by Dr. Dhooleka Sarhadi Raj, PhD
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of Pakistan and India, an occasion to celebrate how far they have come from their Independence from British Rule. Annually, on August 14/15 both countries fête the heroism of Freedom Fighters and founders who fought the British and won. Press on either side of the border highlight remembrances of the famous players, personalities and historical accounts. Most written accounts are peppered with annual biographies of the event’s most well known players (Think: Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, etc.). Less well understood is the simultaneous event of 1947: Partition.
Excepting academic circles and earlier literature published in the Subcontinent, Partition has traditionally been the silent narrative or a mere footnote to Independence stories. Partition refers to the creation of the boundaries of the two countries as the British left India and the violence of riots, rapes, looting and mass migrations.
Quick history lesson: 1947-1948 was the largest migration in modern history, with estimated 14-17 million people crossing the newly made border. Hindus, Christians, Sikhs left their ancestral homes in what became Pakistan into Independent India, and Muslims who had only known their homes in India relocated to Pakistan. As an added complication: families straddled two countries as some family members did not move, and have not met, or didn’t know about the existence of their relatives, due to the mutual distrust and animosities between the countries.
Partition, the flip side of Independence, has generally been seen as a necessary, but regrettable, tragedy. In the last few years, the silences around Partition have broken and there have been books, articles and movies all exploring the event and telling the stories of migrants who have remained silent for three generations.
This is not to say that there were no books or writing on the subject. Classics, that make their way to an undergraduate required reading lists include: Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, iconic poems by Faiz Ali Faiz’s Subh-e Azadi (Dawn of Freedom) and Intizar Husain‘s Basti.
Amrita Pritam, Aaj Aakhaan Waris Shah Nu (Today I Invoke Waris Shah) and short story collection Pinjar — and Attia Josain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column — were amongst the first writing to draw attention to a gender narrative of the event.
Well-known short fiction was written by Saddan Hassat Manto (Khol Do) and Rajinder Singh Bedi (Lajwati), in a later period revisited and layered, as evidenced in the lesser known, exquisite Fireflires in the Mist by Qurratulain Hyder.
In later works, Partition Memory has seeped into the literary imagination. Partition is not necessarily the subject of the book; it is the backdrop, a plot device, provides a historical setting, aids in character development via flashbacks, or functions as a larger commentary on the fragility of the nation-state.
Well known examples include Vikram Seth’s 1500 page tome, A Suitable Boy; Amitav Ghosh’s early classics, The Shadow Lines and The Glass Palace; and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Each novel offers a nuanced understanding of the event as a lived experience and its aftermath, or, what Urvashi Buttalia has called, its “long shadow”. In all these, the memory of partition informs the writer and reader even when it is not the central focus of the literary work.
Notably, the most recent example of fiction exploring that shadow is Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, the 2022 International Booker Prize winner, translated from the Hindi, Ret Samadhi by Daisy Rockwell, who had also translated Gujrat Pakistan Se Gujarat Hindustan by Krishna Sobti, to A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There, a fictionalized autobiography, and A Promised Land by Khatija Mastur.
In the last few years Partition has become a small cottage industry of nonfiction adult books. Driven often by tales captured and most often (re)told by the second, third, fourth generation whose curiosity for their own family histories have expanded into wider explorations. These have been based on stories heard by their grandparents, or glimpses into family lore. Propelled by curiosity for their own family histories, these publications expand our understanding of the breadth of diverse experiences from the perspective of the migrants. The stories are part of family stories that people tell themselves about themselves.
As they come into a book form, the narrations are polished, unbroken, oral histories, a linear account driven by historical imperative to witness, remember, or never forget. Part of the interesting aspect of family and kinship knowledge transfer is precisely its uneven messiness that includes passing references, links to other times, descriptions of food, festivities, family living arrangements. As a lived experience, partition is less a linear narrative with details of displacement, and more akin to Proustian sensibilities of missing times that keep popping up unexpectedly and spontaneously. But, I suppose, that’s more the playground of oral historians and anthropologists, who are interested in understanding the silences and gaps in how this knowledge of an event is produced through telling (see Raj, 2000 for ethnography based work on family memory)- rather than those who work on fiction or nonfiction of the event.
Nowhere is this shift to directly address the displacement, violence and stories of partition more obvious than in Children’s Literature. Books that narrate the events of partition, usually pre-partition and the sudden inevitability of displacement, from a child’s perspective is evidenced across all age and reading categories.
The remainder of this blogpost focuses on middle grade readers to explore literature which falls into the generational breaking of silence of partition. Here’s a very quick plot synopsis of each book:
The Night Diary (Hirandhani) – 12 year old protagonist whose father is Hindu and Mother is Muslim. The story unfolds though letters she writes to her deceased mother as the family — Father (Hindu), grandparents and her twin brother— become refugees who move from Pakistan to India. A US Newberry Honor book.
Across the Line (Mahtani) – Partition told from historical figures involved and those who decide to cross. The stories include riots and violence as they seeps into everyday life. The book chapters alternate between different times and characters, each aimed at raising awareness of the complications of the time and the ongoing reverberations of the event. Chapters shift between four alternating stories, current day and August 1947, New Delhi and Rawalpindi.
1947: Torn Apart (Haddow) – Alternating narration of events from the first person perspective of a well heeled 12 year old Muslim Protagonist who has lost his family in the violence of old Delhi who was trying to escape the violence and cross to Pakistan and alternating chapters 1st person narrations of a young Hindu street boy who saves his life from a mob which gets him to the station to take a train to Lahore.
A Moment Comes (Bradbury) – Older Muslim protagonist, 18 years old, skillful rendering of the pre-partition tensions and fictional characters that complicate any singular telling of Partition which include a young English girl (daughter of a cartographer who works on Radcliffe’s Boundary Commission), Anupreet, young Sikh Girl. Chapters alternate between characters but each is connected in plot twists, time and space to Jalandhar Punjab.
Each book reveals Partition from the perspective of a middle school aged protagonist (Haddow, Hiranandhani) or someone who was a child at the time of partition (Mahtani), or a young adult (Bradbury). The books either reflect on life immediately pre-partition, partition, or post-partition, focussing on the moment of telling the events of the crossing of the newly made up border. While each of the stories occurs across Undivided India (this is, in fact, a geographical reference that is still found in passports of many elders), each also references modern borders. In terms of geographical border and the settings of the books, Hiranandhani’s story takes place in what became Pakistan as a poignant dive into one girl whose family is making the crossing, part of Mahtani’s story is set in Pakistan and other parts in India, Haddow’s two main characters are set in Old Delhi, and Bradbury’s in Jalandhar. As historical fiction, they are an interesting hybrid of modern hindsight being 20/20 which erases some of the chaos of the time, including that of not knowing where the geographical border would be created. Many families didn’t know if they would be living in India or Pakistan before the Radcliffe line was announced (an announcement that was delayed until after Independence). .
Each book includes forays into the violence of the time, handled sensitively and appropriately for the Middle School reader without shying away from mob anger, slogans and references used to distinguish between religious groups. Each book includes multiple religious perspectives on the event, sensitive to the complications of religious differences by alternating perspectives of Hindu and Muslim, or Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. Haddow for example alternates between two protagonists Ismael and Amar. They also present entire independent stories from the perspective of and incorporating aspects of plot from two perspectives (Haddow, Mahtani, Bradbury), incorporating the same event from two families (Mahtani. Bradbury). As well as, including characters to help us better understand the main character, such as Muslim or Hindu family or friends who help during the crossing (Hiranandhani, Haddow, Mahtani), in this each complicates and straightforward history of Partition as a religious border created because of irreconcilable religious differences. More than that, they each reflect on inter-religious friendships similarly, presenting both mutual distrust (often in groups) and deep friendships across religious boundaries (at the level of the individual between the main protagonist(s) or someone known to their parents).
The books do not need any additional historical reference to be taught or read. Nor do they require any strong sense of history of the time. Each book is done well and could be considered an invitation which may drive the reader to explore more about the events of the time. References and basic historical facts of the Partition are covered either as background to the main narrative or as a nonfiction page added to the end of the book.
For example, Mahtani begins with fictionalising historic figures, Radcliffe and Mountbattens, and presenting scenes of their roles in the unfolding of events. What was slightly jarring and interesting to me, as a researcher of Partition family history, are more subtle details and the modern sensibilities that are carried backwards. For instance, it struck me while reading how small the families are in these stories- each nuclear family has 2 kids, and includes someone from the elder generation. Historically speaking, without birth control, most of the families from that period who crossed the border, would generally have had at least 3 children (and that too because of infant mortality). Most often, families would have 5-7 siblings, some with upward to 12-13. That being said, they may not have had multiple siblings at the time of crossing, but in each of the stories the families are generally have only two kids which, likely, made it easier for the author to manage (thinking of the front materials with detailed character kinship charts included in Vikram Seth’s, A Suitable Boy), but slightly unbelievable (in many Partition families, siblings came on either side of1947, and on either side of the border. What this means is that in some families elder siblings were born in what became Pakistan or India. There were also references that, if you know the region and that time period, could take the reader out of the story, for example, Mangos being eaten in August (Haddow), references to Mangoes and Monsoon (Bradbury), use of modern name referents that may not have been common in that period (Bradbury). These are the difficulties of navigating historical fiction from a relatively recent time period, while the world presented in each book is entirely believable, those who either lived or know the period well may find some details jarring to the narrative. The average middle school or HS student would not catch on these details. And, generally speaking, the authors have done their research well and presented the facts in an accessible and engaging way, to keep the pages turning.
If only to ensure informational completeness, if a librarian is looking for an earlier work to round off their school collection, or, if a MS teacher wants to include multiple perspectives, I include one of the earliest books published from a child’s perspective.
Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man (1988, published in the US as Cracking India, 1992; known through Deepa Mehta’s film, Earth based on Sidwa’s novel) is a coming of age story is based in Lahore, that ends when main character Lenny entering adolescence as Pakistan gains Independence/Partition. The main character is a Parsi (Zorastrian) girl who has polio, which allows for observations on religious strife and communal religious violence. Written in present tense the book shifts perspective throughout, which may be more challenging to follow for younger MS readers. Nonetheless, to round out a collection, this well known book would complement and offer a different perspective on the books reviewed above (all of which have been published more recently).
Not surprising, given the intergenerational silences around the displacement in families, and in the history books more generally, it took almost 75 years for these stories to emerge. Most press coverage of the event culminating in the 75th anniversary of Independence last month highlighted how little is known about Partition. If taught at all, it is twinned as an inevitable aspect of Independence. Based on my ongoing, longstanding research on Partition families who crossed from what became Pakistan to India, without the detail of knowing where the border would fall, many of the displaced did not intend to leave permanently. However, Partition is often presented as an event that occurred, rather than through the lens of the messiness of the decisions and process that had reverberations for generations. For these stories to emerge, a combination of time, curiosity and recognition of the gaps of knowledge in the official history has allowed for generational explorations of family histories that reclaim, recreate and create, a Partition narrative. To help to write the historical wrong, and salvage the voices from those who have been silenced by history’s cruel focus on the winners, each of these books provides nuanced perspectives and are a good start for students to explore and understand Partition while being centered on the changing innocence from a child’s perspective.
*Please be in touch with me via LinkedIn to get a longer list of titles related to Partition.
Dhooleka Sarhadi Raj is an anthropologist (Ph.D. Cambridge) and author of Where are you from? Middle Class Migrants in the Modern World (University of California Press). She is an expert on Partition and during the 50th anniversary, conducted research in one of Delhi’s first refugee colonies established by Nehru in 1948. Dr Raj is passionate about poetry and has recently been writing poems based on her long-standing and ongoing research to gather firsthand stories about India’s partition.
Dr. Raj served as the Associate Chair of South Asian Studies at Yale and held Fellowships at Harvard-Radcliffe and The University of Cambridge. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students at Yale, Harvard and Cambridge.
A global nomad, Dr Raj has lived in Tokyo, Sydney, London, New York, Dubai and currently calls Bangkok home. She has been a reading advocate in five international schools across three continents. She is an active volunteer and supports efforts to build conversations between children, schools and parents on digital citizenship, Model United Nations, mindfulness, and events to encourage the lifelong joys of reading and writing. At ISB, Bangkok, she has served as Co-Chair of the High School Principal Forum (2020-2022) and on Neev Book Award Jury since 2018 and as Co-Chair during what will be known as those crazy pandemic years (2020, 2021).
September is #WorldKidLit month and this year the GLLI blog is exploring different aspects of #IndiaKidLit in the run-up to the 2022 Neev Literature Festival, a celebration of Indian children’s literature being held Sept 24 and 25 in Bangalore. At the Festival, the winners of the 2022 Neev Book Award, which aims to promote and encourage high-quality children’s literature from India, will be announced in 4 categories: Early Years, Emerging Readers, Junior Readers, and Young Adult.
- Karthika Gopalakrishnan is the Head of Reading at Neev Academy, Bangalore, and the Director of the Neev Literature Festival. In the past, she has worked as a children’s book writer, editor, and content curator at Multistory Learning which ran a reading program for schools across south India. Prior to this, Karthika was a full-time print journalist with two national dailies. Her Twitter handle is g_karthika.
- Katie Day is an international school teacher-librarian and one of the Jury Co-Chairs for the Neev Book Award. An American with a masters in children’s literature from the UK and a masters in library science from Australia, she has lived in Asia since 1997, including 15 years in Singapore, first at United World College of Southeast Asia and now at Tanglin Trust School. She has also lived and worked in Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong and the UK. Her Twitter handle is librarianedge.