Plotting Tales of Partition: Friction that Fuels the Fiction

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,
Having never set eyes on the land he was called to partition
Between two peoples fanatically at odds,
With their different diets and incompatible gods.”

Where W.H. Auden’s Cynical evaluation of Sir Cyril Radcliffe’s division of British India into Independent dominions- India and the nascent state of Pakistan, inspired him for his 1966 poem ‘Partition’, the great political upheaval propounded many other profound works. Poetries of Faiz and Agyeya; Stories by Manto and Chughtai; Paintings by Satish Gujral and Jimmy Engineer have vividly encapsulated this great cataclysm, which triggered one of the most violent and devastating massacres of human history and an enduring acrimony between the two nations.

With almost a quarter of total human population, the two countries share a resonating relation with each other, which has been under continual surveillance over the years, with such presence on the international sphere and critical political mechanisms interplaying, matters as sensitive as partition require a very measured, careful and sometimes chary approach.

Like the Russian and French Revolution, throughout the Indian Freedom Struggle literature played a crucial role in unifying the nation together, but after the division literature had a different character to enact, with more varied demographics and much agitated nerves, the new literature as Priyamvada Gopal calls it, Partition Literature needed to correspond to things differently.

Although there’s no consensus on what actually determines a work as partition literature, the accounts that narrativize this impudent historic event could be referred as partition literature.Irrespective of the fact that the narrative is a work of fiction or non-fiction, almost every work has shown ‘partition’ in a negative light.

Where works like Dr. Rajendra Prasad’s India Divided, The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia, Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies or TCA Raghavan’s The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan narrate the incident under the purview of Non-Fiction, ample work of fiction provide the description of the event through varied perceptions.

The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan by TCA Raghavan

Dressing the partition of India in fiction was perhaps one of the most difficult tasks as a writer, from occupying the void created by political turmoil to filling it with imaginary settings, detailed characters and a storyline which accommodates multiple emotions and sentiments judiciously is a mammoth task.

Celebrated diplomat & author of The Great Indian Novel, Shashi Tharoor says,
“Fiction reaches path of readers that other kinds of books don’t.”

Partition of India provided the base for many prominent fictional narratives that substantially fulfill all the aforementioned aspects skillfully in an unprecedented manner.

The first book of this lineage has to be the 1981 Man Booker Prize Winner Salman Rushdie’s epitome of magical Realism ‘Midnight’s Children’, narrated by the protagonist Saleem Sinai himself who is born at the midnight of Independence, Saleem is compared with India itself. With his telepathic powers, he unravels the domain of cultural, linguistic and religious diversities, and further extends to a jarring note on Indira Gandhis’ ‘Emergency’. Rushdie’s ‘Shame’ (1983) is another phantasmagoric epic about an artificial country which is and is not Pakistan simultaneously.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

It is followed by one of the most appropriate novels in this context, Khushwant Singhs’ 1956 retelling ‘Train to Pakistan’, which talks about the Muslim Sikh unity in the fictional village of Mano Majra, the story exemplifies how communal tensions develop in an otherwise peaceful setting.

Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

The 1988 publication The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh is a paradigm of Ghosh’s intense narrative, capturing style and subtle characters that echo the pangs of partition in the psychological urn.

The Shadow Lines by Amitav Gosh

Mukul Kesavan’s Looking Through Glass explores the possibilities of aversion of Partition through a young photographers’ eye in 1942 British India and the tumult of Hindu Muslim riots in 1947. The story provides a fresh perspective with harsh political commentary and sexual comedy to compliment.

Looking Through Glass by Mukul Kesavan

Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto are unarguably the most realistic descriptions of the horrors of partition, endowed with the faculty of sympathy and understanding Manto’s stories like Colder than Ice, The Return or Toba Tek Singh provide a picturesque like no other writer.

The exodus and the subsequent aftermaths of division have also been captured on celluloid adroitly. Beginning with Yash Chopra’s directorial venture Dharmaputra, the 1961 feature film is based on Acharya Chatursen’s novel of the same name and deals with the religious bigotry, fanaticism and communalism against the backdrop of partition.

In 1973, M.S. Sathyu’s Debut feature Garm Hawa raised questions regarding the differentiation of an integral population and the dilemma that the protagonist Saleem Mirzai faces like many others, based on Ismat Chugtai’s unpublished story, the movie earned several accolades to its name.

Garm Hava

The cinematic adaptation of Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas continues to be one of the longest movies of Indian Cinema, starring Deepa Mehta and Om Puri in lead roles it revolves around an immigrant family during the Rawalpindi riots of 1947.


The second film of Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy, the Nandita Das- Aamir Khan starrer 1947 Earth (1998) is based on Bapsi Sidhwa’sIce Candy Man’, where a Parsi family is caught in the communal tensions between the Hindus and the Muslims, in the city of Lahore.

1947 Earth by Deepa Mehta

The 2003 period drama Pinjar, is based on Amrita Pritam’s novel of the same name where an ensemble cast comprising Manoj Bajpayee, Urmila Matondkar, Sanjay Suri and Isha Koppikar is shown to struggle against Hindu Muslim probe of partition.

Irrfan Khan, Tisca Chopra starrer Qissa (2015) continues to be a popular citation among critiques, where a Punjabi man’s desire for a son against the backdrop of partition provides a different angle to the historicity of the event, Viceroy’s House (2017) by Gurrinder Chadha is a new entry on this list.

Qissa by Anup Singh

While it’s been Seventy two years of Independence and the tragedy of partition, the narratives provided in these stories have continued to preserve the essence of this great political schism which has great social, mental and emotional implication on the lives of millions of people, fiction as always will continue to exert its presence in every significant account of history.

Md. Faizan Salik
B.A Hons. English, Jamia Millia Islamia

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