Venerable August & Its Captives: Women of the Partition

People used trains to flee the violence during Partition. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.


 

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