#DesiBooksReview 4: The Present is But a Mirror Reflection of the Past in Ranbir Sidhu’s Partition Novel

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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

Dark Star by Ranbir Sidhu | Context Westland Books | December 19, 2022

The narrator of Ranbir Sidhu’s new novel calls herself a “dark star” and accuses her husband of sixty years of being dismissive and controlling of her being, her identity, and her very self. Her trauma, though, is multilayered and not limited to her loveless marriage. And, despite being bedridden and vulnerable, she is heated, much like a dark star, by the explosive matter within. The events that she witnessed during the Partition are ingrained deep and her ailing mind keeps circling through memories of her forced migration to Punjab. Nostalgic about the India she grew up in before that cataclysm shattered her in its aftermath, she wants to share her memories with her sons, especially the younger one who she names repeatedly throughout.

Unfolding in a two-part soliloquy, the narrative is addressed to the husband. The woman’s words are often repetitive and poetic all at the same time as she rages about the silences she had to endure and the misogyny women encountered in the aftermath. At one moment, she says, “. . . when a person leaves a country, the country they were born in, does something fundamental change, like the color of the sea, is the earth marked each time we cross a border.” She asks us: does something change fundamentally within us as we make sense of the Partition and how it has affected our lives? The novel goes on to show exactly how something in us does fundamentally shift, especially when we are silent about the emotional, psychological, and physical wounds we have experienced.

Recalling how her father called Muslims “the others,” she says he believed that instead “of calling each other Muslim or Sikh or Hindu, that we should call each other the others, that Muslims call us that, and that we call them that, to show that the border […] was little more than a mirror.”

Sidhu underscores the point that the Islamophobia rampant in contemporary India now is a reflection of the past: the Muslim community has been othered not just after the Partition but well before it. This critical observation is an echo of those made by earlier writers like Bhisham Sahni, who highlighted the discriminatory practice of Hindu households not sharing their cutlery, plates, and cups with their Muslim neighbors in his famous Hindi novel, Tamas. This custom has also been described by Partition survivors at various times, as in the 2007 BBC documentary, The Day India Burned.

To the narrator, significant political events after 1947 are reminiscent of the Partition itself. Speaking about Mother India—whom she calls Indira—she alludes to the events that occurred in Amritsar’s Golden Temple and led to Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984. For many, including academics and researchers, the subsequent anti-Sikh riots paralleled the violence of the Partition. Calling the current Indian prime minister “Father India,” the narrator shares her concerns about the 2021 farmer protests and worries that minority communities have lost their civil and human rights under him as they had during the Partition.

Sidhu’s mirror trope goes further in multiple aesthetic directions too. Throughout the novel, the narrator shares that her father called the “border” a mirror because the two countries did indeed have a common culture, food, and language. She blames the Partition on men who “build big buildings is the same reason they make mirrors between nations, or inside nations, making more nations.” Rather than being signs of division, borders as mirrors are reflections of us as humans, communities, and nations. Mirrors are also, to the woman, portals between worlds as she muses often about walking through the mirror to go back or walk away. She talks about the last or final mirror as the one she must pass through next. She talks about her son building a mirror around himself to stand apart and alone. Using the word ‘mirror’ as a synonym for the word ‘border’, she describes the many borders she has encountered since the Partition. For instance, when she is in California and they talk about border control. This conceit is a calculated one because it forces us to reconsider, along with the narrator, our own understanding of what borders mean and what they do.

As with the mirror trope, Sidhu plays with the star trope so that it means different things at different times. Planets weep as the narrator recalls her dead daughter. Sometimes, planets are unimaginable other worlds and, sometimes, adventure playgrounds. The sky is sometimes filled with stars and, sometimes, it is just a blank star-less ceiling. The narrator piles up these metaphorical references as she tries to make sense of the tragedies that haunt her and realizes that people may come and go but the stars, like the Partition’s impact on us, will remain entrenched. So that even the younger generations—who have not witnessed the Partition or belonged to families directly affected by it—are still haunted by its unspoken tragedies.

The Partition and its after-effects have been a recurring theme in Sidhu’s fiction. His story collection, The Good Indian Girls, had several characters struggling with the madness and the memories of Partition. His previous novel, Deep Singh Blues, is set in contemporary California but has Sikh characters involved in the secessionist Khalistan movement back in Punjab. What’s different here is that the entire story is through the point of view of an older woman. Sidhu sits us by a dying woman’s bedside to give us intimate access to a fictionalized testimony of a Partition survivor. Although there are memorial sites such as the Partition Archive in Berkeley, CA, and the Partition Museum in Amritsar, personal testimonials reveal the stories of people’s lived experiences and are invaluable to the ongoing communal healing process.

By giving us an older Indian woman as the main character and narrator, Sidhu does more than give voice to the silenced. He also problematizes the usual stereotype found in popular films and soap operas by demonstrating how they—particularly the generation that experienced the Partition—had and continue to engage with sociopolitical issues that affect them, even if they may do so in private spheres. They are not afraid to break the misogynistic and patriarchal taboos that are designed to prevent them from speaking about their pain and their political opinions. Whether we choose to view India as a Hindu fundamentalist nation or not, women like Sidhu’s protagonist are the stars we will always need because, as she declares: “It is men who make mirrors. It is women who break them.”

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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.