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January 21, 2017

The Partition novel


January 21, 2017

The excessive emphasis on politics in any discourse allows a string of biases to seep through and colour our perceptions of the truth. Historical fiction is not insulated from these tendencies and, if left solely to the devices of politics, can produce skewed perceptions of a forgotten era and divert the focus from its scars and hidden dependencies.         

For Stendhal, the nineteenth century French writer, the unabated focus on politics in artistic discourse is akin to a gunshot in the midst of a concert. As a result, political novels, which build on the large movements of history, can have a jarring effect as they fail to maintain a safe distance from political biases.

Similar trends have been witnessed in a majority of fiction about Partition. The scale of human tragedy and turmoil surrounding this period has mostly been documented through fiction. However, novelists have been unable to escape communal biases. It is difficult for most writers to break away from the entrenched prejudices of a time that has been likened to the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust.

Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories do not fall into this trap. His views of the partition of India were not propelled by religious convictions. The characters of his stories aren’t always identified by their religion but through the measurable human losses that prevailed during this phase in history. Literature in English about this period fails to achieve a balanced interpretation of the past. The stories are riddled with a communitarian focus, and push aside the humane dimensions of India’s partition.

Written in the 1950s, Khushwant Singh’s    Train to Pakistan       presents a near-journalistic account of how communal violence crept into a border village in Punjab. Throughout the narrative, a veiled attempt is made to justify the violence against Muslims as a response to the genocide against the Sikhs. This is predominantly because the book was written a few years after Partition and the wounds were still fresh.

Bapsi Sidhwa, who penned   Ice Candy Man         several decades after Partition, chronicles the events through the eyes of a dispassionate observer – a child protagonist who belongs to the Parsi community. She also draws attention to the spate of violence against women that followed India’s partition. Although Sidhwa paints on a much larger canvas and looks beyond the grim realities of violence, her objective approach – that looks beyond the politics of the past – has also been criticised for its occasional jingoistic touches.

Other novelists who wrote in the 1980s and 1990s have offered sidelong glances of the Partition era without delving into the political realm. Anita Desai’s In custody puts a spotlight on a Hindi professor’s struggle to reclaim his passion for Urdu in an India that has gradually become hostile to its native speakers. Clear Light of Day explores how a Hindu family comes to terms with one of their children’s decision to study at Jamia Millia College at the cusp of Partition.

The thrust of this narrative lies in the attempts made to capture the emotional zeitgeist of the times rather than focus on politics. However, these references go mostly unnoticed as both these books are not categorised as ‘Partition novels’.

Contemporary novelists, like Meera Syal, have used memory as a device to explore the long-forgotten era which shaped people’s lives in strong and secretive ways. In      Anita and Me, a group of South Asian immigrants who have migrated to the UK recall the horrors of 1947 and share stories of tragedy and survival on neutral territory. While this serves to unite different communities, the significance of these moments is lost because they are fragmentary and contribute little to the narrative.

While there has been a palpable shift in the nature of Partition novels, it is impossible to achieve a sense of neutrality towards the events of 1947. Most writers have fallen prey to communalism and soaked their narratives in prejudices while others have made oblique references to this period which could compromise on their effect.


The writer is an assistant
editor at The News.

Email: [email protected]


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