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The Dogs of Tithwal: Imagining Animals in Partition

By Susan Haris

At the peak of animosity between India and Pakistan in 2013, Pakistan decided to send 50 stray dogs to India by train. They starved them for a day and selected some of the dirtiest ones to rouse the Indians even more. If the dogs had been culled and returned, who knows the ways this could have escalated. India maintained a strategic silence over the issue, shrouding the dogs’ future in mystery and political fate.

In Remembering Partition, Gyanendra Pandey describes the three different conceptions of Partition: first, the demand of the Muslim League for Pakistan from 1940 onwards; second, the division of the Muslim majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal; and third, the Partition of people across both sides of the border resulting in large-scale massacres and exile. He observes how historians focus on the origin of violence and violence as non-narratable to focus on the first two conceptions. Feminists such as Urvashi Butalia and Kamla Bhasin have certainly changed this narrative by injecting stories of untold rapes, mutilations, abductions into the discourse, thereby naturalising and normalising extreme violence in narratives of Partition. It is timely then to consider how Partition affected animals – in the rush across borders, how did domestic animals and pets fare? This paper is a discussion of the hurdles to such an investigation and a speculative re-reading of Saadat Hasan Manto’s “The Dog of Tithtwal”.

Derrida has talked about how animals are relevant to humans because they simulate the structure of alterity.[1] The Partition, in being a division, was also an attempt to consume the ‘Other’ to produce its unique identity. In what Tarun K. Saint calls the ‘ethical catastrophe of partition’, how can we understand violence and the conscious forgetting of it in exchange for a triumphant nationalism, or for cohesive inter-community relations or to create an ‘alternative sense of self’?[2] Can the absence of animal victims of Partition make them worthy martyrs for a future peace?

There is little to no literature on how Partition as an event that took place in 1947 affected the animal kingdom – especially the domesticated ones such as cows, goats, dogs, and hens. Their value is perhaps too trivial for scholarship against large-scale human massacres and bloodshed. But that would be an unjust rendering for organisms who cohabitate with humans. The figure of the dog is particularly interesting, for the relationship between the dog and his owner or ‘master’ is predicated upon a personal relationship, not an instrumental one. However, dogs become dispensable in war-like situations for two reasons – the value of the human life is assumed to be more important and hence becomes the focus of effort, and dogs are seen as additional burden humans could do without to face the crisis more efficiently. In war scenarios, people escaping with their dogs evoke strong sympathy for the same reason; that one is prepared to put his life in line for his canine companion.

Another reason for this apparent neglect comes from the fear of diminishing the value of the trauma inflicted upon men and women on both sides by shifting the focus to animals. Partition literature has focused a lot on how women have suffered doubly in the hands of men and the state during partition. Forced to become culture bearers, they became easy targets for abuse and sexual violence. Subject to political machinations in which they played no direct role, their uprooted lives become testaments to the different shades of violence inflicted by the Partition. An anthropocentric analysis of a traumatic event would be wary of talking about animals as it may shift focus from ‘real’ centers of pain and trauma. However, animals are also hapless victims of a narrative constructed and played out by humans, and deserve a renewed study to understand how a human cultural event shaped the lives of other species.

If we understand Partition as a protracted consequence of a war-like scenario or a violent political decision, then we can begin to understand the nature of the trauma suffered by women and children. While the violence against women is decidedly cultural and symbolic, children suffer predominantly in personal ways. Being dependent on care and affection, Partition suspended them as their parents channelled their energies towards subsistence and security. Other than being highly disruptive to childhood and education, Partition also produced ‘unaccompanied children’; refugee children, who were lost, abandoned or orphaned. In these frameworks of violence, we can also fit animals. Take dogs, for example. It may have suddenly found itself deprived of food, shelter, and affection during and after Partition. While animals provide a unique challenge of representation and analysis because of problems of knowledge and meaningful communication, enough subjectivity can be granted to them to validate that they too suffer during such momentous disruptions. Partition has relied heavily on oral archiving of its trauma; through retellings and interviews, channels animals don’t have access to. Thus, articulation would have to be at least partly based on human narratives about their lost pets or killed animals.

Another complication results from animals getting ejected from the domestic space they previously occupied. War situations prompt people to release their animals unto nature, forging a previously non-existent connection between nature and the animal, purely because of its animal identity – a condition, which even decades of domestication cannot erase. Subsumed under nature thus, they are expected to rely on their animal instincts to survive in the wild. Such distinctions are a kind of speceisism whereby humans distinguish between themselves and all nature.

Manto’s “The Dog of Tithwal” tells the story of a stray dog that is killed by Indian and Pakistani soldiers as they cannot agree on its nationality. The politics of reading a story with an animal almost always dissolves into an examination of imagery, and critical discussion has focused on obvious tropes such as the innocent confusion of the dog to stand in for the helplessness of victims under Partition. “The Dog of Tithwal” is deprived of even his titular identity in such symbolic readings. How can we rescue the dog of Tithwal from this critical neglect and shift the perspective from the human behaviour to the dog, as the latter is itself a fertile site of violence and the protagonist to whom things happen in the story?

The story opens with a pristine landscape with the sweet smell of pines, and the soldiers drinking tea and singing songs. A stray dog appears on the scene and disrupts the peace with its barking. That it is a stray dog invites many readings – it is a tabula rasa for a new identity and malleable to any interpretation. Its strayness also gives it no fixed home, which is the crux of Partition, and the strayness also reduces its life’s worth in the soldiers’ eyes as evidenced by the pleasure derived by the Indian Subedar and the Pakistani Jamadar.

When spotted by the Indian side, they immediately grant him personhood by giving him a name, ‘Chapad Jhunjhun’, and soon enough the Zamadar Harman Singh bestows nationality by claiming that the dog is a Hindustani. Critics have focused on how identity is consistently nationalized to validate Partition, and how one cannot really opt out of it; and the dog is an even more pathetic figure because of his basic inability of articulation. Both sides construct the stray dog as a traitor and a hero alternately, but what is paradoxical is its comfortable juxtaposition with its animal characteristics. Both sides remark on the dog wagging its tail and hungrily devouring biscuits, but they are unable to reconcile these inherent qualities that make him a dog with their interpretations of events. Therefore, while everybody is affectionate towards it, it cannot prevent its death due to its liminal, transnational, animal identity.

In a scenario such as Partition, a dog also has to choose to be a Hindu or a Pakistani. Despite the ‘keen interest’, everybody takes in him – they officialise his name by hanging it in a cardboard box around his neck, transferring him from ambiguity to specific human identities. This becomes apparent in the way a soldier interrogates the dog to which it can only wag its tail and the deliverance of nationalistic axioms such as ‘the punishment for a traitor is death’. The anthropomorphization of the dog of Tithwal is thereby complete.

However, this is immediately followed by the dog’s slaughter. In a brutal depiction of its pathetic helplessness, it is shot at by both sides and its earlier identities are successively erased for the cause of patriotism. Indeed, one has to wonder at Manto’s choice of a dog. Of course, its mute pathetic nature aside, this translucence of animal identity lends itself easily to anthropomorphic interpretations such as the nationality of the dog and evokes human emotions on the part of the reader such as sympathy for its total innocence. Then are we guilty of accepting its death by accepting an interpretation offered by the soldiers? Is an addendum of its lack of culpability a good judgment or the only one?

What if Manto had presented a woman or a child instead of a dog? Perhaps it would have been then read as a depiction of gratuitous violence instead of this subtle tale of patriotism. At the end of the story, the dog is immediately brought back to the realm of the animal, as a soldier remarks that ‘it died a dog’s death.’ Maybe things without access to power can access their stories only after death, and here too arise problems of memory and commemoration.

Saadat Hasan Manto saw Partition as a negative, regressive decision, and his stories are testaments to this. In another famous story, “Toba Tek Singh”, Manto purposefully conflates the person’s name and the place’s name, hinting at how Partition rewrote identities by locating them. Then in absence of a possibility of individual histories, animals can also be rehabilitated in history and understood as victims and participants in this social phenomenon by situating them in their hometowns, or haunts, or favourite houses. The hubris of humanism relegates animals to some inferior post, yet a philosophy that challenges speciesism and anthropocentrism is necessary to understand violence and trauma, especially of an event as pervasive and generational as Partition.

[1] Derrida, Jacques. The Animal That Therefore I Am, trans. David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. Print.

[2] Saint, Tarun K. Witnessing Partition: Memory, History, Fiction. New Delhi: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Susan Haris holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from St Stephen’s College, Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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