The many stories of Partition

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Asif Farrukhi

PARTITION is a never-ending story. Many years ago when I used to be on the lookout for fairy tales I could recount to my children, I came across this story which continued instead of concluding. A far cry from the world of fairy tales, Partition, too, seems to keep growing like the beanstalk which Jack has to climb to reach the giant’s castle. No longer a singular narrative, Partition keeps multiplying as more and more material is added to the description of the original events we have, but there are also more Partitions to reckon with. The distinguished Hindi novelist Kamleshwar wrote a polemical novel he named Kitne Pakistan? Not a book I admire as much as some of his other writings, but the name has stuck in my head like the tune of a song I cannot fully recall or erase from my memory. The English version of the novel is called Partitions, as if to remove the sting in the tail. The point was however in the story, not just its name.

Partition was preceded by a great unfastening and this breaking of bonds is among the many things which make it heart-wrenching. The weakened links were easy to be dispersed, one thing led to another, and a kind of domino effect followed the initial shock. Some writers and scholars have seen the events of 1971 which led to the emergence of Bangladesh as a separate nation in a similar light.

While there were many stories of the 1947 Partition which remain untold or unheard, stories of a subsequent Partition were added to the fast-growing heap. Short fiction from Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, English and Bangla was collected by Alok Bhalla in three volumes and first published in 1994 as Stories about the Partition of India, a large repository of such works. Later a one-volume edition was also brought out. Mohammad Umar Memon edited An Unwritten Epic, which took its name from Intizar Husain’s short story. A Hindi selection of stories around this theme was called Sikka Badal Gaya. With a subtitle reflecting the divide, Debjani Sengupta compiled and translated into English a volume called Mapmaking: Partition Stories from Two Bengals, with a foreword by the renowned scholar, Ashis Nandy.

Rita Kothari compiled an anthology of Sindhi short stories, Unbordered Memories: Sindhi Stories of Partition, addressing the exodus of Hindus from Sindh, and Partition was a major theme for a renowned writer like Amar Jaleel. Even a cursory glance is enough to convince the serious reader of the powerful content in such collections which is both moving and relevant. However, an important anthology which was put together in Urdu by the distinguished critic and fiction writer Mumtaz Shirin titled Zulmat-e-Neem Roz remained unpublished in her lifetime. From anthologies, we move on to the many stories and with stories come controversies.

When one thinks of Partition, many of the images and characters which come to mind are from Urdu short stories written in the same period. The exchange of lunatics and asylum residents who are more sane and rational than the world outside in Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’; the driving lust of a man who pays with his life when he cannot distinguish the cold flesh of a dead girl in ‘Thanda Gosht’; Sakina who can understand the words ‘open up’ only in a single, horrifying sense in ‘Khol Do’, and the abducted and recovered Lajwanti in Rajinder Singh Bedi’s story of the same name who cannot rehabilitate as her husband puts her on a high moral pedestal.

The human predicament behind what Faiz termed in his memorable phrase which was much quoted, “the night-bitten morning” (shab-gazeeda sehar) was being spelled out. No wonder that a special sub-category called fasadat ke afsanay became the subject of heavy discussion. Still a relatively younger genre, the Urdu short story had reached a precocious puberty with the sweeping winds of realism, social awareness and Progressive influences. Leading practitioners the likes of Saadat Hasan Manto and Krishan Chander responded to the great human predicament that was emerging. It was in the hands of some of the most important writers of the day that the Urdu short story reached a new critical awareness as well as superb mastery of the form. Interestingly, Ismat Chughtai did not engage with this theme except for a play which is uncharacteristic of her work and Rajinder Singh Bedi wrote only a single story, even though it was a memorable one. Good stories around this theme were written by Upendranath Ashk (‘Table Land’), Hayatullah Ansari (‘Shukr Guzar Aankhen’), Aziz Ahmed (‘Kali Raat’), Jamila Hashmi (‘Ban-bas’) and Ashfaq Ahmed whose best piece of writing was the inimitable ‘Gadaria’. As writers Manto and Chander were poles apart; wearing his heart on his sleeve, Chander wrote soulful stories with a great humanistic concern and quickly became the darling of the Progressive circles. On the other hand, Manto avoided sentimentality like the plague. He was unflinching in pointing out brutality and remained cynical. Manto was ridiculed and vilified by Sajjad Zaheer, Ali Sardar Jafri and some of the other Progressives. However, it is Manto who proved to be more enduring and it is his stories which are widely read today so much so that it is Manto who has become the troubled face of the Partition.

Manto’s great art and his humanistic concern were highlighted by Mohammad Hassan Askari and Shirin. Askari wrote a provocative introduction on Manto’s book of searing vignettes Siyah Hashiye and Shirin developed her articles to plan a whole book on Manto. Joining forces with them was Intizar Husain starting his career as a short-story writer and critic. Besides the love of Manto, a common cause for them was their antipathy towards Chander. Askari and Shirin expressed great admiration for Qudratullah Shahab, seeing his work as the ultimate in Pakistani national self-expression and missing out on his heavy indebtedness to whom else but Chander. It was the day of the great ideological divide in Urdu literature and Partition writings not only bore the brunt of the debate but provided examples which were the subjects of discussion.

As Intizar Husain pointed out in a recent Express Urdu article, some of the contributions buried in now forgotten periodicals need to be dug out so that we can get a better sense of what was the first major national literary controversy. Another task still pending is to take into consideration those stories which were somehow missed out earlier and/or those published more recently. In the first category I would include Shanul Haq Haqqee’s ‘Nannhi Ka Tota’, the touching story of a girl’s parrot, and in the second Hasan Manzar’s ‘Sauda’, a chilling depiction of an actual event in Lahore when the small items left behind by fleeing Hindus and Sikhs were held for public auction. In addition to these short stories, Partition forms an effective backdrop for the larger-than-life novels including Qurratulain Hyder Aag ka Darya and later on Abdullah Hussein’s Udas Naslain. But who knows how Partition will inspire writers in the days to come. Can we say that the epic is unwritten still?

Asif Farrukhi, “The many stories of Partition,” in Dawn, August 9, 2015. Accessed on August 23, 2015, at:

The item above written by Asif Farrukhi and published in Dawn on August 9, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on August 23, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

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