Partition's ghosts

The Partition fiction very few people read: The literature of displacement from Assam’s Barak Valley

The writing from the region is marked by diversity and complexity of narratives.

We had our house in Sylhet district
Yet we are refugees…
Yet we are refugees…
the words burst into the air
to release the bad breath of bitter experiences…

Shaktipada Brahmachari, a noted poet from Barak Valley of Assam, uses such intense verse to evoke the shared experience of displacement and homelessness. This measure of creative engagement with displacement, induced primarily by the Partition in 1947, adds another dimension to the multi-layered narratives on the event and its cascading effects.

Not many people know about this corpus of writing from Assam, though. Imaginative literature is perhaps one of the most profoundly influential ways in which displaced perceptions can be expressed and marginalised consciousness articulated. The Barak Valley in Assam remains a unique component in the history of Partition.

The background in politics

A major displacement of people took place here after the referendum in Sylhet district on July 6 and 7, 1947. Though this referendum remains an extraordinary case, this episode has been mostly neglected by mainstream Partition historiography. While Punjab and Bengal were divided on the basis of religion, the Sylhet referendum was a vote not on one, but on two convergent subjects of realignment – of India on a communal basis, and of Assam on a linguistic basis.

Sylhet, which was a part of Assam, opted to join Pakistan, with only the Karimganj region remaining in India. The geopolitical realities and lived experiences of people residing here in the post Partition phase offer an insightful commentary on tropes of displacement, exile and the state of being refugees.

It is true that creative reflections on these elements did not emerge immediately after the Partition. There are multiple historical and sociological causes for this silence, this reticence. In their introduction to Barbed Wire Fence: Stories of Displacement from the Barak Valley of Assam, a recently published anthology of translated short stories, Nirmal Kanti Bhattacharjee and Dipendu Das contend that the Bengali literature of Assam, up until the 1970s, reveals a definite effort to shape itself in the mould of Calcutta-centric literature.

The resurrection in fiction

But since then, breaking the silence and the forgetting, there has grown an urgency to resurrect these varied experiences through sensitive voices and perceptive visions. Despite this particular volume, many of the stories have not yet been translated from original Bangla, so the reach too remains extremely confined.

The fate of a story rests on its telling. Writers in the valley have started telling and retelling such stories over the last few decades. These fictional pieces explore the angst of constructing lives from the foundations of dislocation. Family narratives replete with the Partition experience have been passed on to the second and third generation recipients of Partition memories.

Naturally, these memories are fragmented, layered and deeply subjective. There is no single, organically blended canvas of fictional recreation. Different writers have responded from different contours of the margins. Still, it is possible to discern an abiding focus on the theme of exile and rootlessness.

As philosopher and political Simone Weil has observed, to be rooted is perhaps the most important and the least recognised human need. This view becomes fundamentally important in exploring Partition writings from the Barak Valley. The “hinge generation” of writers, straddling the present and the past, look back and then assess the present to uncover a sequence of themes that impact their creative exercise: affiliation to Sylhet as an extended cartographic presence, memories of dispossession, and the predicament of the marginalised cultural minority in Assam. And so it is that the writings of major literary figures in the valley unveil a curious connection with displacement and separation that Partition initiated.

Themes of yearning

What have the modes of representing memories of displacement in this fictional landscape been? How does one look at the dynamics of such engagements in these writings? In most of these works the idea of movement is more often than not interlaced with pain and frustration. These creative writings initiate constant reminders of a history where mobility has not really been a matter of choice but a necessary mode for survival.

For some writers, such memories of exodus remain embedded as an internalised past which is continuously replicated and re-enacted. Moloy Kanti Dey’s short story, “Ashraf Ali’s Homeland”, offers an apt example. Ashraf Ali’s home constantly changes through the process of displacement. It is qualified by an absence, by a denial. His father was compelled to migrate to the Indian side of the border, yet he can never belong to either of his adoptive homelands. One is instantly reminded of Manto, for this bizarre condition of homelessness is symptomatic of Manto’s many writings.

Set against the backdrop of the intensified language movement in Assam, Arijit Choudhury’s short story “Fire” explores the theme of perpetual dislocation through the predicament of its protagonist Mahendra. His own ideological position propels him away from the frenzy of creating the “other”. He is banished by his own community members, and his attempt to return home is aborted time and again.

Shekhar Das’s novella Drops Of Water is a poignant representation of partitioned predicament in the changed scenario of resettlement. Das gives a moving account of the journey of Surabala and her children to an unknown and uncertain land across the border in a bullock cart. A host of other writers, like Badarujjaman Choudhury, Mithilesh Bhattacharjee, Shankarjyoti Dev, Tirthankar Chanda, Shyamalendu Chakravorty, Ranabir Purkayastha, Swapna Bhattacharjee, and Bijoya Deb have responded to the emerging realities of life against the backdrop of the turbulent language movement in Assam and its aftereffects.

Remembering and rewriting

Memory clearly operates on multiple levels and in different ways. Remnants of a remembered past keep haunting the margins of many stories from Barak valley. Amalendu Bhattacharya’s “The Chronicle of Vyomkesh Kavyatirtha” compellingly delivers the picture of a searing gap between the past and the present, a past which had everything and a present which is marked by absences. We are also introduced to characters like Kerech Buri (Sunanda Bhattacharya’s story) and Mokkhada (Jhumur Pandey’s story), who experience an interior sense of displacement which in turn transforms the everyday worlds they inhabit.

The character of Moitreyo in Amitabha Dev Choudhury’s works embarks on a perpetual quest for an identifiable sense of belonging. He is a presence in Dev Choudhury’s seminal books around the Partition, In Search of a Novel, The Pensive Palace and the Deserted Lane, and The Flag Tree. The historical reality of Partition haunts his narratives as a reference point that necessarily questions the possibility of a settled and stable existence amidst multiple fragmentations. Moitreyo’s perpetual engagement with his past and his haphazard, multi-layered journeys across time and space heighten the note of disquiet emerging from the relationship between collective history and its return to the individual.

Here, Partition is a distant occurrence of the past. The valley is progressively moving towards a future which holds hopes and promises. But the spectres of a partitioned past continue to peep through the cycles of fear and anxiety. After all, forgetting does not cure everything.

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