Khushwant Singh's 1956 novel Train to Pakistan features a crucial moment in which Hukum Ghand, the magistrate sent to maintain law and order in the village of Mano Majra in 1947, reflects critically on the dominant image that emblematized Indian independence internationally:
What were the people in Delhi doing? Making fine speeches in the assembly! Loud-speakers magnifying their egos; lovely-looking foreign women in the visitors' galleries in breathless admiration: "He is a great man, this Mr. Nehru of yours. I do think he is the greatest man in the world today. And how handsome! Wasn't that a wonderful thing to say? "Long ago we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure but very substantially."
He then goes on to remember the contemporaneous experiences of three Sikh acquaintances: a colleague Prem Singh who is murdered in Lahore by "a dozen heads with fez caps and Pathan turbans"; recently married Sundari, the daughter of his orderly, who was raped by a Muslim mob and handed the penis of her castrated husband; Sunder Singh, whom Hukum Chand had recruited for the army and who shot his family to relieve them of hunger and thirst during their migration. In ruminating upon how Prem Singh "made his tryst at Falletti's hotel," how Sundari "had made her tryst with destiny on the road to Gujranwala," and how Sunder Singh "came to his tryst by train, along with his wife and three children" such that "he did not redeem the pledge. Only his family did," Hukum Chand indexes his cynical distance from the prevailing nationalist rhetoric about independence. (1)
This narrative moment offers a number of useful starting points for thinking about Indian national modernity. First, it links the Indian state and its official public events with the experiences of its citizens. Chand recounts Nehru's momentous words only to test them against the local experiences of individual members of the new national polity. Second, this scene addresses the invisibility of the suffering, mass violence, and death that accompanied Partition in the celebratory official and international discourse on Indian independence and decolonization. Thus, it situates the story of national emergence in relation to the twin axes of an international global community and Partition's violence and mass migration. The cynicism toward the barely incipient nation-state manifests itself through a rejection of Nehru and his momentous speech that invokes race as well as sexuality--by describing his words and appearance as objects of white women's admiration and desire. Moreover, Chand's description of ethnic and sexual violence suggests not only the absence of ordinary peoples' experiences of violence in dominant accounts of 1947, but also the failure of the nationalist elite to usher in a peaceful transfer of power.
Finally, this scene raises questions about the representation of the Indian nation and history. As he describes the rape of newly married Sundari by a mob of Muslim men who first castrate her husband, it is clear that for Chand this sexual violence marks the failure of a patriarchal nation-state to protect both its male citizens and the honor of its women. Thus, in this bureaucrat's cynical ruminations, national politics betrays the nation's patriarchal family.
This article takes up the questions about gender, nationalism, and violence articulated above through contemporary postcolonial writing by a diasporic South Asian writer published internationally--Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India (2)--to examine how it revisits and remembers this history of decolonization, partition, and independence. In the last decade, the Partition of 1947 has reemerged in public discourse and as an object of inquiry in South Asian studies, particularly in the disciplines of anthropology and history. These studies have often focused on the gathering of individual testimony and remembrance to apprehend the experience of the subcontinent's Partition. This article responds to such a focus on individual testimony by turning to Partition's cultural and aesthetic narration in contemporary literature in transnational South Asian public spheres.
Despite the magnitude of violence that characterized the duality of independence and partition, few scholars have studied the role of this essentially constitutive violence in colonial and postcolonial history. As Gyan Pandey has acknowledged, "In much of the historiography of Partition, the history of violence has scarcely begun to be addressed." (3) The violence of Partition was unprecedented, and it was popularly perceived as being irreconcilable with India's history of peaceful, nonviolent struggle: it suggested the failure of those very Gandhian principles of nonviolence. Moreover, because responsibility for the violence lay with all the constituencies involved--the British, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs--it has ultimately been disavowed historically as an aberration, a moment of "insanity" in an otherwise remarkable story of nonviolently achieved freedom from the shackles of colonialism. (4)
In addition, according to state ideology the need to preserve law and order and peaceful intercommunity relations was cited by Nehru as early as 1948 as the grounds for censoring published and filmic accounts of Partition violence; these were seen to fuel and "inflame communal passions." This anxiety about internal law and order, combined with the emergence of new secessionist movements (linguistic and regional) in different parts of the country that threatened national unity, in some measure grounded the state's failure to remember and commemorate the Partition experience. The invocation of powers of President's Rule between 1967 and 1986 seventy times (as opposed to ten times between 1947 and 1966) indicates the state's efforts to manage and control regional politics that came violently alive in this period, and very differently from the way it had in the 1950s. Roughly overlapping with this resurgence of regional and often religious politics, the publication of Anita Desai's Clear Light of Day (5) and Salm an Rushdie's Midnight's Children from 1980 onwards signals the cultural return to the story of independence and decolonization; this story however enjoins this transition to nationality with the history and memory of Partition.
This move is both important and unprecedented: rather than seeing decolonization as an absolute, abrupt, definite exit of the British in August 1947, diasporic authors like Rushdie and Sidhwa redescribe it as a transnational transition from colonial modernity to partitioned, national modernities in a world of international nation-states. (6) These novels show how Partition was not only about creating new national borders but also about the reconfiguration of structures and meanings of family, nationality, citizenship and belonging, racial and ethnic identities, sexuality, community, and international politics. Sidhwa's novel Cracking India suggests that ethnic identities for both men and women are often produced through violence. Moreover, Cracking India shows how this gendered production of ethnic identities--Hindu, Muslim, Sikh--through bodily violence can be disjunct from nationalist discourses, even as its effects reinforce the hegemony of the nation-state.
In Cracking India, Sidhwa stresses the materiality of how male as well as female bodies become different kinds of sites for violent sexual, economic, and communal transactions during decolonization--some that have little to do with nationalism. For example, her novel's representation of the abduction and rape of Ayah (the narrator's Hindu maid) by her lover complicates and contests anthropological explanations of Partition's sexual violence as being about patriarchal communal honor. (In contrast, Rushdie's Midnight's Children turns the postcolonial body into a metaphor for the nation. The violence suffered by the narrator Saleem's body, as he is sperectomized, lobotomized, castrated, and mutilated, becomes an allegory for the fragmentation of a masculine Indian nation.)
I conclude by suggesting that Cracking India offers a radical contemporary critique of the nation through its depiction of Partition's sexual violence as a form of consumption, even as that violence is irreducible in the economy of national history and exceeds it. In this novel's return to national history through the site of everyday life, I locate the memory of Partition violence that enables us to contest nationalist histories and to critique national modernity in South Asia.
A word on this article's position in the conventional contours of the debates about communalism and secularism: Recently, historians have tried to shift the terms of this debate to challenge the simplistic divisions between secularism or secular nationalism and communalism through a move to redescribe communalism as a "culturalism," in order to open up a way to think of religious difference as a modern problem of cultural difference through which identities are mobilized. For example, Ayesha Jalal argues that the gravitation of Muslims in India toward the idea of a Muslim community in the early twentieth century is less a "communal" or religious one and more a "cultural" move--a gravitation toward an assertion of cultural difference and a "religiously informed cultural identity." Further, she contends that the binarism between secularism and communalism has tended to manifest itself in the tendency to name the Muslim as the communalist in South Asian history; in order to correct this tendency, she suggests th at what is named Muslim communalism should be seen as an inevitable Muslim "cultural nationalism" "in an inclusionary religious mode," engendered by the Hindu-dominated Congress's refusal to share political power in independent India. (7)
This last argument is disturbing and problematic in its desire to legitimate communalism or communalist...