Kamlaben Patel’s Partition memoir, Mool Sotan Ukhdelan, the translator’s note tells us, is considered as a neglected classic in Gujarati. How much more creditable it is, then, to redeem it from the neglect of its original location, and make it available in English translation — Torn from the Roots! Because, given the sheer tide of Partition things in which we are drowning, after the silence of half a century, it isn’t easy for something to stand out. And yet, this modest memoir does. I must confess that my first reaction on being asked to write about yet another Partition book was, well, acute ennui. I expected to encounter the recycling of the same old clichés, not just the hallowed (and dusty) images that have been collecting in the seams of the allegedly creative writing about the Partition—the trains piled with bodies, the dismembered limbs, the wells choked with the bodies of women whose men preferred the women’s deaths to their own “dishonour”—but also the academic clichés about the nation-state and its necessary violence, or about secularism and its discontents.
I dreading encountering the old witches—caste, class and gender—being pressed to yield up their familiar insights yet again, obscuring the specificity of what is being observed, and reducing all the diversity that passes before the glazed eye to the same universal, anti-universalist narrative.
In fact, the unique value of this memoir derives from the fact that the author is no intellectual, no ideologue, she has no axe to grind, no point to prove. I’m in no position to talk about the original, but the short, naïve sentences of the English translation capture brilliantly the particular quality of this memoir. The author—Kamlaben Patel—was a trusted lieutenant of the indomitable Mridula Sarabhai, and as such was intimately involved with the day-to-day work of the rehabilitation of “abducted women” in the aftermath of Partition. And the memoir tells of that work in a loose, unstructured fashion, rather like gossip, in which there is a beginning and an end, of course, but what comes in between those two points is random, casual, incidental. Rather in the manner of those desultory conversations that are jogged along by various forms of “that reminds me…” As a consequence, it renders faithfully the diversity of experiences that is subsumed under the false unity of the official phrase: “abducted women” There are the abducted women, of course, the brutalized spoils of war—but there is an entire range of other emotions playing through here, including, of course, love. There are women running away under the camouflage of violence, finessing a bizarrely private destiny in the midst of all the chaos. There are those for whom abduction is liberation and the dream of fulfillment, and others for whom “rehabilitation” is a return to the prison house of the lives from which they fled. And children, always the children…
But what is most interesting is the trajectory that the naïve author herself—idealistic and Gandhian, of course, but also not free from the prejudices of her caste and class—describes in her engagement with smudged, shattered lives, spilling across categories, undermining received frameworks of understanding. Thus, for instance, she confesses to being “aghast” that even Indian (Hindu) men could have raped the unfortunate women who had been entrusted to their protective custody. Reading the grim realities amidst which she is working, she is forced to admit that Punjabi Hindus were just as bad as Muslims in their attitude to women. What is significant here is the vulnerability to experience, the ability to remain open to the infinite surprise of living in a manner that mere intellectuals, armoured in critiques of naïve empiricism, should envy, but probably won’t. It is a curiously moving spectacle — like learning. Even when she concludes, in the face of the horrific circumstances amidst which she is working, that there appears to be something inherently beastly about men, something fundamentally barbaric, what is moving is the fact that this “insight” — right or wrong is beside the point — appears surprising even to herself. This is crucially different from the ideological certitude of the radical feminist because it is open to revision, open to being transformed by other, different, experiences. As, for instance, the acknowledgment that the “abduction” of women was a relatively insignificant phenomenon in the Eastern version of the barbarism of Partition.
It follows from the sheer and admirable “naivete” of this memoir that the stories it recounts — briefly, without literary embellishment — are infinitely richer than the reruns one finds in what I suppose must be called Partition literature. The story of Ismat and Jitu, for instance, has so much more human drama in it than the loud chauvinist fantasy of Gadar: Ismat, all of fourteen, smuggling herself onto a Hindu refugee caravan, being improbably reunited with her eighteen-year old lover, Jitu, in Amritsar; and then being married to him, with the approval of Jitu’s Hindu parents. The rest of the story is less heartwarming, alas. Ismat was returned, under the “abducted women” arrangements, to her parents… And, to be fair, the story is one of abduction, but it is uncertain who is being abducted, and who is doing the abducting. Jitu is last seen on a train years later, en route to Bombay to watch a cricket match, pale, tubercular, a middle-aged ghost of the young lover who died when his Ismat was abducted, really, by her parents—and by history, I suppose.
Many other stories here, of course—as there must be. But what is particularly tantalizing is the sense that these stories are in fact continuous with the lives that we are leading today. The people being talked about, the friends and family, must be around us, lugging their secret, hidden histories, coping—and failing to cope—with the myriad deformations of grief and guilt, leaking their radioactive poisons into the ambient society. But Kamlaben is scrupulously discreet, and no names are revealed. But if a scholar were to come up with a footnoted edition of this memoir, I for one would be unable to resist the temptation of dipping into it, for reasons that are not only, I believe, dishonourable.
Because the after-life of Partition in our society, acknowledged largely through a kind of willed amnesia, is in fact something that needs to be worked through, not suppressed. There are admittedly strong reasons why the call to forget and forgive is raised whenever the subject of Partition is sought to be raised except in the tired formulae indicated above, the punch-and-judy violence of certain remote beings in a remote time, with whom we have nothing whatever in common. And if you say it often enough, you might even believe it. And yet. All that negative emotion, that pain, that anger, will have to be confronted, the shame and the embarrassment taken on board. Other post-traumatic societies have resorted to the mechanism of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions as a way, howsoever inadequate, of undertaking this process. Our own solution, curiously, appears to be more communalism, as a way of deferring thought about the infinite sorrow of Partition of course — but also as a way of proving, retrospectively, that communalism, now rendered analgesic, could not itself have been the cause of that sorrow, that grief, that pain.
Alok Rai is in the Department of English, University of Delhi, Delhi.