Partition and its legacy

In his introduction to the late WG Sebald’s masterly work of prose fiction, ‘Austerlitz’, James Wood describes the overarching theme of the novel thus: “Saving the dead – that is the paradoxically impossible project of Austerlitz, and it is both Jacques Austerlitz’s quest, and WG Sebald’s too.” The novel unfolds through a series of serendipitous and arranged encounters between the protagonist Jacques Austerlitz and the narrator, as the former recounts his life experiences and his attempts to trace his roots and his family’s whereabouts during and subsequent to the years of Nazi rule in Germany and other parts of Europe. However, the protagonist’s life quest provides a mere canvass on which Sebald proceeds to paint a portrait of remembering and recovering those lives tragically lost to ethnic genocide. For the reader of Austerlitz, there is a continual sense of foreboding that the eventual discovery may lead the protagonist to realize that his family was transported to a place, now universally recognized as synonymous with the inhumanity of the Nazi regime – Auschwitz. In another book, The Rings of Saturn, Sebald performs a similar act of sheer brilliance by describing silkworm cultivation in the Third Reich, while enabling the reader to gradually discover the real object of the chapter’s focus, the haunting spectre of the precise and large-scale execution of Jews in the concentration camps. Sebald’s genius lay in his ability to withhold and address such acts of horror in an oblique manner, and in the process make the reader a participant in an act of civilizational memory, refusing to either readily forget or consign such events (and lives) to history.

As India celebrates completing its 70th year of Independence this week, the horror of Partition continues to be brushed under the carpet of sovereignty and nationalism. A significant difficulty in addressing Partition lies in its inextricable link to independence and nationalism. This is further complicated by the current circumstances of political rule in India, with the BJP and its ideological parent, the RSS, viewing Partition as a necessary event validating their idea of Hindu India – a perspective central to all fundamentalist groups who have made it their task to homogenize religion and nationhood, both in India and in Pakistan. However, as the project of social engineering carries on with greater force accompanied by the march of neo-liberal rationality, it is becoming increasingly urgent to ask, what of the lives lost and the families displaced; what of the profound sense of dislocation experienced by individuals affected by this event? The lack of a comprehensive political discourse on the subject hasn’t discouraged laudable efforts at addressing these questions through the documentation of oral histories and most recently commemorating the victims of Partition in a museum in Amritsar. Adding to this already persistent effort before collective amnesia takes over, it is important to turn to the fictional literature dealing with Partition, and in the process attempt to, much like Sebald and his protagonist, Austerlitz, start “saving the dead” (and the living) by remembering.

The Partition literature from the sub-continent captures the madness of the event, the sense of displacement that families underwent during and as a result of migration, the loss of personal and filial relationships and the sheer incomprehensibility of making sense of large-scale communal rioting between communities which had for the most part managed to co-exist and develop syncretic traditions and understandings of life. For the purposes of this essay, I merely present a representative sample of two of the sub-continent’s greatest story-tellers, from the enormously vast body of Partition-themed literature. One of them died wondering whether it was “God or he”, who was the “greater short-story writer” and the other passed away last year in Pakistan.

The greater short-story writer – Saadat Hasan Manto, Partition and the incomprehensibility of communal violence:

Much of the literature written during and in the immediate aftermath of Partition addresses the event directly, displacing the abstract macro-political realities to ensure a close identification with the victims. However, I would venture to opine that such an abstraction performs a double function by reflecting our human experience and strongly ideological choices, to identify with the perpetrators of violence and the mobs as well. Manto’s short stories are perhaps most reflective of this process; they remain quite possibly the most widely known and read stories of the madness of Partition; no story more so than Toba Tek Singh. However, it is his collection of 32 sketches that capture the chilling fear of that tumultuous period. For instance, here is one sketch titled Out of Consideration in entirety:

‘Don’t kill my daughter in front of my eyes.’

‘All right, all right. Peel off her clothes and shoo her aside!’

Much like Gandhi, Manto too was shocked to comprehend the affirmation of religious identity and ideology which marked the horrors of the Partition. Yet, it is this incomprehensibility that allows his short stories to retain a strong humanist and universalist undercurrent. Khalid Hasan, the editor and translator of “Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto” observes that Manto was indifferent to the religious affiliation of those who participated in the riots; to him they were all ‘killer’(s).

By doing so Manto displaced cause and effect from religious communities (as opposed to our political and increasingly everyday discourse which is quite content to reply every utterance of ‘2002’ with ‘1984’ and vice versa as if they were just years in our Independent history and not much else) and showed humanity for the depravity that it is capable of – for Manto the tragedy was reflective of a collective failure and inability to see the other as ‘human’ but only as belonging to one religion or the other. Manto’s disappointment is expressed through his rejection of orthodox religion and its practices. This is best captured in the final scene of his short story Mozail, when the Sikh man Tarlochan attempts to cover Mozail’s naked body with his turban-cloth, after she saves his fiancé and her family from a mob. Pushing aside Tarlochan’s turban-cloth, Mozail utters her last words:

“Take away this rag of your religion. I don’t need it.”

Many other Partition themed stories reveal similar accounts of a once co-existing society torn apart by rioting and mindless bloodshed. For instance, Bhisham Sahni’s novel Tamas, hints at the psychological effects that religious nationalism had on individuals in society who had until that point relegated their religious identity to the secondary or marginal positions of everyday life. Incidentally, the novel even manages to eerily point out to an instance of how communal riots between Hindus and Muslims are produced through political cunning with utter disregard for human lives.

Partition and personal dislocation – The Novels and traditions of Intizar Husain:

While the works of Manto and Sahni capture the immediacy of the event and provide a glimpse of how Partition shattered lives, it is the work of the late Intizar Husain that provides a retrospective account of the dislocation of personal identity, severely affected by the Partition. His work gains further poignancy in light of the fact that he focused on the dilemmas of those individuals who migrated to Pakistan in hope of a better future, only to witness its downward spiral into utter chaos and instability. His novels Basti and The Sea Lies Ahead are set in the backdrop of two major moments of socio-political change in Pakistan – the former in the context of the Liberation of Bangladesh (and Bengal’s third Partition) and the latter in the context of the increasing internal turmoil and strife.

Husain’s novels, written in a retrospective vein allow the reader to perceive that Partition, despite its violence also represented independence and freedom to a large number of people. The protagonists of Basti and The Sea Lies Ahead, Zakir and Jawad are both migrants to the newly bifurcated nation of Pakistan; they are both conscious of their decision to leave their ancestral family and property behind, and are hopeful of the promise of the new nation. While Zakir settles in to become a Lecturer at a University in Lahore, Jawad is employed as a senior Bank Manager in Karachi and fathers a son who lives in the USA. However, despite their relatively secure middle-class lives and position in Pakistani society, they read as mirror images to one another with their tale of unrealized love, migration and a profound sense of personal dislocation in the new country as mujahirs. Both of them never fully reconcile with their choice to migrate from India and along with other characters in these novels, express a nostalgic longing for the past.

It is this nostalgia that provides solace to Husain’s characters who gradually grow weary of the promise of independence and freedom, and witness it replaced by increased militarization and religious fundamentalism in Pakistan. The sincerity and hard-work which characterized people trying desperately hard to make a living in the streets of both Lahore and Karachi after Independence are transformed into frail memories which the protagonists strive hard to remember; as Zakir observes (in Basti), “goodness and sincerity gradually died out from the days” and “came to be filled with misfortune and nights with ill omen.” These moments are clear indications of the events of an historical past playing repeating themselves. The dread, insecurity and impending sense of danger accompanying the present socio-political circumstances also reopen old wounds caused by the Partition. For Husain’s protagonists, the wounds never really heal but are “buried deep inside”. The only escape that Husain offers his protagonists are the café Shiraz (a chai café), where Zakir and his friends gather and discuss current-events with the enthusiasm typical of intellectuals who are completely aware of their incapacity to effect any political change, and the mushairas organized by Karachi’s middle and upper class elite in The Sea Lies Ahead. Despite this, Husain reiterates his (and his protagonists) sense of loss by denying these spaces of escape to them at the end of his novels. The Shiraz café in Basti is destroyed by a mob and the death of Majju Bhai, the most affable of Husain’s characters, consigns Jawad to further pain and misery in The Sea Lies Ahead ­– forgetting or recovery is thus not an option.

Husain’s novels however, do more than emphasize personal loss or tragedy. His novels are replete with references to the Ramayana, Mahabharata, tales of the Buddha and Islamic history. Basti opens with an account of life in the fictional town of Rupnagar in what was then pre-partition India. The peacock’s call heard in Rupnagar came from “Brindaban” and the portrayal of this town features several references to the traditions of living which various religious communities fostered through centuries of co-existence; thus making stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata as commonplace as stories from the Old Testament. Husain’s understanding of such traditions and his sense of civilizational history is unique and allows him to navigate the mythical and the historical past, and tap into the sub-continent’s folk tradition. In The Sea Lies Ahead, these stories are recurring metaphors for a historic time vastly different in circumstances and yet not without precedence. Thus, the turmoil in Karachi is not only reminiscent of the decline of Cordoba in Spain but also the gradual decay of Krishna’s Mathura. Asif Farrukhi in his introduction to Basti writes: “To contemplate the character and dimensions of that loss and find a new form to contain it, one that strikingly combines the historical past and present-day events, mythic lore and modernist experimentation, elements of both the oral and the written, and various sacred and secular traditions of South Asia-that is the triumph of Husain’s Basti” – this could well be a generic assessment of the triumph of both Basti and The Sea Lie Ahead.


As we celebrate 70 years of Independence and democracy, we find ourselves in rather paradoxical circumstances – on one hand there is a greater acknowledgment of the wounds of Partition through various documentation efforts and on the other, the assertion of hyper-nationalism. Under the current central government’s disposition, the monolithic idea of religion and nationalism which provided the ideological support to Partition is promoted (forcibly) with much fanfare today.

The Hindutva ideology, much like other fundamentalist undercurrents would have us deny the humanism of Manto and the syncretic traditions of Husain. It is in this context that the Partition themed fiction provides an effective counter-narrative to all efforts at social engineering. It need hardly be mentioned that the absence of an effective political discourse challenging the RSS-BJP combine, willing to transcend the secular-communal binary, mandates a search for a different language sensitive to past history and cognizant of our own failures. The lives of Zakir, Jawad, the often unnamed characters of Manto’s sketches and the authors themselves are a rich source of biographical history that provides a glimpse of the permanent wounds of the religious fundamentalism and narrow nationalism. These stories elicit an emotional and ethical response, the primary task of which is to remember the dead massacred at the altar of religious ideology and nationalism, but also necessitating a reflection on the wounds of those who survived or migrated. It is fiction that we must turn to as it provides an enduring quality to the enormity of the human experience and under our present-day circumstances, ultimately prove cathartic as well.


For an interesting documentation effort of the Partition of the sub-continent, please see the website of the 1947partitionarchive project at



Austerlitz by WG Sebald, with an introduction by James Wood

The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, Translated by Michael Hulse

Bitter Fruit: The Very Best of Saadat Hasan Manto, Edited and Translated by Khalid Hasan

Tamas by Bhisham Sahni

Basti by Intizar Husain, Translated by Frances W Pritchett with an introduction by Asif Farrukhi

The Sea Lies Ahead by Intizar Husain, Translated and with an introduction by Rakshanda Jalil



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Ashwin Written by:

Ashwin works as an Independent Researcher, having graduated from Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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