The Other Side of Silence
by Urvashi Butalia
Viking, New Delhi, 1998
Dayawanti/Ayesha could easily be a character out of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. So could her son Ranamama, and his sister Subhadra. But this isn´t fiction and they aren´t characters in a surrealistic setting conjured up by a master writer. Urvashi Butalia draws upon their stories of her grandmother, her uncle and her mother to start off her insightful work on the Partition from the point of view of the people who lived it.
The Other Side of Silence is an attempt to deal squarely and honestly with one of the biggest traumas of history from a perspective that is traditionally ignored when examining the division of the Subcontinent in 1947, the accompanying displacement of 12 million people, the massacre of an estimated 200,000 (the contemporary British estimate) to two million (a later Indian estimate) people, the slaughter that “sometimes accompanied, sometimes prompted their movement”.
“As always,” writes Butalia in the first chapter, “there was widespread sexual savagery: about 75,000 women are thought to have been abducted and raped by men of religions different from their own (and indeed sometimes by men of their own religion).” A major point in the book is the issue of women being seen as the repositories of ´honour´ and ´property´. The writer delves into the state recovery programmes, in which social workers were given the task of tracking down and bringing back Hindu women to India and Muslim women to Pakistan, sometimes against the wishes of the women themselves. Children, however, were often allowed to stay behind if they had been abducted, or were the result of mixed marriages or illegitimate unions although girls of 13 years or older were considered women.
Herself the product of a family of ´Partition refugees´, Butalia makes the journey back into that traumatic period through interviews, starting with those closest to her (Subhadra, her mother, and Ranamama, the uncle who stayed behind in their ancestral Lahore, just 20 miles inside the Pakistani Punjab border) as well as of those she encounters quite by chance, like the auto-rickshaw driver with whom a casual conversation turns into a deeper dialogue, and the beggar woman who had come from a small village in (now Pakistani) Punjab and ended up on the streets of Delhi.
Concluding his narrative of the harrowing journey from Pakistani West Punjab to the Indian side, Rajinder Singh, the auto-rickshaw driver, tells Butalia: “We saw a train load of Hindus had been killed and in Dera Baba Nanak, a trainload of Musalmaans who had come from the direction of Ludhiana had been killed… they killed each other´s people… When we got to Dera Baba Nanak, they said to us, you have come home. But we thought, our home was over there. We have left it behind. How can this be home?” Butalia does not comment on straight narratives like these, allowing the interviewees to just speak in their own unstructured, rambling manner, to allow the readers to draw their own conclusions, much like the way she herself did.
“In this way, I moved from one person to another, one story to another, and collected stories, almost randomly.” This method has its limitations, as the author herself admits, but it has also given her a great deal of freedom, including that of structuring the book in an unconventional way, which is how she felt most comfortable, given that the interviews do not fit any particular pattern. Some of the stories are threaded through the chapters, through references and quotes, while the full text of the interview is provided elsewhere. And through it all is Butalia´s own non-judgemental voice, questioning, analysing, reflecting.
In addition to interviews, Butalia draws upon diaries, memoirs, newspaper reports and documents like enquiry commissions, letters, pamphlets and books. From these emerge the many different ´voices´ of Partition, interspersed with her own distinctive voice.
Although one of the book´s limitations is the writer´s lack of access to people on the Pakistani side of the border (barring Ranamama), the interviews given by people in India could well have been given by people in Pakistan. There is no ´good´ or ´bad guy´ here just ordinary people, victims of traditions, circumstances, economic problems, swept along by a tide they didn´t understand. But they are not always victims. The book is also an attempt to come to grips with the phenomenon of “ordinary peaceable people” having “driven their neighbours from their homes and murdered them for no readily apparent reason than that they were of a different religious community”.
Torn between the “desire to be honest and be careful”, the writer finds no easy answers, but then, she is wise enough not to expect any. And she does manage a fine balance between honesty and treading with care. Although much is left unsaid, it is clear that the motive behind with holding details is sincere. There is throughout the book a rare self questioning, a conscious attempt to place people at the centre of events, to avoid passing judgement or theorising. Many of the insights provided by the writer are therefore all the more valuable.
Starting with her own family, Butalia finds that there are many layers to a perceived reality because people prefer to gloss over or forget what happened. The complexities of family relationships can bring people close, or push them apart. In the case of her mother and uncle, the writer, during the course of her research on the subject of Partition, acted as catalyst and brought them together again in the family house in Lahore, bridging decades of silence and suspicion.
But, things are not as simple as they seem. The layers of distrust built up over the years still remain in this fascinating human story in which you suspect a great deal has been left unsaid because of the writer´s strong sense of ethics and the compulsion to protect those she has interviewed.
What is stronger, the ties of religion, or of blood or of land? Shockingly, the uncle who stayed behind in Lahore confesses that his new family (after Partition, he married a Muslim and converted to Islam) are strangers to him and distrust him because of his Hindu origin. His children, he says, tolerate him only because of his house the collateral which was instrumental in enabling him to marry in the first place. When he meets his niece Urvashi, after she seeks him out on a visit to Lahore, the poignancy of his situation is revealed when he says, it is the first time “I am speaking to my own blood.”
What about his family, she asks. “They are your blood, not me”. “No,” he said, “for them I remain a stranger. You, you understand what it is I´m talking about. That is why you are here on this search. You know. Even if nothing else ever happens, I know that you have been sent here to lighten my load.”
It is this encounter that triggers off Butalia´s determination to complete the book, as it strikes her how many more people like him have lived all their lives with silences, and why, given these silences, “we, who had studied modern Indian history in school, who knew there something called the Partition of India that came simultaneously with Independence, had never learnt about this side of it? Why had these stories remained hidden? Was there no place for them in history?” Substitute “Indian history” for “Pakistani history” and the question remains as valid.
It is not just Ranamama who has been silent for some four decades. As Damyanti Sahgal, the dedicated social worker whose story figures largely in Silences, talks to the writer, details of her experiences come as news to her own sister Kamla. Damyanti´s story also comes across as a microcosm of the story of so many women whose lives were disrupted by Partition. Her account is significant for another reason: her insights and descriptions are, as the writer points out, “particularly valuable in retrieving the history of such violence rape, forcible abduction and marriage, and a further violence of the kind perpetrated by the State in its relief and recovery operation”.
Butalia´s own questioning includes what to leave out and what to put in, and even, indeed, whether she is on the right track. The questioning is reinforced when she was asked over and over again: “Why do you want to know this? What difference will it make?”
With the same rare spirit of self-questioning, Butalia admits that her own identity (middle class, Punjabi, half-Sikh) would undoubtdly have a bearing on the way people responded to her. “What value then ought I to place on their memory, their recall? Often, what emerged from the interviews was so bitter, so full of rage, resentment, communal feeling, that it frightened me.” Nevertheless, she pushed on, “simply because it meant so much to me”an intensity that comes across in no uncertain terms in this sincere and empathic work.