Subcontinental Divide

Subcontinental Divide

Source: The New York Times, December 10, 2000


A study of the effects of Partition on India’s people.

Voices From the Partition of India.
By Urvashi Butalia.
308 pp. Durham, N.C.:
Duke University Press. Paper. $17.95.


Like the flash of a supernova, the star of colonialism in India died in an explosion of internecine violence and bloodletting. A million people were killed and 12 million lost their homes in the aftermath of Britain’s clumsy partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. It was the largest mass migration in history, the messiest national divorce — and also one of the quickest, taking place in just a few months.

What came to be known simply as Partition was the final botched job of an inattentive and insensitive ruling power that never really understood its largest colony. ”Down comes the Union Jack on Friday morning and up goes — for the moment I rather forget what, but it has a spinning wheel or a spider’s web in the middle,” said Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the English lawyer who was given just 36 days to draw a line between India and Pakistan.

Partition was a seminal event in the history of the Indian subcontinent — a ”reference point,” as the Indian writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia puts it in ”The Other Side of Silence,” for everything that has come after. A psychoanalyst would have a field day with the modern Indian nation. So many of its neuroses — its fratricidal distrust of Pakistan, its intransigence in Kashmir, its desperate attachment to a secular nation-state amid the daily onslaughts of religion in political and social life — stem from that original anxiety, the intimation of death mocking the elation of birth. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the great Urdu poet, called India’s bloodstained awakening a ”night-bitten” morning, a ”pockmarked” daybreak; Gandhi worried that his people had ”lost the sweet bread of freedom because we could not digest it.”

Nearly every Indian has heard stories of Partition. My grandmother has told me many times about the home in Lahore that she will never see again and the members of her family who were killed by their neighbors. These are sad stories, and when Butalia began to research similar accounts of the Indian experience of Partition for a British television program she was obviously moved by what she heard. So she decided to rescue this testimony from the silences of traditional historiography.

”The ‘history’ of Partition,” she writes, ”seemed to lie only in the political developments that had led up to it. These other aspects — what had happened to the millions of people who had to live through this time, what we might call the ‘human dimensions’ of this history — somehow seemed to have a ‘lesser’ status in it.” Butalia has composed her book from what she calls ”the underside” of Partition history, from the oral narratives of ordinary people, primarily (as might be expected from the co-founder of a prominent Indian feminist publishing house) from women and other marginalized groups.

This is a noble task, but Butalia performs it in a manner that often feels somewhat rote. ”Grassroots history,” as Eric Hobsbawm calls it, has become something of a cottage industry, and there is now a well-established canon of stock phrases and clichés for such an enterprise. Butalia relies to a significant extent on this canon. ”Memory,” she tells us, ”is not ever ‘pure’ or ‘unmediated’ ”; ”recovering ‘voice’ is not unproblematic.” Her prose is saturated with the self-indulgence of postmodernism, a method whose epistemological skepticism is too often marked less by a coherent ideology than by the injudicious use of quotation marks. (Over the course of a mere three pages, Butalia rounds up all these words and phrases for such treatment: voice, family, less serious, marginal, only, allow, force, the truth, partial, truth, other). Her aim is clear — to question existing categories and definitions — but the result is a mangling of the English language that brings to mind the dissembling ”It depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is” of America’s first postmodern president.

Such excesses would be less troublesome if their effect weren’t to submerge the substance of Butalia’s book. She promises a lot, but waiting for her to deliver is a little like sitting through seemingly endless and repetitive introductory remarks that extol the virtues of a speaker who arrives late and finishes early. ”My focus here is on the small actors and bit-part players,” she tells us on Page 71. ”It is the smaller actors that I am interested in, the bit-part players,” she writes again just two pages later. In fact, these bit-part players make only the briefest cameo appearances. They are the supporting cast to an intrusive narrator who allows her theoretical baggage to drown her research.

This is a shame, because Butalia has collected some fascinating material. She has spent over a decade digging up new and interesting facts on the role of women, members of the lower castes and children in Partition, and she has engaged her subjects in extended interviews. On the rare occasions when she does let them speak, we see flickers of what this book might have been. Butalia is right when she says that the people she encountered have moving stories to tell, but this is not the best book in which to hear them. For that, you might turn instead to some of the excellent fiction that has come out of Partition (Khushwant Singh’s classic ”Train to Pakistan,” for example, or Alok Bhalla’s fine three-part anthology, ”Stories About the Partition of India”), which does a far better job of evoking the terror, the bewilderment and the remorse that still shadow so many lives on the subcontinent.

You might also turn to those much-vilified history books, which — as Butalia herself acknowledges in her final chapter — contain much that is valuable and important about Partition. Like so many champions of the subaltern, Butalia imputes to herself a kind of morality, a piety of the real that claims privileged kinship with the authenticity of lived experience. ”I am not a historian and have neither the capability nor indeed the interest to explore these questions,” she writes of the political dramas surrounding partition. ”My focus here is on the small actors.” Such rhetoric is simplistic and relies on a facile dichotomy that pits the meat of everyday life against the bloodless abstractions of history. But history — even grassroots history — consists as much of theories and ideas as of the minutiae of daily experience. Nationalism is above all an idea, and the 20th century is littered with gruesome evidence that it is an idea that can kill. Butalia does her subject — and her bit-part players — a disservice by championing the meat of life while belittling the butcher’s knife.

Comment (1)

  • Martin Hamery

    Dear Akash, I find your review of Butalia's book very interesting, as it brings to light limits, which many reviewers out there have neglected to criticize. I am currently writing a paper for a class at Columbia University about the importance of considering primary sources, such as Butalia's interviews, in one's study and understanding of Partition. I couldn't agree more with your statement: "On the rare occasions when she does let them speak, we see flickers of what this book might have been." This has led me to realize that Butalia is not so much uncovering history as much as she is choosing what she wants history to be and finding ways in which she can make history seem more meaningful to her, which leads her to go on and on about why she has written this book. Anyway, I just wanted to know if you would agree with this realization of mine, that in a way, she is attempting to personalize the "history" she is presenting, and that all her reflections ultimately limit the impact of the actual interviews?

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