Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India by Urvashi Butalia

     I was drawn to this book because my mother’s family came over to India during the Partition. The title was also significant as I learned very little of what happened, first hand, from my mother. She always told me that she and her sister had been sent off to India long before the bloodshed began. Many years after she passed away, a cousin sister told me that, in fact, my mother had witnessed the turbulence. She also told me that my mother was in some sort of  post where she wore a uniform. But, she stressed, all this was to be kept a secret. For me, this was the other side of silence. It was, apparently, a shame to the family if a woman of those days wore a uniform!

Urvashi Butalia writes in a very bland tone, using the interview format at times, a dry descriptive note most of the time and, rarely, introduces an element of drama. We are launched into her experiences with her personal story, though, even in this, she maintains a neutral stance. Her maternal uncle chose to stay back in Pakistan and converted to Islam. She goes to meet him but her family remains convinced that he did it to acquire property. Not for a second does the academic style falter, yet it is not entirely shorn of heart.

      Indeed, many such tales emerge, where some made use of the tragic turn of events to confiscate the property of others, even that of relatives. In this way, we see to what uses the Partition was put by diverse actors.

     Throughout, Ms Butalia restrains herself from bias and, it was significant to me that she includes accounts of Hindu brutality to balance Muslim acts. I was, personally, shaken to the core when, after years of being fed, by my parents and ambient society, with the myth of Islamic tendencies to butcher, I heard a bloodcurdling first hand narrative.

      I had joined a neighbourhood sewing class in my early thirties. A dear old lady ran the class. As is the habit of age, she was wont to entertain us with tales from her youth. Mostly, it was amusing - how her mother-in-law would lead her to her husband’s bed at night and escort her back afterwards, and how the double bed has destroyed our morals.

    But, on one occasion, she graphically related how she and other young women stood on a balcony or terrace and watched Muslim families being burned alive and how they cheered.  I think I grew up in that second far beyond the capacity of my physical age.  

       As must be expected from the founder of  Kali for Women, she has a section on women which explores the violence against women. These stories range from suicides, failed and successful, honour killings where men killed the womenfolk before the other party “besmirched” the family honour and, of course, the expected rape and murder of women on both sides. Yet, the author manages to find the unexpected in all this - a love story albeit a tragic one where a girl, sold over and over, finally lands up with a man who loves her, only to be snatched from him in the initiative of the respective governments to restore  abducted women to their families. Butalia also had to face being the object of violent loathing when she was personally party to one  such restoration. It is not always simple and straightforward to set past wrongs aright.  

One snippet stands out in my memory of the reading: an incident where a Britisher tells an Indian employee that they, the British, are leaving India but not without creating havoc. There is, thus, an indictment of sorts, something of which we are all, we who were and are, involved, aware at some level or the other.

   Although the book is hard to read for the most part, given the textbook like nature of its treatment, it has places where a more human face emerges - a whole section is devoted to one particular lady. In this part, the style becomes more journalistic, following this woman’s experiences in the dangerous past down to her life in the present and even up to her death. It was a curious look at those violent times, seen through the eyes of a rather amazing person.

Reading this book in light of the ongoing attempt to record first person accounts from those times, raises questions: will all this lead to more heartburn?

I think not - silence is a cancer. Sweeping things under carpets is never very hygienic.  And I am convinced that many stories will emerge showing the triumph of human goodness on both sides than those which make us all hang our heads in shame.

In seeking to write this review, I came across one article which referred to 
“the harkening back to an—often mythical—past where Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs lived together in relative peace and harmony”. 
I wonder at the cynicism. I was raised with descriptions of the warm friendships between Muslims and Hindus/Sikhs, of my grandmother’s Muslim besties with whom she hung out all day, smoking a hookah and having a great time. I wonder because, even today, it is so instinctive and easy for a Hindu Indian and a Pakistani to be friends - good friends.  Especially when we meet abroad.

What if such close bonds incur jealousy? After all, should our two countries be healed and embrace business and other partnerships, will not prosperity flourish in the region? What keeps us both down benefits those who would still like to see us as barbaric in our violence, those who, most probably, orchestrated all that bloodshed back then.  
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