- Unsettling Partition: Literature, Gender, Memory
As Gyanendra Pandey so forcefully reminds us in Remembering Partition (2001), the partition of India, which occurred in 1947, remains one of the darkest moments in recent South Asian history. The trauma it entailed was of such magnitude that there has been a general reluctance to engage with it, in literature and in other disciplines. It is only the last decade or so that has witnessed scholarly interest in not only uncovering the details of this event, but also acknowledging that the partition needs to be seen as a complex and multi-layered event, not simply as a political struggle between the Hindus and the Muslims.
Jill Didur's Unsettling Partition is a necessary and astute scholarly intervention that seeks to use literature as a way of addressing issues of memory and gender that have a direct bearing on how the partition unfolded. The book acknowledges the importance of looking at all literatures that have appeared on the topic, but focuses specifically on works written in English in order to demonstrate how the authors reveal the pivotal role of gender in the ideological stances created before and during the partition. As she puts it, '[O]ne of the central concerns of the book is to explore how literature and literary criticism play a role in bolstering or questioning the production of hegemonic nationalist imaginaries in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh today.' These imaginaries naturally involve religion, masculinity, and national borders, but they also significantly involve women and their 'imagined' role as custodians of culture. On both sides, women were the victims of religious ideologies, and the book 'concerns itself with these types of counter-narratives – texts that represent how women's bodies and identities became the focus of nationalist discourse.'
Very much like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, the Central Recovery Operation in India and Pakistan was a necessary attempt to ensure that the lives and stories of the victims were not subsumed within larger narratives of state formation. The Recovery Operation was a concerted effort to identify and locate abducted women and return them to their homes. The project was an important one, but one that did not recognize the complexity of how gender had been constructed and enacted in a predominantly patriarchal culture. With a very insightful understanding of the issues involved, and the contribution of history and historiography to the event, Jill Didur looks at a number of literary works closely in order to unpack the meanings of these texts.
Of particular interest are the sections that provide a detailed reading of Attia Hosain's Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) and Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India (1988). Although the two texts have been recognized as major political narratives, readers tend to overlook the fact that these novels offer a very nuanced understanding of the role of women in nationalist ideologies and the silencing of their stories, in order to preserve a progressivist narrative of the state. Jill Didur offers a new way of reading these texts and in the process contributes significantly to the theoretical issues that surround our understanding of the partition.
Given the scope of the book, it is inevitable that the author chose to be selective, opt for depth instead of breadth. Several texts, including Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956) and Chaman Nahal's Azadi (1975), probably need the same kind of attention and [End Page 396] close reading. As a critical work that looks at partition literature from the perspective of memory, gender, and nationalist imaginaries, Unsettling Partition is a valuable contribution – thorough, well written, and rigorous in its analysis.