[12 August 2012]
The events of 1947 India have multiple narratives and histories. Lives were changed, uprooted, and lost as India achieved independence from British rule and was split into two: one section remained India; the other was the establishment of a new nation-state, Pakistan. Amit Majmudar’s debut novel Partitions is about the effects of the 1947 partition: the rupture between persons, between persons’ and known lives, between persons’ and spaces or the places they used to call home. It’s a novel about the many violent partitions of the 1947 partition.
The term “partition” has come to be the shorthand used to refer to the events of that tumultuous time, even as Gyanendra Pandey notes in Remembering Partition, that the term has been contested by diverse claims regarding nationalism and the nation-state. Violence was woven into the very fabric of partition and was a fundamental part of it; indeed, partition could not have been “achieved” without it.
Majmudar, a diagnostic nuclear radiologist and poet, builds the structure of his novel in a pretty clear fashion. Partitions involves three separate journeys involving a pair of Hindu twins separated from their mother, a Muslim doctor, and an adolescent Sikh girl. Each is running away from an older life into a newer one; running from lives destabilised and brought to a crisis point by the events of the partition. These lives intersect, collide, set off new connections and beginnings.
The novel’s potential for just a touch of magic realism is realised early on, when the narrator is revealed to be the twin boys’ dead father, Roshan Jaitly, a Brahmin Hindu doctor who was married to Sonia, the boys’ mother, a younger, lower-caste Christian. The narrator remembers with fondness his lovemaking sessions with his wife and the initial heady days of “sexual exhilaration” in his marriage. He also remembers the gradual reshaping of his life after he married out of his caste: “My marriage to Sonia had contaminated me, in the opinion of my Brahmin family. So my children by that marriage were likewise impure … Of Sonia I was still, in some deep part of myself, ashamed.”
What does literature do when it reimagines historical events based on facts, stories, memories, anecdotes, and primary sources? In Majmudar’s novel, it means a reducing a complex event into three separate narratives and then reducing those three narratives to one overarching theme: In times of distress, Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs can come together. In the case of Keshav, Shankar, Masud, and Simran, they form a family.
This is a novel expressly about hope in a time of despair—but as far as novels go, a text imbued with morals and meaning, a text that tries to be a “teachable moment” about a significant historical moment, will always tend to miss its mark. The reader feels deliberately manipulated, her heartstrings played amidst platitudes and moralising, feelings steered towards some satisfying conclusion. Towards the end of the novel, Dr. Masud decides to put his medical expertise to use and stay on at a Sikh refugee camp in Amritsar, taking on the last name of Singh. The narrator tells us that Masud knows that “his caregiving is neither Muslim, nor Sikh, nor Hindu. Or rather it is all three of these.” I couldn’t help but feel short-changed by these words: the ambiguity and pain of the experiences of people from diverse religions and ethnic groups all subsumed under a properly clean and simple moral solution for the purpose of neatly resolving the novel’s loose ends.
Majmudar’s characters appear to serve as vessels for goodness, innocence, and hope. They are good Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, and for that reason they come together. Consider his Hindu characters: two children, wide-eyed and confused and learning about the greater world as their world falls apart. Consider his Sikh character: a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, a girl so immersed in religion that several characters in the book understand that for her to be raped would be the worst thing of all. Our male narrator with the probing medical gaze tells us this about Simran: “It baffles me at first, but she has no way of truly understanding what those men will want with her.”
Or consider Simran seen through a sex worker’s shrewd, world-weary eyes, seen through the male narrator’s eyes: “It’s part of what confuses Aisha’s feelings towards Simran: her vulnerability, her hypersensitivity to things Aisha herself scarcely registers. Like the gazes of men.” (Later on, the narrator will tell us that “the partition between Aisha’s first and second mind, the woman and the whore’s, tore open” while listening to Simran speak of religious purpose. Clearly, one can be a woman or one can be a whore, but one can’t be both.) Consider his Muslim character: a bleeding heart doctor with a stammer, the latter marking him out of the orbit of adulthood because he is unable to converse with other adults, only children—and later on, Simran. Simran comes to symbolise the curative properties of womanhood, psychically healing herself and the men and boys of her newfound family by sheer presence of her pure soul.
I think about Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story, “The Assignment”, in which similar good deeds and goodwill between Muslims and Sikhs are recounted in a few brief pages before the end, an end that does not so much undo the previous understanding and compassion between the people involved but destabilises it, complicates it, and locates it within particular histories of oppression and subjugation that are far too large to be contained by the narrative. The story is unsettling, and there are no pat conclusions, no convenient answers or resolutions.
The thing that bothers me about Partitions is how easily everything is resolved within the narrative, how the presence of the ghostly Brahmin Hindu male narrator and his paternal, medical gaze mediates the relationships between the female and child central characters as well as their thoughts and feelings. It’s an intrusive voice that tries to smooth over and explain the characters’ actions and motivations to the reader. Majmudar’s use of the narrator is the novel’s biggest weakness precisely because he is the central voice. The narrator’s sensibility, perhaps befitting a self-important high-caste Hindu doctor, is high-handed and devoid of humour, and because it’s his voice that takes through the experiences of the various characters, the result is that much of Partitions reads like a sermon. His presence interrupts the character’s individual stories with the intention to resolve and simplify what cannot be resolved and simplified.
Simple gestures in actual life can make a significant difference; in the case of communal differences it can, at the right time, at the right moment, break actual and psychic borders and achieve actual solidarity. A novel, however, is not a simple gesture. Majmudar’s Partitions reads like a successful medical diagnosis: the ailment of history and memory cured by a strong dose of prescriptive moralising. As Pandey writes in Remembering Partition:
“The view that harmony and mutual understanding are the norm (until challenged from the outside, especially by powerful states and large organisations) rests on an unduly sanguine and ahistorical construction of human nature and human society. If the ‘masses’ are allowed to live undisturbed, this view seems to suggest, all’s right with the world. The thought fits well with a common sense, liberal discourse in which ‘disturbances’ are precisely a sign of state breakdown and ‘normalcy’ “
Pandey is here referring specifically to the responsibilities of historiography, but it bears keeping in mind where literature about the partition is concerned, as well. Majmudar’s novel fits this particular line of thought: if it wasn’t for the partition, Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus would live as one. And that is a curiously ahistorical and maudlin view to take, and one that robs Partitions from realising much of its latent power.
Majmudar is a skillful poet, and his poetry is occasionally breathtaking on a technical level. The lines of his poems prove that he’s adept at manipulating language. However, his poems left me cold—I didn’t feel anything while reading them. Similarly, the prose in
is technically perfect, lyrical, and well-adjusted to its content. The words do their job and move on. The language is proficient; its emotional affect negligible. It’s in the last few pages when the narrator stops trying to diagnose, probe, and solve, and simply thinks back on his last moments before death, that the tone of the novel becomes ambiguous, tentative, and profoundly moving:
“My hands had trouble with the paper. Sonia unfolded it for me. I took it from her. I don’t know what I was looking for. I think I wanted the feel and smell and crinkle of my old interest in the world, and the simple physical act, too, of holding the world open and reading it. I wanted some of its dark stain on my fingertips again.”
I think I want something of Partitions to stick, too, particularly considering the ramifications of the events it narrates. I read Partitions wanting to be stirred, to have my feelings muddied, to feel the chaos, the pain, and the fear endured by the four people with whom we share multiple journeys. But Partitions is spotless, neat, and tidily resolved. The problem is it barely leaves a mark.