08 August 2019

Why do some stories seem more important than others?

On Wednesday, I spoke to the Book Club at Gyaan Adab about “Some complexities of depicting Partition in literature”. I recorded what I said so you can see it here if you like!
Saaz Aggarwal speaking at
the Book Club, Gyaan Adab
on 7 August 2019
While preparing the talk, I remembered that my very first foray into this subject had been on facebook. It was 14 August 2011, and I posted that I intended to spend Independence Day thinking about my grandparents who lost their homeland when Independence took place in 1947. I was bemused when some of the responses were argumentative if not actually hostile. I also received a private message:
Saaz, with all due respect, time we forgot those memories. They don’t let us go forward. It’s time we buried hate which is redundant.
This message I found quite annoying (if well-meaning). I hadn’t said a word about hatred or indicated anything like that – all I was doing was speaking with affection and admiration of my grandparents and thinking about a difficult time in their lives which they had faced with courage. It seemed clear that referring to Partition could get you into trouble. I’m not sure if this was the spark that actually set me off on my journey, but it certainly did give me an important insight.
I also looked through my books to see what I could refer to for the talk at Gyaan Adab, and found that they all seemed to have been written by people who had witnessed the horrors of Partition themselves. Some of them were personal accounts of trauma and tragedy. Along with this were indications that the accounts were not welcome by others: someone had even filed a petition to prevent the screening of the TV serial based on Bhisham Sahni’s Sahitya Akademi Award winning Tamas. It was 1988, more than forty years after Partition. The Supreme Court rejected the petition, and the serial ran. The Bombay High Court judgement said:
Tamas  takes us to a historical past – unpleasant times, when a human tragedy of great dimension took place in this subcontinent … Naked truth in all times will not be beneficial but truth in its proper light indicating the evils and the consequences of those evils is constructive and that message is there in Tamas*.
Even Manto, so beloved by lovers of literature today, was badly reviled in his time, twice prosecuted for obscenity, and once accused by a critic that he had “desecrated the dead and robbed them of their personal possessions to build a collection**.”
The stories I have collected about Partition do have trauma and tragedies but, being based on extensive interviews of people so many decades after the event, they give a more balanced view of what life was like before Partition, what happened during Partition, and the story after that. The most remarkable thing about these stories is not the horror of the event but the heroic rebuilding of lives that were disrupted. We have not done justice to these marvellous stories or given the people who lived them the appreciation they deserve. I feel very privileged to have interviewed so many of these exceptional people and heard about their lives, and they will always be role models to me on how to deal with adversity.
Since a very large majority of the people I have interviewed are Sindhis, a little more than half my talk presented aspects of the Sindh Partition story, including:
  • how they put aside their grief and confusion and worked hard to adapt to new places and succeed,
  • how this approach caused them to blend into new communities so seamlessly that nobody noticed that they were a people who had lost their land, their language, their culture and their past,
  • that they themselves did not really think they had a story worth telling,
and so many more that, towards the end of the interesting discussion that had ensued after my talk, someone stood up and said, a little puzzled, “but this talk was not about the REAL Partition”.
An audience of the book club regulars that day
I found it interesting to experience at first hand how it can sometimes be difficult to convey subtle messages; to change perspectives. It reminded me of something I’d spoken about earlier, in the course of that evening's talk, one of the most terrible things that happened during Partition. A huge number of women suffered rape, abduction, separation from their children, being used as instruments of torture, being forced to jump into wells to supposedly save the family ‘honour’ and more. And then, many who were rescued and returned to their families were rejected by their families. These things had been known all along but not considered significant. The first major work on this extremely important human history was The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia – in 1998, a full FIFTY years after it took place.
It has taken even longer for the Sindhi story to gradually emerge but even now, seventy-two years later, there are some who don’t think it is about ‘real’ Partition.
Saaz Aggarwal

*India Partitioned edited by Mushirul Hasan Vol 1 Roli Books p114 
**India Partitioned edited by Mushirul Hasan Vol 1 Roli Books p88