Partition of India
In our second post commemorating the 1947 Partition of India, writer and critic Sandeep Parmar offers a powerful, personal and critical reflection on the workings of refugee memory. We are used to thinking about how later generations host the memories of the traumas suffered by earlier generations but, Parmar asks, 'in the case of Partition, how does the postmemory generation speak of the trauma of silence, not memory, of a postforgetting?
For some years I tried to write an epic on Partition and its trans-generational effects: the high incidence of schizophrenia in diasporic Indian and Pakistani communities; the parallel social history of domestic violence, relational disorders, and so on. Towards the end of this project, I felt the great strength of the page: its ability, as a fibrous surface, to deflect the point of my pen. The paper, and then the screen, as weirdly reflective, repelling the ink or the touch. On the night I knew my book had failed, I threw it—in the form of a notebook, a handwritten final draft—into the garden of my house in Colorado. Christmas Eve, 2007. It snowed that winter and into the spring; before the weather turned truly warm, I retrieved my notes, and began to write again, from the fragments, the phrases and lines still legible on the warped, decayed but curiously rigid pages.
Bhanu Kapil, ‘Passive Notes’, Schizophrene, 2011
In Book 4 of the Odyssey, Odysseus’s son Telemachus sails to King Menelaus’s glittering palace for news of his father’s fate after the Trojan War. Both men recall the lost Odysseus and weep. The King’s wife, Helen, wisely slips something into the wine bowl, a drug that momentarily allows them to forget their sorrow. She halts the action through her knowledge of magic long enough to share her own recollection of Odysseus’s heroics in Troy, after which the men retire to the ‘sweet relief of sleep’. In a narrative that begins with a war incited capriciously by the gods and ends, finally, with a fateful homecoming, it is a brief moment of reprieve from continuous loss and toil. Certainly her manoeuver throws a skilful veil over her role as the war’s cause. Yet her ploy teaches us something about collective memory, too. To remember loss incompletely, to strip it of grief, is to delay the act of mourning, to put off the pain of return—it is as good as forgetting. But sometimes, perhaps, we need to forget.
I think it is fair to say that my generation of the Indian diaspora knows little about Partition seventy years ago. Only recently, researching for a novel about transgenerational trauma, migration and the effects of the Green Revolution, did I learn about about my own family’s experiences. On August 17th—or thereabouts—1947, my grandfather and his family abandoned their house and farm near Lyallpur, Pakistan to live in a refugee camp on the nearby grounds of Khalsa College, where my grandfather was a teacher. I don’t know what they took with them, except a bicycle. They remained in the camp for maybe six weeks, suffering starvation, disease and violence, after which the family split—some boarded a train to Amritsar, others walked a hundred miles or so to India. When they reunited in a camp near the Wagah border, they shared only some of what they had seen. I have collected these memories, received second- and third-hand, from my father, uncles, rarely women relatives. Not a single object carried on their uncertain journey survives from that time. A set of metal dishes, inscribed with my grandfather’s name—a marriage present—had been long since exchanged with merchants for a greater quantity of cheaper and more durable alloy. A trunk no one can account for, loaded onto an ox cart in Pakistan, has disappeared. What its contents were can only be guessed. A Raleigh bicycle, bought in the 1920s and manufactured in the English city I would one day be born in, Nottingham, rotted sometime in the 1970s. All I know of my grandmother, who died in childbirth in 1953, not long an Indian citizen, is her name and a couple of stories. The only surviving photograph of her is a death portrait. My grandfather, a stoic man who’d lost two wives and some children and suffered unspeakable upheaval, would reply ‘they’re all long dead’ to any question about the past.
Not a single member of my family has ever returned to Lyallpur, now Faislabad, since Partition. In Saidkheri, my ancestral rural village in Punjab, we who arrived post-Partition are still referred to as ‘refugees’. It is as if our origin has been erased, even though we are determined by it. Since Partition what has been handed down through three generations is a pervasive melancholy, deep-seated estrangement, nostalgia. Rising alcoholism and poverty for some, for others the endless separation of economic migration. The unacknowledged trauma of Partition that diffuses into the lives of a scattered diaspora, its loss of connection, is a physical and psychological remapping of space that prevents homecoming. It is peopled by those who commune with the dead in dreams across an eternity of thousands of miles and borders.
Some fiction and non-fiction about Partition can be levied against the absence of everyday familial memory, the silence of a past shared trauma. Scholarly studies of trauma, in particular histories and testimonies of the Holocaust, examine how witness and memory are handled in both oral histories and literary accounts. Much of this is written in prose; some sense prevails that poetry proves unreliable, a notion ably challenged in Antony Rowland’s study Poetry as Testimony. Meera Atkinson’s recent book, The Poetics of Transgenerational Trauma, invokes Marianne Hirsch’s concept of ‘postmemory’ to describe how inherited narratives of the Holocaust, not direct experience of violence, permeate the lives of subsequent generations. But in the case of Partition, how does the postmemory generation speak of the trauma of silence, not memory, of a postforgetting? And if that forgetting is compounded by the postcolonial experience of migration to England—the historical enabler of that violence, its imperial nostalgia and amnesia making it impossible to remember—where does postmemory occur in this doubly enforced silence?
In her essay ‘Engaging Traumatic Histories’, part of Urvashi Butalia’s magnificent edited book Partition: The Long Shadow, Sukeshi Kamra probes a communal unwillingness to remember and represent Partition through the incomprehensible ‘situational violence’ of civil war in India. She questions the collective forgetting of nation-building post 1947 and argues for transgenerational trauma literature to challenge our selective remembering. The role of individuals—I am thinking in particular of writers who inhabit this transgenerational space—in bringing about a rethinking of Partition’s legacy is less clear to me. In my view, Bhanu Kapil’s ‘failed’ epic, quoted above, is a rigourous aestheticised rethinking—across three continents—of a collective psychosis facing diasporic generations after Partition, often in the form of racist violence and new forms of displacement. From my ancestors I have largely inherited silence, one that has brooded for decades and cast us adrift from ourselves, each other or any sense of home. We seem, pathologically, to exile ourselves farther and farther away, in search of elsewhere, so that the only space we share is dreams, where we are visited by our beloved living and dead. Existence is a suspended state of grief in the long epic of our estrangement. But how do you write this, and for whom do you write it?