Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony

By Nonica Datta
New Delhi: Oxford, 2009
Pages xv+235; Price Rs 695

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(From the forthcoming issue of South Asian Ensemble)

With enviable patience and sophistication, Nonica Datta teases out history’s secrets by ‘developing’ – like a photo-artist – its narratives. These narratives are the deposits, in the manner of a great riverbed, of event, memory and invention. Datta is an extraordinary historian because she is more than a mere historian: she is also an archaeologist of Walter Benjamin’s description, she reads ‘stories’ like Marx reading Balzac, she is not afraid to fictionalize if it helps to historicize, and she suggests but does not judge. You rarely come across a book which you relish so thoroughly – even in its preface, glossary, map, endnotes and ‘supplement’ (for that is what chapter 3, A Letter to Subhashini, may best be called, recalling Derrida).
            Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony folds back on itself in a kind of self-reflexive enfleshment through the narrator’s own testimony to Subhashini’s. The reader’s reward for bearing testimony to the narrator’s testimony is, then, that by the end of the book (but is it correct to term it as just a book?) she has also learnt how to read history with its silences and chatter, and memory with its inventions, evasions and abysses.
            Apparently the book recounts Subhashini’s history, yet soon enough that history becomes a magnifying glass to reveal subtler, larger movements of the history of the Indian subcontinent over two centuries. Subhashini (1914-2003) headed Kanya Gurukul, an Arya Samaj institution for the education of girls, in village Khanpur in Haryana. Her father Bhagat Phool Singh was an Arya Samaj preacher actively involved in the shuddhi movement. He was shot in August 1942 by unidentified persons, the killers escaping in the darkness of the night. For Subhashini, 1942 becomes, for various reasons, the key reference. She sees the massacres of Muslims during the Partition in 1947 as divine retribution provoked by her father’s murder, for she suspects Muslim Rangars to be the murderers even though there is no evidence pointing to this. The invention of the murderers and the reinvention of 1947 happen in a complex matrix in which the personal and the public intertwine in Subhashini’s memory. What that memory lacks is sufficiently supplied by Datta’s historical research into colonial mediations of political economy of the subcontinent. As Datta compactly traces it, the conflict of interest between the Muslim pastoralists and the Hindu Jat peasantry was a consequence of colonial interventions in the existing agrarian structure but it appears to a mind like Subhashini’s as a natural conflict arising from the innate wickedness of the ‘other’ community. The Muslim population’s extermination and exile from that area appears to Subhashini, therefore, as guided by the hand of Providence. It is arguably this screen of faith and suspicion which allows her to remember without remorse or pity the savage murder of Karamat’s child during the Partition.
Subhashini’s narrative as recorded by Datta suggests how intricately the historico-economic and the psychoanalytical are mutually imbricated. Subhashini’s memory has almost no space for her two mothers, or for her husband Abhimanyu. Pitaji’s towering figure puts in shade everyone else, including Gandhi who is remembered with more than a touch of cynicism (probably because he did not endorse a retaliatory reformism). Obsessive remembering of her father, in a discourse that is repressively silent about sexuality and property – except in the story of Karamat and his converted mother-daughter wives – hint strongly at other subtexts. It goes to Datta’s credit that she has devised a historiographic method that is multilinear and multilayered without losing focus.
            Datta’s open-ended conclusion appears in the form of a letter she pens for Subhashini three years after Subhashini’s death. As a ‘supplement’, the letter stands both inside and outside the book. This is where she raises the most disturbing questions for any historian (Subhashini is almost reborn here as a metaphor for those people who do history without addressing history’s unconscious). Subhashini would be judged here, but not by the narrator. She would be judged by the historian and by history, but without the passing of any judgement. Datta’s method is to juxtapose/expose Subhashini’s ‘history’ with the writer Amrita Pritam’s and with her own aunt Vash’s. The result is that the historian as a human being cannot but indict her protagonist:

            It is through your testimony that I have come to understand why there isn’t any Muslim presence in my own cultural memory of the Haryana that I grew up in.

          Your sense of territorial citizenship rests, I am afraid, upon a destroyed cultural landscape, which erased the Rangar pastoralists.

      But Amrita and Vash feel rootless and homeless. They interrogate Partition and azadi; so do you, but differently.

Partition fills Amrita and Vash with sorrow. For Subhashini, it is a moment to celebrate because it crystallizes for her the triumph of “cultural nationalism”.
Unfortunately, as Datta puts it, Amrita and Vash have only “fragile, fragmented and mute identities”. Even today, and in spite of history’s painful self-reflections and rewritings, the self-assured, tough, whole(some) and strident identities prevail.


M L Raina said...

An exeptionally good review. It brings the book alive.

G R Kataria said...

Gud one.I also read the piece on Arondhat Roy which I cd not earlier.
Both pieces are critical , lucid and informative.

Badri Raina said...

see what you mean; shall see if i can get my hands on the book.

Kapil said...

A simple, thoughtful and informative review. Subhashini's attitude towards the 'other', though prejudiced, seems normal. It naturally affects the way she looks at things. Presenting a wide range of complex issues through such an individual must be a challenge. And Datta, as the review suggests, meets it well.