Borders and Boundaries in Partition Literature


A paper presented on 12 September 2003
(BA English I, St. Stephenís College, University of Delhi)

Such was the magnitude of the devastation wrecked by the Partition of undivided India that it was, and is a mammoth task for writers to deal with it. Historians, for one, talked in aggregates: ten million refugees, two million of them dead, seventy-five thousand women raped and so on and so forth. These statistics fail to impart even a fraction of the enormity of the tragedy that was the Partition. Statistics do not tell us how women must have felt while drowning themselves in wells lest they be abducted by men of the other community. Statistics fail to tell us how for most people the deciding factor in choosing India or Pakistan was not politics or religion but insecurity. Statistics fail to even hint at the trauma of husbands and wives, sons and mothers separated by the Radcliffe line. And the last thing that statistics or historical narratives can ever do is to reflect on identity crises of innocent individuals at a time when identity could be altered by loot and rioting.


The Pakistani poet Harris Khalique is a Kashmiri, but he does not fit what he calls the "Kashmiri stereotype" ñ "No pink cheeks or blue eyes, the only brother even darker than I am and the family hardly able to make out the difference between Pahari and Kashmiri." His friends often ask him derisively, "Sir, why donít you mediate between Pakistan and India? Kashmir is your land after all." Khaliqueís reply is that every town in the subcontinent is to him what Toba Tek Singh was to Bishen Singh. "I cannot mediate between India and Pakistan," he writes, "I am an unresolved business of Partition myself. You are right. I am not Kashmiri. I am Kashmir." 1

Another Kashmiri, Saadat Hassan Manto, was so aggrieved by a similar identity crisis that it was, partially if not wholly, responsible for his alcoholism and eventual death about eight years after the Partition. Communal tensions in Bombay and persuasion by his family made him migrate to Pakistan in 1948. By this time, in a life full of ups and downs, he had achieved considerable acclaim and some prosperity for his short stories, radio plays, film scripts and dialogues and as the editor of two Urdu magazines. In Lahore, however, Manto found himself completely disoriented, rootless and, perhaps most of all, unemployed. In the eight years that he lived there, he failed to get a single regular job. Manto had earlier written against communal conflict, and his choice of migrating to Pakistan was impulsive; he must never have thought the Partition would ruin him just when his life seemed to have achieved some stability. No wonder then that his post-í48 stories often question the idea of nationality ("Toba Tek Singh"2 ) and the effects of the Partition on individuals ("Black Margins"3 ).

"Toba Tek Singh" is an outstanding work of Manto that poignantly describes the individualís identity crisis. Set in a madhouse the story uses madness as a metaphor for sanity. The ambiguity of nationhood is expressed when we are told that one madman got "caught up in this whole confusion of Pakistan and Hindustan and Hindustan and Pakistan that he ended up considerably madder than before". The madmen in the Lahore asylum are a microcosm of society, through them all sections of society are satirised, and amidst them is Bishen Singh, who wants to live in neither Hindustan nor Pakistan. Hindustan and Pakistan are identities that have been deliberately created and constructed and Bishen Singh successfully resists all attempts for any such identity to be thrust upon him. He wants to go back to Toba Tek Singh, the village where he was born, which is his natural identity. Manto therefore is questioning not just the two-nation theory but also the very idea of nationhood as the pivotal basis of identity. Bishen Singh would rather die in no manís land than make a choice between Hindustan and Pakistan.

Arjun Mahey, in his paper "Partition Narratives: Some Observations 4" says that "Toba Tek Singh" is not a short story but a fable. It is perhaps the fable-like quality of this story that makes the idea of Toba Tek Singh somewhat sentimental ñ unlike most of Mantoís works. Gulzar, for instance, was so moved by the story so as to write a poem on it:

Toba Tek Singh 5

Iíve to go and meet Toba Tek Singhís Bishan at Wagah!

Iím told he still stands on his swollen feet
Where Manto had left him,
He still mutters:
Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain

Iíve to locate that mad fellow
Who used to speak up from a branch high above:
"Heís god ñ
He alone has to decide -ñ whose village to whose side."

When will he move down that branch ñ
He is to be told:
"There are some more ñ left still
Who are being divided, made into pieces ñ
There are some more Partitions to be done
That Partition was only the first one."

Iíve to go and meet Toba Tek Singhís Bishan at Wagah,
His friend Afzal has to be informed ñ
Lahna Singh, Wadhwa Singh, Bheen Amrit
Had arrived here butchered ñ
Their heads were looted with the luggage on the way behind.

Slay that "Bhuri", none will come to claim her now.
That girl who grew one finger every twelve months,
Now shortens one phalanx each year.

Itís to be told that all the mad ones havenít yet reached their destinations ñ
There are many on that side
And many on this.

Toba Tek Singhís Bishan beckons me often to say:
Opad di gud gud di moong di dal di laltain di Hindustan te Pakistan di dur fitey munh."

Another story of Manto that looks at the question of identity is "The Dog of Tetwal 6" , one that is a harsher critique of jingoism than "Toba Tek Singh". The plot revolves around a stray dog caught between two frontier posts of the Indian and Pakistani armies at a time of cease-fire. The story is an allegory which, through its simple plot, manages to satirise several aspects of the act of the Partition. The most obvious effect is evident in the statement that "even dogs will now have to be either Hindustani or Pakistani!" This is how far armies can go, not sparing even stray dogs, Manto seems to be saying, once borders and boundaries have been demarcated. The dog of course symbolises Partition refugees ñ like Manto ñ who felt like playthings in the hands of politicians. The absurdity and black humour are heightened when one realises how borders are drawn ñ by simply holding on to an army post on a mountain.

Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint have remarked on this story that Manto is trying to show how troops that were "formerly comrades-in-arms now belonged to different national armies" and now that the British enemy was gone, they found enemies in each other 7. Manto therefore has proved to be prophetic. The Indo-Pakistani dispute in Kahsmir, and its relentless violence that Kashmiris face, is indeed a "Dog of Tetwal" kind of situation. The dog runs helter-skelter for safety even as the two armies shoot at it, eventually killing it, making it a martyr for one side and an object of pity for the other. This is what borders and boundaries do to individuals.

The question of identity has been pondered over by several other writers too, although in far more sentimental tones that Manto. Krishna Sobtiís story "Sikka Badal Gayaa" or "The New Regime 8" tells the story of a village matriarch, Shahni, who had looked after village folk, both Hindu and Muslim, as though they had been her children. But today she is going to ëIndiaí because of the Partition and her ëchildrení are only too happy because they will partake of her property left behind. The story tells of the social transformation wrought by the Partition, how even deep-rooted communal harmony was torn apart. When somebody says itís getting late, Shahni reflects:
Getting late? In her own house?... She was the queen of this big house dating back to her ancestors. How could they be so audacious as to pounce upon her own victuals?
The Partition changed for millions of people the very idea of ëhomeí. People who had never been out of their insulated villages for generations were suddenly forced to choose a country, and this also changed for them the idea of a ënationí. Perhaps for many, nationhood became a conscious fact only because of the Partition, when friends became foes because they were of the other community and compelled them to flee to a land far away.

Kamleshwarís story "Kitnay Pakistan?" ("How Many Pakistans?") is a tale of unrequited love in the backdrop of the Partition. The Hindu protagonist is in love with a Muslim girl but the socio-political circumstances of the day do not allow their union. For the protagonist the word "Pakistan" is a metaphor for all that came in their way, for all the ways in which the Partition affected his life. Mangal was sent out of Bhiwandi and Bano is married to a Muslim; sometime later Mangal tries to return to Bhiwandi which is now in the grip of riots. His grandfather loses an arm and Banoís newborn child dies, both bcause of the riots. As Mangal, whose loss is emotional not physical, eventually tries to forget Bano and Bhiwandi, ending up in a brothel in Bombay, he is confronted by a prostitute asking for customers, "Anyone else?" The pathos of the story reaches its zenith when the prostitute turns out to be Bano. Mangal eventually has to accept defeat in his attempt to escape from ëPartitioní. He ponders:
Where should I go now? Which place, which town, which city? Where should I hide? Moving from place to place, could I ultimately land up somewhere away from Pakistan? A place where I could live in the fullness of life, with all my longings and desiresÖ
But that is not to be, Bano. I discover a Pakistan at every step. Bano, it plunges a knife in your body and mine. We bleed and feel so betrayed and humiliated. But it continues to be.

The question of identity assumes a different angle when stories focus on ëreturní. Refugees who left their land to facilitate the identity-formation of nations, undergo an identity transformation themselves. They return to their old land in the other country a few years later: this provides a vantage point to see how the ërefugeeí has changed and how his old land has changed. The problem of identity, therefore, is not just the problem of individuals but also that of entire mohallas, colonies, cities and countries.

Such nostalgia of ëreturní also insists that people lived in absolute communal peace and ëharmonyí, and the monster called the Partition changed it all. Historical research, however, proves this assumption wrong: there were undercurrents of communal conflict in all the places that burned.


"How Many Pakistans?" is also remarkable for its depiction of violence in contrast with the romantic world of Mangal the dervish or the drillmaster-poet who was Banoís father. There is no escaping violence in Partition literature: there are undercurrents of it even in purely political stories such as "Toba Tek Singh".

For some narratives the depiction of violence is an end in itself. This is certainly the case with parts of "Black Margins". Such was Mantoís initial shock and astonishment with his new surroundings called Pakistan that he could not write for several months. And when he finally did write, "Siyâh hâshiye" or "Black Margins" was one of his first works. This is a series of twenty-eight narratives, some of them as long as two lines, that was hardly noticed at the time. Written in the most unemotional and unsentimental tone, "Black Margins" stands out for its shock value, accentuated with the use of pun and clever turn of phrase. An example:


Rioters brought the running train to a halt. People belonging to the other community were pulled out and slaughtered with swords and bullets.
The rest of the passengers were treated to halwa, fruits and milk.
The chief assassin made a farewell speech before the train pulled out of the station: "Ladies and gentlemen, my apologies. News of this trainís arrival was delayed. That is why we have not been able to entertain you lavishly --ñ the way we wanted to."

At the first instance, the tone seems journalistic. There is no auctorial intervention or delineation of characters, or any context provided, leave alone a comment. Manto is simply reporting an anecdote, telling it like it is. Unlike other writers of Partition literature, his aim is not to move the readers through sentiment or emotion. Such was the enormity and inhumanity of the Partition riots, that they cannot be expressed in sentiments. By juxtaposing massacre with feast in the above example, he is using irony to communicate the extent of social breakdown that the riots entailed. This is also evident in his dedication of "Black Margins" to "the man who, in the course of narrating his bloody exploits, conceded: ëWhen I killed an old woman only then did I feel that I had committed murder.í " These narratives do not tell us that these individuals are behaving in this way because of the Partition; there is no attempt to justify their animalism. The Partition for them was an excuse to give way to their animalism. Manto, therefore, is outlining human depravity.

Some of the narratives in "Black Margins" are also humorous, like the one in which a man helps rioters loot his own house, repeatedly warning them to loot in a civilised manner. What we are seeing here is the use of black humour. Black humour is the humorous treatment of the horrific and macabre. This modern literary device conveys extreme despair. This seems to be only one step behind the pessimistic genre of War literature that commented not only on the futility of War but also of life.

"Black Margins" is a somewhat controversial work. Describing it as an "intellectual joke", Leslie A. Flemming says that in his "first shocked reaction to Partition the only way Manto could deal with it was to divest them of all possible emotion and laugh at themÖ" Flemming says that the presence of sarcasm, anger and compassion in his later stories show a maturity in his response to the Partition 9. There can, however, be a different way of looking at "Black Margins". The above characteristics are conspicuous by their absence, which is what makes "Black Margins" more effective in achieving its aim than any number of clichéd and sentimental Partition narratives.

Representations of violence in Partition literature depend for their impact on the inherent power of violence to stir the readerís conscience. If there is one single symbol of the Partition riots, it is that of trains arriving at their destinations with their passengers massacred on the way. The singularity of the running train is the storyís driving factor in Khushwant Singhís debut novel, Train to Pakistan. It is the arrival of this train with dead bodies that disturbs the communal peace of a village. (It is interesting how so many of these narratives have a rural setting despite most of the violence having taken place in the cities. This could be because India was not as urbanised then as it is now, and many of these writers had their roots in villages where they may never have seen communal conflict take a violent turn.)

In Agyeyaís story "Muslim-Muslim Bhai-Bhai", Muslim women wanting to escape potential violence from Hindu neighbourhoods are waiting for a train to take them to the newly formed Pakistan. They are, however, not allowed to board the train because it is already full of upper-class Muslim women also travelling to Pakistan. The irony is not only that class for them was more important than a religion on whose basis their new country was formed, but also that they may meet the same fate on the train as the women they left behind on the platform.

Bhisham Sahniís story "We Have Arrived in Amritsar" is set in a moving train whose passengers learn of the riots during their journey. The environment inside becomes tense but is under control. A feeble Hindu, however, is enraged enough to kill a Muslim trying to get on the train. The transformation of this character is a comment on how the madness of the times made murderers out of ordinary men. This is also reflected in the character of Ranvir in Sahniís novel Tamas, who, having once killed a hen, can kill any human being without remorse.

Gender is a secondary theme of "How Many Pakistans?" Rajinder Singh Bediís "Lajwanti"10 , however, is a heart-wrenching portrayal of the gender aspect of the Partition. Thousands of women faced sexual violence during the Partition riots. This included not just rape but also other forms of violence such as parading women naked, some times with their private parts mutilated or their bodies tattooed with symbols of the other religion. Sexual violence against women of the ëotherí community was a way of asserting the ësuperiorityí of the aggressorís community. Many were forced to drown themselves in wells lest they fall prey to such violence and destroy the ëhonourí of the family. Yet another aspect was that women of the ëotherí community were abducted, forced to convert and marry. Two years later the governments of India and Pakistan decided to heal some wounds by tracing abducted women on both sides and returning them to their homes. They did not realise that they could be creating another problem: many of these women may had been married with children and may had resigned to their fate when they were asked to re-live the trauma of the Partition. In any case, the greatest problem for them was whether their families ëback homeí would accept them now that they had been ëpollutedí.

This was the story of Lajwanti, Sunder Lalís wife. The story presents a very realistic picture of gender roles when we are told that Sunder Lal like all men was a wife-beater, and that Lajwanti considered this a part and parcel of being a wife. But now that she had been abducted into Pakistan, Sunder Lalís views of conjugal relationships underwent a sea-change. He longs for his Lajo to return and he persuades other men to accept their abducted women.

It was, however, a particular picture of Lajwanti that Sunder Lal had in mind. When she does return she is completely changed ñ and not just because of her Muslim dress. Sunder Lal had to reluctantly accept her ñ partly because he could not reject her now after being a leading activist of the cause of abducted women. However, he withdraws from Lajo by raising her to the pedestal of a goddess.


The silence between Sunder Lal and Lajwanti could not be broken, which brings us to the issue of silence. Such was the trauma of the Partition that many didnít want to even think about it. There was a feeling that the Partition has to be forgotten as an aberration and we have to move on. This was reflected in literature: it took several years before many authors could look back and reflect on it.

Urvashi Butaliaís book The Other Side of Silence is an investigation of what lay beneath this silence. Beginning with her own familyís traumatic experience with the Partition, Butalia interviewed dozens of people about what they went through and she found that many of them were relating their experiences for the first time. It proved to be a cathartic experience for many, although Butalia was conscious that she could renew old wounds and end up disturbing the calm of people who had made their peace with the tragedy of the Partition. Butaliaís book looks especially at how women, children and Dalits coped with the madness of 1947

In the past decade or so this silence has almost been turned on its head. More and more research on this subject, its depiction in literature and cinema, seems to be suggesting an outburst of catharsis.

When the novel Tamas was televised, there was an upsurge that it should not be shown. There is a view that we should not remember the Partition because itís no use remembering the gore and dementia of a day and age gone by. This does not seem to be a valid argument given that ëPartitioní has not ended; it lives on as communal violence rears its ugly head every now and then. Communal violence in 1947-48 was often sparked by a trainload of dead bodies ñ not very different from what happened in Gujarat last year. A poem circulating on the Internet after 9/11 compels the reader to wonder if ëPartitioní will ever end:

For Papa 11

August 14th 1947. Firozepur, Punjab.
You ñ
eighteen years old
sit alone and wait
for news of your parents.
When they arrive days later
My grandfather, grandmother, and her brother
offer no explanation, no report, no narrative
of how they ended up alive in a train from Lahore, Pakistan
Their arrival simply becomes a fact
ñ a fact that even the children ñ my brother and I
Learn never to question.

November 1st 1984, Delhi.
You wait again.
This time with your parents,
My mother, my brother, and I.
Murdering mobs parade the streets,
announcing their arrival by rattling street lights.
My grandfather sitting in front of the house
Reads the newspaper, pretending oblivion.
The neighbours demand he go inside.
"I left once," he says,
"where am I to go now?"
You ñ
I know, are afraid
But refuse to remove your turban or cut your hairñ
as some neighbours and so-called friends suggest.
You, who would not enter a temple
mock religion and even God
Say that you are a teacher
And do not wish to teach submission to fascism.

September 11, 2001 ñ to date. Delhi, India and Carbondale, U.S.A
You wait there
And I ñ here
My brother who is visiting me
Finds again that wearing a turban invites the name "terrorist".
And, just as in 1984, he wants to be on the street.
I wait here
For news of American bombs on Afghanistan,
While the successors of Gandhiís assassins
Rule his birthplace,
Drowning in blood the hopes of 1947
Sowing land mines into the line your parents had crossed
But one they would not let cross their hearts

Years later in 1972,
My grandmother would visit that border again
Pick up a handful of dirt and call it "home".
My brother and I would joke
That our grandmother created nations wherever she went.
Born in Burma she was twice a refugee,
Once in Pakistan, then India.

Children know
That if not this history there would be another.
But if not for those who labour to make this childrenís belief come true,
The only drops to fall on this desolate drought-stricken earth would be blood.

Today ñ
As I imagine you eighteen years old,
I long to take your hands into my grown hands,
And walk into refugee camps where children still get born.

Tarun K. Saint remarks, "It has taken years for the psychic numbness that refugees experienced to give way to a new kind of communication between generations that the poem alludes to."

But is such communication always healthy? Recalling Gulzarís comment, "There are many more Partitions to be done/ That Partition was only the first one," it is impossible to deny the function of Partition literature as a moral warning about what another Partition can do to us. Yet, as another side of the coin, such warnings can have an invert effect: they can actually provoke more violence. The above poem, for instance, could help another Bhrindanwale in his political ambitions. The extremely gory violence in Kamal Hasanís film Hey Ram, did not prevent a blatantly communal response to the film in theatres across India. Crowds were clapping and jeering when Gandhi was being ridiculed. Right-wing intellectuals have off and on called Bhishm Sahni communal, wondering why his stories show Hindus in a specially bad light, suggesting they were more responsible for the violence than Muslims. Given the sensitivity of the subjects we are dealing with here, we must recognise that some subtlety, if not silence, is warranted.

This is what gives credence to the viewpoint that the best way to deal with Partition is not to deal with it at all. This, however, has its own absurdities: how can anyone dictate a writer not to make a literary inquiry into such a major event in Indian history, an event that Indian history writing doesnít tell us much about.

Amidst these complexities, two things are clear. Firstly, the use of violence could be controlled and suggestive. No one can say that "Toba Tek Singh" or "Tetwal ka Kutta" can be misused by communalists. Secondly, the transformation of text into celluloid should be done with special responsibility considering that celluloid can have a tremendous public impact. Otherwise Partition literature may end up exacerbating the very borders and boundaries that it seeks to question.


1. Partitionís Unresolved Business" by Harris Khalique in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 6 October 2002. URL:
2. Modern Indian Literature: Poems and Short Stories, Ed. Department of English, University of Delhi (OUP Delhi, 1999): pp 103-114.
3. India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom, Vol I, Ed. Mushirul Hasan (Roli Books, Delhi).
4. In Translating Partition, Ed. Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint: pp 135-156.
5. Translated from Urdu by Anisur Rahman. Source: Translating Partition, Ed. Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint
6. Translating Partition, Ed Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint.
7. " "The Dog of Tetwal" in Context: The Nation and its Victims" by Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint in Translating Partition, Ed. Ravikant and tarun K. Saint.
8. India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom
, Vol I, Ed. Mushirul Hasan (Roli Books, Delhi): pp 145-151.
9. Another Lonely Voice: The Life and Works of Saadat Hasan Manto by Leslie A. Flemming (Lahore, 1985): pp 74-75.
10. India Partitioned: The Other Face of Freedom, Vol I, Ed. Mushirul Hasan (Roli Books, Delhi): pp 177-189.
11. Anonymous poem circulating on email. My source: Reader-List, URL:

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