An attentive scanning of the fictional and personal Partition narratives with a conscious focus on women protagonists effectively helps in mapping the specific suffering and anguish of women as victims of Partition. Much of this reality lies under cover or is subsumed in what is otherwise perceived as the “larger narrative” or the “main story” of Partition.

The mass migrations that took place in 1947 affected women much more and in different ways as compared to men. To start with, the elderly women’s attachment to “home” and the rootedness in family and ancestors was too strong for them to be wrenched away easily across the borders. Most women vehemently reacted and resisted the idea of leaving home. This anguish is recorded in Partition literature in many Indian languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Bengali, etc.

For instance, when the entire family decided to migrate, no amount of force or persuasion could make the Amma of Ismat Chughtai’s story Jadein (Roots) leave her haveli. “Every effort was made, but Amma did not budge from her place, she was like the roots of a giant oak that remains standing in the face of a fierce storm”. But then after everyone had left, the giant oak swayed in distress thinking of her near ones who were in exile and perhaps in a state of distress.

The old lady, Bebe, in Joginder Paul’s Urdu story Dariyaon Pyas (Thirst of Rivers) carried her ancestral haveli in her mind across the borders. She clutched the haveli in the grip of her hands, as it were, by carrying the keys on her person all the time. Krishna Sobti’s Shahni in the Hindi story Sikka Badal Gaya (The Currency Has Changed), too, resisted being uprooted from her haveli and resisted migration. Her very identity is founded on home and kinship within that house. To her, discarding this home meant discarding her self.

But, ironically, Amma in Chughtai’s Roots is not at peace even when she remains in her haveli, because the people, her family, who had made a home of it have all migrated. Bebe in Thirst of Rivers, on the other hand, has her people close to her, but she does not have the haveli she had built as her home. She remains stuck to the past in her mind, clinging to the keys of the haveli, the keys which open no locks now.

Forgetting, to survive

Shorn of the basic marker of her identity, the woman refugee dies a kind of death. Or, she locates a strategy for survival, that of forgetting. One is reminded of the words of the narrator from Kamleshwar’s story Kitne Pakistan (How Many Pakistans?): “I am sure that you remember those days. Women never forget anything. They only pretend to forget. Otherwise it would be difficult for them to go on living.” Partition then appears as a huge divide, a fissure filled with abysmal silence, forcing the woman into amnesia, a virtual death of the past.

Tropes such as forgetting, discontinuity, exclusion and silencing have been used in many fictional narratives that record the phenomenon of Partition. One of the most disturbing consequences of this has been the “invisibilising” of the woman from Partition history. Society has had to recover them and put a value on the massive and vital human experience lying repressed in hundreds of women, disoriented and alienated owing to the wrenching separation from their roots. At times, “remembering” itself becomes a strategy for relocating one’s self. It is only in the recent past that interviews and personal narratives of women recorded by scholars have brought to the surface what many creative writers delicately presented earlier through fiction.

On a different note, consider the creative presentation of yet another perspective in Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Mozel. The eponymous Mozel is a very significant character because her portrayal is a testimony of the power of an unattached woman. She is a woman whose existence is not circumscribed by the need for any physical or psychological security provided by the sense of belonging lent by a religious sect, a socio-political community, or even, more importantly, a family. She pushes away Tirlochan’s turban from her body and says “Take away…this religion of yours” before she dies.

A question of “honour”

Women’s roles have been actually determined, sanctioned and promoted firmly by religion alongside the reference to a mythical past within familial and social structures of patriarchy. In one sense, the huge disruption caused by Partition violence, with greater understanding, could lead to a radical recasting of women’s identities. The notion of preserving the “honour” of women, for instance, as a priori in relation to their lives, ought to be interrogated. One of the predominant forms of violence of one community over the other has generally been sexual assaults on women. These acts have been perceived as acts of dishonouring the whole community.

So entrenched has been the notion of the protection of the “honour” of the women in each of the communities that women were forced to either commit suicide to preempt the humiliation of getting sexually assaulted and dishonoured, or they were actually murdered. Many writers narrate the bizarre sexual violence suffered by women, their bodies mutilated and disfigured. Using the woman’s body as an easy object, the other community was “dishonoured” through male savagery.

Ironically, to protect their self-respect, the members of the target community too preferred to kill their women. Literary memory becomes almost a mandatory source for the subtle revelations of some deeply ingrained attitudes operating behind so much of violence during the days of Partition. The magnitude of the gory reality of human behaviour cannot merely be relegated to statistics.

Here’s another sensitive literary representation of the issue of “honour”: The emotionally insulated Lajo in Rajendra Singh Bedi’s Urdu story Lajwanti is a victim of abduction, but she is found by her husband who is himself one of the leaders of the group mobilised to locate women victims of the Partition and rehabilitate them in their homes.. The story focuses on Lajo’s consciousness as she suffers quietly to see how she has been transformed and venerated as a devi, a goddess, by her husband after she is recovered. She is no longer Lajo to him. She becomes Lajwanti, ironically, the one who will withdraw like the “touch-me-not”, with any touch.

Kamleshwar defines such catastrophic moments in his story How Many Pakistans?: “Alas, Pakistan is the name of that reality which separates the two of us…It is that blank void between our families.” The notion of honour and purity of woman is so deeply internalised that even the spokesman for the rehabilitation of women, Babu Sunder Lal in Bedi’s story, cannot come to accept “the defiled Lajo” back into their normal relationship. Hundreds of abducted women were discarded, murdered and abandoned by their families, or they simply committed suicide.

Children of assault

In Jamila Hashmi’s oft quoted story Urdu Banished, the protagonist of the story is doomed by memory and the inability to forget. The desirable past is unrecoverable. The inner monologue is a recalling of that past which counterpoises itself with the present. It is in the present that she has children from her “abductor” who has married her. She reacts inwardly to his mother who addresses her as “bahu”, and creates a semblance of order.

But this Sita, unlike the mythical one, has had to accept “Ravana’s home”. Suspended between her past and the present, she is in fact banished from her own selfhood. This is yet another kind of death seeking regeneration, a transplantation! The story ends thus: “Life too flows on, carrying with it, as it always does, the smell of death”.

There is yet another kind of experience of Partition, that of a woman’s relationship with her pregnancy after a rape. A Leaf in the Storm, a story written originally in Malayalam by Lalithambika Antharjanam, captures the fate of such an unfortunate victim of multiple rapes. The story is predominantly an internal monologue, revealing different intensely emotional and reflective responses of Jyoti’s reactions to the baby in her womb conceived during the rape by one of the many aggressors. From anger and deep bitterness, by the end of the story, her mind moves elsewhere and she lays claim over the child.

Not only has the new life been given refuge by the mother, but the woman herself has also acquired fresh life and sustenance from her pregnancy, which she earlier abhorred. The writer has identified the process of exorcising the rapists from the woman’s mind, the moment she awakens to the biological reality of the baby within her. Manto’s story Khol Do is a horrific revelation of a woman who has become insensate after undergoing the experience of multiple rapes.

Banto in Yashpal’s Jhootha Sach, rejected by her family and husband, commits suicide while Tara takes up the new challenge of survival and does not seek male sanction for the re-formulation of her life and action.

The deconstructed and demolished selfhood of the woman during Partition have to be remembered and re-membered through an honest confrontation and comprehension of why and how women had to face such gruesome truths of male bestiality and social orientations. The story has to be told again and again for better understanding, for history to not repeat itself.