How The Male And Female Gaze Have Shaped Partition Literature

August 09, 2019

For a long time now, literature has been able to preserve the collective memory of the epoch-defining  historical events, in a way that is both a release for the survivors, as well as providing for a nuanced space for the interpretation of long-term grief. The Partition of India is one such cataclysmic event that has occupied a very significant place in South Asian literature, and as Pakistani historian, Ayesha Jalal describes it,[a] defining moment that is neither beginning nor end, partition continues to influence how the peoples and states of postcolonial South Asia envisage their past, present and future.”

Partition literature has many literary forms, including novels, poetry, short stories and non-fiction works. However, the sub-genre in its most mainstream version, mostly navigated by male writers, has been singularly focused on the community, its intertwining relationship with religion and the scale of gendered violence in order to integrate power and authority over people and territories. On the other hand, women writers write more about the realities of the Partition, and delve into the nature and structure of gender relationships against the backdrop of this historical catastrophe.

As a sub-genre that is at the cusp of several genres – history, literary fiction, dystopian, biographical, magical realism and romance – it is imperative that, as readers, we look at the Partition through both gazes – the male and the female. Through this piece, I will take readers through Partition literature across the years, and point out the difference between the female and the male gaze and how each has contributed to the shaping of this sub-genre. In doing so, I will reflect on how these gazes interact and intersect with each other, to provide for a comprehensive and nuanced narrative of the historical event.

The Male Gaze: Looking Outwards At Community, Independence, Religion And War

There is a distinct place for the male gaze within the nostalgia of post-Partition literature. The male gaze looks externally, while examining the events and effects of the Partition; it looks at grief from the point of view of the community, religion and social institutions, and uses the prism of nationalism, independence and communal identities.

For example, Yashpal’s This Is Not That Dawn (originally published in Hindi as Jhooth Sach) and Bhisham Sahani’s Tamas are considered very significant in depicting the Partition through a lens of politics, general elections and communal riots. Salman Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, looked at the “idea of the uniquely dysfunctional independence granted to the Indian subcontinent”. The story chronicles the peculiar coming of age of 1001 children born during the first hour of India’s independence, especially two boys, Saleem and Shiva. Through the narratives of these two boys, Rushdie analyses the predicament of two new countries that were born and raised alongside its own citizens, a generation trying to make its way into the world. As Rushdie, through his masterpiece, questions the tectonic implications of the Partition, he also looks at concepts of fate and self-determination.

Other works such as Rajinder Singh Bedi’s short story, Lajwanti, indicates in a very succinct way, that the seemingly extraordinariness of the Partition may be different in degree and spectre but it is ultimately proximate to the violence that women go through every day, perpetuated by the nation and the family, both patriarchal structures.

Khushwant Singh’s Train To Pakistan tries to illustrate the moral confusion of an extraordinary event like the Partition on the residents of a fictional village in Punjab called Mano Majra, a relatively peaceful place, where, for years, Sikhs and Muslims have lived with equanimity but things quickly change as communal violence spreads through India like wild fire. The story reflects the cynicism and savagery committed on India-Pakistan border during the Partition, but it is more focussed on the extrinsic aspects of the event, without delving into the human psyche.

Saadat Hasan Manto’s famous short story, Toba Tek Singh, is an unusual story set in a mental asylum in Lahore, a few years after the Partition. The story is about the Indian and Pakistani governments preparing to exchange inmates within mental asylums, as they did civilians, and how this results in  extreme discomfort when one inmate, bewildered by concept of the Partition, climbs up a tree and refuses to come down. Through the ramblings of Toba Tek Singh, the readers understand how painful the idea of the two nations was in the 1950s, and how much mental anguish it created for the people it displaced. The story ends with his death in between the two countries – in no-man’s land – a reflection of how the male gaze was more invested in capturing territorial anguish. The story does hit subtly upon the loneliness of Partition, separation and confusion, but does not capitalise on exploring these fully.

In the larger scheme of things, reading about the event from a strictly male gaze is to understand the Partition’s historicity, and its deep connections with social, political, and gendered institutions, structures, and practices, and to delve headfirst into its morass of “unequal, nebulous flows power” between individuals and their identities (of caste, ethnicity, religion, language, class, region). In doing so, the madness of the catastrophe is subsumed within the pragmatic politics of the community, thereby, buffering writers from fully experiencing their grief.

But the problem of a mass, generalised telling of the Partition is that it is too black and white, and in its fervour to show the traumatic dimensions of the event – madness, violence, unspeakable horror – it often uses women’s bodies to tell their stories. And this is where the female gaze becomes significant.

The Female Gaze: Looking Inwards At Lived Realities, Trauma, And Private Lives

Male writers tend to look at Partition literature as a complement to history, and as a result, fail to explore the lived realities of the time. Urvashi Butalia finds this approach extremely flawed: “As an historical event, Partition, for example, has ramifications that reach far beyond 1947, yet historical records make little mention of the dislocation of people’s lives, the strategies they used to cope with loss, trauma, pain and violence. Why have historians been reluctant to address these? Are these questions of no use to history at all?”

The female gaze on the Partition is, primarily, built on Dorothy Smith’s concept of the “everyday world” which points tolived reality within the private sphere: women’s embodied, gendered lives within the domestic space that are effected and affected by major events in the public, political sphere of men”. Ideally, the female gaze is used to connect the domestic, private lives of women to the political world at any given historical context. What this does is both necessary and prosaic – it filters the lived realities of women through sieves of ordinary as well as extraordinary times, deconstructing the political space through infinitesimal narratives of women during the Partition.

Krishna Sobti’s 2017 autobiographical novel, ‘Gujarat Pakistan Se Gujarat India(A Gujarat Here, A Gujarat There), tackles the experience of being displaced from Gujarat, arriving in Delhi as a “refugee” and taking up work as a governess in the ruling family of the erstwhile princely state of Sirohi in Gujarat, India. Sobti reveals her deep memories of the event, as the joy of being a part of an independent country also meant the loss of home, life, dignity and self. This beautiful and yet painful contradiction is a very apt example of the female gaze on the Partition – Sobti’s body moved through the history of the Partition, through grief, suffering, violence and anguish, and yet, that is not the only essence of the story.

Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa has been called the “female visualisation” of the Partition. The story presents the perspective of Lenny Sethi, a young Parsi girl, who lives in Lahore during India and Pakistan’s partition, but is mostly perceived to be an outsider – she is neither Hindu or Muslim, and suffers from polio. Lenny’s view of history is that of a dispassionate observer, as she has access to a luxurious lifestyle at home, and is also able to view a different reality, outside of her house- of her ‘ayah’ (caretaker) and the Ice Candyman. As she discovers more about the world beyond her reach, she becomes the perfect lens for viewing and experiencing the tension and violence that is building up within the country.

Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side Of Silence endeavours to place the private experiences and lived realities of displaced people from Pakistan and India at the centre of the historical event. Butalia’s book is intersectional – through interviews and an examination of personal narratives through diaries, letters, memories and government documents, she asks an all-important question – how were marginalised people – women, children, lower-caste, adivasis affected by this event.

Khadija Mastur’s The Women’s Courtyard provides for an inward perspective of the Partition: Aliya’s courtyard is far removed from the Partition, and yet, it is a part of its impending force. The book contains so little of the usual tropes of Partition literature – violence, rape, ethnic cleansing – that one might even question why it would be categorised under the sub-genre. The story is about Aliya, a Muslim girl and her small family, as her country grapples with this new-found independence, suspended between life and death, and tethered to history.

Viewing The Partition Through Both Gazes

Both the male and female gazes provide for unique schemas of history – one contains the public realm, and the other looks at pieces within the private realm. However, it is important to state that the female gaze tends to be more inclusive, accessible and looks at empirical evidence of lived realities as its foundation. This may also mean that the female gaze tends to be more feminist – it does not reduce the women to their bodies, and does not equate the woman to patriarchal notions of honour, familial pride and national identity. While the male gaze is more objective to the politics at hand, it does not depict the invisible subversions at the margins of the public realm – both by men and women. It also creates an unnecessary hierarchy of trauma – loss of identity, nationality, community over the grief of losing family, homes, love and dignity.

Partition literature occupies an evocative space in expressing individual and community grief, and while it is important to chart out the differences between both gazes, it is imperative to understand that both have shaped the sub-genre in their own way, and looking at the Partition through both gazes, instead of either one, offers up a more holistic and all-encompassing picture of this historical event.

Deya is a human rights lawyer by day, and by night, a book nerd, who is constantly running out of shelf-space. Her small apartment in Bangalore, where she is based, has already been swallowed by her meandering bookshelves. Truth be told, this might also be her ultimate plan to avoid all human contact. Deya tweets about feminism, women's rights and (mostly) all things books at @LadyLawzarus.

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