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Sumallya Mukhopadhyay

Sumallya Mukhopadhyay: Of Forgotten Histories

Remembering the Generation that witnessed Communal Harmony and the Agony of the Partition in Attia Hosain's Phoenix Fled, Bhisham Sahni's Tamas, and Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines

‘No more arresting emblems of the modern culture of nationalism exist’, argues Benedict Anderson, ‘than the cenotaphs and tombs of unknown soldiers’ (2015: 9). Read against the backdrop of the terror attacks at army camps in Pathankot and Uri in India and at Police College in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province in Pakistan, one understands how nationalism as an ideology unites the citizens of a country when unknown soldiers die. At the same time, with the rise of the nationalistic fervour we are aware of the persistent state of disturbance and dissension that exists between India and Pakistan since the days of the Partition. There is no denying the fact that the uneasy relationship these two leading countries of the subcontinent shares find expression when riots take place inside the nation-state(s) or war is declared on the border front. In recent times when diplomatic ties between the two countries are severed—so much so that Pakistani artists performing in India are banned and Indian television shows popular in Pakistan are taken off the air—we can well comprehend how the tormenting legacy of the Partition of South Asia still endures, and to quote Ravikant, ‘the event, memory and metaphor—indubitably remains central to this long history of strife and warfare’ between these two countries (2001:162). A common critical consensus among scholars of the Partition history is that the acts of remembering the events that led to the division and its resultant repercussions have grown extremely contentious. Issues of communal violence in general and the Partition in particular are offered little space not only in school textbooks in India and Pakistan, but also in mature discussion of the adults. (1) In fact, as Urvashi Butalia in the introduction to her edited volume Partition: The Long Shadow opines, the ‘state power can be called into service of suppressing memory’ (2015: vii). Such a statement is justified by the various orders issued by the State power itself. The Pakistani government’s decision to proscribe the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto or the ensuing controversy in India following the release of M S Sathyu’s film Garam Hawa are cases in point. The fact that those officiating the governments in both India and Pakistan try to suppress the memories and the miseries of the Partition—trauma and tribulation, death and destruction, molestation and abduction, loot and killing and most importantly, the forced dispossession and displacement of innumerable individuals, leading to large scale migration which is per se a momentous event in the history of human civilisation—unmistakably reveals that this a systemic process, strategically undertaken by the leaders of these two nations, as a result of which the Partition of South Asia as a human tragedy is hardly acknowledged. The violent times of the Partition are steeped in collective amnesia, and for many the event signifies the period when mere transfer of power took place in Delhi between Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord Mountbatten and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This perhaps inspires Alok Bhalla, one of the foremost editors of the various collections of stories delineating the Partition, to remark that ‘there is not just a lack of good literature, there is, more seriously, a lack of good history.’ (2)

The dearth of good history as well as the dearth of good literature bears testimony to the fact that we have little historical, literary and biographical documentation of the irrevocable losses that individuals suffered in those months of chaos and consternation that eventually gave birth to Pakistan and the newly defined borders that marked India. As these two countries are again engaged in an undeclared war along the disputed borders of the state of Kashmir, it is imperative for us to reread the literature that is available to us, especially those which concentrate on the generation that had experienced the Partition. This paper attempts to bring together three different narratives—Phoenix Fled, Tamas and The Shadow Lines—by three different authors, namely, Attia Hosain, Bhisham Sahni and Amitav Ghosh who write about the Partition and the effect that the cartographic division of land had on human psychology and also in the newly formed states. This paper will focus on those characters, who once experienced the rhythm and symphony of the days of communal harmony among Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims that existed in multifarious villages all over undivided India during the rule of the Raj. In this endeavour, it is assumed that the readers are already acquainted with the text and characters of these three stories.

In her essay titled ‘Reflections on Nationalism and History’, Romila Thapar observes that ‘the nation is different from the state and from government’ (2016: 9). Thapar’s nation here represents commonplace men, women and children, that is, ordinary citizens, who maintain a respectable distance from the power-play of politics at the governmental level. In every five years these individuals, who ironically construct the nation, are asked to vote. After the fever and the fret of the voting process, they recede to their normal life, toiling day and night to maintain a decent life. The short story Phoenix Fled by Attia Hosain is primarily focused on one unnamed hamlet in pre-Partition India where ordinary, simple village folks live in an amiable and amicable ambience which is suddenly disrupted as communal violence takes centre stage. The narrative is woven around one nameless Granny, an aged woman who has bent double owing to the inexorable flow of time; yet her ‘deathless years’ are directly linked to the ‘existence’ of the village (2001:74). Though senile and wrinkled, with very little visibility left in her ‘lustreless pupil’ (2001: 74), Granny, as well as the little hut she lives in, is the symbolic representation of the village itself which sutures and laces together one generation with the other in one harmonious surrounding. Hosain sketches the character of Granny in a fashion that her presence helps one bridge the gap between the senior members of the family with those who are young. While her grandson and her granddaughter bend before her in obeisance, ‘lowering their eyes, covering their head’ (2001: 74), grudgingly paying respect to ‘a parasitic old woman whom time refused to drop into releasing oblivion’ (2001: 75), her great grandchildren, the little innocuous ones, play with the ‘hanging skin of her arm, lie on her lap’ (2001: 75), fascinatingly drawn to her chin and her nose. In a way, Granny sustains herself in her aged world by commanding respect from the senior members and imbibing the necessary warmth and affection from the innocent children. Her existence is like a deep well that holds timeless treasures. As her great grandchildren cajole her to tell them tales, she effortlessly immerses herself in her memories and narrates enchanting stories of her days spent in the village. One of her anecdotes is about soldiers who are red faced like ‘monkeys in red coats’ (2001: 76). Granny perhaps hints at the soldiers of the British East India Company, and then she states that in front of these soldiers ‘no woman is safe, no girl is safe’ (2001: 76). But the children are already acquainted with the soldiers. Their portrayal of soldiers is different from Granny’s. They have received sweets from them. Instantly, there is a change in the tone of the story. The lucid, lyrical familial atmosphere is disturbed as Granny immediately questions the children, ‘Why did the soldiers come to the village?’ (2001: 76). She, being an old woman, the elders of the family never bothered to communicate to her the changing nature of the village. If Granny fears the arrival of the soldiers, the elders are perturbed because the soldiers have decided to leave. Soon the elders have the confirmation of the news. A powerful writer that she is, Hosain does not utter the word ‘riot’ or communal violence for that matter, but the carefully crafted intonation of the narrative drives home the idea. The urgency of the situation is highlighted in a few short sentences: ‘Terror silenced the woman’s wails, tore their thought from the possession left behind. It smothered the children’s whimpering, and drove all words from men’s tongues but “Hurry, Hurry.”’(2001: 77). Despite hearing the footsteps of the impending threat, old Granny refuses to ‘believe in its finality’ (2001: 77). She decides to stay back, knowing very well that an aged woman will only slow down her family’s flight.

Moreover, her lifelong experiences inspire her to firmly believe that everyone will eventually return. As everyone leaves, Granny longs for the familiarity of her home; for she feels it is fading away. She understands that her long, socially celebrated life will not end with a bang, but with a whimper; and hence, she waits ‘in silence’ for the inevitable (2001: 77). In one corner of the courtyard Granny had a doll’s house which, it seems, acted as her retreat to escape the harsh reality of aging. As the group of people arrive, she smells the ‘flaming thatch’; standing in defiance, she uses the authority that comes naturally with old age to say her last words, ‘Mind you do not step on the doll’s house’ (2001: 77).

Hosain does not divulge the religious background of the character. Hence, we cannot state with certainty the religious identity of those who come to murder a fragile old woman. This is an important technique because in the orgy of communal violence during the months of the Partition, each community ran amok and took up arms against the religious ‘Other’. If we name a particular community as the sufferer, we obviously blame its counterpart as the notorious one who recited the rhetoric of hate and perpetrated the mayhem of violence in the streets. We understand that those who wallowed in the blood of the Partition hold on to a sense of loss and suffering which is mutually applicably to Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. We understand that those who mindlessly did the wrong deeds were themselves wronged as well. In some cases, it was an act of more sinned against than sinning.

From Hosain’s Granny, the paper now shifts its attention to the elderly couple, Harnam Singh and Banto, in Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas. (3) Owner of a tea-stall that caters to the need of commuters, Harnam Singh and his wife Banto’s peaceful life is suddenly clouded by the cruel turn of events. Their social position becomes threatened and precarious; for theirs is the only Sikh household in a Muslim-dominated locality. As the news of looting and killing reach the aged couple, Banto insists that they should flee at once. In a sense, like Hosain’s Granny, Harnam Singh remains firmly rooted to his belief in peace. He feels that since no one in the village nurtures any grudge against them, they can stay at their home in spite of the riots spreading all over. Furthermore, he has his friend Karim Khan who, he believes, will protect him and his wife if the situation gets out of control. Ironically enough, it is Karim Khan who asks Harnam to leave the village: “Things have taken a bad turn, Harnam Singh. Your welfare lies in leaving the place” (2001: 216). At the age of sixty with a woman by his side, Harnam fails to understand how he can leave and where he can possibly go and take shelter! The Granny in Phoenix Fled had her doll’s house. Harnam and Banto have their bird. Myna, the bird, is set free with the words, “May God be with you! May God be with everyone!” (2001: 220). Though the bird is at liberty to fly away, it refuses to leave the company of the couple, symbolizing thereby the desire of every living creature to live in the comfort of one’s familiar surroundings. Soon the marauders come, raising slogans that shatter the domesticity of Harnam’s house. The couple leave and the bird follows their flight. They recall the faces of their son and daughter to gather strength. At the same time, painstakingly Harnam admits to his wife that “everything [has been] reduced to dust” (2001: 224). Their long, arduous journey at the dead of night is a symbolic representation of the hardship that millions had to suffer to keep them safe from violence. “Rendered homeless in one night” (2001: 254), they are provided shelter in the Muslim household of Ehsan Ali and Rajo. In fact, Rajo gives them a place to stay without consulting the male members. As Ramzan, Ehsan’s son and a member of the Muslim League, comes to know that his mother has sheltered a Sikh couple in their house, he gets infuriated and decides to kill Harnam. But he fails to do so. Ramzan knows Harnam; he has frequented Harnam’s shop in days when everyone resided in peace. Though he raises the pickaxe to strike Harnam, he cannot go ahead with the inhuman task. After all, to quote Sahni, “It is one thing to kill a kafir, it is quite another to kill someone you know” (2001: 269). The strain of humanity that links Harnam to Ramzan, Rajo to Banto cannot be broken. “A thin line was still there”, to quote Sahni, “which was difficult to cross, despite the fact that the atmosphere was charged with religious frenzy and hatred” (2001: 269). While one may read this episode as a Muslim’s wrongdoing to a Sikh, it is important to understand that similar atrocities were being committed by one community against the other in various villages. The fact that Harnam and Banto survive, and Rajo helps the couple to escape, points to the possibility of reconciliation that can emerge if only we empathize with the unspeakable sufferings of the ‘Other’, and acknowledge the part played by our community in the intemperate scheme of things.

We do not know how Harnam’s story of survival ends. Sahni’s remains cryptically silent about the future struggle of the couple. It is an open-ended story. Perhaps they meet the same end as Hosain’s Granny. Perhaps they do survive, settling down in a place that is not a part of the so-called enemy territory. Both the authors leave it to the imaginative understanding of the readers. The aged Tha’mma in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines continues the story of survival that is left unrecorded by Sahni. Tha’mma, as we gather from the sporadic details provided by the unnamed narrator, has experienced all the major events in her life. Before the Partition, she spent her childhood in Dhaka. The unbridled passion for her motherland is exemplified by her wish to join the revolutionary groups to fight against the colonial masters. Later, as Ghosh’s narrative presents the Post-Partition scenario in Calcutta during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, we come across Tha’mma as a hysterical character who donates the gold chain, which her deceased husband once gifted her, to the war fund being raised for the Indian soldiers. Her experiences of the days of the Partition deepen her detestation for the ‘Other’ state. In a way, for Tha’mma the ‘Other’ state becomes an object of comparison, a counterpoint, and is, to a great extent, vilified in the process. It is interesting to note that when Tha’mma is asked to fly to Dhaka, she is deeply disturbed because she fails to reconcile with the idea that Dhaka, her place of birth in East Pakistan, is surprisingly at odds with her Indian nationality In one of the conversations with her son, she is informed that the border is not on the frontier, but right inside the airport. She simply refuses to believe that there are no external marks to differentiate her nation from the ‘Other’ country. Confoundedly she asks her son:  

“But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where’s the difference then? And if there’s no difference, both sides will be the same; it’ll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us. What was it all for then -- partition and all the killing and everything--if there isn’t something in between” (2002: 151).

The answer to these questions is provided by the senile Jethamoshai for whom Tha’mma travelled back to her birthplace:

“Once you start moving, you never stop. That’s what I told my sons when they took the trains. I said: I don’t believe in this India-Shindia... you’re going away now, but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move to? No one will have you anywhere. As for me, I was born here, and I’ll die here” (2002: 215).

It is often argued that the emotional attachment with the piece of land where one is born helps an individual to construct his or her identity in compliance with the idea of the nation. (4) Hence, Ghosh’s Jethamoshai as well as Hosain’s Granny refuses to leave their respective homeland while Tha’mma and Harnam-Banto fail to make any sense of their identity as they are forced to leave their birthplace. Mark Tully quotes the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru who remarked that he is “out of place everywhere, at home my own country also I sometimes I have the feeling of an exile” (1998: xi). (5) The writer of this paper pertinently recalls a statement made almost in the same vein as Nehru’s by Mr. Chintamani Saha, at present a resident of Santhospur, Kolkata, who had to leave his ancestral house in East Bengal and eventually came to Kolkata after the Partition. He says—and his statement is deeply punctuated with anguish—that the tree of his life has no roots, and hence, it has always been difficult for him to define the meaning of his existence. (6) Like Tha’mma in Ghosh’s novel, Mr. Saha has embraced a nationality which is strangely at odds with the place where they were born. His dual identities—one related to his birthplace and another to his nationality—pose to be an impediment so much so that he had to give up his innate identity to be a part of the nation building project undertaken by the government after the Partition of South Asia. We are the third generation of the Partition. We have no direct experience of the traumatic or catastrophic events that our former generation(s) went through. Our job is to keep their histories alive and generate critical discussion among the reading public so that we acknowledge the common history—with all its riots, wars and deaths— mutually shared by both India and Pakistan.


  1. See Yasmin Khan, The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan (New Delhi, Penguin Books, 2007) pp. 205-206 and Krishna Kumar, Learning from Conflict (New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1996) pp. 11-14.
  2. See Pamela Philipose, “Unfinished Journey”, The Indian Express, New Delhi, 14th August, 1994.
  3. Bhisham Sahni wrote Tamas in Hindi. Since the English translation of the text is done by the author himself, I have taken the liberty to include it within the premises of Indian Writing in English.
  4. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Nationalism and Imagination (Calcutta, Seagull Books) pp.14.
  5. See Mark Tully’s “Introduction to Penderel Moon’s Divide and Quit” in Divide and Quit (New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1998). pp. xi-xxiii.
  6. Interview with Chintamani Saha in the capacity of Citizen Historian, on behalf of The 1947 Partition Archive, affiliated to the University of California, Berkeley. The URL of the official website:

Works Cited:

  • Anderson, Benedict. 1983, reprint 2015. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New Delhi: Rawat Publications.
  • Butalia, Urvashi. 1998. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. New Delhi: Penguin Books.
  • Butalia, Urvashi. (ed.) 2015. Partition: The Long Shadow. New Delhi: Zubaan.
  • Ghosh, Amitav. 2002. The Shadow Lines: Educational Edition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  • Hajari, Nisid. 2015. Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. Gurgaon: Penguin Viking.
  • Hosain, Attia. 2001. Phoenix Fled. In Translating Partition. (eds.) Tarun K. Saint and Ravikant. New Delhi: Katha. pp. 74-77.
  • Roy, Rituparna. 2010. South Asian Partition Fiction in English. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
  • Sahni, Bhisham. 2001. Tamas. Gurgaon: Penguin Books.
  • Saint, Tarun K., Ravikant. (eds.) 2001. Translating Partition. New Delhi: Katha.
  • Thapar, Romila. 2016. ‘Reflections on Nationalism and History’. In On Nationalism. New Delhi: Aleph Publications India. pp. 1-59.



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