Just as there was no uniform, un-variegated, one-dimensional reflection in contemporary Urdu literature to the First War of Independence of 1857, there is no generalised or undifferentiated response to the partition among the Muslim intelligentsia. The Urdu literature of the Partition years – which, it must be stressed, was written by both Muslim and non-Muslim writers – reflects a bewildering and often contradictory array of opinions. The Muslim response is equally, if not more, bewildering and contradictory.

Taken together, the Urdu literature of this period, which comprised the novel and short story (which flowered rather spectacularly during this period), as well as poetry, reportage, autobiography, diary, journal writing and journalistic writings present a broad spectrum of opinion; it has been likened to a cultural archive of first-hand experience. Reactions vary from nostalgic lament for a lost age to attaching blame and apportioning responsibility for the terrible misfortunes that had befallen all those who had been affected, in some way or the other, by the partition.

While there is a general agreement that the murder and mayhem that accompanied the Partition was a human tragedy of epic proportions, there is far more ambivalence in the ways of dealing or accepting the consequences of Partition. A study of Urdu literature of this period also reveals a wide range of possible reasons some chose to stay put while others migrated; often economic reasons predominate over religious ones and pragmatism supersedes ideology. While the majority of writers made a conscious effort to hold up the tattered fabric of secularism in the face of communalism, bitter and painful memories also find expression, especially in a range of first-person accounts, diaries, etc. One is unable to discern a commonality of concerns even though the pain and sorrow was shared by an entire generation save the obvious assertion that countless innocent lives were lost due to the political decisions of a mere handful.

That there are multiple histories rather than a history of the partition is borne out by studying the literature produced on either side of the border created by the partition. In contrast to Indian sentiments, a section of Pakistani writers viewed the creation of Pakistan as a logical culmination of a historical process and therefore cause for joy rather than mourning, a reason to look forward rather than over one’s shoulder at what once was and had ceased to be. The breaking away of a section of population that was viewed as a tragedy of epic proportions by the “Congressi” Muslims in India was perceived as a triumph of Islamic nationalism by the votaries of the Muslim League.

Moreover, there was always one group (it could be Muslims or Hindus, Indians or Pakistanis, though it is often difficult to categorise as one or the other as the writers don’t always name the “other” community) who felt it had been singled out (in comparison to the other) for the terrible retributions that accompanied independence and was therefore, more inclined to beat its chest. While Indian writers refer to the cataclysmic events of the year that was annus horribillis as batwara (literally meaning division but commonly referred to as Partition or taqseem), for the Pakistani writers the year marked the beginning of azaadi (freedom) and the existence of Pakistan as an independent country.

Taqseem ya batwara? Under the thrall of competing ideologies

Two worlds – the lost and the emergent – fused and merged after 1947. In the years that followed, pathos, confusion and conflict reigned supreme. Delhi and Lucknow, the two great centres of Muslim culture in Upper India, the London and the Paris of their milieu, lay decimated. Lahore and Karachi were bursting at the seams with strangers looking to put down roots in an alien soil that would henceforth be their home. The inhabitants of these new lands didn’t know whether to celebrate their hard-won independence or mourn the passing of an age.

Should one celebrate the birth of a new nation? Should one rejoice at gaining independence at the end of a fierce and prolonged struggle? Or should one mourn the loss of an age and an end of pluralism and syncretism? Should one search for new directions? Or, were all routes to regeneration irrevocably closed for this weary generation?

These questions, and many others, jostle for answers in the outpourings of partition chroniclers. To further compound this confusion, one set of writers who had written with joyous abandon on the coming azaadi all through the 1940s adopted a taciturn silence. In the polarised arena of the Urdu literature of the late 1940s and early 1950s, the silence on the partition could also possibly be due to the loquacity of a set of writers called the “progressives”. The more one group wrote about the horrors of partition, the more the other side lapsed into a silence that seemed to obliterate individual suffering, loss and pain.

With the creation of Pakistan, several former progressives who were by now either vehemently opposed to the progressive ideology (most notably MD Taseer and Muhammad Hasan Askari) or uncomfortable with some of its jingoism (such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz) adopted defensive postures about an entirely new phenomenon – Pakistani tehzeeb. Powerful literary critics and ideologues such as Askari expounded the notion of a Pakistani national culture through a slew of columns, op-eds and essays.

We get a glimpse of the expectations of the new state from its intellectuals in Qudratullah Shahab’s memoir Shahabnama, published though it was as late as 1986. Shahab is however not uncritical of the state of affairs. In the short story, Ya Khuda, he exposes the hypocrisy of those who quote Iqbal and yet indulge in hoarding and blackmarketing of scarce commodities making a mockery of the cracks between state and society.

The task of the publicists was advanced by a new breed of ideologues who heralded the creation of Pakistan as the dawn of a new era. The works of prose stylists such as Fateh Muhammad Malik opened up a new chapter in Urdu literary criticism called Paksitaniyat, or the study of sovereign state of Pakistan. Advancing Askari’s notion of a writer’s commitment to the nation-state, Mumtaz Shirin compiled a collection of short stories on the partition, entitled Zulmat-e-Neem Roz; considering the impact of the partition on Urdu literature, it is interesting that this was the first ever anthology on partition in Urdu.

Shirin had attempted to compile a special issue of her journal Naya Daur devoted to riots, but it could not be published as some contributions, such as Krishan Chander’s, were deemed to be “against Pakistan”. This was ironic considering Krishan Chander’s had been the most consistent and most passionate of the many secular voices that had condemned Partition-related violence. New-age Pakistani critics, such as Asif Farrukhi, have admitted to a certain self-censorship on the part of the Pakistani writers, an attempt at what he calls “to re-write the past.” Farrukhi also points out two important things in the context of Shirin’s aborted venture: one, the fallacy of the Urdu critics – incidentally on both sides of the partition – to refer to Partition-related literature as fasadat ka adab (literature about communal violence); and two, the “manipulation” of literature according to a critic’s own ideological mooring.

The Partition as Hijrat

A necessary fall-out of Partition was migration. The displacement, dislocation, uprootedness and alienation that came in the wake of the transfer of power have been well documented in both autobiographical accounts and works of fiction. Manto’s Toba Tek Singh is the most well-known and most anthologised depiction of the trauma caused by such forced removal from one’s ancestral land, the literature of this period is replete with examples of how the dearly beloved suddenly, virtually overnight, became forbidden and alien. Some showed pathos or stoic acceptance; others reacted with anger and hostility.

Shahid Ahmed Dehlvi’s autobiographical, Dehli ki Bipta (The Lament of Delhi), written in the centuries-old elegiac shehr afsos tradition, is a haunting tribute to the vanished glory of Delhi, a glory he likens to other great “Muslim” cities such as Cordoba and Granada. In lyrical prose, he recounts the irreversible changes wrought to the city’s moral, intellectual, cultural and social fabric by the outflow of its Muslim population and influx of refugees.

In a similar vein, writers who left East Punjab to find a new home, sometimes barely a few kilometres across the new border, have waxed eloquent on how wonderful everything was in their old home and how new and different everything appears to be on “this” side of the border. A case in point would be A. Hameed who wrote of Amritsar (or “Ambarsar”, as it was pronounced by the locals), the city of his birth: “For me Amritsar is my lost Jerusalem and I am its wailing wall. I do not remember anything of Jerusalem; he must remember who forgets.”

Like everything else written during and about this period, migration too has been viewed and interpreted in different ways. As in the depiction of Partition-related violence, some writers catalogue the horrors witnessed on the way and the difficulties in finding safe refuges on the other side of newly-demarcated borders; others depict it as hijrat, an experience akin to the Prophet’s migration from Mecca to Medina and therefore an experience that transcended human sufferings.

Still others view it as salutary experiences with the potential to draw lessons from past mistakes. Intizar Husain, one of the finest chroniclers of the long-term “effects” of the Partition has repeatedly drawn our attention to the possibilities that the Partition presented but were lost or frittered away. He talks of how, suddenly, almost by accident, it allowed writers like him to “regain” a great experience – the hijrat, which has a unique place in the history of the Muslims. Yet, he says, “And the great expectation we had of making something out of it at a creative level and of exploiting it in developing a new consciousness and sensibility – that bright expectation has now faded and gone.”

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the annus horribilis, perhaps we need to weigh our losses and gains.

Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator, literary historian. She has writtenLiking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers' Movement, and A Rebel and her Cause: The Life and Work of Dr Rashid Jahan, among others.