Nidhi Kalra

The Partitioned Self of Trauma


Photo courtesy: Margaret Bourke-White/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images

What the violence of 1947 did was to create new subjects and subject positions: a fact that in itself necessitates a reconsideration of the standard view of history as a process with an always already given subject.[1]


Saadat Hasan Manto’s story from ‘Toba Tek Singh’ questions the sanity of Partition, as it draws arbitrary lines between cultures, places, people, and even families. It stands as an allegory of the insanity of the arbitrary division of two nations. Bishan Singh, an insane patient of a mental asylum is told that he must go to Hindustan as he belongs to another nation now. He is unable to process and assimilate the Partition and dies in shock in between, in no-man’s land, refusing to take up the new identity of ‘Hindustani’ while leaving behind his village in Pakistan, Toba Tek Singh. The conflicting call of two watans[2] appears to cause a conflict of self/other within him, which is indicative of the trauma of creating new identities vis-à-vis the macerated construction of two new political states in 1947, India and Pakistan. Considering the splicing of nation-states and identities as lived phenomena, where do we locate a questioning of spectral identities caught in between?

This inconstant self/subject-position is not only the fate of Bishan Singh. It was the fate of countless people who were effected by Partition. This paper will seek to examine what happens to the self in formation along and against real and imagined others as it studies a digital oral archive, partly available on YouTube as ‘1947 Partition Archive’. I contend that this archive hosts suspended embodied partitions across nationalities and religions. I hold that the interviewees who have experienced Partition locate themselves in opposition to the dominant discourse of it in high history as a political event or accident accompanying the political independence of the three nations, India, Pakistan, and later Bangladesh.

This is evident through the fairly subversive responses most interviewees give to the question with where are you from, such as the case with Raj Madan[3]. He responds by saying that he knows not only the history of his father’s side but also his mother’s side. His mother’s family hailed from Dera Ismail Khan, and settled in Lyallpur after Partition. His father’s side of the family were from Rawalpindi, near Baluchistan, and eventually settled in Lahore. Then, he goes on to complicate the question of origins by adding that he can speak an oral dialect of Derewali, which is somewhat similar to the Saraiki dialect spoken in today’s Pakistan. He is one of the dwindling few in his family who knows and speaks in Derewali dialect while the majority from his family has lost touch with this dialect. Like many others, he left Lahore when he was four years old. Therefore, he has very little by way of personal memory of Lahore itself. But his identity is visibly negotiated along his knowledge of his lineage and his native tongue which is no longer spoken even by many of his cousins as they all speak in Hindi with him.[4] He does not identify himself in his interview with any nationality. Rather, he caustically and painfully remarks upon the fact that spatial understanding formed along nationalist rhetoric too comes under challenge as riots and political unsettlement in India revealed in 1984-85. “The same thing can happen again. Not this way, but it can happen again. Similar thing happened, come to think of it, in 1984-85.” As he reflects upon the pain and brutality of his fractured past, he is unable to speak coherently, except to say that what he and his family went through should not have been.

Such a testimony not only rattles its own convenient packaging as a Hindu/Muslim or Indian/Pakistani text, such as done by the American chapter of Hindu Mahasabha[5] but also calls into consideration the ethics of oral archiving of Partition accounts itself. What are the implications of the fact that the archive was created not by an oral or cultural historian but by a physicist who realised that a segment of her heritage would be lost if Partition stories in her own context, within her own family, would not be preserved? It is also significant to note that many other volunteers have joined Guneeta Singh Bhalla. These are who either because of an interest in subaltern histories/stories, or of fear losing the anecdotes of their aging grandparents from Partition times, or of having very little of personal Partition narratives from their own grandparents and wish to fill the gaps in their family history, wanted to make a collective effort. These individuals attempt to bring in accounts from people from different religions and nationalities, and are in the process of figuring out how to make their archive digitally available to academicians considering they have recorded over 2,000 interviews. Should we take it that the narrative generates a (literal) third space through which ambivalent, hybrid identities can be negotiated through the interaction between the contextual and the virtual spaces where these narratives are spoken and continually relayed? Bhalla suggests the extension of such a space when she says: “[w]e envision building centres of learning on the borders of India and Pakistan with a focus on the human stories of Partition, along with the history. We hope to teach and empower younger generations not only in South Asia, but all over the world about Partition so that this history doesn’t keep repeating itself. We cannot let our important cultural identify and knowledge streams disappear” [emphasis mine].[6]

Could it be though that the politics of the ‘1947 Partition Archive’ requires further examination to throw light upon how intra and international spectrum of ‘witnesses’ and ‘survivors’? A problematisation is in order considering that the need for such an archive was felt because there are other archives that cater to a study of the Holocaust and of the after-effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many of the interviewees themselves speak in a vocabulary emerging out of Holocaust scholarship. Dani Golan[7], who emigrated to Israel, notably mentions that a refugee in ‘those’ days was thrown out in the figurative jungle, unlike today when they are recognized by the UN.[8] While not entirely believable, Golan’s claim is interesting here considering that the term ‘refugee’ itself emerged to talk of the displaced victims of Nazi concentration camps, which literally belonged nowhere. Ravi Chopra[9] calls the Partition as a Holocaust in the sense in which it was unimaginable. Fauzia Parviz[10] too uses the term Holocaust as she remarks that her mother carried her in her womb through the process of the Partition, which leads her to feel lucky to be alive to share the tale of her family. These are examples from three videos from a total of thirty such interviews, which are currently available on YouTube for public access.[11] What I am attempting to bring out is that the “high history” within the American context that many of the diasporic partition ‘survivors’, citizen historians, as well Guneeta Singh Bhalla have access to is lending its own politics to the vocabulary employed to refer to the Partition. I don’t wish to elaborate on the politicisation of the Holocaust within the American context at this point and in detail, however I do want to add that even the terms ‘survivor’ and ‘witness’ seen in this light, creates an uncomfortable undercurrent of sacrificial veneration for those who have lived through the Partition.

What one can say though is grasping for a vocabulary to define the selves having lived through Partition, and to attempt to understand and categorise their history speaks of how the identity of these ‘witnesses’ is being constituted through a contemporary epistemological crisis. It signals at potentially dangerous frame that borrows etymologies intimately related with the Holocaust to gain pre-eminence by extension. However, an interesting part of this frame is also that it amalgamates various in-between identities that are neither comfortably Indian, nor Pakistani, nor Bangladeshi. As Radhika Gajjala writes “[t]he digital encounters of interactive meaning-making in these digital diasporic spaces produce not only social and digital spaces of cultural representation but also contact zones of cultural contestation”.[12]

Academia, too, has begun to pave the way for a blended understanding of the history of the subcontinent through Ayesha Jalal’s and Sugata Bose’s text, Modern South Asia. They attempt to question not only monolithic understanding of history through the Indian or Pakistani vantage point, but also seek to damage a composite understanding of Hindu and Muslim identities in an increasingly alarming fundamentalist environment in the region. Theorists such as Homi Bhabha have also engendered the possibility of an ambivalent postmodern, poststructuralist, and definitely postcolonial space where unique, hybrid identities which mimic and challenge power structures are legitimated. Fiction, too, has empowered a questioning of arbitrary divisions between nations that arrive as political decisions with a very real and unimaginable human cost as evident in the works of Manto, and also more recently Amitav Ghosh.

Ghosh’s motif of ‘the shadow lines’ which need constant, vigilant remembrance to guard against a careless amalgamation within a nationalist rhetoric is similar to the role that these oral histories play out. As Katherine Brito cautions, “pretty soon these people [interviewees] are going to be gone…and not only are we documenting about the Partition…but also the past India.”[13] The archive, which hosts the accounts of various partitioned selves, across nationalities, is one which is fuelled by citizen historians, funded and run by individual donations/volunteers, very often the interviewees themselves, mostly in the United States.

While we hold that memory determines selfhood, what happens to the self that remembers, but does not want to engage with certain aspects of its own de/constructive past in one’s native land, unlike the unnamed narrator of Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines? What affect could these select incidents of conflicted selves/identities have against the collective/academic/recorded histories of Partition? I wish to bring out the remnants of ‘othering’ aspects of one’s own identity as they point out the gaps in histories of Partition which can only be filled in through an anecdotal counter-history. Much like in Manto’s ‘Toba Tek Singh’, there are silences and anxieties regarding one’s own identity before, during, and after Partition as evident in many of these testimonies, which point towards the in-betweeness of their identity. To complicate matters, “memories constitute the self”[14] and yet many of those who recall their personal histories in the videos, speak of how they do not wish to share their traumatic memories, suggesting that it makes them relive their alienation through the Partition.

Ironically, these urgent anxieties are caught on camera for posterity. These accounts make the interviewees and the viewers empathetically live, imagine, and embody self caught in a flux in Partition. Processes of recuperation/recovery, as highlighted by Talal Asad[15], are facilitated through deliberation with others. Hence, the ways in which parts of the self are ‘othered’, and others serve an integral role of understanding and questioning the changes of the self through Partition, and after.

Many people who have lived through this period, seem to need to justify why they moved or did not move from their homelands. This example will illustrate the gaps in acknowledging parts of the self in relation to the present self, understood as a ‘witness’ of the Partition. Dani Golan indicates the move of the family from Karachi because of mass-looting, selling off their house in a rush, and emigrating to his grandfather’s home in Pune, primarily by boat. However, in the process of assimilating the memories of Partition with his personal history, he is brief and almost clinical in describing how his parents could no longer care for him and he was given away to foster-parents, perhaps to never see his real parents again.

Othering of the self is also done to discount the younger self who lived through Partition and committed banal misappropriations of violent acts. Dr Sukhmander Singh recalls how in Lambi (Lohi) he and his young friends would go to vacant homes of Muslims, steal things, and consider it a form of play. In these statements, he does not use the ‘I’ even once. This ‘I’, however, appears afterwards when he admits his own potential callousness as a young child, “Being so young in age, I might not have felt the impact that deeply. It’s only when I heard…particularly that we have to leave the village, that time I was a little older, I was around 11 years of age….I still remember, the feeling was very upsetting to me. Why? What is this? Why can’t I go back to my village?”[16]

Similarly, Dr Hameeda Hossain speaks with a note of pride in her voice as she remarks how her family was opposed to the Muslim League with her aunt being brave enough to contest in elections against them. She describes an incident at the railway station when she was very young, she saw some Hindu families with their tins and bags. Though they had no signs of having gone through brutal violence, they appeared to be very scared. She cannot seem to remember why she and her siblings said to them “go back to your country, go to your own country…Later on, I’ve just been wondering where did I get it from? Our family was not like that, we never had a communal feeling. Why did we think this was not their country?… It must have grown among other people…”[17]

Like the glaring presence of the othered parts of the partitioned self, there are also certain absences which are made apparent in the light of the last two examples. Gyanendra Pandey conveys how Partition historiography is implicated within a politics that seeks to assert the absence of violations performed within the partitioning process from the Indian or Pakistani traditions or history. The violence meted out in the process was not entirely state sanctioned, nor was it done by any one nation/religion. And yet, the examples I gave are perhaps the only ones available from this archive which witness any mention, even dissasociative, of a disruption or disturbance caused by the self. This element of shame and guilt is elided, despite the pro-social purpose many of the witnesses agree to tell their accounts for.

This points towards the double edge on which oral history walks. On the one hand, it records the effect of historical events on people, prompting us to consider the human cost of large shifts of history. It is polyphonic. However, on the other hand, in the shadow of the past hide elements that people do not wish to acknowledge. These may be elements linked to pain, but also to guild or shame for what they did. This is also why it is useful in ethically examining a history in motion, dimensions of memory shaped by the time and context, and more importantly, a living site of contestable cultural/collective memory as it evolves along the modalities/technologies of the time.


[1]                      Pandey, Gyanendra. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. 2001. Cambridge, CUP, 2004. p 15.

[2]                      Urvashi Butalia in The Other Side of Silence describes how, for Punjabis, watan means home, country, and land, all at once. In that sense, it poses a unique challenge to conceptualising the Partitioned self.

[3]                      The caption for this interview on the archive reads: “This is a ten minute excerpt from Mr. Raj Madan’s interview. His family is originally from Dera Ismail Khan in Pakistan and he still speaks his native language with his family (Dere-wali). He was born in Rawalpindi and had just moved to Lahore before Partition. His family then moved to India where they spent time in refugee camps and lived in cities all over the country. He also reflects on his move to the West and hitchhiking through the Middle East and Europe in the 1970’s.”

[4]                      “Mr. Raj Madan displaced from Rawalpindi, Pakistan to India during 1947 Partition”. 19 Oct 2011. <>

[5]                      The American chapter of the Hindu Mahasabha have also attempted to begin an archive of Partition memories on their youtube channel. Clearly, under the purview of their organisation, they privilege Hindu/Indian narratives and thus, they do not acknowledge the effect the Partition would have had on other nationalities, and more dangerously at other religious groups part of the subcontinent.

[6]                      Gurneet Bhalla as quoted in Sarika Sharma’s “68 years of Partition, 2,000 stories of loss”. 15 Aug 2015. Chandigarh. The Times of India. <>

[7]                      “Dani Golan migrated from Karachi via Pune to Kfar Blum in Israel following Partition”. 10 Jan 2014. <>

[8]                      [1] The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950 to address the question of the displaced people in Europe as a result of the Holocaust/Second World War. It was followed in 1951 by a UN convention which was set up to establish the status of refugees to designate who qualified for this position. The recognition, however, was limited: “[f]or the purposes of this Convention, the words ‘events occurring before 1 January 1951’ in article 1, Section A, shall be understood to mean either (a) ‘events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951’; or (b) ‘events occurring in Europe or elsewhere before 1 January 1951’.(UNHCR 5)” It is rather ironic that an estimated 14 million people from the South-East Asian context who had undergone displacement in and around 1947 could not fall under the convention’s rules. Precisely for the bias in the writing, India refused to sign the Convention. This sensitivity to refugee rights in the Indian context, as well as Mr Golan’s eventual move to Israel, makes this comment by him especially important.

[9]                      “Ravi Chopra”. 18 Aug 2013. <>

[10]                   “Voice of Partition in Santa Clara”. 23 July 2015. <>


[12]                   Gajjala, Radhika. “3D Indian (Digital) Diasporas”. Alonso, Andoni, and Pedro J. Oiarzabal, eds. Diasporas in the new media age: Identity, politics, and community. University of Nevada Press, 2010. p 212.

[13]                   “Student recalls Partition interview experience.” 20 April 2011.<>

[14]                   Eds. Convay, MA, et al. Theoretical Perspectives on Autobiographical Memory. Grange-over-Sands, UK: Springer Science+Business Media Dordrect, 1992. p 85.

[15]                   Asad, Talal. “Agency and Pain: An Exploration.”Culture and Religion: An Exploration 1.1: NY, 2000. 29-60.   

[16]                   Dr. Sukhmander Singh lived in District Gurdaspur in 1947. 8 May 2012. <>


[17]                   Dr. Hameeda Hossain lived in Hyderabad, Sindh, during 1947. 16 May 2012. <>


Works Cited

1947 Partition Archive. “Dani Golan migrated from Karachi via Pune to Kfar Blum in Israel following Partition”. 10 Jan 2014. <>

—.“Dr. Hameeda Hossain lived in Hyderabad, Sindh, during 1947”. 16 May 2012. <>

—. “Dr. Sukhmander Singh lived in District Gurdaspur in 1947”. 8 May 2012. <>

—. “Mr. Raj Madan displaced from Rawalpindi, Pakistan to India during 1947 Partition”. 19 Oct 2011. <>

—. “Student recalls Partition interview experience.” 20 April 2011.<>

—. “Ravi Chopra”. 18 Aug 2013. <>

—.“Voice of Partition in Santa Clara”. 23 July 2015.

Asad, Talal. “Agency and Pain: An Exploration.” Culture and Religion: An Exploration 1.1: NY, 2000. 29-60

Butalia, Urvashi. “The other side of silence: voices from the partition of India.” Delhi: Viking (1998).

Eds. Convay, MA, et al. Theoretical Perspectives on Autobiographical Memory. Grange-over-Sands, UK: Springer Science+Business Media Dordrect, 1992.

Gajjala, Radhika. “3D Indian (Digital) Diasporas”. Alonso, Andoni, and Pedro J. Oiarzabal, eds. Diasporas in the new media age: Identity, politics, and community. University of Nevada Press, 2010. p 212.

Pandey, Gyanendra. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. 2001. Cambridge, CUP, 2004

Sharma, Sarika. “68 years of Partition, 2,000 stories of loss”. The Times of India.Chandigarh: 15 Aug 2015. <>

Nidhi Kalra is a researcher and her interests include Holocaust studies, trauma studies, children’s and adolescent literature, fantasy, as well as Modern and Victorian Literatures. She teaches at FLAME University, Pune.

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