Partition and literature
Partition literature as a distinct literary genre has found its place in the Urdu, Hindi, Bengali and English writings of the sub-continent. It is rooted in time but not bound by time. It emerged in the post-1947 era and is still thriving with new writings emerging every passing year. Partition literature has a diversity as well as freshness which needs to be analyzed in its context both at macro and micro levels. One can also notice that partition literature in English is overwhelmingly about the Punjab partition. Writings on Punjab partition in Urdu have also been translated into English. The tilt toward Punjab became the feature of literature produced immediately after the partition and still remains so.
Early phase of partition literature was mostly about Punjab because partition violence and exodus of people from one side of the border to the other during the partition days were most brutal, bloody and tragic in Punjab. On the other hand, Bengal remained more or less calm in 1947. Hindu-Muslim riots were brutal in the pre-partition Bengal with blood flowing profusely in the streets of then Calcutta in 1946, which was later dubbed as the “Great Calcutta Killing”. This was followed by the shocking conflict and senseless violence deep in the rural setting of Noakhali followed by Bihar.
Whereas Bengal was more or less peaceful in the partition days of 1947, sea of blood flowed on both sides of the newly marked border of Punjab. The conflict went out of control and, in a mad frenzy, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims engaged in killing each other. The political leadership who endorsed partition as a means to end the religious conflict in India was bewildered by the extent of violence partition caused and decided to implement the policy of population exchange. Thus began the overnight exodus of common people wiped out of their abode, their homeland, their history. This tragedy gave birth to partition literature heavily tilted toward the events in Punjab.
If Punjab partition is depicted as “Operation without Anesthesia”, Bengal partition can be termed as a conflict with occasional waves of violence and exodus, the first of which was enacted in 1950. There was no exchange of population in Bengal and Pakistan made its final push for such brutal solution with their attack on Bengali nationalists in general and Hindus in particular in 1971, aiming to clear the land of any infidel presence.
This effort culminated in genocide and the ultimate surrender of Pakistani Forces to the Freedom Fighters ably assisted by India and the emergence of Bangladesh as a secular democratic republic, upholding linguistic-ethnic identity that promotes inclusivity of all religions. But the legacy of partition is deep and solution was not easy. The whole of the subcontinent got entangled in the web of partition that crippled the mindset of generations to come and lured the politicians to continue to play with fire.
Against this background, artistic renderings of the past tragedies have earned significance not only for the present but also for the future. Partition literature is a way how our writers attempted to fathom the extreme brutality and suffering that people had gone through.
Partition literature is passing through various phases. The outbursts of early chronicle were produced by those who had become victims of history, witnessed and suffered extreme pain. No doubt the bulk of such literature centered around the Punjab partition. On the other hand, the agony of rootlessness and forced displacement along with nostalgia for the land left behind was salient feature of early Bengali writings on partition. Majority of partition stories were produced by the refugees from East Bengal, whereas Bengalis from Eastern India immigrating to the Islamic land of Pakistan could not freely express themselves as that was not a politically correct position defined by the state. So in the initial phase, partition literature in both parts of Pakistan was not as prolific as we find in India. Trauma of partition experience also played a role which has never been analyzed in detail.
Re-reading the partition stories of Hasan Azizul Huq, one can note the complexities that remain as a backdrop of such literary endeavors. Hasan was born in a remote village of Burdwan, far from the turmoil and conflict which engulfed the urban Bengal. When Bengal was partitioned people in the rural setting could not understand what really had happened. But there was no escaping the legacy of partition and, at the age of sixteen, Hasan had to leave the family land and life at Burdwan to move to Khulna to start a new life in a new land. The 1950 riot and mass exodus of Hindus from East Pakistan changed the demography of West Bengal in general and Kolkata in particular. The riot that Bengal had evaded in 1947 now raised its cruel head with brutal scenes enacted in many places of Bengal.
The refugee boy Hasan Azizul Huq emerged as a storyteller with a difference in the 1960s of the last century. One of his early stories, “Uttor Bashante” (Post-Spring), narrates the life of a migrant family that has settled in an abandoned dilapidated house in a Khulna suburb. Life has lost meaning both for the young and the old members of the family. Following “Post-Spring”, Hasan has not written much about partition; altogether six stories can be compiled under the rubric of partition, including “Atmaja O Ekti Karabi Gach”, a masterpiece hailed as one of the finest short stories in Bengali literature. “Atmaja” is also the story of deep pain of a refugee family whose members could not find a way to build a new life. The story has been told in such a tone that many readers consider it as a story of human suffering, not so much related with partition.
The pain and agony of partition remains an underlying theme in almost all of Hasan’s six stories on partition. The stories do not reflect any personal experience as such, but Hasan, like many others of his generation, has witnessed the mad frenzy that is difficult to fathom.
The partition stories of Hasan do not betray his own past although the setting is almost always the refugees in their new environment. There they are like a fish out of water, gasping for breath and in many cases the shelter is not anything new but a house as abandoned as the people are. The present haunts them, the past does not exist and the future has no meaning for them. Such is the pain of partition that Hasan seeks to depict, which often becomes a tale of human suffering difficult to fathom.
Hasan Azizul Huq in his fictional writings in the newly independent Bangladesh went back to his past, to the people and life of rural peasants in the Bengal of scorched earth, the “Radr” with its unique, eternal Bengaliness. These are experiences the author brought with him when he had crossed the border to turn into a refugee from a citizen. But his deep personal experiences are not to be found in his stories. Those were too traumatic, too deep, to be shared with others.
I had the opportunity to listen to his first personal narrative of partition in February 1999 at a seminar organized by the Comparative Literature Department of Jadavpur University. The theme of the three-day conference was “Identity of Bengali Nationhood”.
We were staying in the same hostel, delegates from Bangladesh including Hayat Mamud, Waheedul Haq, Mohammad Rafiq and Sanjida Khatun, among others. During the adda at night, Hasan Azizul Huq withdrew himself as he was yet to finish his paper. Everybody was there with their paper ready except Hasan. Next day when he read out the paper at the morning session the audience was spellbound. The title of his paper was "Ordinary Life: Communalism, Partition, Riot". It was about the common men and women from a village under Mangolkot Police Station in Burdwan. It was the first time Hasan opened up about his childhood and early life experiences. In the background, a lot of events happened that made its impact on the lives of people in rural Bengal. When India got independence, Hasan, a boy of class IV, came to know at school that India was free from that day. A new flag was hoisted with renderings of patriotic songs. Except that small ceremony, life continued as usual. He narrated little events of his life, which reflected divide as well as bonding in the rural realities, sometime both attitudes being held by the same person. Most importantly, he described one killing in the village as a consequence of the 1946 riot that still haunts him. Their own village of predominantly Muslim population was like an island surrounded by Hindu villages. A fatty man, popularly known as "Jamai" of the village because of marital link, was a newcomer. He along with his brother-in-law was searching for a girl in the family who went missing. In the moonlit night they were suddenly attacked by a group of Hindus under the influence of drug. The brother-in-law escaped in no time but the fatty Jamai could not. The escapee later on narrated the event: the Jamai was stabbed and he was screaming loudly: Why me? What have I done? Why are you killing me?
This is only one killing, which Hasan did not witness but learned in detail from an eye-witness. This one killing represented to him all killings that preceded it and continued thereafter.
It took almost 50 years for Hasan to open up about his traumatic experience of partition. Later on, he picked up the pen to write his own memoir. Several volumes of the memoir have already been published. We know in great detail stories of his life in the backdrop of communalism, partition and riots.
In spite of greater details provided by the author, the question remains: do we really understand his stories in relation to the partition or when will we ever do?
Mofidul Hoque is a co-founder and one of the eight Trustees of the Liberation War Museum. He is a writer, researcher and publisher based in Dhaka. His book, Deshbhag, Sampradayikata Ebong Sampreetir Sadhana was published by the University Press Limited in 2012.