The voice of the forgotten

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Intizar Husain

I WAS required to write this column with reference to Aug 14, our independence day. In search of some relevant book I turned to my bookshelf and from the row of books pertaining to Partition literature I picked out, at random, a book running in two volumes under the title India Partitioned: The other Face of Freedom which is a collection of selected pieces from Partition fiction.

“Those who speak through these volumes”, says the compiler in his preface, do not always echo the same feelings and sentiments. It is not surprising why this is so — the country’s vivisection, after all, symbolised different things to different people and conveyed several meanings in various regions. Yet there is an unmistakable commonality of concern, an underlying coherence and unity of thought. Most writers convey to us the agony, pain, sorrow, and indignation of a generation that was unwittingly caught up in the internecine communal conflicts of the 1940s. This is indeed the dominant strain in the writings of Manto in ‘Thanda Gosht’, Krishan Chander in ‘Ham Wahshi Hain’, and Kirtar Singh Duggal in ‘Ujla Anchal’.

The compiler is the distinguished Indian historian, professor Mushirul Hasan. So as a historian he is trying his best to keep his impartiality in his selection. He elaborates this point in his study by saying, “Many of the contributions do not bear an ‘Indian’ or a ‘Pakistani’ imprint. Nor can their authors be designated as ‘Hindus’, ‘Sikhs’ [and]‘Muslims’. It would be a grave error to categorise them as such. What distinguishes a Manto or a Bedi from contemporary commentators and analysts is their ability to repudiate ‘communal’ categories and transcend religious, regional, and territorial barriers. Their creative energies were released not because their co-religionists alone were mercilessly slaughtered, but because their humanity was wounded and the civilisational rhythm of the subcontinent was being irreparably destroyed.”

But Hasan is a historian. How is it that he chooses to engage in the study of novels and short stories? In response to this query I am reminded of a statement by an English scholar who was engaged in the study of Partition fiction. He argued that in such situations as we saw developing in the Partition years, novels and short stories serve as a better source of information in comparison to the historical account. Historians observe the situation from a distance and talk in general terms. As opposed to them, fiction writers lead us to the heart of the situation and help us see what is actually happening.

The scholar was right; our short stories of those riot-ridden years depict conditions in the alleys and narrow lanes in times of no-exit situations and how people behaved while there was still time to get out. In the latter situation, the homes of the Muslims in UP presented scenes of uncertainty; each house was faced with the grim question of ‘to migrate or not to migrate’. So each home was now a divided one. Ismat Chughtai’s short story ‘Roots’ which portrays this is included in the present volume:

“‘You are talking nonsense. Do you want us to stay back and get killed?’ ‘You all go. As for me where shall I go at this age?’ ‘At the end, do you want your ruin at the hands of these kafir?’ Khala-bi kept count of her luggage. Amma’s trunk, however, rested immobile. ‘If you have decided to die here, no one can stop you,’ Bhai Sahib said finally.”

This kind of role played by short stories tempts me to refer to Dr Alok Bhalla’s research work which focuses on short stories written in different languages of the subcontinent. At the same time I feel sorry to say that we in Pakistan did not attach such importance to our literature produced during the period when we were caught unaware in a situation of bloodshed, and were uprooted on such a big scale. No educational or literary institution conducted research on this precious stock which has in store so much prose and verse literature related to our national experience. We did not even care to document the writings of those authors who had tried to project the Pakistani point of view about Partition.

In contradistinction to this attitude India’s educational and literary institutions recognised the worth and significance of this literature. Their scholars felt the need to do research work on the different aspects of this literature. Bhalla, in the first instance, exclusively chose for his research short stories written in different languages of the subcontinent. He also toured Pakistan to take stock of short stories on this side of the divide. He observed all the trends in these stories. Bhalla translated them all in English and classified them into the following categories: stories which are communally charged; stories of anger and negation; stories of lamentation and consolation; and stories of the retrieval of memories.

He is all praise for the fourth category where he mentions in particular three Pakistani stories: Ashfaq Ahmad’s ‘Gadarya’ (‘Shepherd’), Jamila Hashmi’s ‘Exile’ and Asif Farrukhi’s ‘The Land of Memories’. In addition, Manto’s stories have been upheld as “more realistic and more shocking records of those predatory times”.

Intizar Husain, “The voice of the forgotten,” in Dawn, August 9, 2015. Accessed on August 23, 2015, at:

The item above written by Intizar Husain 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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