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  • Yearning for an Impossible Elsewhere
  • Sankaran Krishna (bio)
Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998, xi + 379. Also Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. $15.95 (paper).

Picture a procession of people stretching over dozens of miles. Nearly 400,000 hot, dusty, bedraggled, impoverished and starving men, women and children, walked slowly across the landscape for weeks in the summer of 1947 across the newly drawn border between Pakistan and India. If you had stood by a culvert alongside the start of the procession, it would have taken eight days and nights for the last person in that human chain to pass you. Staggering as that sounds, this was just one of many human chains crisscrossing the Punjab for two months as nearly ten million people moved either from India to West Pakistan or vice versa. Another two million people similarly relocated at the other end of the subcontinent in Bengal in what has to be the largest instance of human migration in history. It is estimated that a million people were killed; hacked by swords, stabbed with knives, burnt to death, chased into rivers, drowned in wells, many by people who were known to them. It is further estimated that nearly 75,000 women were raped and/or abducted during these months. Violence, destruction, suffering, and dislocation on such a scale is impossible to understand or comprehend, and there seems literally nothing sufficient that one can say about it all. Urvashi Butalia’s extraordinary book is testament that words can evoke an unbearable degree of pain, memories, anguish, and lost worlds. Perhaps even more importantly, there is such a plenitude of meaning and significance in silence - in all of those things that are not talked about, in the averted gaze and the unfinished sentence; in what we choose to forget; in references to those who had to be sacrificed and those whose honor was preserved; in the oblique references to relatives who chose to stay back or to go over; in stray phrases that allude to a temporality of before and after this event; and in many other ways. Trained to look for the spoken and the written word, we have ignored the world of meaning that signifies itself through the many forms of silence.

In the early 1980s, Urvashi Butalia was faced with a choice familiar to many a young woman in her urban, middle-class, New Delhi circle: whether to accept a scholarship to pursue higher studies in the United States (in her case with the University of Hawai’i) or to build a career at home in India. Butalia chose to stay and is today a leading feminist, a historian (though not in the academic sense of that word), an activist for civil liberties and women’s rights, and the co-founder of one of the worlds best feminist presses, Kali for Women. Her political coming of age occurred during the pogrom against the Sikhs immediately after Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984. In four days, nearly 3000 Sikhs were killed in and around Delhi (often with the collusion of leaders affiliated with the Congress party of Mrs. Gandhi and of the police forces), thousands of others were rendered homeless, women were raped, and Sikh-owned properties were looted. As the very upholders of the law turned into the perpetrators of genocide, many ordinary Delhi-ites formed themselves into an impromptu state; they established relief and refugee camps; they prevented mobs from entering neighborhoods; they distributed clothing and food; and they served as witnesses in the later inquiries into the pogrom. Like many Punjabis in Delhi, Butalia is from a family whose history is inextricable from the Partition - her mother’s family was from Lahore as were many other relatives on both sides of the family. And her relatives include both Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs, her paternal grandfather was Sikh, and her father (as the oldest son in the family) was raised a Sikh as well.

For the Sikhs of Delhi, the days of early October in 1984 seemed like a sickening replay of Partition all over again. Analogies to that time and its...

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