note that so many of the women who lived through Partition would have been unqualified, illiterate, unable to support themselves and their children. They would have had no life experience outside their families and homes. These women would not have considered their stories worth telling. They would not have been asked to tell them.
After Partition, this dynamic changed slightly, as many women found employment for the first time, many were taught basic reading and writing or a skill and many more were involved in rehabilitating the vast numbers of abducted women now returned. It was around this time that several important collections of testimony from women were produced and published.
In addition to Butalia, Ritu Menon interviewed a number of women who survived Partition and published their stories in the collection No Woman’s Land. Menon explores the well-known idea that while women were commonly considered the “flotsam and jetsam” of historical events, they were nevertheless called upon “to pick up the pieces, clean up the mess, rebuild and resettle, somehow manage, somehow forgive and forget….nurturing and mothering.”
It is particularly interesting how often the women skirt around the issues of rape and abduction. Once you start looking for the silences, the gaps are clear on the page. In her narrative, “Riots, Partition and Independence,” Manikuntala Sen writes, “People lost their homes many women lost their husbands and sons. I am not going to relate these stories.” She writes of suicidal women, “Both were wives who were dependant on their husbands, both were mothers, both wanted to die.” And, “I will not write anymore about the riots … One of the women went mad brooding over her dead husband. We kept that woman tied up in a veranda on the fourth floor.”
There is a moment of illumination, concerning a young widow, and Sen realizes something of the warping hypocrisies because really her narrative is just as much about finding her own way through the complexities as it is about relaying events:
She had been widowed at a very young age and lived with her brother’s family.
Would any Hindu marry a young widow readily? Under such circumstances, if she found a respectable husband and a new family for herself, how could anyone object? How could this threaten society and bring about its collapse. If this was what Hindu society was like, how dare we call others communal?
Ranjit Kaur in her interview, “Back again, after 40 years,” writes:
‘…and this ancient man, he caught hold of me and brought me here.’ She has three or four children now from him. He also came with her but as long as he was present I didn’t say anything … didn’t meet a single woman there who was unhappy … Even that woman I told you about who killed all her children as soon as they were born, even she’s okay now. …
Anyway, he brought her on the day we had fixed but he sat with her throughout, so what could we say? Couldn’t talk at all. And he kept her in purdah. Kept sitting with us too….and I got an opportunity to talk to her in the kitchen. The men couldn’t come there.
Surely a woman who kills her children is not and can never be okay, and surely the abducted women cannot be happy—yet, I wonder if I am imposing my own emotions on another woman’s story. I still have a desire to understand what life would have been like for these women who had lost everything and were just trying to make life bearable again.The silence of women during times of political rupture is a difficult topic to approach, and more so when those women have lived in a time and culture so different from your own.
In addition to these works, the fiction of Anita Desai, of whom I have always been a fan, was particularly illuminating when I was researching Moth. The surfaces of her writing are calm, considered, but there is a simmer of violence beneath—in the heat, in the insects, again, in the “unsaid thing” that is so often felt rather than heard.
In her semi-autobiographical novel, The Clear Light of Day, Desai examines the suffocating tensions of family obligations set against the backdrop of Partition. I found the character of Aunt Mira, intoxicated and unravelling, of particular interest. Aunt Mira seems to speak for so many women; hers is the voice unheard, and by the end, muddied by whiskey:
They had bound her … They threatened her and pushed her back into the grey suffocating cell and denied her…
A drudge in her cell, sealed into her chamber. A grey chamber, woven shut. Here she lived, here she crawled, dragging her heavy wings behind her …
She tore at her clothes as if they were a net, tore at invisible things that seemed attached to her throat and fingers and hair, even screamed “Let me go—let me jump into the well—let me.”
I can only presume that Desai’s well is a reference to the same in Thoha Khalsa.
With my female characters in Moth, I wanted to explore a variety of classes, ages, literacy and religions in the hope that I would find small, quiet threads of sedition in each individual life; in the hopes, too, that the magic of fiction would allow me to give a voice to as many different women as possible.
The silence of women during times of political rupture is a difficult topic to approach, and more so when those women have lived in a time and culture so different from your own. It is a task that requires the unpicking of thousands of years of society and culture, of imbedded religious belief and mythic notions such as honor and shame. It is a task, too, that must be attempted with a mind stripped of the present-day, Western sensibilities it would be too easy to cling to. There can be no judgement, only a desire to understand.
Moth by Melody Razak is available via Harper.