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Venerable August & Its Captives: Women of the Partition

August – named after Roman emperor Augustus Caesar – arrives carrying the rest of the year on its shoulders. In fact, Augustus is Latin for “the venerable one” or “the great one.” I see it as a month of burden. It also has some levity for being the month of my mother’s birthday. 

And it was on August 15, 1947 that India seized its independence after over 200 years of British rule. So much has been written about the evils of British colonialism that I won’t beat that dead horse, except to say that 74 years might be enough time to start considering the other factors that continue to plague India and Pakistan. But whilst on the topic, I would like to mention that when the British left in a clumsy, thoughtless manner it resulted in a complete breakdown of law and order. Unfortunately, that became an essential factor in the barbarity that followed with the hacking of India into India and Pakistan. So as the two nations gained independence, our own leaders accepted the line drawn by the British and then sat witness to some of the most horrific ethnic violence the world has ever seen – nearly 15 million people were displaced, almost 2 million murdered, and hundreds of thousands of women raped. It was an unparalleled Partition that continues in the most militarized region of the world — the Indo-Pak border.

Unfortunately, the kind of truth and reconciliation that the region needs has somehow remained beyond the imagination of leaders of both nations. A truth that is so beautifully captured and recounted in a memoir by Salman Rashid and a truth that Nelson Mandela dreamed of and found some success with in South Africa. Truth first. About who we are and what we did. And then reconciliation. That would take leaders with stature and courage and fortitude. Truth alone is too hard for us.

Even today as August 15th is celebrated with great gusto in India (Aug 14th in Pakistan), the two countries cannot find it in themselves to build any kind of memorial to honor and reflect on the victims of the Partition. I guess to do that would be to acknowledge the monster that lives within and still rears its ugly head on command. 

The Partition has been a part of my family history since I can remember. I grew up hearing stories of the time. Both my parents were refugee children having been born and raised until 1947 on the “wrong” side of India. So when the divide was all but certain, both families fled to the India side.

Note that the word “refugee” is mine – it is never used in the family, the focus unequivocally on moving on. In any case, the displacement, the loss of life and property, and the aftermath of it all lived within us. I often dreaded certain relatives arriving because it meant that this topic was sure to come up. It was only much later in life that the full magnitude of the event dawned on me. 

Growing up, what I did not hear adults in my family talk about was the fate of women during the Partition. Recounting the Partition, even Indian media,  continued to avoid this elephantine horror. As a young teenager, I once asked my mother about women’s experiences during the Partition. She looked at me and simply stated that many were raped. Her terse response told me all that was left unsaid. When I was older, my mother did tell me about an uncle whose wife was brutally raped before both were stabbed to death.

Later, I started to read more about how much of the Partition’s fury was visited upon the women of the “other” side. I started to come upon more truthful accounts like those by Urvashi Butalia and Bhasin & Menon. Unanswered questions have a way of gnawing at us with time. In the 2010s I became a citizen historian with The 1947 Partition Archive – a non-profit dedicated to documenting and preserving a people’s history of the Partition. As part of that work, I interviewed and recorded accounts of several dozens of survivors of the Partition. All of that recording of in-person accounts revealed a sordid women’s history of the Partition.

Yes, women when they fell victim to the marauding mobs were brutalized in ways too horrific to imagine. Many were forced to stay back and even “marry” their captors or survive in prostitution. Others – daughters, wives, sisters – were murdered by their own fathers and brothers so they would not fall into enemy hands and bring dishonor to the family. I doubt they were ever asked to choose this fate. A misplaced sense of “honor”, which by the way continues to plague the region, was deemed more important than the price of their lives.

Curiously, many people still don’t know that multitudes of women were “returned and exchanged” between India and Pakistan for several years after 1947. And many that came back to India were then forced to live out lonely, monastic lives in ashrams or women’s homes because their families refused to take them back – “defiled” goods as they were! This latter history has been well documented in Bhasin & Menon’s work. 

Our women need their own history of the Partition. I am not a historian but as a poet, I can offer my words as a tribute to the women of the time and the untold tragedy they endured. The poem I offer is called “nobody”. It is for the women of Partition, including my own maternal grandmother, a woman of uncommon courage. It is also to remind us that no matter how badly we want to escape our own history it will continue to persist within and among us until we face it and make peace with it.

Imagery to accompany poem ‘nobody’. (Image by Reena Kapoor)

nobody

my story so familiar, so utterly commonplace

the cries, the weeping, the wailing for my dead

all the homes I know reek with echoes of such pain

for those mutilated, raped, and dishonored and bled

 

rude history swept in and flooded my home

chased my dreams away while I stood small and dumb

i ran for my children, left all that I knew

a home, vain comforts, a lifetime rendered numb

 

wise ones exhorted us women “choose honor over life!”

heavy familial burdens bestowed on us to take

rooms of charred bodies, honorable heaps in the well

they never thought to ask whose choice was it to make

 

told us a dear new freedom was headed our way

but forgot in those slogans my name and my face

as I was being banished, being compelled to ‘choose’

festivities marked the tryst with destiny’s famed day

 

they said it was ‘azaadi’ for a ‘svatantra’ new land

demands just sacrifice from all, it was claimed

yet apparently when they came gouging for that rent

our heads were bartered for lines in political sands

 

a foreign lawyer who’d never set foot on my soil

inked new lines, lit them up and it was declared

clean cartographies created, summarily announced

ancestral homes, generations, lives? simply exchange!

 

books decoded new lines that severed all old ties

without asking me once how my own life was hacked

this “partition” was explained in historians’ thesis

my truth came up trivial compared to those tracts

 

yet do you see those ties still shackle me today

the nightmares stay close, like wearying next of kin

every year you celebrate freedom — yet I still burn

the wounds seethe and breathe just under my skin

 

i rebirthed you countless times, fenced every fear at bay

now, will you ease my torment from this vicious history?

will you free my tale from mere domestic rants and tears?

do save your pity but not for me; acknowledge my story

 

don’t let me leave here yet, unheard and unsung

expose unto sunlight my darkness, scars and guilt

don’t choose to walk on by unmoved, unchanged

or history she’ll come knocking, reigniting every sin!

For India’s 1947 Partition and its violent aftermath, including the migration of people.

For my grandmother – and countless ones like her – who were forced to flee and those who couldn’t!

azaadi = independence/freedom in Urdu

svatantra (स्वतंत्र) = independent/free in Hindi


Reena Kapoor lives in California with her human family and her beloved Labradoodle Dishoom! Reena graduated with an engineering degree from IIT Delhi and a graduate degree from Northwestern University. She is a poet and Arrivals & Departures is her debut poetry collection. Her work has been published in Poet’s Choice, Visible Magazine, and India Currents. As the 2020-21 playwright-in-residence for EnActe Arts, a leading San Francisco Bay Area theatre company, four plays by Reena were produced in April 2021. Reena is also a photographer on Instagram at @1stardusty.


 

BURNED

I wrote this piece of fiction in honor of victims of acid attacks — especially in India. It was developed at EnActe Arts as part of the WEFT (“women enacting for themselves”) program. It is a humble and probably inadequate attempt to depict the victims’ plight, written with deep humility for unless we walk in their shoes we cannot know the unimaginable pain they bear. I offer it with empathy for their suffering, and admiration for their courage in the face of such heinous crimes. India Today Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) has found that between 2014 and 2018, there have been 1,483 victims of acid attacks in the country, according to data released by the National Crime Records Bureau. Many more go unreported or unrecorded. 

In my dreams I am whole, with my easy laughs, ready quips, fleeting annoyances, steady love of ice cream. I am walking, happy. But I shiver. I walk towards the sun. I don’t see the gaping pit ahead. I wake up shaking, sweating, hot and cold. Then my hands are on my face, and… I feel the scars, the craters, the hardness — Your gift.

Your gift erased so much of me, my face, my one window to the world. They say we are nothing without memories. We are also nothing without a face. This visage, this countenance, this mirror where the world sees itself reflected and knows its place. How do I tell the world who I am? I look in the mirror and my one watery eye sees a stranger, a horror story with no end. This thing that used to be a face, a recognition, a mirror is now a dark hole where all light ends and nothing reflects. Where there used to be me, my signature smile, my left cheek’s dimple – it’s all gone. I remain a nameless, faceless ghost visible only in my misfortune. Your branding iron left a seething script. 

When it first happened, they wanted me to utter your name. I wouldn’t defile my mouth. The neighbors, the relatives, even the police came asking. They came to condole, to comfort my father, my mother, my brother who seethes in daily rage. But I know they just came to see me – the remains of me. Curiosity beats empathy but sometimes that’s the only vehicle to my door. I wrote your name down only once and gave it to the police. My mother took a photo of that piece of paper with my brother’s phone. When did she learn to take photos with a phone? She knew I wouldn’t utter it again, so she kept the “evidence” she said. But I know she keeps this paper to rekindle vengeful fires in her heart. My gentle, god-fearing Kali, who quietly tolerated harsh words from her mother and mother-in-law, is ready to kill for me today.

My father does not look at me. I miss how he used to cup my face, kiss my forehead every morning. Proud Papa. Now he won’t touch my face, just puts a hand on my head looking away. Sometimes I hear him crying when he thinks I can’t hear. My mother hardly cries. Instead she asks him harshly, “What’s the point of crying now?! Have you called the lawyer?” She is hard. So hard I fear her brittleness will break her. She only softens when she brings me food. Patiently lets me eat, gently wiping the drool from my mouth. My lips’ bare remains, mere lines relearn how to contain food. Grateful I can still taste, I tell her how much I love it. She won’t even acknowledge this joy. She keeps her vengeance alive.

I can’t recall the particulars, only the horrific pain of your carnage. Or why? Later they said it was because “you could not bear an unrequited love”. “Love”? Yes Love! Love? I want to laugh! I have forgotten that sordid history. Somehow the acid erased that too; clean, flat, blank like the contours of my face. Perhaps best this way or I may join those that blame me. “She could have said yes…”, “She could have married him…”, “Girls these days think they are better than anyone…”. Your signature devastation demands justice and there will be none. Blaming me helps the onlookers feel better. Perhaps safer. Some relief for their miserable, beaten souls. 

When I came home after the first 23 surgeries, I heard them in my stupor from all the painkillers. I hated them then. All of them who said, who still say I could have alleviated your hate, who think I should now be traded off to someone even lesser, to “free” my parents. Perhaps free them of any hint of guilt. They know they are who made you possible. They supplied the fodder for the kind of anger you thrive in. When I first heard them I would scream but no sound emerged. Only violent, bruising tears. But then my mother – my gentle Kali – took care of them and their solicitousness. That makes me smile – only on the inside. The skin on my face borrowed from my thighs, my stomach stretches too thin to bridge a smile. I’ve tried it in the mirror – a contortion for a smile. I cringe with my eyes without eyelashes, even as I marvel at my perfect painted eyebrows. I often marvel at how well I saw all the flaws in my reflection before this annihilation of me. Maybe now I will learn to accept what I see. Maybe that is how I win.

It’s been over two years since I came home. I must have nightmares because my mother shakes me awake, often caressing my forehead, trying to calm me. But all I remember are dreams where I am whole. At first I prayed for a merciful death. But now I don’t want to die. I listen for the birds singing in the morning. My good eye loves the sun. I still marvel at how well my mother sings. I cook with her, I learn to sew with her, little things. Soon my hands will be steady. I put my head on my father’s knee when he comes home every evening. His blessing stalls the night.

This week I step out for the first time. I shake so hard that my Kali grips my hand tight as I accompany her to the market. I cover the side of my face. I want to keep my old face. I don’t let go of her hand. Soon I know I will bare my whole face and let them all see — and let you see. Maybe when I see you in court. I will look and point at you – steady, unselfconscious, straight. Maybe you can relish what you wrought. Your hatred manifesto. I will let you flinch at my ugly erasure. And when you flinch I will laugh. You gave me unutterable pain, you scarred me for life, almost erased me. Almost. The me that your acid cannot erase, is here. Still here. I win because I will make YOU look away. 


Reena Kapoor is a writer and photographer. Her poems take the reader on journeys through a multitude of places, time periods, and emotions. ‘Arrivals & Departures‘ is her debut poetry collection. 

Reena Kapoor’s Poetry Is a Nostalgia Trip Of Places Untraveled

What makes you a poet?

Reena Kapoor’s debut book of poetry, Arrivals & Departures: Journeys in Poems makes this question even more relevant. Consider poetry a result of meditation, of thoughts, ideas, and memories that collect in the mind through observation. Reena grew up crisscrossing India as her father was a doctor in the Indian army. Her educational path is, like her poetry, quite diverse. She earned an undergraduate degree in Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, a Master’s from Northwestern University, and works as a software product leader in Silicon Valley. Kapoor’s debut poetry collection is thematically divided into sections interspersed with photographs she took. These images seamlessly connect her poetic utterance with passionate understanding. Recently I caught up with Reena Kapoor, a Bay Area resident, over email to pick her brains about her beautiful bouquet of poems and pictures. 

IC: Arrivals & Departures is your debut poetry collection. What role did nostalgia play in putting this book together if any and how?

I am an immigrant and a traveler.  And grew up as such – my father was a doctor in the Indian army and I grew up living all over India. In fact, I attended about 8 schools through high school, and call myself a “musafir” which is the Hindi/Urdu word for a traveler. Nostalgia plays a big role in my written word both due to my life circumstances and I guess to some extent life stage. Something about middle age and you start to see your life as it has been and how it’s brought you where you are. So looking back becomes much more natural vs. being younger where a solitary focus on the future is more apt and natural. My poems also express a “nostalgia” of sorts for what I don’t actually remember, ironically e.g., “koel” talks about the songbird that reminds me of childhood but the home is my parents’ current home which I did not grow up in but it still feels like mine…

IC: My reading of your collection introduced me to multiple themes, and a speaker addressing different voices. Can you talk about the various themes there are in your work, and how they interact with each other? 

The themes in my work are multiple but they tie back to me, my life experiences and my take on life, and how to live a good one. A lot of what I say has to do with how I grew up, (what it was and I guess to some extent IS like) being a girl/ woman in India and then my own very personal attachments to people and interests and objects that hold enduring meaning for me.

IC: I quite like the interdisciplinary play of images and words, where sometimes the image is a poetic utterance itself. What was your process like in putting this unique book together? What do you want your audience to take away from it? 

This is perhaps the hardest question for me – one that I get a lot of but one that I am pretty much at a loss to answer i.e., the “how” of writing my poems. The pen moves and I follow. I am led by an inner voice that I can’t turn away. When it arrives, I am compelled by words that spill out. I may polish or refine those words later but the initial and main body of the work almost creates itself. I guess it’s probably a given that I can’t “teach” poetry because the “how” of it is so elusive to me. 

These poems have been “coming” to me for over a decade now and I finally found the quiet space to listen and put them down. But it was really my husband who pushed me to publish my work. I was plagued by the usual self-doubt that I guess many writers face – and I still do – as to who would be interested in my words or my ordinary life? The fact that even a few of my friends and loved ones have found some resonance in my poems has been one of my most precious gifts.

IC: You are not just a poet. With degrees from IIT, Northwestern, a keen interest in photography, theatre, and performance as well, did these other aspects of your creativity influence your writing, and if yes how did that come about? 

Becoming an engineer was a practical and financial choice. I liked Math and Physics. And I came from a middle-class family in India where my parents emphasized the importance of being financially independent — especially for women. In those days in India, you could choose to be a doctor, or an engineer or a loser. So I ended up in IIT. I was always active in theatre and continued this pursuit through college and my early working years in the US. Photography came to me later with the iPhone 3…and the iPhone has continued to be my camera of choice. And Poetry came about the same time that I started capturing photos. I guess some latent creative impulses were clamoring for expression all along but I could only hear them once I felt a little more “settled”, a little more free, and in some ways liberated from my own expectations of “success”. It’s been a wonderful path and I am still loving every minute of it. My very first play “Art of the Possible” was played online recently and I am actively writing more theatre and literary pieces that will hopefully be produced soon. 

IC: Every day before I sit to write, I like to read something that I love, irrespective of the genre. What inspires you to write? 

The human condition. Nothing more or less. Why are we this way and what moves us and why? Finding happiness and meaning in the smallest of things is all there really is — yet it is also the human condition to chase so much else for naught; so much prestige, empty adulation, status, endless wealth yet most of which often leaves the traveler feeling alone and empty. Yet the chase becomes a life. Why? Eternal questions and I am not sure I will ever have answers. But the pursuit of such questions moves me and such learning is what I seek.


Dr. Manisha Sharma is a poet, fiction writer, and yoga teacher passionate about social issues in India. Her work is longlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a finalist for the 2020 Cream City Review Fiction Contest, a semifinalist for the 2019 American Short(er) Fiction Contest. Her publications are in The Madison Review, The Common, Puerto Del Sol, The Bombay Review, and more. Currently, she is a lecturer in English and Yoga at two community colleges in Virginia and Ohio.