"[So] they left the children behind": Partitions, Literature, and Writing the Child in Basti and The Shadow Lines
In this essay, Sukriti draws upon two works of Partition literature, Basti and The Shadow Lines as "[modes] of surrogate testimony", in order to probe questions around the figure of the child during and after the Partitions. Her essay explores the interaction of history, myth, and cultural memory in the lives of the two protagonists, while also discussing ideas of "postmemory", instances of parental silence in the aftermath of traumatic events, and finding comfort in stories.
“An ill-omened moment stole away my dolls
I arrange the wedding of my groom-doll,
I distribute goodies to my heart’s content,
An ill-omened moment stole away my dolls.”
– Sudershana Kumari (Partition Museum 2018, trans. from Punjabi)
On a warm summer night, neighbours informed eight-year old Sudershana Kumari and her family that a raging mob had set the nearby sawmill on fire. Her family left their home at once and ran across terraces to escape the approaching mob. They were on the run for nearly two days, without food, having witnessed the slaughter of their relatives and neighbours, when they and a few other families found refuge in an officers’ neighbourhood. Soon after, Sudershana and the other children in the group went inside a nearby burnt house to play.
At this point, while giving her oral testimony on her experiences of Partition in the Indian subcontinent, an elderly Sudershana pauses to insert a quick aside, “children are immature like that” she says, acknowledging that as an adult, she would advise against playtime amid a grave crisis. But within a few moments, she unconsciously shifts from the voice of a rational adult to the voice of a little girl, weeping and singing a sorrowful rhyme that forms the epigraph of this essay. As she recalls the little keepsakes the children found amidst the chaos of overturned and broken furniture, Sudershana gives in to the quiver in her voice. We get a glimpse of the ineffable pain and trauma that she would have felt at the time as a young girl, agitated about her dolls and providing them with a home, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her own home back in Pakistan was now to remain only a memory.
Image 1: Sudershana Kumari
(The Partition Museum, Amritsar)
In Susan Rubin Suleiman's study on the child survivors of the Holocaust, she introduces "the 1.5 generation", which refer to the child survivors who fall between the more distinct groups of the first generation (adults who witnessed the Holocaust) and the second generation (children of the adult survivors). Her classification remains relevant in the context of children who experienced the Partitions, “too young to have had an adult understanding of what was happening to them, but old enough to have been there” (Suleiman 278). In much of the scholarship on the Partitions of the 1940s and 1970s, with its violent reverberations being felt across all of South Asia, seldom have children featured as children. It is indeed a mammoth task, comprising of greater complexities that the nature of childhood and children entail, escaping the usual categorizations into which adults more easily fall. Suleiman's coining of the category of "1.5 generation" then, I believe, is a rather befitting term to address the vulnerable group of children during times of conflict – while the decimal point suggests an alternative historiographic intervention, it is also one that is so naturally placed between the well-defined 'whole' generations of individuals that to-date its lack of comprehensive discussion in the discourse surrounding the Partitions is concerning.
There are yet undocumented lives of children during the Partitions who were orphaned overnight, those who got lost in the chaos of forced migrations, those killed in the name of honour and protection, and even children who were caught up in the throes of religious indoctrination and were themselves perpetrators of grave violence. These are stories that can no longer be documented 'authentically' today, not only because many were killed but also because even if they survived, their memories are now inevitably coloured by an adult consciousness, such as that of Sudershana Kumari. In recent decades, literary representations of the Partitions, as "a mode of surrogate testimony" (Saint 47), have attempted to recover lost experiences of children further. Consciously distancing themselves from the impassive reproduction of events that preoccupy official narratives, fictive testimonies embark on a quest that brings the individual, such as the figure of the child, to the center of history.
The purpose of this essay is to analyze two works of Partition literature in light of their subversive engagement with history and particularly with their young subjects. The essay will discuss two figures from the canon of Partition literature – Zakir from Basti (Intizar Husain, 1979, trans. from Urdu, 2007) and the young Narrator from The Shadow Lines (Amitav Ghosh, 1988). To be sure, these novels are written by adults remembering the events of 1947 and its aftermath in various ways, and the issue of "an inherent inaccessibility, between the concept of 'child' and the adult minds that create it" (Honeyman 4) remains unsolved. However, what makes these texts worthy of analysis is the interaction between children and the history of their nation(s). There is a great emphasis on attempts to understand the cataclysmic events in the aftermath of the Partition of India in 1947 through the perspectives of children and youth, to contest popular notions of memory and history, and problematize the predominant yet rather limiting discourse of innocence and vulnerability that usually surround children.
"He wasn't at all a child anymore! After Bi Amma's passing, and the departure from Rupnagar, it was as though he had all at once grown up, as though his childhood had been left behind in Rupnagar." (Basti 32)
Rupnagar, the city of beauty – where birds' calls from the woods echo till Brindaban, where the woodpecker holds under its wing a letter from King Solomon to Queen Sheba, and where the wind rhymes with the tales of the glorious multicultural past of India. Zakir’s early childhood  in this small town is coloured by the tales from Hindu and Islamic culture that flow seamlessly into one another. He runs to and from his father Abba Jan, a Muslim scholar, and Bhagat-ji, a teller of Hindu stories, absorbing different notions of how the world was created, episodes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and lyrical verses and sayings of Prophet Muhammad from the Quran. Zakir is raised in the rich and secular atmosphere of Rupnagar in undivided India, and "an image of the world [takes] shape in his mind" (Basti 6). This is the image that stays with Zakir at every turning point of his life – when he moves to the newly formed Pakistan during the Partition as a young man, and two decades later, when he witnesses the political turmoil of the Indo-Pak war in 1971.
Intizar Husain's Basti, written in 1979, anticipates Linda Hutcheon's “historiographic metafiction” genre, which refers to postmodern works of historical fiction. In many self-reflexive ways, the novel invokes the collective unconscious of the people of India before the Partition(s) took place. The movement between the past and the present in the novel is exceptionally fluid, mirroring the nature of Zakir’s thoughts and memories of his childhood. It briefly yet poignantly allows us a chance to perceive things from the point of view of an “ex-centric”, a child, growing up in what is to be an increasingly troubled world. Moreover, the novel is engaged in blurring the boundaries between historical fact and experiential event, and therefore in preventing the past “from being conclusive and teleological” (Hutcheon 110).
Husain bestows upon young Zakir a kaleidoscopic, cultural memory which stands in contrast to the disharmony of the Partitions. One of the most impressionistic stories that resonates with Zakir throughout the novel is that of Cain and Abel, the slaying of brother by brother, telling of the Partitions that will come years later. His confusion at the betrayal, violence, and pain is not merely the result of a natural childhood innocence, but also because it is at odds with the informal knowledge in the form of memories and stories that he has been actively accumulating from the moment of his socialisation into society. Zakir’s critical understanding of the political upheavals in the subcontinent occurs in terms of the cultural myths and stories he gathered in his childhood. In many ways, Basti seems to suggest that unlike when an adult gives meaning to and articulates childhood experiences, Zakir, whose name literally means “the one who remembers”, is deeply reliant on his childhood knowledge and the lore of a mythical past to find a language that can make sense of his painful present-day reality.
Image 2: A depiction of Cain burying Abel from a manuscript version of Stories of the Prophets (Wikipedia)
In Basti, Zakir recognises intimately the enormity of the loss he is experiencing. His dislocation in the world of chaos causes him to withdraw into “an imaginative geography that lends itself to the representation and mapping of wartime experience” (Haase 3). Zakir’s childhood spaces in the novel are configured mythically as well – the forest of Rupnagar begins with the Black Temple and its grand pipal tree. Beyond the temple is the Karbala, a reference to the important Shi’a site of the battle where the grandson of Prophet Muhammed was martyred. Even beyond is the Ravan Wood, a wasteland except for a single banyan tree at its center, where Zakir and his two friends Bundu and Habib used to catch rain-bugs. Rupnagar then comes to mean more than merely a physical location. As a site of cultural memory, it is “a structure of sentiment produced through imagination, memorialization, recollection and visualization” (Sumathi Ramaswamy qtd. in Jain 24).
Even though as a young man Zakir is initially filled with a familiar wonderment and sense of freedom as he moves to Pakistan, his feelings of the loss of a home loom large. This recognition of the loss of a childhood home during forced migration is expressed by real survivors too: “Everyone thinks oh, this eight-year-old, he’s too little. No one thinks he’ll have any understanding or any emotions about what they are going through and I will never, ever forget that in my life. They were talking and I knew that we are leaving this place” (Uzair, b. 1945; Raychaudhuri 73). Uzair, the speaker, is adamant his younger self, an equally important witness of the separation, be given the agency that he deserves. His testimony is a comment on how sometimes adults fail to recognise the legitimacy of children's feelings in times of crisis, and otherwise have a penchant for generalising their emotions as incomprehensibility.
When we largely encounter an adult Zakir stuck in a menagerie of memories, he does not, as Naomi Sokoloff puts it whilst discussing adult narratives about children during the Holocaust, “[lay] authoritative claim to his interpretations of the past” (Sokoloff 261). Indeed, Zakir is painfully aware of his inability to confront his past and successfully make sense of his present: “I’m on the run from my own history, and catching my breath in the present. Escapist. But the merciless present pushes us back again toward our history” (Basti 68).
“I was a child, and like all the children around me, I grew up believing in the truth of the precepts that were available to me:…I believed in the reality of nations and borders; I believed that across the border there existed another reality.” (The Shadow Lines 241)
Upon finishing The Shadow Lines (1988), one may wonder why, in a novel so rich with details, we never learn the name of the young narrator. Aside from regular markers of his age, we also draw a complete blank at his appearance. This peculiarity perhaps finds a diagnosis in Marianne Hirsch’s explanation of the concept of “postmemory”. She writes, “[to] grow up with overwhelming inherited memories, to be dominated by narratives that preceded one’s birth or one’s consciousness, is to risk having one’s own life stories displaced, even evacuated, by our ancestors” (Hirsch 5). The narrator of The Shadow Lines is a collector of his family’s stories from a noticeably young age. He shares a close relationship with his older relatives' personal and cultural trauma, particularly his grandmother Tha’mma and his young uncle Tridib. Like Zakir, a large part of the narrator’s childhood is spent assimilating the stories and images of past events through “imaginative investment, projection, and creation” (Hirsch 5) and their increasing relevance in his understanding of the present. Over the course of the novel, we realize that the narrator’s own memory is so intricately linked to those of his close relatives, that even when twice, or thrice removed from their past experiences, the narrative sustains a sense of authenticity, “reinvesting them with resonant individual and familial norms of mediation and aesthetic expression” (Hirsch 33).
The Shadow Lines is a unique piece of work because although it has a single narrator, it includes “multidirectional memories” (Rothberg qtd. in Kabir 129). Ghosh has interwoven multiple childhoods, each telling of lasting traumas from different periods, which echo within members of the same family. We read about young Tha’mma’s and her sister Mayadebi’s partitioned house in Dhaka during the 1910s, nine-year-old Tridib’s memories of the bombings in London during the Second World War, the narrator’s nine-year old cousin Ila’s experiences of racism in London in 1960, thirteen-year old Robi’s experience of his elder brother Tridib’s mob lynching in 1964 in Dhaka, and in the same week, the eleven-year old narrator’s personal encounter with mob violence in Calcutta.
In the 1960s, an elderly Th’amma is bewildered at learning that there is no tangible marker or border which separates India and East Pakistan – “What was it all for then – partition and all the killing and everything – if there isn’t something in between?” (TSL 167). Her nervousness about the invisibility of the division of Bengal stems from her own childhood experience of the territorial division of her joint family home in Jindabahar Lane in Dhaka. With family disputes intensifying between her father and his brother Jethamoshai, and with “no other alternative” in sight, it was decided that the house was to be partitioned by a wooden wall that “ploughed right through” doors and lavatories and nameplates. A striking metaphor that foreshadows the Partition, Ghosh writes:
They had all longed for the house to be divided when the quarrels were at their worst, but once it had actually happened and each family had moved into their own part of it, instead of the peace they had so much looked forward to, they found a strange, eerie silence had descended on the house. It was never the same again after that; the life went out of it. (TSL 136)
Image 3: The Partition of Bengal, 1947 (The Quint)
Caught in the midst of this violent fissure in the family, the frightened children realize that their playtime together must be spent in secret, and so eventually, the cousins drift apart. Tha’mma, who at the time was old enough to remember a time prior to the partition, felt the separation more acutely. The recurring motif of ruptured brotherhood, the story of fratricide that haunts Zakir during the 1970s, finds expression here as well, in Tha’mma’s anxiety and uncertainty about what it means to be brothers. She is so deeply affected by this fracture, that she later on actively decides to let her son, the narrator’s father, remain a single child.
Much like Zakir, the characters of The Shadow Lines also find shared comfort in stories, both imaginative and of the past. At the time of partitioning of the house, Tha’amma would invent fairytale-like stories for little Mayadebi about what was on the other side of the wall or “the upside-down house”. Episodes from a topsy-turvy world – where residents cook with brooms and sweep with ladles, or where they write with umbrellas and use pencils as walking sticks – come to dominate Mayadebi’s and eventually even Tha’mma’s imagination, creating a “liberating potential of the fantastic” (Zipes qtd. in Haase 361). Besides easing the burden of their personal traumas, the stories suggest that the otherizing differences across communities are only products of imagination.
At the center of the novel is the theft of a sacred relic from the Hazratbal mosque in Srinagar, Kashmir in December 1963. By January next year, the relic has been recovered, but in the frenzy of the incident, a demonstration in the town of Khulna in East Pakistan turns violent. Around the same time, Tha’mma and Tridib, his younger brother Robi, his visiting English friend May, and Mayadebi, visit Dhaka, intending to bring home the now-elderly lonely Jethamoshai, their only remaining family living in the house on Jindabahar Lane. Oblivious to the news of the theft, the group encounters a violent mob which kills three – Jethamoshai, his caretaker Khalil, and Tridib. In the span of a few days, rumours that trains arriving from East Pakistan were carrying Hindu corpses reach Calcutta, and in the blink of an eye mobs materialize, hungry for Muslim blood. On his way to school on the fated day, the twelve-year old narrator encounters a rumour too. His bus-mate Tublu tells him that Muslims have poisoned the Tala tank, which supplies the whole of Calcutta its water. The narrator compromises his friendship with his best-friend Montu (Mansoor), lying to his Hindu bus-mates that they haven’t met in months. On their way back home, the children’s bus encounters a mob, and escapes just in time. The children are frozen in fear, and they huddle around Tublu when he starts crying, “an ocean of desolation in his sobs” (TSL 225).
The narrator’s parents lie to him, telling him that Tridib died in an accident, making him promise no less, that he would never talk about this again. They tell him firmly, “[you’re] growing up now, you’re a big boy, and you have to understand that there are things grown-ups don’t talk about” (TSL 264). Not only do his parents deprive him of the truth, but they also encourage the narrator to perpetuate their own muteness, in order to be worthy of being an adult. Instances of parental silence during and in the aftermath of traumatic experiences are commonplace in South Asian families as they were in European households in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Adult survivors of catastrophic history were oblivious to their silence's effect on a child’s identity construction and psychological development (Greenberg 261).
On several crucial occasions, the narrator's parents choose to blind side him in what is presumably their manner of ‘protecting’ him from harsh reality. Moments after Tha’mma and Tridib’s plane for Dhaka takes off, the narrator’s father mentions in passing the possibility of some “trouble” in Calcutta. Naturally curious, the little boy asks him to clarify, but discouraged by his wife’s frown and a quick shake of the head, he distracts his son by pointing at the plane, saying “Nothing that you would understand” (TSL 213). Many years later, Tha’mma passes away while the narrator is in Delhi busy with college examinations. His parents decide to inform two full weeks later, fearing a disruption in his preparation. The narrator’s anger at this (recurring) deception envelops his grief, as he recognizes bitterly the “tidy late-bourgeois world, the world I had inherited, in which examinations were more important than death” (TSL 102). As a child, the narrator feels no sorrow at learning about Tridib’s death by accident. He only processes his grief fifteen years later, when as an adult, due to a chance discovery of an old newspaper that mentions the riots, he pieces together the real reason for his uncle’s death, and connects it with his own experience of the mob.
The Shadow Lines, “where stories are accorded as much reality as lived experiences” (Mukherjee 251), insists that the consequences of such cataclysmic events resonate not only across generations but also across distant places. It argues for the irreversible nature of such experiences and the impossibility of ever arriving at successful meaning-making that justifies the pain caused. The Bartholomew’s Atlas, which nine-year old Tridib had been gifted, falls into the narrator’s hands forty years later. It helps him relearn the meaning of distance – that shadow lines do not separate but inevitably, inextricably, and irreparably link the history and present of divided places.
The trauma experienced by children during or inherited in the aftermath of tragedy is far too pervasive to be accurately measured in checklists. “It lives in very intimate spaces” (Morrison) such as in Zakir’s mythical Rupnagar, in Tridib and the narrator’s shared atlas, in Tha’mma’s chronicles of the upside-down house, in Sudershana Kumari’s refugee dolls. Both Basti and The Shadow Lines use the novel form and child characters to convey important aspects of the Partitions, and the idea that “we inherit not only stories and images from the past, but also our bodily and affective relationship to the object world we inhabit” (Hirsch 24). In summary, while there can be several charges leveled against such novels, it is however also important to remember that these novels provide the ground to independently study children and childhoods in history, separate from the study of women and the family which they are often subsumed under. Literature written about children remains “a crucial province of expression for, or sensitivity to, the perspective of the child” (Goodenough et al. 12), and a worthy site from which to recover a child’s place in history.
Notes and Works Cited
In the chapter titled “Children” from The Other Side of Silence (1998), Urvashi Butalia quotes Savitri Makhijani, a record collector with the United Council of Relief and Welfare during the Partition of 1947. The full sentence from the long quote is: “You know people’s mental makeup changed, the important thing was to save themselves, so they left the children behind” (251).
Zakir’s age is not clearly mentioned in the novel. He is a boy in pre-Partitioned and British India, a young man in West Pakistan post 1947, and a middle-aged man in the years leading up to the 1971 war.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. 1988. Penguin Books, 2019.
Goodenough, Elizabeth, et al., editors. “Introduction.” Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature, Wayne University Press, 1994, pp. 1-15.
Greenberg, Jonathan D. “Against Silence and Forgetting.” Partitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement, and Resettlement, edited by Anjali Gera Roy and Nandi Bhatia, Pearson Education, 2008, pp. 255-273.
Haase, Donald. “Children, War, and the Imaginative Space of Fairy Tales.” The Lion and the Unicorn, vol. 24 no. 3, 2000, p. 360-377. Project MUSE.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory. Columbia University Press, 2012.
Honeyman, Susan. “Introduction.” Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction. The Ohio State University Press, 2005, pp. 1-6.
Husain, Initizar. Basti. 1979. Translated by Frances W. Pritchett, New York Review of Books, 2007.
Hutcheon, Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction: “The Pastime of Past Time.”” A Poetics of Postmodernism. 1988. Routledge, 2004, pp. 105-123.
Jain, Jasbir. “Lost Homes, Shifting Borders, and the Search for Belonging.” Revisiting India’s Partition, edited by Amritjit Singh et al., Lexington Books, 2016, pp. 21-34.
Kabir, Ananya Jahanara. ““Handcuffed to History”: Partition and the Indian Novel in English.” A History of the Indian Novel in English, edited by Ulka Anjaria, Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 119-132.
Kumari, Sudershana. “Oral Histories.” www.partitionmuseum.org. Accessed on 02 June 2021.
Meenakshi Mukherjee, “Maps and Mirrors: Co-ordinates of Meaning in The Shadow Lines,” The Educational Edition of The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh, New Delhi: OUP, 1998, pp. 243-256.
Morrison, Heidi. “Children in Conflict Zones: Kashmir and Palestine.” CCYSC Dialogues, 20 July 2021, Google Meet.
Raychaudhuri, Anindya. ““This eight-year-old, he’s too little”: Children Taking Back Control.” Narrating South Asian Partition, pp. 59-80.
Saint, Tarun K. “Introduction.” Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction. 2010, Routledge, pp. 1-60.
Sokoloff, Naomi. “Childhood Lost: Children’s Voices in Holocaust Literature.” Infant Tongues, 1994, pp. 259-274.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “The 1.5 Generation: Thinking About Child Survivors and the Holocaust.” American Imago, vol. 59, no. 3, 2002, pp. 277–295. JSTOR.
Sukriti Lakhtakia is pursuing her Masters in Literature at Shiv Nadar University. She graduated with a Bachelors in Literature from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi in 2020. Currently, she is a research assistant at SNU, and the editor for this feature series at CCYSC. She is interested in women’s writing, literary theory, film studies, and most recently, birds. She can be reached at email@example.com.