#DesiBooksReview 4: Interrogating, Remembering, and Forgetting in Anjali Gera Roy’s Latest Partition Exploration

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Dr. Nidhi Shrivastava's research focuses on the #MeToo movement, Hindi film cinema, censorship, the figure of the abducted and raped women, Indian rape culture, and the 1947 Partition. She grew up in India, Malaysia, and Singapore before migrating to the United States in 2001 with her family. Click through for the full bio and contributions.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 4

Memories and Postmemories of The Partition of India by Anjali Gera Roy | Routledge Studies in South Asian History | July 30, 2019

The Partition has always been an uneasy and difficult conversation because it is also a reminder of the inter-ethnic and communal tensions that have existed throughout the last seventy-five years within South Asia and the diaspora.

In my own family, I have either met with silence or the topic has been brushed aside as something that did not occur directly to us because our ancestral roots are in central India, primarily Gwalior and Sagar in Madhya Pradesh. My grandparents’ brief responses tended to be about their good relationships with the Muslim community or that my grandfather, for instance, had witnessed his Muslim friends leaving India for Pakistan.

As a young girl, I searched constantly for stories about the Partition. Yet, it was only in my undergraduate years, when I took a political science course on South Asia, that I finally had the opportunity to learn about it. Other than that, my generation only learned about modern India through mythology classes and the ever-popular western version of yoga. I did not have a deeper understanding until I began my doctoral research on a chronological evolution of cinematic representations of women’s experiences of gendered violence in Hindi cinema. For someone like me—with no familial or inter-generational memory of the Partition but a perennial curiosity about her heritage—Anjali Gera Roy’s Memories and Post-Memories of The Partition of India opens up profoundly moving questions about how our memories are passed down through generations. Especially the more difficult and traumatic ones. 

Exploring the idea of postmemory, as defined by Marianne Hirsch, Roy takes us through stories of people who were children at the time and grew up hearing about the Partition. Over four chapters, Roy argues that survivor testimonies fill the gaps in official histories by focusing on the narratives of ordinary people and their emotional, personal, and everyday experiences.

Roy contributes to the burgeoning canon of Partition scholarship established in the 1980s by postcolonial feminist scholars like Urvashi Butalia, Kamla Bhasin, and Ritu Menon. It has been reinforced in recent times by academics such as Veena Das, Jill Didur, Nandi Bhatia, and many more who give prominence to the lives of ordinary survivors. Roy invites us to consider the Partition’’s aftermath as an “equally traumatic experience of displacement and resettlement shared by different generations of survivors.” By studying a particular generation—children and teenagers during the Partition—she seeks to learn how these survivors negotiated with their new status and adapted to their host communities after migrating to India. Did they have to deal with assimilation? If so, how did this assimilation result in a possible loss of their sense of language, culture, and belonging?

Punjabi or North Indian experiences have become a common and dominant trope for remembering the Partition. Instead, Roy engages with the narratives of refugees resettled in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and South India. Moving away from the familiar and universal trope to excavate new testimonies is one of the strengths of this book, which is inclusive in its effort to memorialize, preserve, and understand survivor testimonies. Through her ethnographic research and examination of survivor testimonies, she shows that their experiences were complex, nuanced, and varied based on gender, class, ethnicity, profession, and region. We learn about the lingering silences that continue to exist. Roy points out that, before speaking to the interviewer, the Partition survivors had not voiced their stories even to their family members. She concludes the book with the powerful argument that the Partition as an event has constructed “a particular partitioned subjectivity that subsumes earlier markers of identity, such as language, religion, caste, ethnicity, and region, to converge on the event of the Partition.”

In the third chapter titled ‘Scripting Their Own Lives’, Roy shows how the survivors themselves are empowered to move away from the kind of victimhood that is presented by traditional and oral historians. By remembering, sharing, and retelling their experiences, survivors can “use memory to script their own lives and gain agency.” One example is of a survivor, Nand Kishore Chowdhury, and how his testimony compares to that of the British colonial Penderel Moon’s travelogue of the same events in Strangers in India (1943). Moon’s account is technical, dry, and methodical. In contrast, Chowdhury, who was ten years old during the Partition, shares an incoherent narrative that is punctuated by “repetitions, gaps, and silences” because he “neither elaborates on the death of sixty-four Hindu men nor that of the planned women’s suicide and his father’s instructions about administering poison to his sisters if the Muslims were to break into the walled enclave.” Chowdhury’s narrative reveals the extreme trauma of a ten-year-old boy as he “struggles to find the exact words to describe his horror and pain.” 

The next chapter goes deeper into what Roy calls “non-narratives of the unsayable,” which is another powerful contribution to this discussion. Here, we learn about women’s experiences of the Partition through Veena Das’ work and Roy’s interviews. Women have been “denied the healing offered through the expression of pain in language.” And yet, we do not always need a linguistic vocabulary to validate a survivor’s experiences. This resonates deeply, given my own academic explorations of gendered experiences of sexual violence during the Partition in Indian cinema and television.

Roy’s research here confirms just how and why the Partition remains a fraught topic for families and communities. Fears of opening up festering communal wounds are even greater now with growing Hindu nationalism legitimizing divisive events such as the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the revocation of Article 370. Which makes preserving and sharing these histories with future generations even more essential. Throughout the book, Roy highlights the value of speaking up—of testimonials and how they transform not just those who listen to these meaningful stories but also allow the survivors to heal from childhood traumas. With the recent loss of my grandparents, I have lost the opportunity to engage in more such conversations with them, Perhaps, seventy-five years on, books like Roy’s function as crucial interventions for the much-needed healing process across all of our generations.

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Website | Bylines

Dr. Nidhi Shrivastava's research focuses on the #MeToo movement, Hindi film cinema, censorship, the figure of the abducted and raped women, Indian rape culture, and the 1947 Partition. She grew up in India, Malaysia, and Singapore before migrating to the United States in 2001 with her family. Click through for the full bio and contributions.