Seventy-five Years After Indian Partition

Literature once filled in archival gaps by saying the unsayable. Now a younger generation is devising new modes of telling the story and finding new stories to tell.

By Parul Sehgal

Before it was an edict, and a death sentence, it was a rumor. To many, it must have seemed improbable; I imagine my grandmother, buying her vegetables at the market, settling her baby on her hip, craning to hear the news—a border, where? Two borders, to be exact. On the eve of their departure, in 1947, after more than three hundred years on the subcontinent, the British sliced the land into a Hindu-majority India flanked by a Muslim-majority West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), a thousand miles apart. The boundaries were drawn up in five weeks by an English barrister who had famously never before been east of Paris; he flew home directly afterward and burned his papers. The slash of his pen is known as Partition.

A tidy word, “Partition.” Amid what the Punjabis call the raula—the “uproar”—the region convulsed with violence, Hindus and Sikhs on one side, Muslims on the other. Entire villages were massacred. Neighbors turned on each other. It’s estimated that a million people were killed, and that seventy-five thousand women and girls were abducted and raped, a third of them under the age of twelve. Millions of refugees fled in one of the largest and most rapid migrations in history. “Blood trains” crisscrossed the fresh border, carrying silent cargo—passengers slaughtered during the journey. Cities transformed into open-air refugee camps, like the one in Delhi to which my grandmother escaped in the night, alone with her children, feeding the baby opium, the story goes, so he would not cry. Bhisham Sahni’s “Tamas,” a 1973 Hindi novel set in that period, brings such a camp to life. The exhausted refugees are greeted by a functionary of the Relief Committee with the unpropitious nickname Statistics Babu. “I want figures, only figures, nothing but figures,” he instructs. The refugees mill around him, unhearing. They weep, stare blankly. They repeat, in exasperating detail, every step of their journeys. “Why don’t you understand?” Statistics Babu pleads. “I am not here to listen to the whole ‘Ramayana.’ Give me figures—how many dead, how many wounded, how much loss of property and goods. That is all.”

Is that where the story lies? What do “figures, only figures” convey of the full horror and absurdity of 1947? Of a border that cut through forests, families, and shrines, that saw wild animals apportioned between the two countries and historical artifacts snapped in half? In “Tamas,” the testimonies of the survivors reveal all that records omit and conceal. A refugee is desperate to recover his wife’s gold bangles: won’t Statistics Babu help him? Those bangles still circle his wife’s wrists, however, and she lies at the bottom of a well. It is a detail perhaps lifted from the case of the real-life village of Thoa Khalsa, now in Pakistan, where almost a hundred Sikh women drowned themselves and their children.

We don’t have the figures for women killed by their own families or forced to kill themselves in the name of protecting their honor. There are no records of those who died of heartbreak. My family migrated from an area not far from Thoa Khalsa. Only my great-uncle remained; he lay beheaded in the courtyard of his home. Three months later, his wife died—of grief, some say. Their children were scattered. There are no firm figures available for orphaned children, or for children abandoned along the journey because they were too small to walk quickly enough. This past year has marked seventy-five years of Partition, a process of fracturing that continues in the imagination and in memory. Each generation has posed new questions, searching for places where the stories can be found—in statistics, in stubborn reticence, in a pair of gold bangles. A sturdy consensus long held that the fullest account of 1947 could be found not in facts and figures—not in nonfiction at all—but in texts like “Tamas,” in literature. We were steered strenuously away from the scholarship and toward fiction and poetry—often by the scholars themselves…

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History Archive: Communist Party of India’s resolution on Pakistan and National Unity, September 1942

Communist Party of India’s Homage to Gandhiji October 2, 1947 / CPI’s Appeal to the People of Pakistan August 15, 1947

Soutik Biswas: Rare photos of the last ten years of Gandhi’s life