Fragments of Imagination:
Re-thinking the Literary in Historiography
through Narratives of India's Partition


Jill Didur

York University, Canada

Copyright (c) 1997 by Jill Didur, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    [W]hat historians might call a 'fragment'--a weaver's diary, a collection of poems by an unknown poet (and to these we might add all those literatures of India that Macaulay condemned, creation myths and women's songs, family genealogies and local traditions of history)--is of central importance in challenging the state's construction of history, in thinking other histories and marking those contested spaces through which particular unities are sought to be constituted and others broken up. (Gyanendra Pandey, "Defence of a Fragment" 571)[1]

  1. The desire or dream to be able to write an omniscient account of historical events is something that most contemporary historiographers have openly abandoned. This shift in disciplinary practice is apparent in recent work by historiographers on India's Partition. Here, historiographers have redirected their attention towards explorations of 'the particular' rather than 'the general' in an effort to disrupt the state's universalizing and hegemonic historical narratives. To this end, historiographers have turned to literary texts and their representations of what has been called 'the everyday' (Pandey 1994 221) in search of alternative perspectives to that of the state's central archive. The use of representations of 'the everyday' in historical research not only provides an alternative narrative of historical events but also simultaneously brings to crisis 'modernist' assumptions within the discipline of History. [2] It is with this in mind, I think, that Gyanendra Pandey argues that "the historian needs to struggle to recover 'marginal' voices and memories, forgotten dreams and signs of resistance, if history is to be anything more than a celebratory account of the march of certain victorious concepts and powers like the nation-state, bureaucratic rationalism, capitalism, science and progress" (1994 214).

  2. Pandey's attempts to write into history the ambivalences that produce a discourse of modernity have often included references to literary and autobiographical texts. It becomes evident, however, that the historiographer cannot merely use alternative sources for historical research if s/he seeks to question the concept of the nation-state and the power relations implicit in the modernist project of writing History. Also needed is a thoroughly discursively informed reading and writing practice that is attentive to the literariness of narrative and the undecidability of all texts.[3] In effect, without considering the relation between the linguistic construction of 'literary' and 'historical' narratives, historiographers' challenge to modernity is undermined by problematic assumptions disclosed in the (re)deployment of representations of the self, experience, and agency as they are received in and through narrative.

  3. My paper provides a close reading of 'the literary' as a resource for historical research by tracking the epistemological assumptions about representation embedded in recent historiographical work on Partition. I critique both the assumed differences between 'literary' versus 'historical' narratives and the assumed 'value' that each 'type' of text comes to represent for the historiographer reconstructing the events of a particular historical moment. Specifically, I problematize the merely subjective perspective and the transparency of language associated with 'literary' narratives as well as the strictly objective status conferred on 'historical' narratives. Drawing upon the theorization of 'experience' by feminist historiographers Joan W. Scott and Kathleen Canning, I propose a deconstructive approach to reading and writing narratives about India's Partition in and through literary representations attentive to the dialogic relation between text and context.

  4. To illustrate this premise, I present a feminist reading of Rajinder Singh Bedi's short story, "Lajwanti," that depicts the experience of a local community's involvement with the activities of the Central Recovery Operation after Partition.[4] This operation was mounted by the Indian government in 1948 to 'recover' women 'abducted' during the migrations that took place and restore them to their 'original' extended families and communities. I argue that in order to guard the relationship between patriarchal power and pleasure in the domestic sphere and the newly hatched national imaginary in the civil sphere, 'abducted' women had to be returned to the nest of the modem (male) citizen-subject.[5] The multiple and shifting identities of 'abducted' women, like those figured in Bedi's short story, were violently (re)constituted as a monolithic site for the containment of contradictions in state and community nationalist imaginings. The goal of this reading, therefore, is to provide an example of how a staged dialogue between literary and historiographical narratives puts pressure on totalizing constructions of the self, experience, and agency and their relation to the notion of citizenship in the modern nation-state.

  5. Recently, efforts to 'recover' marginal 'voices' and/or memories of the Partition have emphasized the value of including literary sources as 'evidence' in historiographical narratives. More often than not, however, the inclusion of these sources has been engineered to reinscribe humanist notions of literary production as merely subjective, mimetic and universal in contrast to the objectivity and specificity associated with historical research. Ian Talbot's work on modern India exemplifies this practice. In his aptly entitled article, "Literature and the Human Drama of the 1947 Partition," Talbot deploys literary narratives in his historical analysis with the expressed purpose of supplementing (in a peripheral rather than Derridian sense) his notion of History instead of rethinking it as a whole. The peripheral place Talbot assigns this work is evident in his call for historians to include a discussion of the Partition's "impact" (37) on people's individual lives as something separate from its "causes" (37). He argues that "[n]ovelists, unlike historians have fully addressed the human agonies which accompanied Partition" through the representations of what he terms 'personal experience' (38). 'Personal experience,' in this context, is conceived of as universal, transparent and outside language, culture, and ironically, history. To remedy this problem, Talbot recommends that historians study the "human dimension" of Partition by deploying "a fresh range of source material," including autobiographical and literary accounts of its events (37-38).

  6. Talbot cautions other historians who might seek to imitate his methodology that
    [t]he novelist's art is subjective by its very nature. All literary sources must therefore be treated circumspectly by historians. It must be remembered that they have been produced by tiny élites in 'traditional' societies [!]. The great writers can of course transcend their own experience and echo the feelings of other classes and communities. But lesser novelists lack this empathy and produce merely stereotypes and stylized emotional responses. (38n11)
    In the works he includes in his own discussion, however, he collapses the distinction between the autobiographical and the fictional; presumably, these texts demonstrate the qualities he associates with "great" literature. It appears that the texts Talbot selects to support his argument are considered more 'reliable' Historical documents (and therefore somehow more objective?) based on the empirical verifiability of the writer's 'personal experience.[6] For example, he prefaces the inclusion of excerpts from Kartar Singh Duggal's novel, Twice Born Twice-Dead(1979), with the information that Duggal came from Rawalpindi, a site of one of the most tragic incidents connected with the Partition. Where Duggal's novel includes a representation of a refugee camp, Talbot informs us that Duggal had "first hand material to depict the refugees' plight" (48) and that his "Muslim wife Ayesha worked among the refugees in Jullundar" (53). Talbot thus reduces the imaginative capacity of the writer to represent the 'everyday' to his/her ability to recycle his/her 'personal (or spouse's?) experiences.' The power relations invested in a representation of any experience are negated and the way language mediates experience is ignored. Talbot gives narratives of experience or 'the everyday' the status of a document of 'reality' (albeit, emotional), and a reading practice that situates the perspectives through which texts are written and read is never considered.

  7. Talbot's treatment of literary narratives as a derivative of personal experience is rife with the problems highlighted by Joan W. Scott's critique of historians' use of experience as 'evidence.' Scott points out that "[w]hen it [experience] is defined as internal," it is understood as "an expression of an individual's being or consciousness" (782). When consciousness is figured as the origin of experience, Scott argues that historians
    take the existence of individuals [in their narratives] for granted (experience is something people have) rather than to ask how conceptions of selves (of subjects and identities) are produced. It [experience] operates within an ideological construction that not only makes individuals the starting point of knowledge, but that also naturalizes categories such as man, woman, [or Hindu and Muslim] ... by treating them as given characteristics of individuals. (782)
    These assumptions are evident in Talbot's untheorized conflation of literature with 'personal experience'; the literary texts that he favors in his analysis are the ones he sees as representing their characters' psychological trials. The focus is on the 'Indian subject's consciousness' represented as a natural, homogeneous category that becomes the object of inquiry in an investigation of the internal impact of Partition. As Scott elaborates, the subject's knowledge of the events "reflecting as it does something apart from him, is legitimated and presented as universal, accessible to all. There is no power or politics in these notions of knowledge and experience" (783). Ironically, though Talbot claims that [t]he authors will be allowed to speak for themselves"(40), in this kind of Historical analysis, ". . . the authority of the subject of knowledge [is measured] by the elimination of everything [particular] concerning the speaker" (de Certeau 256).

  8. Indeed, it becomes apparent that rather than explore the contradictions within and among people's experiences of Partition found in literary narratives, Talbot glosses over difference and 'ventriloquizes' or speaks for those people in a monolithic voice. For instance, after including a rather sketchily contextualized excerpt from Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, Ice Candy Man (1979),[7] where Lenny (the narrator) relates how Ranna, a young Muslim boy, escapes death during an attack on his family's village by a group of Sikh men, Talbot comments: "This account brings out clearly the ferocity and suddenness of the violence in the rural Punjab in August 1947. Standard historical accounts tend to overlook this altogether" (41). A closer reading of Sidhwa's text, however, suggests that there is nothing "sudden" about the attack on the community. On the contrary, each time Lenny visits Ranna's village, her narrative traces a growing tension between Sikhs and Muslims as the Partition approaches. While visiting the local fair with Ranna, Lenny notes: "Other [Sikh] men, who would normally smile at Ranna, slide their eyes past. Little by little, without his being aware of it, his smile becomes strained" (115). Eventually, relations between the Sikhs and Muslims in the community begin to disintegrate. Lenny's final impression of Ranna's situation before the attack is foreboding: "The sun has set, but it is still light enough to see. Ranna was leaning against his father when the granthi [a local Sikh] spoke. The tone of the granthi's voice, the sadness and the resignation in it, turned the heaviness in Ranna's heart into the first stab of fear" (117).

  9. Though Talbot claims to be interested in the exceptionality of Ranna's 'experience' of the attack, his reading elides its specific construction within a larger socio-cultural context and the novel's narrative structure. As a result, he ignores the specific discursive construction of Ranna's story from a designated but shifting subject position, generalizes about its details, and suggests that it is universally representative of others' experiences at the time. Thus, Talbot's inclusion of excerpts of literary narratives in his analysis becomes a means of filling gaps in existing Historical research rather than considering how those excerpts might destabilize the concept of representation in historical research as a whole. The concept of Historical research is likened to the process of assembling a jigsaw puzzle comprised of pieces marked as 'evidence' that fit together to 'reveal' a larger picture. Historians' neglect of what Talbot terms "the human dimension of Partition" is cited as the source of "distortion" (37) or gaps in this picture that would otherwise be complete. In short, Historical representation is characterized as the documentation of a linear and unified account of 'what really happened' as opposed to a practice which recognizes how language and discourse mediate and fragment all experience and textual analysis of the past. In Talbot's view, literary narratives can only be a resource for Historians who want to get the 'human impact' (versus the political, or economic impact, for instance) of a particular Historical event, and the History written by scholars like Talbot takes on the semblance of Truth. Instead of deconstructing these literary narratives as interested commentaries on both the causes and effects of historical events, Talbot strips the literary quotations from their textual context and reduces them to confessional chronicles of "emotional trauma" (49).

  10. Historiographer Gyanendra Pandey's 'fragmentary' approach to writing historical narratives suggests more promising strategies for integrating a productive critique of the Truth games in modern History. In the essay, "In Defence of a Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today," Pandey explains that he came to this approach through his 'experience' of serving as a member of an investigative team for the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PURD) that was sent to investigate the 1989 Bhagalpur 'riots' in India. The difficulties the investigative team encountered while trying to gather 'evidence' about the 'facts' of the occurrences associated with the 'riots' provoked him to re-think the use of narratives of personal expedience in historiographical research. Pandey recounts that it was difficult to find people in Bhagalpur who were willing to talk about their experiences-- something that victims of sexual assault in particular were reluctant to do. Where people were willing to relate their stories, representations of the same incident varied from person to person and different types of questions would produce different kinds of answers. The task of re-presenting these silences and conflicting 'evidence' in the team's report drew Pandey's attention to how editorial and interpretive choices shape readers' receptions of what occurred. His decision to self-consciously adopt the 'fragmentary' approach to writing historical narratives, therefore, is an attempt to address these contradictions, gaps, and silences. "Part of the importance of the 'fragmentary' point of view," Pandey argues, "lies in this, that it resists the drive for a shallow homogenization and struggles for other, potentially richer definitions of the 'nation' and the future political community" (1991 559). With this, Pandey turns to what he calls fragments of the events in Bhagalpur, including political leaflets, testimonies, newspaper accounts and finally, a collection of poetry by Manazir Aashiq Harganvi. He prefaces this last fragment as follows:

    I present this fragment here not as another piece, or even kind of 'evidence.' I propose it, instead, as the articulation of another subject position arising from a certain experience (and understanding) of sectarian strife, which may say something about the parameters of our own subject-position and understanding. In addition, this articulation provides a commentary on the limits of the form of the historiographical discourse and its search for omniscience. (1991 569)
    In contrast to Talbot's totalizing methodology, therefore, Pandey's fragmentary perspective stresses the "provisional and changeable character of the objects of our historical analysis" (1991 560) and attempts to negotiate this provisionality in the way historical narratives are written.

  11. I applaud Pandey's desire to disrupt a hegemonic account of the 'riots' in Bhagalpur but I have difficulty with his assumptions about literary representation. These assumptions derail his goal in several ways. First, Pandey's narrative contextualizes the poems by Harganvi in a manner that undermines the self-reflexive reading and writing strategies he cites earlier as a necessary component of historiographic interpretation. For instance, the relevance of Harganvi's poetry to Pandey's discussion of the events in Bhagalpur would seem to be derived from the poet's residency in a "predominantly lower-middle-class locality which was not the scene of any of the 'great' killings in 1989, but was nevertheless repeatedly attacked, traumatized and scarred forever" (1991 569). In addition, Pandey tells us that Harganvi's poems were "written for the most part during the first five days of the violence" and by implication of this immediacy, "We get some sense of the terror and desolation that so many people in Bhagalpur experienced at this time" (1991 569). Like the rationale Talbot provides for the inclusion of literary selections in his work, the justification Pandey offers for the inclusion of Harganvi's poetry in his historical narrative is based on his perception that the poet had 'first hand experience' of the riots. In other words, Pandey is more concerned with what he believes is the 'authenticity' of Harganvi's representation of the 'riots' rather than the critical/imaginative and dialogic relation this fragment has with the discursive and material conditions that produced the rioting. 'Experience' in this case is "taken as the origin of knowledge, the vision of the individual subject (the person who had the experience or the historian who recounts it)" and it becomes "the bedrock of evidence on which explanation is built" (Scott 777). I would like to argue that a self-reflexive reading of Harganvi's poetry should not be concerned with authenticating the transparency associated with the narrator's perception of the events in question, but, rather, how this transparency is constructed and the power relations that construction makes visible in the socio-cultural context. Second, like Talbot, Pandey fails to problematize the mimetic assumptions embedded in his reading of literary representation and representation in general. [8] Repeatedly, he deploys Harganvi's poems in his discussion as documentation/information of the events without considering the role language and ideology play in the poems' production of meaning. This totalizing reading strategy is most apparent when one of Harganvi's poems is 'described' as providing "pictures . . . of fields of corpses and the impossibility of counting them" [my emphasis] (569). Pandey reads the images in the poem as mere reflections of reality and, as a consequence, elides a discussion of the power relations expressed in and through the figurative language Harganvi uses to re-present his view of the riot's context. Thus, where an excerpt from one of the poems portrays a father's commentary on the sexual assault of his daughter, Pandey challenges his readers to decide if the representation is "a metaphorical statement of the humiliations suffered by a community or a literal description of events that occurred?" (1991 569). Pandey's question implies that the two interpretations are possible but mutually exclusive. Moreover, the representation's use to historians is assumed to be greater if it is read as a 'description.'

  12. On the contrary, I argue that the poem's representation of historical events can be understood as diffracted and metonymical (which recognizes the mutually constitutive relation between the literal and figurative in narrative) rather than as reflective and metaphorical (which understands them as related but independent). [9] Harganvi's poem states:

    Aur yeh beti jise tum saath
    mere kankthiyon se dekhte ho
    Beshumar haathon ne loota hai ise.
    (And this daughter, whom you observe out of the corner of your eyes, sitting by my side--How many have looted her.) (Harganvi in Pandey 1991 569) [10]
    The narrator/father of the poem represents the identity of his daughter as a possession to be looted. His rhetorical question, "How many have looted her" is embedded with a patriarchal ideology that marks women's identities and bodies as symbols of community honor and 'tradition' and makes them targets of violence during sectarian conflicts. Pandey's analysis, however, is silent about these things. There is no discussion of the narrator's subject position, his figuration of his daughter, the power relations it expresses and the way language produces all these effects. My reading, on the other hand, attends to the literariness of the poem, allows for a dialogic relation between the event and the text and thus defers the production of the omniscient perspective that Pandey sets out to question.

  13. As a feminist critic, I am concerned about the implications that historiography like Pandey's and Talbot's has for reading women's agency who lived through the events of Partition. The enormity of the geographical displacement which Indians experienced during the Partition is difficult to comprehend. [11] The migrations and violence related to the possibility of India's Partition had been occurring in the Punjab as early as February, 1947, and for two years prior in West Bengal. As Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin comment, "By the time the migrations were finally over, about eight million people had crossed the newly created boundaries of Punjab and Bengal, carrying with them memories of a kind of violence that the three communities [Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh] had visited upon each other that was unmatched in scale, brutality and intensity" (WS-3). Murders, looting, abductions and sexual assault appear to have been frighteningly commonplace occurrences as displaced individuals and communities responded with violence to the threat to their lives, security of their property, and cultural continuity. During this mass migration and violence, thousands of women were separated from their extended families and communities. Some were abducted by those who attacked their families and communities while others, who were lost or abandoned, simply followed their aggressors, seeing no other alternative in the face of their isolation from community support and protection. From 1948 to 1956, these women became the object of efforts by the Indian Central Recovery Operation, "which sought to recover those women who had been abducted and forcibly converted during the upheaval, and restore them to their respective families and countries where they 'rightfully belonged'" (Menon and Bhasin WS-2). The scare quotes that Menon and Bhasin place around the phrase 'rightfully belonged' suggest the questionable legitimacy of this judgment. What qualified as the 'rightful' communities, families, and countries for these women appears to have been a particular construction of their identity determined by the state-sanctioned Central Recovery Operation, which Menon and Bhasin argue: "raises serious questions regarding the Indian state's definition of itself as secular and democratic" (WS-3). It is the undecidability of re-presentations of these women's experiences, identities, and agency I will explore through my reading of the concept of agency in and through literary and historical narratives of the 'everyday' events of Partition.

  14. If the subject's agency is conceived of in terms of 'everyday' resistance, it is possible to destabilize the agential stalemate Pandey associates with the "unresolved (and unresolvable?) contradiction of 'modernity': that imagining the (modern) individual--with his/her freedoms [or potential to act]--necessitates imagining the 'law (the centralized, homogenizing state)--which curbs those freedoms" (1994 214). Unfortunately, it is precisely this binary conception of agency that Pandey unwittingly reinscribes in his disappointing (and disempowering) reading of women's experiences at the time of Partition. For example, in his essay, "The Prose of Otherness," Pandey fails to identify many of the contradictions that inflect Anees Qidwai's autobiography, Azadi ki Chaon Mein--a text in which she details her involvement with the activities of the Central Recovery Operation--as sites of resistance to the Operation's patriarchal and nationalist rhetoric and practices. Qidwai worked in the refugee camps and assisted in the 'recovery' of women. The excerpts Pandey provides from Qidwai's autobiography point to her growing doubts about the 'humanitarian' value of the Recovery Operation. In one excerpt, Qidwai reflects on the predicament of a young girl who had been sexually abused by several men and then 'recovered' to India. She writes:

    Today she sits by my side, silent, a question-mark. Her terrified, startled eyes ask me and call out to every human being to tell her who [what] she is? . . . She has lost all hope, agility, . . . youthfulness, . . . beauty. Will readers be able to tell us whether we acted criminally in bringing them [sic] back? Or whether it would have been a [greater] sin not to have brought them?" (Qidwai in Pandey 217) [12]
    Qidwai's comments underscore her uncertainty about the stated purpose of the Recovery Operation (i.e., humanitarian). She isolates a serious contradiction in its activities; the Recovery Operation has attempted to write the girl's identity as 'recovered,' and yet she remains as a ''"silent" "question-mark" who continues to "call out" for answers. Pandey, however, glosses over this ambivalence and characterizes Qidwai's convictions as "swinging from one position to another," according to no particular logic (219). I argue that Qidwai's shifting response to the 'reality' of the women's experiences at the hands of the Recovery Operation hints at many contested spaces where Pandey might begin to track her resistance to the patriarchal logic of the nation-state. Instead, he forecloses this process; he comments:

    The tragedy of Anees Qidwai's recounting of the pain of Partition, of which the suffering involved in the exchange of abducted women is but on [sic] example, is that no resolution at all is possible. How is one to say, on the question of the 'forcible' recovery and exchange of abducted Hindu, Muslim and Sikh women left on the 'wrong' side of the border, what would be the viewpoint of Reason, what was 'right' and what was 'wrong', what 'moral' and 'immoral', what 'sane' and what 'insane'? [my emphasis] (219)
    Pandey's conclusion that "no resolution at all is possible" with regards to the question of whether or not the Indian state was justfied in the forcible 'recovery' of women after Partition suggests that women can be viewed only as passive victims of History. [13]

  15. It appears, therefore, that Pandey cites Qidwai's text as confirmation of his own viewpoint rather than to problematize the modernist underpinnings of the practice of writing History. He is unable to conceptualize a notion of agency for the 'abducted' women outside the liberatory discourse of modernity and thus reinscribes the Recovery Operation's representation of them as passive victims of an apocalyptic event. He perpetuates the modernist practice of reading the shift in perspective or 'content' of Qidwai's text as the apprehension of the "prediscursive reality" of Partition (i.e. 'abducted' women were bound to be the scapegoats of the nation), or, in other words, a "coming to consciousness" (Scott 794). By implication, he underwrites a view of the events that occurred as inevitable. In the same gesture, Pandey excuses himself and his reader from the task of questioning the justice of the treatment of these women and the consequences this may have for the definition of citizenship in India today. [14]

  16. Instead of reading Qidwai's change in perspective concerning the activities of the Recovery Operation as "the discovery of truth" (i.e., it is impossible to determine the correct nationality of 'abducted' women), I propose to read it as "a substitution of one interpretation [of events] for another" (Scott 794). This approach recognizes how Qidwai's interpretation of her experience provides her with the opportunity to rethink the patriarchal discourse that informs the Operation as a whole. Here, it is assumed that "political consciousness and power [or agency] originate not in presumedly [sic] unmediated experience of presumedly [sic]" real events but "out of an apprehension of moving, differencing properties of the representational medium"--in this case language (Swann in Scott 794). This does not, as Pandey claims, lead to the conclusion that the situation is irresolvable but instead to a more complex (and possibly more just) understanding of options available to 'abducted' women and how they negotiated their survival. Pandey claims that he will treat these fragments of textual representation "not as another piece or even kind of 'evidence," but he ends up doing just that; despite his rhetoric of self-reflexivity and his critique of other historiographers who fail to integrate this approach into their own work, he fails to theorize the gap between the text and its referent and the way agency comes into play. In Scott's words, "questions about the constructed nature of experience, about how subjects are constituted as different in the first place, and how one's vision is structured--about language (or discourse) and history--are left aside" (Scott 777). Unwittingly, Pandey's reading of the value of representations of 'the everyday' in literary and autobiographical narratives ensures that women, ineligible for full citizenship in the modem patriarchal nation-state, will continue to be cast as the passive 'victims' of the events of History rather than collective subjects who negotiate their relationship to their context on an ongoing basis and make history.

  17. My reading of the historiographical 'value' of literary narratives follows from feminist historiographer Kathleen Canning's reading of 'experience' as a re-presentation rather than a record of historical 'reality.' Canning's argument draws on work by labour and feminist historiographers like Alf Lüdtke and Joan W. Scott and defines experience as "making meanings of events as they happen . . . as well as a 'self willed distancing' that facilitates 'reframing,' 'reorganizing,' or a 'creative reappropriation of the conditions of daily life'" (Lü in Canning 376-377). The emphasis on "consenting, reframing and reappropriating" in this definition "implies that subjects do have some kind of agency" in the way they interpret the world from the discourses available to them in their socio-historical context (377). I argue that literary texts can also be understood in these terms and, in fact, their relevance to historical research is enhanced by this critical reading strategy. The tension between text and context that impinges on fictional accounts of Partition demands that the reader theorize representations of experience taking into account the gap between the text and its historical referent. Thus, the inclusion of literary narratives in historiography is not seen as a way to provide an 'authentic' personal view of a particular Historical moment, but, instead, as 'creative reappropriations of the conditions of daily life' with an explicit attention to "the double vision of text and context" (Rose 7-8). This 'double vision' creases an awareness of how "material reality is a force that pressures and destabilizes the discursive domain requiring representations 'to be reworked, shored up, [and] reconstructe'" (Walkowitz in Canning 380) and the role subjects play in that process.

  18. The abduction of women during Partition, the geographical displacement, pain, sexual assault and pregnancies they suffered, can be understood as examples of material reality putting pressure on the discursive domains of conservative-nationalism, communalism, and patriarchy. Abducted women presented a "new social question" (Canning 383) to all these domains in the aftermath of independence and destabilized their convergence in the nationalist imaginings of the recently formed postcolonial state. In short, the 'everyday' perspective or experience represented in literary narrativizations of these events should be read as a diffraction of historical moments where nations, communities, families, and individuals engage in a discursive struggle over the interpretation of material reality and the identities of abducted women. The gendered citizen-subject's agency is, therefore, "a site of mediation between discourses and experience" (Canning 378) through which she reinterprets the normalized view of 'reality' and transforms the sociopolitical/economic conditions around her. This critical stance puts pressure on representations of 'victims' and 'vanquishers' in Partition texts to simultaneously disclose and comment on the discourses of race, class, caste, gender and nationality that produce these events and designate them as 'inevitabilities.' In a more general sense, the process of 'rewriting, reinscribing and redeploying' History as 'fragmentary' then also becomes the process of rethinking the relationship between historical and literary criticism.

  19. Menon's and Bhasin's research indicates that from the beginning of the Partition 'troubles,' representatives of the nation-state were enrolled in the process of 'recovering' 'abducted' women. The discursive practices of parliamentarians, families, social workers, and police placed an emphasis on controlling the location and maintaining the sanctity of women's bodies. This practice was central to the production and stabilization of patriarchal conservative-nationalist imaginings in postcolonial India. For instance, on November 17, 1947, a resolution was passed by the All India Congress Committee which stated: "Every effort must be made to restore women to their original homes with the co-operation of the governments concerned" (Menon and Bhasin WS-4). By the following year, a bilateral agreement was established between India and Pakistan that set out the terms of recovery for abducted persons (read women and children) in both states and ordinances to proceed with their recovery were issued. Dissatisfaction with the numbers and speed with which women were recovered emerged and on December 19, 1949, just before the ordinances expired, a bill called The Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Bill was passed in the Indian parliament. In this bill, patriarchal, communal, and conservative-nationalist discourses that shaped the identity of the gendered Indian citizen in the new nation-state can be seen. An 'abducted person' was defined in the bill as

    any male child under the age of 16 years or female whatever age who is, or immediately before the 1st day of March 1947, was a Muslim and who, on or after that day and before the 1st day of January, 1949, [that is, during the time of the migration and violence that accompanied Partition] had become separated from his or her family and is found to be living with or under the control of any other individual or family, and in the latter case includes a child born to any such female after the said date. [my emphasis] (in Menon and Bhasin WS-4)
    The bill sanctioned the authority of the state to detain 'persons' who are suspected of being abducted, to determine their nationality by means of a tribunal established by the Central Government, and to use police powers to enforce this decision. As this excerpt from the bill also sets out, adult women were disqualified from designating their national identity themselves, and the state placed a special burden on women who identified themselves as Muslim to legitimate their 'right' to citizenship in India. Adult men, on the other hand, were under no special obligation to do the same because the powers of the tribunal only applied to males under the age of 16. Even though some members of parliament objected to these very issues and questioned the bill's legitimacy under the Constitution which would come into effect only one month later (January 1950), it was passed unaltered (Menon and Bhasin WS-5).

  20. While the macro-physical power of the state provided the authority and resources to conduct the Recovery Operation, its 'success' was highly dependent on the attitudes of individual actors at the micro-physical or local level and their 'everyday' practices of the self. For instance, Urvashi Butalia points out that reports of missing relatives (mothers, wives, daughters and sons) had to be filed by next of kin before the state would intervene on their behalf (WS-18). The re-integration of 'abducted' women into their 'original' families and communities also required a complete reconstruction of patriarchal privilege where women, who otherwise would have been shunned by their families as 'polluted' (by the possibility or actuality of sexual contact with the Other), had their identities reconstructed as 'victims' in exchange for the restoration of their patriarchal patronage. Similarly, the complicity of social workers (the majority of whom were women) was essential to the execution of the Recovery Bill's stipulations. Even though oral testimonies and documents of the social workers' activities suggest a sense of ambivalence about what they were doing, the women themselves seem to foreclose any consideration of this during the recovery work proper. Instead, they appeared to have compartmentalized their conflicting experiences in much the same way the modern citizen-subject is expected to do with respect to his (and I use the masculine deliberately here) civil and domestic duties. Urvashi Butalia notes, for example, how Kamalaben Patel, one of three key organizers of the Operation, "speaks sometimes as an 'Indian', other times as a 'Hindu', sometimes as a 'social worker', as a 'nationalist' and sometimes, by her own definition, as a 'woman', this last category subsuming, often, all others" (WS-20).

  21. Contradictions and ambiguities that arose between these macro- and micro-physical investments in the recovery of abducted women appear to have been resolved, at least temporarily, by discounting the agency the women exercised in their 'everyday' experience. However, the material evidence of this agency--in the form of these women's survival in the communities and nation of the Other--became a constant reminder to national patriarchal interests that they had failed to preserve both the women's sexual 'purity' as symbol of community 'honor' and the sanctity of the domestic sphere (an essential component of [male] citizens' identities in postcolonial India). By acting in their own interest (as opposed to the family's or community's), abducted women problematized the dichotomous relation between the civil and domestic spheres at a time when the state was attempting to extend this identity to all castes/classes in Indian society. Butalia articulates this double-bind succinctly in these words:

    For men, who in more 'normal' times would have seen themselves as protectors of 'their' women, the fact that many of their women had been abducted (no matter that some women may have chosen to go, they had to be seen as being forcibly abducted), meant a kind of collapse almost and emasculation of their own agency. Unable to be equal to this task they now had to hand it over to the state, the new patriarch, the new super, the new national, family. As the central patriarch, the state now provided coercive backing for restoring and reinforcing patriarchy within the family. (WS-19)
    Enrolling the coercive arm of the state as their ally provided the patriarchal community with the means of ensuring the triumph of its interests. As Dipesh Chakrabarty argues, "repression and violence " are as "instrumental in the victory of the modern as is the persuasive power of its rhetorical strategies" (1992 31). To this end, ambiguous responses to the recovery of abducted women often deflected by a rhetoric of idealism allied with the activities of the Recovery Operation. [15] This impulse can be seen in the testimonies of social workers involved in the project. Social worker Damyanti Sahgal, for example, is recorded as saying: "Of course we felt for the women we were flushing out--sometimes we had to use the police to bring them out. But what we were doing had to be done" (Butalia WS-20). The idealism she associates with the Recovery Operation's supposed humanitarian goals is used to justify its violent tactics and elide women's resistance to being 'recovered.' [16]

  22. In the reading of Rajinder Singh Bedi's short story "Lajwanti" that follows, I suggest that the 'everyday' agency exercised by 'abducted' women falls outside modernist conceptions of 'choice' and can be used to illustrate "how subjects contest power in its discursive form, and how their desires and discontents transform or explode discursive systems" (Canning 377). I map how the patriarchal modern nation-state contained these rhetorical and material struggles by exploring the contradictions between macro- and micro-physical configurations of power/knowledge and the 'technologies' of the self they produced in the domesffc sphere in post-Partition India. I argue that it is possible to read Bedi's narrative as a theorization of the power relations expressed in and through the socio-political practices surrounding the Recovery Operation. "Lajwanti" re-presents the response of a fictional North Indian community to the activities of the local 'rehabilitation committee' set up to promote the reintegration of "abducted and raped" (55) women into their 'original' communities. Both the macro- and micro-physical contexts are well documented in Bedi's narrative; public exercises of national unity in the civil sphere--a key feature of nationalist thought from its inception in the early nineteenth century (Chakrabarty 1994 69)--are mimicked by the narrator's jounalistic account of how the local 'rehabilitation committee' is established. Ceremoniously, the narrator states how:

    A committee was formed to campaign for the implementation of the programme [for the 'rehabilitation' of women who had been 'abducted and raped'].... Babu Sunderlal was elected its secretary by a majority of eleven votes. According to Sardar Sahib, the lawyer, the old petitioner of Chauki Kalan and the other well respected people of the locality, no one could be trusted to do the job with greater zeal and commitment than Sunderlal, because his own wife had been abducted. Her name was Lajo-Lajwanti. (55)
    The details Bedi's narrative provides about the committee's formation in the context of post-Partition India suggest that the technologies of the self that produce the identity of the modern citizen-subject are in full bloom in Sunderlal's community. Not only is the mutually constitutive relation between the civil and domestic spheres in the life of the individual citizen normalized in this community--it is celebrated; public confidence is expressed in Sunderlal's dedication to his job as committee secretary because of the crisis in his own domestic life.

  23. The disciplinary effect of enrolling Sunderlal and other community members in the rehabilitation committee is figured in Bedi's text in numerous ways, but I will concentrate on mapping the transformation of Sunderlal's attitude concerning domestic abuse. Bedi is at pains to make it known that the pre-Partition power relation between Sunderlal and Lajwanti was characterized by a constant reassertion of Sunderlal's physical and institutional dominance as her husband. Bedi's narrative discloses that when Sunderlal thinks about how he has physicaJly abused Lajwanti in the past, he is ashamed:

    [H]e would swear to himself, "If I ever find her again, if I ever again do . . . I shall honour her and give her a place in my heart . . . I shall tell everyone that the women who were abducted are innocent . They are victims of the brutality and the rapacdty of the rioters. . . . A society which refuses to take them back, which does not rehabilitate them . . . is a rotten, a foul society, which should be destroyed." [my emphasis] (57)
    Sunderlal's self-remonstrations disclose a discursive intersection between his sense of emasculation and his view of 'abducted' women as passive victims of the Other. He is figured as afraid that Lajwanti may not want to return to him--even if the Central Recovery Operation is successful in locating her--because of his previous treatment of her. The figuration of this anxiety can be linked to the larger context of the narrative where male citizens like Sunderlal are becoming aware of how the modern nation-state both requires and circumscribes their power as 'husband' in the extended family. The enforced separation of civil and domestic concerns in the identity of the (male) citizen-subject relies on women's acceptance of the limited options available to them as subordinates in patriarchal institutions such as the family and the state as well as on the sanction of the community to allow women to return to those positions. [17] When, however, this separation is challenged by the exercise of individual agency by women (such as Lajwanti) at the same time that the title of 'citizen' (in the form of universal franchise) is being extended to all members of Indian society, new technologies of the self must be performed to recoup women's participation. The rehabilitation committee in Bedi's narrative can thus be read as a 'matrix of transformation' where "the techniques of power and the procedures of discourse" normalize the 'abducted' female subject as an object of innocence and purity who requires the constant protection of the family (Foucault 98).

  24. This reading highlights the contradictions that arise between micro- and macro-physical interests in the return of 'abducted' women to their 'original' families and nations. After the news of Lajwanti's return, Sunderlal is figured as temporarily overwhelmed by the discursive contradictions involved in (re)constructing his domestic life. Sunderlal's confusion can be interpreted through the incompatible goals that the community and state had set out to achieve through their participation in the Recovery Operation. True, the patriarchal family had invested its agency in the patriarchal nation-state which promised to recover the women that the (religious) community had failed to protect from 'contamination' from the Other. Nevertheless, in order for this exercise to be read as an act of legitimacy for India's nationalist 'secular' imaginary, the emphasis on women's sexual purity as a symbol of community honor had to be elided (Butalia WS-18). Both goals were, ultimately, at cross purposes with each other. The reconciliation of these conflicting goals can be accomplished only through the denial of 'abducted' women's agency and the (re)inscription of patriarchal power in the domestic sphere.

  25. The precariousness (rather than total success) of the process of recasting women's identities in post-Partition India is made visible by the narrative's double focus on the reconfiguration of the power relations between Lajwanti and Sunderlal when she is returned to him and on the details of the historical practices of the Recovery Operation. On the one hand, Lajwanti is figured as being aware of her need for patriarchal patronage in order to survive in the community when she expresses her fear about how Sunderlal will react to her sexual 'contamination.' The narrator comments: "He had always mistreated her, and now that she had lived with another man, she dared not imagine what he would do to her" (63). On the other hand, Sunderlal's reception of Lajwanti is torn between his negative reaction to her healthiness and 'well-being' (suggesting that she may not have been as much of a 'victim' of the Other as he would like to think) and the 'new' pressures on his behavior as a (male) citizen in the modern nation-state to welcome her back as his wife. Though the narrative reports that Sunderlal's first impulse is to chastise Lajwanti, instead his civil responsibilities take precedence over his domestic and the reader is told that "he did not flinch from doing his duty, and behaved in a manly and courageous manner" (64). Though Lajwanti is described as "deliriously happy" when she is first returned to her home (after all, Sunderlal does not beat her, or worse, abandon her), she comes to understand that Sunderlal's acceptance of her is in exchange for her silence and performance of a new, more disciplined gender identity. Repeatedly, the narrative refers to Lajwanti's desire to talk about her Partition experiences with her husband so "she could feel clean again. But Sunderlal always shrank away from hearing her story, and Lajo was always apprehensive about her new life of love and kindness" (65). Feminist historiographers have noted the stigma attached to recovered women as well as the resulting 'silence' imposed on them by their families and communities. [18] This silence (or conversely, Lajwanti's desire to speak and be 'purified') can be read as an analogue for violent foreclosure of narrative ambivalences in the practices of writing History I discussed earlier. Curiously, Aijaz Ahmad reads the silence between Lajwanti and Sunderlal concerning her experiences as a "mutual inability to find a language in which the right questions may be asked, the pain expressed and overcome" (195). It is difficult to accept this reading when the silence encouraged by Lajwanti's husband takes the form of a more sinister (re)constitution of an inequitable power relation that facilitates her patriarchal patronage and the management of his civil ('manly') and domestic ('courageous') responsibilities.

  26. Thus, even though the ambiguities in the discursive reconstruction of the civil and domestic spheres of the national imaginary are temporarily foreclosed by the violence and idealism of Lajwanti's reconstructed Identity, Bedi's text makes the reader aware of this foreclosure. Sunderlal renames Lajwanti as Devi or goddess, placing her identity, agency and 'everyday' experiences with the Other under erasure. The only information Sunderlal wants to know about her experiences away from him is, significantly, if the Other man had physically abused her; when he learns that he did not, rising to the civil challenge, he claims that he will never beat her again either and declares the subject closed. While Sunderlal places the 'blame' for the stigma attached to Lajwanti's honor on social conventions, he also invalidates her potential to resist those conventions. According to this reasoning, Lajwanti cannot be held accountable for her experiences because she is constructed as lacking the ability or agency to act in her own self-interest. The narrative suggests, therefore, that the ambivalent terms of Lajwanti's reintegration into the community and nation-state require her to surrender her identity as a woman who can question her husband (albeit at the risk of beating) and/or renegotiate the terms of her patriarchal patronage. The narrative states:

    Slowly, happiness was replaced by suspicion. This was not because Sunderlal had begun to mistreat her once again, but because he continued to treat her with excessive kindness. Lajo didn't expect him to be so gentle...She wanted to be Lajo again, the woman who could quarrel with her husband over something trivial and then be caressed. These days the question of a fight didn't even arise. (66) [19]
    In postcolonial India, where bourgeois conventions produce the domestic sphere as a supplement of the civil sphere, the conditions of possibility no longer exist for the agency Lajwanti exercised prior to the Partition. Instead, Lajwanti likens her new identity as 'Devi' to the fragility of glass--capable of shattering at the slightest patriarchal tremor. [20]

    *     *     *

  27. In this paper I have attempted to put pressure on the construction of 'abducted' women's identities as passive victims of circumstance and question the universalizing assumptions that inform unified historical accounts about the nationalist struggle. I have traced the discursive intersections and disjunctions within and between various historical and literary narratives, in order to foreground a fragmentary, language-centered understanding of the power relations that produced the treatment of these women. In my analysis of the formation of a nationalist imaginary at the time of Partition, I have argued that the mutually constitutive relation between the civil and domestic spheres in the identity of the citizen-subject is made available to all members of Indian society as a consequence of universal franchise. However, a slippage is evident in the name 'citizen' when representations of abducted women's experiences make visible how they were disciplined for exercising agency that threatened nationalist imaginings and patriarchal power relations. To contain this threat, the agency of abducted women had to be elided and their identities (re)constituted in the domestic sphere. The goal of this paper has been to show that the title 'citizen,' despite its universal extension to all members of Indian society, is a contested terrain that has been used to privilege certain actors in the state over others. In this light, I see the staged confrontation between literary and historical narratives that has propelled this discussion as an exercise in "unraveling the necessary entanglement of history--a disciplined and institutionally regulated form of collective memory--with the grand narratives of 'right,' 'citizenship,' the nation state, [and] 'public' and 'private' spheres" (Chakrabarty 1992 21).


  1. Support for this research was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute. I wish to thank the following for reading and commenting on various drafts: Peter Babiak, Terry Goldie, Craig Gordon, Teresa Heffernan, Marie-Christine Leps, Arun Mukherjee, Meenakshi Mukherjee, Bart Simon and two anonymous readers for Jouvert.
    Note: the section break illustrations are based on a Bengali woodcarving, c. 1800, which shows mourning women (viewer's left) and women being driven into captivity (viewer's right). Back

  2. I use the term 'History' with a capital 'H' to indicate when I am referring to the practice of writing a historical narrative that is not self-reflexive about the silences it is producing and instead naturalizes the perspective it constructs as objective and universal. Back

  3. 'Literariness' is a term used by Paul de Man to signify the unmotivated relationship between words and things that is paramount in fictional accounts of the world. De Man argues that "[w]henever this autonomous potential of language can be revealed by analysis, we are dealing with literariness and, in fact with literature as the place where this negative knowledge about the reliability of linguistic utterance is made available."(10). "Literature," de Man writes, "is fiction not because it somehow refuses to acknowledge 'reality,' but because it is not a priori certain that language functions according to principles which are those, or which are like those, of the phenomenal world. . . . This does not mean that fictional narratives are not part of the world and of reality; their impact upon the world may well be all too strong for comfort. What we call ideology is precisely the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism"(11). This view of language, literature, autobiography and narrative in general underpins my analysis throughout the paper. Back

  4. In this paper I am referencing an English translation of "Lajwanti" from Urdu by Alok Bhalla in Stories About the Partition of India. At least two other English translations of this story are available; Jai Rattan has published one in Orphans of the Storm: Stories on the Partition of India and Khushwant Singh has published another in Writings on India's Partition. Back

  5. I take the concept of 'the national imaginary' from Benedict Anderson's work in Imagined Communities. In this work, Anderson defines the concept of the nation as a "cultural artifact"(13) and an "imagined political community--imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign"(15). While Anderson universalizes about 'the national imagination,' I have tried to situate and historicize my use of the term while retaining the self-reflexive and language-centered aspect of his conceptual framework. Back

  6. My sense of this is reinforced by Talbot's decision to place the word, "representation," in scare quotes when he writes about the qualities of the literature he will discuss (see pages 40 and 41). Back

  7. This novel was subsequently published under the title Cracking India in 1991. My references are from the 1991 publication. Back

  8. The literariness of language implies that mimesis is only "one trope among others, language choosing to imitate a non-verbal entity just as paronomasis 'imitates' a sound without any claim to identity (or reflection on difference) between the verbal and non-verbal elements" (de Man 10). Back

  9. Donna Haraway's characterization of the diffracted rather than reflected relation between 'the real' and discourse is particularly appropriate to emphasize the necessarily fragmentary and partial relation between the individual's perception of a historical event and the event itself. "Diffraction," Haraway argues, "does not produce 'the same' displaced as reflection and refraction do. Diffraction is mapp ng of interference, not of replication, reflection, or reproduction. A diffraction pattern does not map where difference appears, but rather maps where the effects of difference appear"(300). Back

  10. The translation here is Pandey's. Back

  11. My interpretation of the historical details concerning the Recovery Operation follows from the research of Ritu Menon, Kamla Bhasin and Urvashi Butalia. Back

  12. This is Pandey's translation. Urvashi Butalia's discussion of Qidwai's memoir cites similarly ambivalent passages; see especially WS20. Back

  13. To be fair, Pandey is alert to the ambivalence Qidwai's text expresses; he states: "The writer refers to many examples of women who were extremely reluctant to return--for fear of ostracism, because they felt they had been 'soiled', because they could not bear the thought of being uprooted again and exposed (possibly) to new levels of poverty and uncertainty, or simply because they were grateful to their new husbands and families for having rescued them from (further?) assault and afforded them protection"(216). Nevertheless, Pandey gives very little consideration to how the literariness of Qidwai's narrative makes visible the Recovery Operation's patriarchal assumptions or the potential to resist them. Back

  14. The 'snowball effect' this has in Pandey's analysis is apparent later in the same essay when he uses his totalizing conclusion about Qidwai's narrative to reinforce his similarly reductive reading of Sadat Manto's short story, "Toba Tek Singh." The ambiguous response that Qidwai develops toward the activities of the Central Recovery Operation is interpreted as a clear response to its 'insanity.' Pandey juxtaposes this interpretation with what he derives as the 'essential' Meaning in Manto's text (i.e. "the insane decision to exchange 'insane' Indians and Pakistanis") (217). After a lengthy paraphrase of Manto's story concluding with a quote from the final paragraph where Toba Tek Singh is represented as throwing himself on the border between India and Pakistan, Pandey authoritatively concludes: "Thus, it seems, Manto offers a resolution of the paradox that he set out at the beginning of his story through the suggestion that, in this time of 'madness', it is only the 'insane' who retain any sanity" (219). Once again, though Pandey sets out to map some of the ambiguities and contradictions within the formation of national identities at the time of India's Partition, he ends up occluding just those things in his discussion. Back

  15. I am indebted to Dipesh Chakrabarty's essay "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for "Indian Pasts?" for my understanding of the relationship between violence and idealism in nationalist accounts of History; see especially pages 21 and 22. Back

  16. In this light, statements like Aijaz Ahmad's, which celebrate the implementation of universal adult franchise in India at the time of Partition, when "nowhere in Europe or North America did women get the vote in the founding moment of electoral democracy" (1995 4), sound a bit hollow. When I read this statement against the background of the treatment of 'abducted' women, I can only be cynical about references to the 'good intentions' of nationalists and suspect about the motives of scholars who see the need to rehearse unproblematically the same rhetoric that was used to silence women's ambiguous responses at the time. Back

  17. Chakrabarty traces the gendered genealogy of freedom in readings of difference in bhadralok constructions of the domestic sphere during the 19th and early 20th centuries in Bengal. He explains that: "Lakshmi, regarded as Vishnu's wife by c. AD 400, has long been upheld in puranic Hinduism as the model Hindu wife, united in complete harmony with her husband in a spirit that combined submission with loyalty, devotion and fidelity" (1994 58). Her antithesis, Alakshmi, becomes synonymous with inauspiciousness and domestic unhappiness. Most significantly, texts contemporary with this period of history in bhadralok society associate Alakshmi with "individual assertiveness on the part of women [like that demonstrated by European memsahibs] and its undesirability" (Chakrabarty 1994 64). Difference in this reformist-nationalist (re)construction of the domestic, therefore, focuses on the interpretation of the modernist notion of 'freedom' within a patriarchal discourse that privileges the security of the extended family over the individual desires of the wife. Back

  18. See Menon, Bhasin and Butalia. Back

  19. Khushwant Singh's and Jai Rattan's translations of "Lajwanti" also note a loss of equity in the couple's relationship. In identical translations of the final section of this same passage they write: "She wanted him to be the same old Sunder Lal with whom she quarreled over a carrot and who appeased her with a radish. Now there was no chance of a quarrel" (135 and 78 respectively). Back

  20. In a review of the edited collection that this particular translation comes from, Veena Das comments how the "loss of normality [catalyzed by the events of Partition] is rendered with consummate skill as in the figure of Lajwanti whose very elevation as the icon of a near goddess subsequent to her abduction and return, constitutes her sorrow" (58). While Das reads Bedi's text in and through the discourse of psychoanalysis, her comment is particularly relevant to my argument in the way it constructs the source of her unhappiness in relation to her experiences after her recovery. Back

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