There is a resounding silence that surrounds the question of women and their narratives in stories about Partition. The state narrative either remains absolutely mute or focuses on a particular construction of the identity of the abducted women – the entire recovery process – that guided women’s public policy. In the domain of fiction, women’s pain was given a home and in the oral tradition, room emerged for more graphic details. However, Veena Das in ‘Life and Words’ asserts:
“When asking women to narrate their experiences of the partition, I found a zone of silence around the event. This silence was achieved either by the use of language that was general and metaphoric but that evaded specific description of any events so as to capture the particularity of their experience, or by describing the surrounding events but leaving the actual experience of abduction and rape unstated”.
So why does this zone exist in oral narratives? The most obvious reason is the horrific nature of the events themselves. Due to the tortured state of women – whether physical or mental – elementary perception, complex thinking and feeling fades away and language loses the ability to form coherent speech without falling prey to the multiple ellipses and silences.
The silence of the women in recounting events also manifests the incompleteness of history and highlights the impossibility of translating loss into language without acknowledging an even greater loss. This is highlighted through Das’s accounts where, a woman would say that “she is like a discarded exercise book…the body a parchment of losses” and Urvashi Butalia’s interviews with women, where there were “frequently moments when, having begun to remember…words would suddenly fail speech as memory encountered something too frightening to allow it to enter speech... Telling begun thus would be left incomplete”.
The veil of silence features in women’s testimonies even if the barriers imposed by the gender, age and position of the interviewer are removed by developing a certain degree of repertoire and friendship with the interviewees over the years. This is because, just as experience is mediated through historical understanding, so is memory subjected to selection and mediation. The kind of realisation that the act of witnessing brings is imbued with an experience of historical events and with the profound understanding that their meaning can never be fully comprehended. All the interviews Indian writer Ritu Menon conducted were erratic in nature:
“Fragments of memory, shards of past, remembrances bitter and sweet are strung together in a sequence that often has no chronology… Every day time and life-time overlap and each woman’s story reveals how she has arranged her present within the specific horizons of her past and her future. Sometimes, it contradicts itself, because each day, we remake ourselves. Each time we remember, we remember differently”. This form of remembering is learning to live with loss that bears no consolation.
Silence in these oral narratives also showcases other significant layers, for instance, a layer of protection afforded by class position. Some victims refuse to talk about the violence because they had witnessed it but had not suffered it due to their social privilege. The silence cloaks a deep sense of separation from the event either through the guilt at having seen them without having fallen prey to them or at the realisation that they would have suffered the same fate without the wealth or social class benefits they had had. Rashmi Luthra, in recording her mother’s oral narration states, “In having been afforded a safe crossing …in an airplane… [my mother] did not have to experience the metaphorical crossing to the other side of honour, toward the threshold of social death”.
The zone of silence can also be traced back to the colonial era. Luthra expounds that the representation of ‘Indian womanhood’ was a major site of contention in colonial and anti-colonial discourses, in which women were often represented as icons and ‘carriers’ of tradition. Through the British discourses surrounding sati and other such practices, the Indian woman became the bearer of an interior spirituality and moral tenor “marking the border between Indian-ness and British-ness”.
This legacy continued with Partition where the discourse of nationalism used women as key signifiers and implicated them in the symbolic construction of nationalism – in creating and solidifying the boundaries that subsequently constructed the ideologies and actions of the new nations. This, in turn, created a recurring strain on the role of a woman as both the physical and metaphorical terrain upon which national and ethnic identities were created and reinforced. This immediately meant that the violence committed against women then was violence against the community, culture, or nation they signified. Furrukh A Khan in ‘Speaking violence: Pakistani women’s narratives of Partition’ wrote, “The bloodied female bodies assume the grueling task of carrying ideological messages of each warring community where the scars are evidence of the violation by the hated ‘other’.” This violence is then shrouded in silence as an exhibition of protecting the honour and shame of entire communities.
Furthermore, it has been documented that some of the women who became the targeted victims – either by being ‘abducted’ or ‘polluted’ through marriage to the other religious sect, raped or defiled in any other manner – were guaranteed a place in their initial homes, with their pre-Partition families, through a tacit agreement of remaining silent and never mentioning their past. Almost all the accounts of the survivors mention the traumatic episodes but only in a fairly general sort of way because of the stigma they continue to carry. Silence then does away with not just the psychological trauma but also the psycho-social trauma.
Women were raped, mutilated, branded with religious symbols, abducted, tortured, poisoned, decapitated and experienced multiple other forms of violence at the hands of not just the ‘enemy’ but also its own community which either took advantage of them in the chaos that ensued or was legitimately concerned with the preservation of religious purity. It is only through oral narratives that women speak of their experiences beyond the culturally assigned genres of mourning and lamentation and so it is crucial to emancipate silence from oblivion in these oral narratives.
Moreover, women were deployed at a physical and symbolic level in the construction of boundaries between communities and nations. Therefore, opening up new points of enunciation for women through the domain of oral history permits not only the understanding of the cost of boundary formation, but also the ways in which women inhabit, respond to, and resist the creation of borders beyond the ones rigidly enforced by the dominant nationalist paradigm.
The writer is an assistant editor at The News.