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Gender, Partition and Time through the Lens of Literature

By Aditya Kalyan


Partition brings about memories of colonial rule, violence and migration. However, during such memories, the images of women are absent. The role of women was not shown in Partition history which left women invisible when we talk about this traumatic incident. This article highlights some of the literary works from the Partition era and investigates the lives of women who exist between these pages. The role of women is examined by their participation in public spaces which shows a contrast between Masculine and Feminine times.

Partition literature has given us knowledge of the horrors people experienced during the event. While the impact of the partition was initially studied using geographical and political metrics. The literature of that time reflects people’s lives during the partition, particularly women’s lives. The partition was a gendered calamity, with men being heroes in stories and women primarily being depicted as victims. It was common for people of other religions to assault women of different faiths in order to assert dominance and seek revenge. The horrors of partition have been written on the bodies and souls of women. It is often forgotten that the partition was an event that excluded women by forming nationalist groups dominated by men. At the same time, most of the violence inflicted was upon women. The idea of a nation was something that differed for men and women. The intricacies of partition were not paid attention to by women. Men were active in the nation-building process, an idea of a nation fueled by religious and violent notions. Violence was central to partition, with women being used as a tool to take revenge upon or to avenge for. Their identity did not matter, and they were used as pawns for fights in which they would always suffer.

In the texts such as “Roots” by Ismat Chughtai and “Pinjar” by Amrita Pritam, we see the struggles of women and how the partition affected their lives. We also know the difference in the idea of nation and how it plays out for men and women in different contexts. For men, the concept of a nation is where their pride and religion reside. In the literature we have seen, women do not want to leave their homelands. This is a common theme in both of these texts. In Pinjar, Amrita Pritam’s protagonist does not leave Pakistan, although she has the chance to. After being kidnapped days after her engagement, getting married against her will and being renamed after being branded on her skin, Pooro/Hamida has all the reasons to join her brother and board the India-bound bus filled with Hindus. Yet she chooses to stay back with her husband and son. This love towards the land she was kidnapped to exists because of the love she could foster for the people she had initially.

In Roots, written by Ismat Chughtai, we see the desperation of the narrator’s mother to stay back.  The narrator’s mother cannot fathom leaving her house and the place she was married into. The house that she stayed in was filled with memories. Memories of her marriage, the death of her husband, the cacophony of her children and the buried umbilical cords in the courtyard. The memories have seeped into the land the house was built on, and to leave it behind for another land did not seem acceptable. If the ground that one’s memories were embedded in cannot be called a homeland, how does one expect to find one in a country they have never been in? The narrator’s mother says these things before letting her children go in pursuit of a new homeland.

Diving into the texts, Amrita Puri’s text talks about Pooro, a woman who is abducted by Rashida, a Muslim man, and is forcefully married to him. In due course, she has a child who she initially hates but learns to love him. The story is filled with instances of Pooro helping women whose position was identical to the one she was in. Pooro helps them, in a way, perhaps because she expected her parents to help her when they abandoned her after she was kidnapped. Pooro lives through psychological horrors, if not physical, showing us the trauma Partition inflicted on women. Pooro’s kidnapping is a plot of revenge. Pooro’s family had kidnapped Rashida’s aunt. As an act of revenge, Rashida’s family wanted to avenge the insult they had faced and forced Rashida to kidnap the daughter of the Sahukars before she was wed. She meets women such as Taro, Kammo, the mad woman, and Lajo.

Why did she have to pick up flowers which others had plucked and cast aside? What inner compulsion made her water withered buds and tried to revive them? And yet they remained estranged from her and left in her solitude!” 

Pooro/Hamida did not understand why she would find women who were traumatized like her and why she wanted to help such people, people she had never met in her life. We can see the time aspect of the story here. Pooro/Hamida would dream of a utopian world where she was married to Ramchand. To avenge the past and in hopes of having a better future, she feels the need to help the women mentioned above. It is a sort of sisterhood she feels for these women. By trying to help these women, Hamida/Pooro is living her dreams through them, attempting to break the time loop. There is also an aspect of time that plays into the masculine and feminine ways of life. Masculine time/public spaces are inhabited by men most of the time. Feminine time/private spaces are seen as a sphere within which women are expected to stay. The partition shows us that whenever these strict masculine and feminine times collided, it resulted in violence. We can also see that Pooro/Hamida has different identities in different spaces. In public spaces, she is known as Hamida, while inside her house, she refers to herself as Pooro, the Pooro who was abducted by Rashida and married against her wishes. 

In Roots, the narrator’s mother is attached to her private space, wherein she refuses to leave her house. We see the aspect of feminine time when we hear her talk about the house after her family has left her behind. She talks about the umbilical cords buried in the courtyard, the delivery of her ten children in the hallowed room and the death of her husband, to whom she had been married for 50 years. The family leaves despite all these memories of the households and moves to the promise of a new land, a land that they have never seen, never walked on, but only heard about. The family moves into a masculine time willingly, leaving the comfort of the feminine time (private space).

The two texts described in the article represent the pain and suffering people (especially women) experienced during the partition. Nation-building has always been dominated by men, and women were always confined to their private spaces. The idea of masculine and feminine time is fascinating because it shows us how the spaces are divided between the sexes and also speaks about the difference in mobility between men and women.

About the Author

 Aditya Kalyan is a third-year student at O.P Jindal Global University majoring in Literature and International Business.  

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