Never-ending stories

August 20, 2023

Tracing Punjab’s unspoken narratives through literature

Never-ending stories

Wand Saray Mulkh Kharaab Punjab Wichon (two volumes)

Editor: Ilyas Ghumman

Publisher: Institute of Languages, Folklore and Punjabi Heritage, Lahore


t was reported in newspapers on June 16 that one Mumtaz Bibi had met her brother in Kartarpur after 75 years. They were both born in a Sikh family. Bibi was left behind and converted to Islam. We continue to hear such stories now and then and wonder if the Partition of the Punjab ever really ended.

Never-ending stories

Whenever there are riots between Muslims and Hindus in India, Muslims are told to go to Pakistan. Some Hindus in Sindh keep thinking about leaving Pakistan as Hindu girls convert to Islam to marry Muslim men. The conversions are not always above suspicion. Pakistan resulting from the partition of the Punjab and Bengal survived less than a quarter century as the eastern wing seceded in 1971. The East Punjab was further divided in 1966 and Sikhs in India had to witness another catastrophe following the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984.

Will this Partition ever end?

An estimated 12 million people were displaced, a million died, and 75,000 women were kidnapped and raped in 1947. Most of the victims were Punjabis on both sides of the border. The Partition of India was in fact the Partition of the Punjab and Bengal.

There was a crying silence after the Partition. Many Punjabis wouldn’t tell what had happened to them. Almost everybody was guilty; everybody was chagrined. In a landmark Punjabi poem Amrita Pritam invoked Waris Shah’s love poetry. Faiz lamented that the promised dawn had not arrived. Ustad Daman shed tears in his poems and when Ahmad Rahi visited his home town, Amritsar, in 1955, he said he felt like a foreigner. Feroze Din Sharf, Dhani Ram Chatrik, Devendra Satyarthi and Habib Jalib didn’t write about Partition. Most of the paintings were done by Hindu painters Satish Gujral, SL Prasher, Harkishen Lall and Pran Nath Mago. Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Sadquain didn’t paint Partition paintings. Sobha Singh, the most celebrated painter of the Punjab, did just one.

Punjabis have written about Partition in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and English. Who can forget Khushwant Singh’s novel A Train to Pakistan, which was also made into a movie? Another remarkable novel which is seldom referred to in our part of the world is Shauna Baldwin’s What the body remembers. Of course, there is Ice Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa. No novel can match Yashpal’s long Hindi novel Jhootha Sach translated from Hindi by Javeed Boota into Punjabi. Then we have Krishna Sobti‘s autobiography Zindaginama and Bisham Sahni’s novel Tamas. A milestone in world literature is Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. We have Abdullah Husain’s Ud s nasal ’n, Mumtaz Mufti’s Al pur k Ail and Intezar Hussain’s novels and stories. In Urdu literature, it is hijrat or migration. That tends to connect it with the ideology of Islam. Some people then see justification in suffering: sacrifices were made for the sake of Pakistan and the dead are martyrs. This leads to the question: is there a need to mourn then?

That generation that witnessed Partition firsthand is all but gone. Writers like Ghumman belong to the second or third generation in the West Punjab, but the grief and mourning for the Punjab is still vivid. 

A significant number of books about Partition came later. Urvashi Butalia broke the silence with her book, The other side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Academic studies by Ishtiaq Ahmed’s The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, The Great Partition by Yasmin Khan and From Ashes of 1947, Reimaging Punjab by Pippa Virdee are also worth reading.

A Partition Museum has been established in Amritsar by Malika Ahluwalia. Guneeta Kaur Bhalla founded the 1947 Partition Archives in California. Her book 10,000 Memories, A Lived History of Partition, Independence and World War ll in South Asia is already out. All these books have been written by Punjabis, meaning the Partition has become a part of their collective unconsciousness. The narratives were suppressed in the beginning and are now bursting out. Strangely, only a few folk songs have been composed about Partition.

The stories about the Partition of the Punjab envisage the other side of the official narrative. This is a people‘s history through literature, giving voice to silence, making presence of absence.

Ilyas Ghumman’s five volumes of Partition stories in Punjabi was one of the early books. It’s a sheer labour of love for the Punjab and Punjabi. One cannot find such a book in any other language of the world. The book can potentially puncture the official narratives of both countries, and it’ll be an eye-opener. Two volumes, Wand and Saray Mulkh Kharaab Punjab Wichon, have been published. Another three are in the pipeline. Each volume is around 1,000 pages, featuring 100 stories; these stories are from East Punjab, West Punjab and the diaspora.

Ghumman is a well-known writer and Punjabi activist wearing many hats (and turbans). He is a fiction writer, translator, editor and publisher. He has recently retired from the WAPDA as a chief engineer. He has authored more than sixty books.

The book under review is arranged alphabetically and includes Punjabi stories from the Punjab and the diaspora. He writes in the preface of the first volume: “It was in 1997, 50 years after the Partition; we were preparing the annual magazine Sahit. As an editor, I thought that after 50 years of Partition, we should have a good selection of fiction and poetry. We published 24 stories, a biography and some poetry in 722 pages. During that year, I got the inspiration to compile a large collection of Punjabi stories.”

Next, he visited East Punjab and Delhi in 1997 and met a lot of writers there and decided to make a book about Partition. He participated in many seminars and meetings arranged by prestigious newspapers like Nawan Zamana, Punjabi Tribune and Ajit. He also visited several universities including Guru Dev University; Punjabi University, Patiala; Punjab University, Chandigarh; and Punjabi Bhasha Vibhag, Patiala. He has provided a long list of acknowledgements, listing writers who helped him collect the stories. They include Amarjit Chandan, Nirmal Singh, Satnam Singh Manak, Jinder, Gurbhajan Singh Gill and Harbans Kaur.

Some of the most powerful stories are from East Punjab. West Punjabis didn’t write much. The first generation migrants in East Punjab, immediately after Partition, wrote many stories. A big name among them is Kulwant Singh Virk, whose partition stories are read worldwide. In our side of the Punjab we have Manto, Abdullah Hussain and Mumtaz Mufti, who wrote in Urdu. That generation that witnessed Partition firsthand is all but gone. Writers like Ghumman belong to the second or third generation in West Punjab. However, the grief and suffering have remained undiluted.

Gumman’s book is a must-read for all who want to understand the ethos of the Punjab before and after the Partition. It is a kind of reference book. It is time to acknowledge that the literature written by Punjabis in any language –Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi and English – is Punjabi literature.

The reviewer is a Lahore-based Punjabi poet, academic and short story writer. He was a Dhahan Prize finalist in 2014 and 2020 for Shahmukhi books

Never-ending stories