I had heard a lot about the poignant stories beautifully described in this book, but it is now that I got to read it.
This book by Urvashi Bhutalia was published in 1998 in which she tries to portray the grief and misery of those common people who were worst effected by the partition of the country when Britishers left it divided after their 200 years of rule. Their lives and pain are not mentioned in any history book which deals with partition because perhaps political figures who were the cause of the bifurcation of country were more important than the people who suffered its consequences.
The author in her book writes the stories of people who went through the largest mass human exodus in history which displaced more than twelve million people. In this chaos more than seventy thousand women were raped and abducted by men other than their religion. The pathos of destruction of families, relationships, villages and communities is described in such a way that it takes the reader to the spot of incident perhaps because these happenings are more personal to the author whose own family has faced a large extent of death and destruction which becomes the reason that Urvashi starts the book with stories of her own family. After extensively researching and interviewing people for a decade Bhutalia penned down the book which was not as easy as it seems to be. She had to convince people to come out with their experiences which they had buried long back, to relive those tears and pain which they did not want to revive, to urge them to speak about the things they hid in public but still the voices of partition and bitterness remains in their private sphere.
In her stories, the author focuses more on women’s account which she wanted them to speak about their experiences truthfully and not under the pressure of men who usually surrounded her at the time of interview but Bhutalia did not often get such an opportunity but by whatever material and stories she could gather, it shows that women, children and weaker sections of the society were the worst affected by this partition. The women used to be killed by ‘kripan’ or fed ‘afim’ or they used to drown themselves in order to escape rape and conversion. For them, the honor of family, religion and community was more important than their lives and so in their killing they were declared as martyrs. This shows the deeply patriarchal nature of our societies where all the burden of the honors is laid on the shoulders of women because she is going to extend the lineage whereas the men are free to indulge in whatever activity they want. While partition is the single event what connects the oral histories, the prejudices that they highlight are by no means confined in time or space. The tendency to use ‘honor’ as an excuse to effectively rob women of agency is by no means just a thing of the past. This book integrates gender into the narrative to provide witness to the horror and pain of the subcontinent’s partition into India and Pakistan from the standpoint of one family.
The book also describes the human side of partition which was till now shown as just the political battle and a war between two communities but it is only through these accounts that the reader comes to know about the harmonious relationship between the two communities before partition and how this violent tragedy led to the madness of massacring their own brothers . Apart from this an account also throws a light on how Sikhs behaved with Muslim neighbours respected them and were a lot generous. It is been said that the Sikhs used to treat them worse than “dogs” which resulted in the partition of country.
The stories of Ranamama, Basant Kaur, Bir Bahadur Singh, Thoa Khalsa have such a level of emotional and psychological depth that can well be perceived and it connects the reader to the narrator. Every thread in form of story is woven in such a way that human emotion oozes out by every proceeding page but the bravest part of the authors quest is her optimistic ending. It is a book which will lead to the crying of reader’s soul and at last it leaves us with the message that it was not only a partition of two countries but partition of families, ties, friends, and the people themselves.