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India@75: The Need for a Continual, Critical, Reflective, Comprehensive, and Honest Conversation Around 1947

India@75: The Need for a Continual, Critical, Reflective, Comprehensive, and Honest Conversation Around 1947

  • Reconciling what’s lost in Partition is never easy, never comparable. What is the way out then, especially when spurious communal forces harvest on this binary and renew generational divisions and conflict based on that single story?

“Zaam na, zaam na; kisu teyi zaam naa” (“I won’t leave, I won’t; not for anything else, I won’t leave), 43 minutes into the first film made on the Partition, “Chinnamul” (The Uprooted, 1950) rings out close to our collective histories of the anguish that many share from Bengal during the Partition of India (1947). Director Nemai Ghosh (not to be mistaken with his namesake, the legendary Ray photographer) uses the nuance of the expert and the poignance of the storyteller of an epoch, much before “Garm Hawa” (Hot WindsM.S. Sathyu, 1974) or much later, in Supriyo Sen’s documentary “Way Back Home” (2002). 

The details that “Chinnamul” captures are hard to ignore in the context of the then and the now. Pivoted on the travails of Srikanta and Laxmi from Naldanga, Dhaka, as the country is overnight divided and entire communities, lands, and identities vanish as if they never were, the film ultimately becomes metonymic of a country in transition, divided against itself. The local greed of Madhu Ganguly and Muzaffar Khan, one signifying an upper-caste Bengali brahmin and the latter a Bengali Muslim, become symbols of a predatory gentry that cashed on people’s helplessness; and acquired homes at throwaway prices to consolidate their hold over agricultural land and ancestral property. 

Poster of the 1950 Bengali film “Chinnamul.” Top photo, a scene from the film.

Such a motif of greed and dispossession was beyond caste or religion in the homelessness of a Prasanna, Srikanta, or a nameless sharecropper and Muslim neighbor. There is only one intersecting truth here: a community’s displacement is synonymous with others’ prosperity. There is no greater or lesser violence there except for those affected, their irreconcilable loss, and their inability to believe that known worlds were changing overnight into perilously new ones.

But the film does not go into the violence and gore of 1947 and its aftermath, the eventful consequences of which we continue to pay over with more blood, tears, dispossession, and division. It pivots instead on the anguish of people unable to fathom homelessness. It is as if the community literally sleepwalks into an inexplicable apocalypse that makes them refugees within a matter of days, making them occupants of shoddy, makeshift colonies hastily formed of once-landed peasants with homes and addresses. In the faded reels of the unpreserved version on YouTube, the Naldanga refugees in Calcutta (now Kolkata) represent a minor group, amongst many during the time, formed consequent to a complacently drawn line symbolic of the Empire’s regular nonchalance in the fate of the millions it displaced and annihilated. 

Nevertheless, the film’s closing frame alludes to the hopes and aspirations of ‘going back’ of a return to the homeland that is, at once real and existing, and at the same time, vanished and becoming the stuff of myths. In the tenuous grey of that promise of ‘return,’ India too, began–its “tryst with destiny.” While daunting, the aspirations of a people stepping out of the Empire and its shadows were not flawless, and neither were charted along a predetermined path. In experimenting and liberally flirting with a different kind of crisis after Partition, there was a special hostage: memory and its recalibration in Partition conversations.

In the film, the country is at once a lived reality and an imaginative remnant which beckons the displaced to a ‘return.’ While the trauma of the Partition is not the focal point in Ghosh, in a broader context, an erasure of collective trauma around the Partition became dominant. What became increasingly amplified was the displacement and oppression of a particular group by another group. In narratives of trauma and loss, shared and transmitted, generational stories of displacement and anger, binarization and a competitive calibration of anguish and loss were normalized. In the afterlife of the seven decades following the largest displacement of humankind in modern history, the depiction, narration, and the retelling of the Partition have also become synonymous with a narrative sustaining hate, Islamophobia, and the demonizing of an antagonist, for the glory of a grand motherland, for the idea of Desh (country) cannot exist without an amorphous other.

If not for reimagining, the horror of the terrifying other is commingled with a dangerous pandering to the illusion of the single grand enemy. This results in an idea that metaphorically connects us to the title of the film I began with—it uproots us from who we are, the uprooting of our memories we never reconciled with, the local histories of loss and solidarity we never quite highlighted in the bigger, single grand narrative that eclipsed our shared losses, shared traumas, and shared displacements along with the anguish of a generation that faithfully believed we would be the guardians of the dream they delivered us, their idea of India. Unfortunately, the lack of retrospective understanding that there is no comparative paradigm to reflect on who suffered more or less is colossal in its myopia in sustaining erasure and grand delusion.

Our private traumas are rooted in hatred and misunderstandings for so long that it has dangerously simplified our stories into a single one, with a single enemy and a single moral compass. Consequently, the overwhelming burden of totalitarian realities and selective erasure collapses any possibilities of reconciliation and closure.

In revisiting the trauma associated with the Partition, one may start to construct aporetic events between what happened and how/who is affected and to what extent we choose to remember and transmit, and what we choose to forget or erase from collective discursive spaces, that stem from collective, and independent private ruminations. In revisiting the single most eventful historical event, spartan language may not be reserved for even the faint-hearted; for, the density of trauma and displacement needs emotive articulation as much as documentary evidence to record it factually. 

Significantly, a sense of critical reflection and an eternal vigil should be most dear to our essence of belonging. A continual, critical, reflective, comprehensive, and honest conversation around 1947 and its private memory needs to be revived from the elite corridors of history and brought into public discursive spaces. Stories of resilience, rebuilding, support, and solidarity need to be retold with renewed enthusiasm. Our private traumas are rooted in hatred and misunderstandings for so long that it has dangerously simplified our stories into a single one, with a single enemy and a single moral compass. Consequently, the overwhelming burden of totalitarian realities and selective erasure collapses any possibilities of reconciliation and closure.

The multiplicity and the complexity of the experience of Partition, the numerous levels of trauma and displacement it unleashed on everyone experiencing it in some way, even if they were not directly sharing it, frustrates the attempt to construct the Partition as a single event with a single story of loss that has resulted in dangerous simplifications. What is the way out of this binary view of retelling Partition stories? What can salvage our collective loss and lead us into a state from which we can reconcile and move on? Is it tolerance of each other, or is it acceptance? The notion of tolerance is a paternalistic smirk of being allowed in as a subordinate, less than, instead of as an equal. It revitalizes us vs. them story; is it then an acceptance that provides equity and closure? For reconciling with loss is never easy, never comparable. What is the way out then, especially when spurious communal forces harvest on this binary and renew generational divisions and conflict based on that single story?

Jacques Derrida’s “On Forgiveness” (2001), is part of a greater collage of his later thoughts that allow for the pervasiveness of humanity and empathy and is of particular relevance here. This philosophic critical self-dialogue is at once a political commitment to expose a framework that allows for an evaluation of a single event, that of 9/11, and to reemphasize individual and collective responses to these social and historic events. Derrida broadly argues that these evaluations, while perilous, can at once lead the reader to a panorama that stimulates emotions that we seldom revisit, of which memory and the memory of trauma seem to be prime while doing the essential function of broadening a sense of solidarity and humanity. 

Anyway, “On Forgiveness” calls upon the immeasurability of acts of forgiveness. Perhaps, the elusiveness of forgiveness is embedded both in its being a non-act and in its inability to be measurable. It is a process at best if we continue to be interested in it, and it has an inflexible intensity that does not cease with time or communities. To forgive or to engage in forgiveness is to choose to remember unequivocally. It is remembering as mourning, healing, and truth-telling without the gaps and erasures that fester the identity politics of division and hate. 

In “Chinnamul,” the landless people rebuilt their lives, remember and dwell on their unfulfilled mission, and reconcile with the business of living from scratch. “Sosur-r bhite sere zaamu ni” (“I won’t leave my father-in-law’s ancestral home”) echoes anew in “Chinnamul,” on the lips of the elderly Karta Maa (making a single appearance) crying out before leaving her ancestral home, holding on to the worn-out lone standing pillar of her shanty. This time, for this writer, from the blurry frames of a film reel it screams out at our collective consciousness with what she tells her community, when she enquires about the cruelty of her displacement. “Desh phiriye dao“—”give us back our country,” she cries, a desperate, lone appeal, representative of a community-wide call to the Imperial whims to make things seem right. Again. In this case, the right thing implied no imperative to divide and partition the country. Freedom at the cost of displacement seemed to be of little significance to Karta Maa (and to many others whose inequities magnified after the Partition). While “Chinnamul” remains iconic in its projection and subtle representation of collective trauma, its terse, critical moments remain provocative sites to stimulate a reevaluation of where we stand in regard to what has happened since.

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I want to argue that this time around, we can choose to remember and collectively mourn our traumatic history. The urgency of memory as a willing turn towards the past to remember it more completely, more intensely, and more collectively, and then continue to re-engage with it as a necessary conduit is embedded in the process of active forgiveness. This makes it closer to an act—performative and painful but necessary. As our collective civil-social duty, remembering is burdensome, for it is painful and involves moments of accusation, elation, and constructs the past in acts of commission and omission that can both make us complicit in causing trauma or distant from it through complacence. 

Active remembering through forgiveness also entails active pain, mourning, and revisiting what seems unforgivable, unnamable, and unforgettable. The alliances and alignments of our stories of loss and victimhood resulted in creating generational and colossally irreconcilable and unforgiving communities that transmit stories of anguish, those who stayed and those who returned, yet these stories now seem to be mired in stories of a reclamation that can only lead to more violence. Perhaps, emphasizing the collective trauma of individuals, shared stories of anguish, retrieving oral narratives, reclaiming and repeating stories of hospitality, humanity, and forgiveness can reemphasize that we are ready to move on and embrace who we are AFTER 1947, and not because of it?

In the 75th year of freedom from the Imperial rule, remembering fosters more hatred, division, and aspersion. In the shadowy and tendentious process of forgiveness, where our stories became a single, intangible and murky one, where only one antagonist remains, even while the imperial atrocities became sidelined, one may inquire about the language of forgiveness and what it entails through films like “Chinnamul”? In cinema, storytelling, and the arts in general, perhaps the language of reconciliation and remembrance in referring to the Partition is what can make space for forgiveness, for it is “never normative,” but always exceptional and extraordinary, so much so that it is unconditional (Derrida 8), it represents a stark disruption into the temptations of the normal and the ordinary—that which has customarily led us (in the majority) to the normal and the mundane—in the narrative of the single enemy, or on the imposition of the conditions of forgiveness because of an implied and perennial guilt.

In the Bengali language and consciousness, there remains a stark distinction between ‘dwesh’-hatred and ‘desh’-country. In new India, perhaps, that distinction is part of a strident language with a dark echo serving as a catalyst and a rhetorical signal to exclude and renew malice through dwesh and collapse everything good and positive associated with desh. For basking in the heady certainty of a pure nation with a majoritarian and supremacist mindset, the harvest of dwesh makes impossible the materiality or surreality of a desh. For those of us looking for a homeland, for those who feel uprooted and know displacement as a shared trauma since 1905, the cohesive identity that binds us is that of the desh, while the amorphous other who we seek to expunge, inveighing an imagined foe outside of our collective and gloriously grand moral mast, it is dwesh. The latter keeps us from realizing that idea of the home that will forever be intertwined in the tumultuous processes of becoming decolonial and completely free only through embracing dialogue that tell our multiple stories, that celebrate the heterodoxy of India rooted in our syncretic, conflicted, multiple selves, with or without the Partition.

(This story was first published in Humanities Underground)

Aparajita De is an Associate Professor at the University of the District of Columbia and specializes in postcolonial literature and Cultural Studies. Her recent collection, South Asian Racialization and Belonging after 9/11: Masks of Threat, was published by Lexington Books Inc., 2016. Her essays can also be found in the Journal of South Asian Popular Culture, South Asian Review, and Postcolonial Text. Aparajita’s most recent essay is a chapter in Bollywood’s New Woman: Liberalization, Liberation, and Contested Bodies (Rutgers University Press 2021). Currently, she is transitioning from academic writing to writing for the self, life writing, and creative writing. 

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