Wednesday, September 14, 2016

My stray thoughts on 1947

Debjani Sengupta
(Debjani teaches English at Indraprastha College, Delhi, and can be reached at

The 1947 partition in Bengal is significantly different in its aftermath than the sudden cataclysmic division in Punjab because of a number of historical, social and political reasons. The Bengali literature that is based on the partition’s experiences is therefore also varied and multifarious in its responses to 1947 not simply as an event, but as a metaphor, or a trauma or a site of enunciation for thousands of people living through and resisting communal polarization,migration, rehabilitation and resettlement.Taking a cue from the Annales historians, one can surmise that the partition in the East is the longue durée rather than the short time of political event/s, where the structures and pluralities of social life under its shadow can be ascertained only through a study of the particular and the local. Even after all these years after Independence (1947), the partition in the eastern part of the subcontinent has been a neglected area, although some recent historiography has drawn our attention to the economic, political and historical issues of decolonization in the region. Unlike the sudden and catastrophic violence that took place in Punjab, enunciated through the metaphors of madness, rape and murder, the Bengal region has seen a slower, although no less violent, effect of the vivisection with the trauma taking a more metaphysical and psychological turn.This is evident when we study the enormously rich and varied literature that partition has produced amongst the Bangla speaking peoples of West Bengal, the Northeast and Bangladesh that has not been studied together in an organic manner; it deserves critical attention because it destabilizes certain assumptions about 1947 just as it demarcates the way geographical areas, not always contiguous, become the theatres of recuperation, mythmaking and sustainability that in turn give rise to different kinds of literary representations. After 1947, the issues of gender, livelihood and labour have had different momentum in the Bangla novels although the issues of status and independence amongst the refugees may be common to narratives both in the East and in the Punjab. Literary imagination plays a vital role in a process of recovery where authors, Hindus and Muslims, undertake to map the contours of the mutilated land in a bid to create a site of belonging, habitation and memory while changing the dynamics of fiction, particularly the form and content of the novel in Bangla that has responded to 1947 in heterogeneous ways. When colonialism and the partition destroyed a sense of belonging to the land, these texts offer a renewed sense of place that contribute to the processes of decolonization and reinstate the ‘human subject’ at a time when it is most dehumanized. As Lacan (and Freud before him) has reminded people, the event of trauma, by its very ambiguous nature, recedes to the background while fantasies based on it overpower individual and collective psyches. The initial trauma of the partition is now distant but its ‘fantasy aspect’ has taken over the subcontinent through the legacy of violence and bigotry. The spectacular dance of death that has begun in the post-partition years has given way to those in recent times like the violence that erupted between the Bodos and Muslims (2012) in Assam or the Muzaffarnagar riots (2014) in UP. There are numerous studies that have looked at the history of conflicts in India so going back to 1947 may seem pointless to some people but not enough has been written about the ways whole communities of people felt, remembered and tried to resist in nonviolent elliptical ways the cataclysmic divisions and growth of sectarian hatred over a long period of time. Even a cursory glance at Bengal’s partition literature lays bare how the vivisection has shaped and moulded the land and people, spanning generations and several geographical sites, through the processes of resettlement, migration, border-crossings and rehabilitation that must be understood as sites of meaning making for the region and in the long run, the postcolonial nation. Literature that deals with these wide ranging issues, written over a long period of time, try to reconstruct the lives of individuals and communities, marginal or elite, whose memories of trauma and displacement had dissociated them from their own life stories. Bangla partition fiction captures the diffusion, through a great degree of self-consciousness, of the longue durée of continuous migrations and counter-migrations that give refugee-hood a different complexity in Bengal. Reading these imaginative renderings of the diverse facets of the partition becomes therefore an act of creating a literary historiography that are alert to the silences of history, and aware of the ways in which individual and collective memories can be brought into play with each other by studying the micro-history of localities and particular communities. This literary history may not have all the facticity of history but the questions of voice, temporality, lack of closure may say something about the ways in which the partition is remembered by diverse kinds of people. Rather than making a point about the un-representation of partition violence (and there was a great deal of violence in Bengal) Bangla partition texts seem to look at the little histories of people in the margins and use strategies of refraction rather than a simple reflection of conventional realism. Many of them foreground minority (in terms of class and religion) subjectivity, and use fragmentation to index the fracturing of narrative representation that the partition brought in its wake. The less visible and delayed effects of displacement and violence are seen in the family and community spaces that these texts foreground. They give an added dimension to an event, often unspeakable, within the partition and lay bare the notion of how ‘literature’ transforms the actual into the apocryphal and the mythical.

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