Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Partitioned Lives: Reading Narendranath Mitra’s Jaiba

by Tista Das

There is a problem that is associated with the word ‘violence’. One can never be quite sure as to what constitutes violence. While fear assumes new meanings in the context of homelessness, in popular parlance “honour” creates a separate space for women, considering the honour of a community rests upon women.

I shall read Narendranath Mitra’s short story Jaiba (of life) in this context. It was first published in Chaturanga in the winter of 1948 and republished in a collection- Galpamala (Mitra, Narendranath, Galpamala,1989, Ananda Publishers Limited, Kolkata). But, to begin with, one must come to terms with the thread of victimhood and violence in Bengal. Unlike Punjab, in Bengal, there were moments of violence (specifically related to the event of the Partition) scattered through many years, more than two decades. Such an image of waves might be one of the reasons why the story of violence in Bengal is not well marked. Moreover, the Bengali intelligentsia was somehow not comfortable with its narration. Violence remained out there as an ever present threat, but not something that affected one directly. It became the motif upon which the story is woven. It became something that happened to other people and threatened everyone in general and therefore changed the way of life. What complicated the scenario further was that such a narration of the Partition also had to accommodate the story of the women. The subjectivity of women was as much to their men as to the Nation. Such dual subjectivity made them more prone to violence. Their men were also their protectors and the class identity of the Hindus and Muslims of East Pakistan placed the women on a platform similar to but not quite the same as their men. One needs to ask, whether, once bereft of a home, the woman becomes more homeless than her men. Whether their rehabilitation is even more complex since it is figured not only vis a vis the State, but also vis a vis (other) patriarchal modes.

The kind of violence that the years around the Partition experienced was not what the modern mind would like to associate with the birth of a modern nation. Then, it must be said that the birth of the modern Indian Nation does not coincide with the end of colonialism in 1947. Such a nation remained ‘in making’. One can realize the weakness of this argument since such a modern nation can never be made. However, the point to be noted is that violence became the difficult terrain through which one had to pass through to become a part of the Nation; a necessary evil. That was the only explanation possible. It amounts to seeing violence as the blood bath, the test that a nation needs to pass through to achieve statehood. It is the sacrificial altar that purifies the moment of birth.

However, any explanation is a matter of hindsight. The bewilderment of the men on the spot must be taken into account.

Narendranath Mitra’s story revolves round a young middle class couple, Mriganka and Sudatta. The structure of the household is very modern, meaning nuclear, clearly marked by the absence of parents and relatives. Mriganka is a Professor of Chemistry, whose wife had been abducted in Lahore and recovered later. In her days of abduction, she had become pregnant. She cannot live with this reality and wishes desperately to destroy the unborn child, her link with the past. However, the doctors are not confident to abort the child since the mother is well into her pregnancy. Mriganka loves his wife and tries to talk her out of any scheme of abortion at such an advanced stage. He has accepted her back into the folds of their life. The reader does not come across any character who messes with this order. Sudatta gives birth to the child and arrangements are made to put the child in an orphanage. However, there is one impulsive moment (a moment of betrayal?) when she looks at her child’s face and at that moment it is her motherhood that dominates her being. She looks at her child with love. This does not go unnoticed and Mriganka decides to take the child home. He, however, develops an obsessive interest in biology, heredity and the effect of genes. Sudatta faces the greatest crisis when she finds her husband looking at the child and making notes in his diary and she becomes desperate to abort the second child she now conceives with her husband since she is afraid that this would only make him interested in a comparative study.

It is difficult to put a finger on the moment of violence in this story. Should one consider the moment when the woman was raped (which of course is before the narration begins), as the moment of violence? Or is it when she decides to abort the child conceived through the act of rape? Is such a destruction of order the moment of violence? How, then, does one read the moment when the husband looks at the child and makes notes? It is his response to his own fate rather than his wife’s. He comes to terms with the horrid past. It does not break the order of his modern middle class life as long as his wife is not able to accept the consequences of the past misfortune. However, when he finds that his wife has fallen in love with the child of those times of violence, this order breaks.

This problem of locating the moment of violence is perhaps the most baffling in any study of the Partition. The thread of violence makes the Partition belong to the modern State. No matter how clinically one tries to deal with the greatest event in the life of the independent State, no matter how one tries to explain, to categorise facts with the purpose of building a narrative of nationalism (the success and the failure of it, the latter helping to foster separatism) and separatism leading to the climactic point; and no matter how one tries to see violence as the entry point to a modern state, the Partition refuses to be relegated to the Nation’s past; it refuses to be contained. This is especially true of Bengal where the waves of migration spilled the Partition into the life of the independent State so that lives in general, remained partitioned.

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