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Partition Representations from Eastern India

Haimanti Roy ( teaches history at the University of Dayton, Ohio, US.

The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities by Debjani Sengupta; Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2016; pp xii+274; 585 (hardcover).

The partition of India is unending. Seventy years down the line, it continues to affect the geopolitics of South Asia, in Kashmir and the disputes over borders and illegal crossings. Its memory makes significant guest appearances every time there are communal riots, enabling distinct moments such as 1984, 1992, and 2002 to fold into the popular memory of 1947. In this sense, partition is also “elastic” (Sarkar 2009). Partition continues to draft and redraft the memories and post-memories (Butalia 2003) of multiple generations in the subcontinent even as speaking about 1947 remains difficult, and the meanings of the event and its aftermath shift as people recollect and interpret incidents differently. In this sense, partition has generated multiple memories and different histories dependent on caste, class, religion, gender, and location of individuals and families.

Literary and visual representations created in the post-partition decades offer us yet another distinct path through which to understand and contextualise such diverse experiences and meanings of 1947. They offer a shift away from high politics and nationalised histories to focus on the human experiences, bring to the forefront the trauma of violence and uprooting, the nostalgia and sense of loss of friendships and homelands, and address silences, “anti-memories” to articulate the reframing of identities. When it comes to partition literature, academic scholarship has tended to focus on the works that deal with the horrors of Punjab at the expense of those that centre on the Bengal partition (Didur 2006; Bhalla 2008; Saint 2010).

Authors like Bhisham Sahni, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Saadat Hasan Manto, to name only a few, have captured the literary imagination when it comes to representations and their scholarly analyses. This has skewed the understanding of the partition experience, not only making Punjab the normative one, but also leading to the fallacious idea that Bengali writers did not author comparable texts to represent partition, and that if they did, it was not significant in number.

Debjani Sengupta’s The Partition of Bengal: Fragile Borders and New Identities aims to correct both assumptions. She focuses on specific Bengali partition literature written since 1947 and produced by authors located in West Bengal, the North East, and Bangladesh. Through specific literary texts, Sengupta highlights not only the distinct representations of the Bengal partition experience, but also emphasises its longue durée aspects. Her analysis specifically focuses on the ways in which landscapes and physical topography play a key role in articulating and shaping such memories. Such an emphasis allows her to see how

geographical areas not always contiguous, become the theaters of recuperation, myth-making and sustainability that give rise to different kinds of representations. (p 2)

A Different Partition

At the heart of the book is a commendable project of recovery. It seeks to recover and rightfully reinstate the numerous Bengali partition fiction, both short stories and novels, and personal memoirs within the normative understanding of partition literature. Sengupta, previously responsible for bringing our attention to short stories from the Bengal partition (Mapmaking: Partition Stories from Two Bengals), maintains repeatedly throughout the current book that it is a mistaken belief that post-partition Bengali literature did not produce literary texts that centre on the trauma of the vivisection.

Sengupta notes that Bengali partition literature follows the distinct historical trajectory of partition with its low-scale routine violence, chronic and continuous refugee displacement, and the cataclysmic failure of the Indian government’s rehabilitation efforts. To capture this protracted trajectory, she identifies three phases of Bengali partition fiction. The first phase, in the immediate aftermath of partition, saw authors circuitously refer to partition, and focus on the diverse meanings of freedom instead. The second phase encompasses the decades of the 1960s and the 1970s, where Bengali authors grappled with issues of the continuous displacement against the backdrop of linguistic nationalism in East Pakistan. A third phase began from the 1980s onwards, where Bengali authors have been responding to the geopolitical realities of the borderlands and nationalised identities.

Sengupta begins with a focus on violence during the Calcutta riots of 1946, and two seminal texts: Ashapurna Devi’s Mittir Bari (House of the Mitras, 1947) and Manik Bandyopadhyay’s Swadhinatar Swad (Taste of Freedom, 1951). She suggests that both novels “underline how the violence in the city and the breakdown of personal relationships and family structures add to one’s understanding of a city in crisis and a nation in the making” (p 44).

Partition is a significant presence as well, although both authors do not address it directly as an event. Thus, Ashapurna Devi investigates how the trauma of the division is reinscribed within the physical and psychic selves of the female protagonists and clearly articulates the ways in which the partition changes the social fabric of the city.

Manik Bandyopadhyay’s novel takes on the promises and failures of decolonisation and the shaping of postcolonial modernity as its overarching theme. But, here too, as Sengupta notes, the Calcutta riots are

woven seamlessly into the narrative, point the way to a topsy-turvy situation where the country is divided into two: into sthan (place) and stan (land, as in Pakistan) that hide within it the appalling question—is this separation the end or the beginning. (p 51)

In her second chapter, Sengupta foregrounds the issue of women’s abduction, a central motif in partition literature, through the personal accounts of relief workers, such as Ashoka Gupta and Renu Chakravartty in Noakhali of 1946–47. She contrasts these with three novels written by Ateen Bandyopadhyay (Neelkantho Pakhir Khojey [In Search of the Roller Bird], 1967), Prafulla Ray (Keyapatar Nouka [The Boat Made of Keya Leaves], 1968), and Pratibha Basu (Shamudro Hridoy [The Heart Is an Ocean], 1970). Although a difficult chapter in terms of its organisation, Sengupta provides some interesting ways for us to think about place, memory, gender, and labour. The eyewitness accounts of Chakravartty and Gupta, both central figures within relief work at Noakhali, are useful not only in what they recorded, but also in their ability to highlight the underlying politics of reconfiguring the “woman” as an activist/political worker within the socio-historical context of gender violence (p 74).

Like the memoirs, Sengupta suggests that the fictional representations similarly use analogous sites such as Noakhali and the trope of “abducted women” to raise critical questions about communal mobilisation. She contends that such texts focus on “questions of subjectivity, memory and history” within a nostalgic backdrop of a bountiful landscape. But, according to her, such imagined villages and its binary of the modern postcolonial city are necessary for Bengali writers to repudiate the teleological trajectory of communalism. Further, in their use of gendered semiotics, these novels “destabilise the given paradigms of national-allegorical ideology of citizenship and belonging” (p 108).

Space, Place and Identity Politics

The role of location and space that is transformed by partition and the role of labour and memory in such transformations are the central points of inquiry throughout the book. In the four subsequent chapters that comprise the second half of the book, Sengupta focuses on different spaces: refugee colonies, resettlement areas in Assam and Tripura, and enclaves and borderlands between the two Bengals to discuss how such spaces contributed to regional and national politics and constituted the meanings of home and belonging.

In Chapter 3, she focuses on the refugee colony through Shaktipada Rajguru’s Meghey Dhaka Tara (The Cloud Capped Star, 1958), Sabitri Roy’s Bwadip (The Delta, 1972) and Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Arjun (1971) to understand the ways in which the refugee crisis was perceived and received by the city’s inhabitants, and how such texts created specific histories of gendered dislocation that challenge postcolonial modernity’s understandings of family and labour. Such “colony fiction,” Sengupta argues, created mythic figures of refugee women, who are uniquely “contra-modern” (p 148) in the ways they negotiated the newly created ghettoised spaces of the refugee colony, which had become the new centres of patriarchal oppression.

The thematic relationship between dislocation, rehabilitation and locality continues in the next chapter with a focus on novels that centre on refugee experiences inside and outside of West Bengal. Sengupta points out that much of Bengali partition fiction not only counter-stereotypes the lazy and parochial Bengali refugee embedded within the official discourse, but also challenges the idea that rehabilitation was integral to the progressive narrative of the new postcolonial nation. Further, novels like Shaktipada Rajguru’s Dandak Theke Marichjapi (From Dandakaranya to Marichjhapi, 1996), unlike many partition novels that focus on middle-class experiences, tell the story of the subaltern lower-caste refugees in their own voices.

The last two chapters, by far the most interesting, focus on the marginal, both in terms of location and displacement narratives. In Chapter 5, she discusses the ways in which Bengali fiction was able to capture the political implications of the Bengali refugee’s resettlement in Assam and Tripura, and their connections to linguistic regionalism there. Unlike the rest of the book, Sengupta focuses on short stories from this region because

the form is not only an expression of their [writers of the North East] ambivalence to mainland Bengali literary culture, but also an articulation of their location in terms of the Indian nation. (p 194)

Thus, in such writings, partition is primarily represented through the theme of exile.

Physical space plays a central role in the fiction literature and memoirs that Sengupta chooses in her last chapter. Texts written by Selina Hossain, Sunanda Shikdar, and Azizul Haq focus on the varying meanings of home for minority Hindus and Muslims, who remained behind and continued to live in the enclaves and margins of the nation state created during partition. She notes that such texts foreground

the ethical and moral implications of this concept of “home” …both in terms of territory but also as terrains of politics and history especially for people who are a demographic minority. (p 225)

Consequently, these texts not only challenge common understandings of citizenship, religion, and belonging, but also highlight the remarkable similarities across a divided land and humanity’s interconnectedness with their landscapes.

Literary Representations

It is clear that Bengali fiction writers have created a rich legacy of partition representations. Academic scholarship has, in recent decades, taken up the analysis of film and literature depicting the experiences of the East to address the formation of distinct identities and histories, and to give voice to silences. The Partition of Bengal builds up this scholarship and redirects our attention to authors who would not otherwise be classified as partition littérateurs. However, the insistence on difference and recovery sometimes borders on overzealousness. For example, Sengupta suggests that Bengali partition fiction addresses the “questions of voice, temporality, lack of narrative closure” and looks at the “little histories of people in the margins and use[s] strategies of refraction rather than a simple reflection of conventional realism” (p 3). Surely, the same can be said about many literary texts generated out of the Punjab participation experience?

The Partition of Bengal is a frustrating read in some ways. Heavy reliance on theoretical works sometimes suppresses Sengupta’s own significant analyses. The argument for longue durée is not new and shifts our attention to what is actually new and interesting about this book: the distinct ways in which Bengali partition fiction managed to respond and capture the diverse historical impulses and the generational experience of the refugee displacements, and give voice to those who were marginal due to their caste, class and gender.

Stylistically, the book is an example of a rushed publication as one finds lack of competent editing: thematic organisations need clarification, key arguments remain buried in between chapters, footnotes are sometimes incomplete or do not follow sequence, and the book is sorely missing a much-needed conclusion. This is an important book, nevertheless. Its contributions lie in its project of recovery and in pushing the boundaries of literary representations to think about trauma, memory and belonging through the lens of space and geography.


Bhalla, Alok (2008): Partition Dialogues: Memories of a Lost Home, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Butalia, Urvashi (2003): The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Didur, Jill (2006): Unsettling Partition: Literature, Gender, Memory, Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Saint, Tarun K (2010): Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction, New Delhi: Routledge.

Sarkar, Bhaskar (2009): Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Updated On : 13th Jul, 2017


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