• Writing and Rewriting Partition’s Afterlife

    An excerpt from The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India

    Tarun K Saint

    May 31, 2018

    Muslim refugees crowd on top a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan, September 1947 | Image Courtesy: Hindustan Times

    The moment of the Partition in 1947 was marked by unprecedented disruption of accepted norms, especially in North and Northwest India, even as at least one million people were killed and 10–15 million were forced from their homes in the biggest mass migration in history. Women and children were extensively targeted during communal rioting as mutual attrition took place on a scale never seen before. What followed was a comprehensive break with established modes of conduct and value in both public and private domains, even as the composite culture of the subcontinent seemed to implode. The after-effects of widespread collective violence during the event became manifest as historical trauma, experienced in different ways by perpetrators, victims, bystanders and witnesses across the boundaries of class and community.1 In Dominick LaCapra’s terms, ‘The approach to trauma, including its rendering in narrative, has long been accompanied by a paradox or double bind: the traumatic experience is unspeakable, yet calls for endless speech.’2

    For instance, after migrating from Bombay to Lahore, the acclaimed Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto was for two months unable to write narrative fiction—extremely unusual for such an otherwise prolific author. Remarkably, his eventual response to the Partition violence was in the form of short stories, published in Urdu in 1948 as ‘Siyah Hashiye’ (trans., ‘Black Margins’ (Manto in Hasan ed., 88–101)), praised by Ali Sethi for the way these vignettes capture the rough-edgedness of the Partition trauma.3 In these brief and at times even single-line anecdotal narratives, Manto renders with scathing irony the pervasive inversion of ordinary assumptions about morality and ethics during the Partition, as in the case of ‘Sa’at-i-Shireen’.4 ‘It is learnt that sweets were distributed at several places in Amritsar, Gwalior and Bombay to rejoice the death of Mahatma Gandhi’5 Manto here depicts such perverse exultation after the murder of the apostle of non-violence amongst sections of the Hindu right, in the form of a dead-pan statement of fact. The shock of this revelation is heightened by our awareness of the possibility that Gandhi’s philosophy of ahimsa may have met its demise with its chief proponent. In a savage irony of history, the opponent of India’s vivisection had become its scapegoat, while Gandhi’s moralistic idealism had seemingly been laid to rest for good by the calculated cynicism and ideologies predicated on hatred.6 Manto seems prescient in his anticipation of the role that such ideologies might play in future, once given an adequate organisational form.7 Furthermore, the monstrosity of such actions lies in the everyday form they take, in the form of banal rituals such as the distribution of sweets. The ironic title ‘Sa’at-i-Shireen’ may in such a context seem to take on the lineaments of everyday forms of psychopathology, indeed. However, Manto, craftsman par excellence, was never content with simply replicating the discourses of journalese or political rhetoric, let alone rehearsing the tenets of Freudian psychoanalysis. Rather than resort to clichés, he devised a mode of testimonial fiction that enabled the reader to grapple with the material and social basis of Partition violence as well as its traumatic after-effects, in effect a language of resistance.

    The description of the Partition as an episode of ‘madness’, or a temporary aberration which could be recovered from as normalcy was re-established, was commonplace in the writings of the period, as Gyanendra Pandey has shown in his work ‘The Prose of Otherness’.8 In G.D. Khosla’s Stern Reckoning, the following appears: ‘Madness swept over the land in an increasing crescendo, the reason and sanity left the minds of rational men and women, and sorrow, misery, hatred, despair took possession of their souls….’9 The use of such shorthand can even be noted in Gandhi’s admonition to rioters at Beliaghata (during the Calcutta violence in 1947) to not counter madness with madness.10 Journalistic accounts, historical narratives and leaders’ speeches often sought to frame the rupture of 1947 in terms that were inherited from the colonial discourse, where the epidemiological framework was often invoked to explain ‘communal violence’, as Deepak Mehta has argued.11 Thus, ‘outbreaks’ of rioting were to be controlled by the presumably benevolent colonial state, and psychic contagion was to be contained by the application of security measures such as the cordon sanitaire around ‘inflamed’ areas and communities. Collective fines imposed at first were perhaps regarded as vaccines to forestall the spread of the communal ‘virus’. However, as we now know, such rhetoric and measures based on such an understanding were inadequate to the task of either forestalling the spiralling of violence out of control or the later re-establishment of peace and harmony. Furthermore, a deterministic view of human action was imposed as a result of such an explanatory framework, denying the possibility of agency to the ‘other’.

    In Ishtiaq Ahmad’s study of genocidal violence in the Punjab, several interviewees invoke the metaphor of madness as a shorthand for processes and events that seem inexplicable. For instance, Communist leader Sardar Shaukat Ali initially attributes the outbreak of violence in Lahore to the backing extended to goondas and badmashes by politicians. Ali describes attempts by left-leaning Muslim Leaguers to attenuate the killing and looting before admitting that ‘The violence and insanity I saw during those days continues to haunt me even now’.12 Shaukat Ali goes on to acknowledge that breaking up the country on the basis of religion was a bad idea, since it gave recognition to religious fanatics who used the opportunity to spread religious hatred.13


    1. On the concept of historical trauma, see Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 76–82.
    2. Dominick LaCapra, History, Literature, Critical Theory (New York: Cornell University Press, 2013), 54.
    3. Ali Sethi, ‘The Seer of Partition,’ The New Yorker, 30 August 2012. Available at http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/08/the-seer-of-pakistan.html (accessed on 1 December 2017). According to Ayesha Jalal, Manto’s first short story written in Pakistan was ‘Thanda Gosht’ (trans. ‘Cold Meat’) (Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work Across the India–Pakistan Divide (NOIDA: HarperCollins Publishers India, 2013), 152). This version differs from Leslie Flemming’s account, which places Siyah Hashiye (published in 1948) as his first response (see Leslie Flemming, Another Lonely Voice: The Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto (Lahore: Vanguard, 1985), 77). Manto had to later face trial for alleged obscenity after ‘Thanda Gosht’ appeared in print in 1949. ‘Toba Tek Singh’ is, of course, Manto’s most well-known Partition story; this story achieves a Foucaultian intensity in its interrogation of the madness–sanity binary. See Saadat Hasan Manto, ‘Toba Tek Singh,’ in Black Margins: Stories, ed. Muhammad Umar Memon (New Delhi: Katha, 2003), 212–20. Trans. M. Asaduddin ‘Toba Tek Singh,’ 2001, also Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (Cambridge: Random House, 1987). 1961: trans. 1967.
    4. Saadat Hasan Manto, ‘Sweet Moment,’ in India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom: vol. 1. Black Margins, trans. and ed. Mushirul Hasan (New Delhi: Roli Books, 1997), 89. First published in 1995. Trans. of ‘Sa’at-i- Shireen’ from ‘Siyah Hashiye’.
    5. Ibid.
    6. On the spread of cynicism and disillusionment towards his ideals in the last years of Gandhi’s life, see Raghavan N. Iyer, The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1973), 382–83 (reprint 2000).
    7. I am indebted to Raza Rumi for this idea (personal communication).
    8. Gyanendra Pandey, ‘The Prose of Otherness,’ in Subaltern Studies VIII: Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha, eds. David Arnold and David Hardiman (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), 192 (originally published in 1994).
    9. G.D. Khosla, Stern Reckoning: A Survey of the Events Leading up to and Following the Partition of India, in The Partition Omnibus, ed. Mushirul Hasan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3–4 (originally published in 1949).
    10. Pyarelal, Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, vol. 2 (Ahmedabad: Navajivan, 1958), 366.
    11. Even in nationalist reporting on the riot, as in the case of a Congress Bulletin cited by Mehta, the riot is a ‘plague’, a ‘temporary madness’ propelled by its agent, the hooligan. The riot becomes a public spectacle in such accounts, a disease staged publicly that demands the intervention of the state. See Deepak Mehta, ‘Documents and Testimony: Violence, Witnessing and Subjectivity in the Bombay Riots—1992–93,’ in Reading Bourdieu in a Dual Context: Essays from India and France, eds. Roland Lardinois and Meenakshi Thapan (New Delhi: Routledge, 2006), 259–98.
    12. Ishtiaq Ahmed, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy Through Secret British Reports and Eyewitness Accounts (New Delhi: Rupa, 2011), 423.
    13. Ahmed, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed, 423.


    Tarun K Saint is the author of 'Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction' (2010). He has edited 'Bruised Memories: Communal Violence and the Writer' (2002) and co-edited (with Ravikant) 'Translating Partition' (2001).

    This is an excerpt from the chapter "Writing and Rewriting Partition's Afterlife: Creative Re-enactments of Historical Trauma" by Tarun K Saint in the book 'The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India' edited by Sanjeev Jain - Professor of Psychiatry, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bengaluru, and Alok Sarin - Practising Clinical Psychiatrist, Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research, New Delhi 2018 / 260 pages / Hardback: Rs 850 (9789352806508)/ SAGE India, with permission from the publishers.

    Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.

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