#DesiBooksReview 4: Rippling Aftermaths: Orphans of Partition in Fatimah Asghar’s Works

Talib Jabbar is a doctoral candidate in literature and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Website.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 4

If They Come for Us: Poems by Fatimah Asghar | One World, USA | August 07, 2018
When We Were Sisters by Fatimah Asghar | One World, USA | October 18, 2022

[Introductory Note: For this special Partition issue, I review both Fatimah Asghar’s poetry collection (2018) and novel (2022). The collection is decidedly about the Partition while also showing how Pakistani Muslims have faced a compounding of targeted violence—first from Partition, and then in the post-9/11 world. The novel reads more like a subversion of the orphan narrative with the youngest of three sisters, Kausar, at its center. But also at its center is an abusive, neglectful, unfortunate Uncle who is deeply traumatized from living through Partition. The event becomes the invisible center of it all but, in both the novel and collection, Asghar tries to make sense of the intergenerational trauma rippling across time and space and of the sense of dislocation and its attendant desire to belong.]

Who hurt you? The question, often used sarcastically in modern meme-speak, is a shorthand with its root in an older aphorism: Hurt people hurt people. This attribution to the cycle of pain—inflictions begetting confliction—understands how trauma is passed down, paid forward (in full); that the wound at the center consumes and reproduces in heterogeneous forms. The hurt becomes a rippling aftermath, linking those it affects by an invisible thread. 

Partition literature has helped document the trauma of that transgressive event. But what does it mean to chronicle how Partition lives on, past its demarcated historical date, past the repressed atrocities, and into our contemporary lives? This is the unwieldy question Pakistani American poet and novelist Fatimah Asghar explores in their thus brief but burgeoning body of work, carrying its burning inquisition across genre, space, and time. Asghar (they/them) moves us past the vicious moment that tore us asunder, that parted ways and gave rise to cultural, economic, ethnic, religious, and national divisions, unleashing violence as only nations—which too often operate at the level of war—could harbor. In Asghar’s work, Partition becomes the wound that wounds all wounds.

Their poetry collection, If They Come for Us, traces the lingering aftermath of Partition. An epigraph describing the hard facts—at least 14 million forced to migrate, fleeing ethnic cleansing and retributive genocide, 1 to 2 million estimated dead, an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 women abducted and raped—reads against the lyricism of the poems that follow, and flesh out how Partition’s “effects and divisions echo to this day.” 

Seven of the poems share the title ‘Partition’ and are scattered throughout the collection, manifesting repeatedly to divide and disrupt the read. The effect is a feeling of recursiveness, an event that meets you arbitrarily over and over again. Between these poems, Asghar’s queer Pakistani voice straddles worlds searching for a sense of belonging, for home, amid an America increasingly defined by its “war on terror” and its Muslim ban—the continued cruel injustices of marking racialized borders and sowing targeted division. Written from this viewpoint, the collection highlights the compounded inflictions of those Pakistani Muslims who lived through Partition only to be met with further animus based on their identity. Asghar quotes Donald Trump (‘When the Orders Came’) alongside Cyril Radcliffe, who drew the lines of Partition (‘They Asked for a Map’), writing that, upon the former’s presidential victory, “I am the farthest from home I’ve been in a long time.”

For Asghar, the wound of Partition is unmoored from its immediate historical orbit and travels, “until there’s a border on your back.” Carrying the border figures for Muslims fleeing to the new Pakistan much as it does for those in a “war on terror” world. In ‘Oil’, Asghar describes the aftermath of 9/11—“Someone wrote anthrax on my locker”—and in ‘Microaggression Bingo’, they fill a page with the visage of a Bingo card littered with commonplace remarks and occurrences: “The villains are wearing headscarves in yet another fantasy series,” “Get called a FOB & told you smell like curry,” ‘“So what’s Muslim food taste like?”’

Essentially, the poems resonate in a world where the border still defines you, and is at the center of your lived experiences. In the final, titular poem, ‘If They Come for Us’, Asghar writes an incantation of protection and pride: “these are my people … Mashallah I claim them all … if they come for you they come for me too … the long years we’ve survived …” Here, Asghar suggests that among the “colony of uncles,” the “flock of aunties,” “the Sikh uncle at the airport,” “the Muslim man who drinks good whiskey,” “the lone khala at the park,” they have found a people, a nation. 

It is that vital sense of a queer belonging (of the “ghareeb,” or stranger), of not adhering to the normative familial and national formations—an orphan whose parents have died, parents whose nation has died—that drives Asghar’s debut novel, When We Were Sisters. Drawing upon their own life (Asghar is an orphan), Partition becomes the near invisible center of the novel. As in the poetry collection, Asghar tries to make sense of the intergenerational trauma rippling across space and time, and of the sense of dislocation and its attendant desire to belong.

The novel reads more like a subversion of the typical orphan narrative with the youngest of three sisters, Kausar—“Not a superhero. Not a wizard in waiting.”—at its center. But also at its center is the abusive, neglectful Uncle who takes on his sister’s children as a legal guardian. He is identified as “Uncle ████,” his name only redacted text. He is a lonely man who starts many failed business ventures, gambles, is a cruel and threatening landlord, constantly psychologically abuses all three sisters, and puts them in a dirty, roach-infested apartment he calls the “zoo,” with a revolving door of roommates, mostly to fend for themselves. He is the “fuckup Uncle, on his same fuckshit.”

Asghar parallels the sister orphans’ story with the history of Partition, sometimes reading like an allegory. When the girls depart from their home to move into one of their Uncle’s apartments, they pack suddenly, the decision made hurriedly and without consensus. They later learn of the Uncle’s other, “real” family: he married and divorced a white woman with whom he had two sons. And while the Uncle hoards the money given to the sisters from their parents’ deaths, he pays for the sons’ private school education and a nice home on “the other side of the partition.” A family that could’ve been is torn asunder for Kausar. This language of the “real” family being divided from the sisters is scattered throughout the novel: “And so we stay, partitioned from them. And them, partitioned from us. Two sides of the border. Family, but not.”

Kausar’s anger grows over the course of the narrative and she revisits the home, seething for revenge, as somebody may upon crossing back over the Radcliffe line to find their home occupied, stolen: “An eye for an eye. A life for a life.” Like her anger, Kausar’s grief is also interwoven with the grief and memory of Partition: “The Past, a black hole, roaring. It swirls and swirls, I feel its center trying to pull me in. My grief calls to me, and it’s loud … Everything is stuck inside it: my dead father, my dead mother, the countries they came from that I don’t know.” 

Partition, entire histories, are at the center of Kausar’s grief. The impact of the trauma becomes clear at the end, when the novel flashes forward to find a Kausar whose lovers, like all those strange roommates in her Uncle’s apartment, “blur into each other.” These lovers, in vain, “trying to map a map that’s mapless, a map with no legend,” a geography of fictitious yet violent borders, at least one of which is carried on Kausar’s back. 

One of the most striking moments comes with Uncle ████. Kausar is in the car with him, prodding him to talk about their mother. He finally says that he and their mother lived through Partition. “I carried her,” he explains. And he is stuck there in his trauma, at the driver’s wheel, “staring at something [Kausar] can’t quite see,” unmoving. His past: a roaring black hole.

This moment of likeness is placed not as a way to redeem his neglect and abuse, but as a way to show how the pain of Partition can persist into subsequent generations—in the way they grieve, feel pain, love, and in their sense of belonging; a wound that keeps giving. In Asghar’s choice to redact the Uncle’s name, we can also read a final act of mercy. Redaction recalls the disappeared Muslim men under America’s “war on terror” that the poetry collection works earnestly to give presence to, ones that are targeted by the state and disappear suddenly from their homes. In a sense, Asghar protects their own: if they come for you they come for me too.

Asghar derides the hubris of humankind, of borders, of nations, and finds, in the banyan trees of South Asia, a metaphor that reads like peace: “The trees sing to each other, across the borders, across the villages … They family each other. Even when a border is drawn between them.” It’s reminiscent of a line in the final poem of the collection: “my country is made in my people’s image.”

Roots, a country, a people, a family, a home—Asghar reclaims and remakes them all.

Back to #DesiBooksReview Issue 4

Talib Jabbar is a doctoral candidate in literature and critical race and ethnic studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Website.

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