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A Tale of Being Female in a Time of Conflict: Displaced in One’s Native Land

By Paromita Sengupta

It is a well-documented fact that the vivisection of India at the end of British colonial rule in 1947 led to deranged violence in which about a million people died and ten to twelve million were displaced. Men, women, and children had to live through an experience of abuse as well – the displacement of women, particularly, was intertwined with sexual abuse and rape. The violence however was also at a deeply psychological level. The displacement itself, not just a personal but a collective disfigurement, was a mental trauma that remained as a scar long after the event was past. The physical violence was devastating no doubt but its psychological impact was permanent, something that would be transmitted down the generations. Those who were affected were left to grapple with the repercussions in conditions ranging from economic crisis, destitution, refugee status, loss of family, forced conversion, etc. Being female in such a zone of spatial and temporal conflict was especially difficult and traumatic.

Being a deep wound on the collective psycho-social consciousness of India, the Partition of India found its representation not only in literature but also in films, international, national, and regional (Punjab and Bengal mainly as these two provinces were chiefly affected) and much of it has been mostly read as representation of the trauma of Partition. This paper focuses on the film Khamosh Pani (2003) by Pakistani film maker, Sabiha Sumar. This film is one of the most realistic and sensitive cinematic representations of the trauma of the female experience of displacement and the author attempts to read the central character of the film as a woman who is betrayed/let down and ultimately displaced by all the male figures in her life – her father, her brother, her abductor who had married her, and finally her son. I then go on to compare this film with another that was released in the same year in India – Pinjar, a fairly successful film, commercially viable with its illusive “happy ending” and its delineation of “Ram”, the ideal Indian male. Finally, I place these two films in the light of another text – The Liberation of Sita (an English translation from its Telugu original by Volga), which re-imagines events and characters from the epic Ramayana, including Ram himself.

The emerging critical scholarship on the Partition and its aftermath has deepened our understanding of the relationship between historical trauma, collective memory, and cultural processes. Significant critical readings of literary and cinematic texts on the impact of the Partition both in the Punjab and in Bengal have surfaced in the last few years. The study of partition has moved from the centre to the margins, by focusing on marginal groups, memory, recollection, remembrance, reminiscence, sufferings, and trauma, which has been dealt creatively to uncover the unknown depths of the trauma of displacement and separation. Gyanendra Pandey’s Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories (2005), perhaps the first book to engage in a sustained investigation of the routine political violence of our times, suggests the most vital question that we need to ask about Partition: “There is, in India, only one big why question regarding Partition. What went wrong? What were the causes of this deviation? Who was responsible?” In an earlier book, Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India (2001), Pandey analyses questions of history, memory, the nationalisation of populations, and their pasts. He studies the ways in which violent events such as Partition are remembered (or forgotten) so as to ensure the unity of the collective subject – community or nation. For Pandey, violence itself is a language that constitutes and reconstitutes the subject. The cinematic ImagiNation: Indian popular films as social history (2003) by Jyotika Virde focuses on how the dominant media of films configures the “nation” in post-Independence Hindi cinema. The author studies approximately 30 films in detail that have appeared since 1950. She demonstrates how concepts of the nation centre this cinema’s moral universe and how Hindi films’ portrayal of the nation as a mythical community collapses under the weight of its own contradictions – irreconcilable differences that encompass gender, sexuality, family, class, and religious communities. With a backdrop of religious violence and escalating regional tensions in South Asia, Priya Kumar’s Limiting Secularism: The Ethics of Coexistence in Indian Literature and Film (2008) probes the urgent topic of secularism and tolerance in Indian culture and life. Kumar explores Partition as the founding trauma of the Indian nation-state and traces the consequences of its marking off of “Indian” from “Pakistani” and the positioning of Indian Muslims as strangers within the nation. Drawing on Derrida’s concept of hospitality and living together, Kumar argues for the emergence of an “ethics of coexistence” in Indian fiction and film. Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition (2009) by Bhaskar Sarkar questions what remains of the “national” when the nation unravels at the birth of the independent state? In a work that brings together film studies, trauma theory, and South Asian cultural history, Sarkar traces the fallout of the events of 1947 in Indian cinema over the next six decades that followed. Sarkar suggests that the initial inhibition to engage with the trauma of 1947 and the subsequent emergence of a strong Partition discourse are strands of one complex process. Developing an allegorical reading of silence as a kind of mourning, Sarkar connects the relative silence of the early decades after Partition to a project of postcolonial nation-building and to trauma’s “disjunctive temporal structure”. Sarkar reads the influx of graphic Partition narratives in films made since the mid-1980s as caused by the disappointment with post-independence achievements. The cinematic retellings of 1947 are seen as having been influenced by economic liberalization and the rise of Hindu-chauvinist nationalism. Rachel Dwyer in her book, In Bollywood’s India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Contemporary India, has also noted how until 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of Partition, little was said about it publicly. 

The Trauma of Partitioned Lives… in Films and Fiction (2012) by Farzana S. Ali and ‎ Mohammad Sabir is another collection of scholarly papers on the theme of partition and the trauma of partitioned lives. This book too concentrates on the trauma of partition and its cinematic representations. The Indian Partition in Literature and Films: History, Politics, and Aesthetics (Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series), edited by Rini Bhattacharya Mehta and‎ Debali Mookerjea-Leonard, consists of several essays that highlight how the memory of the Partition is preserved, and how the creative arts’ relation to public memory and its place within the public sphere has changed through time. Collectively, the essays present a nuanced understanding of how the experience of violence, displacement, and trauma shaped postcolonial societies and subjectivities in the Indian subcontinent. The brief survey above is indicative of the fact that there has been significant study on Partition-themed films. This paper looks at displacement as a gendered experience and exposes how being female in a time of conflict is a kind of double displacement for a woman. She may go nowhere yet she is displaced. Dislocated. Disjointed.

Khamosh Pani: Story of a woman who “went” nowhere but was displaced

This film in focus here is one in which partition is not just a mere backdrop but a monstrous presence, displacing, distorting, and devouring lives. Khamosh Pani tells the story of Ayesha of Charkhi village, which after the 1947 partition, was designated as belonging to Pakistan, thereby leading to the mass immigration of the Sikh component of its population to India. Ayesha teaches the Koran to the village girls and has a young son, Saleem, who is initially shown as a boy without any specific direction in life. He is romantically inclined towards the village girl, Zubeida, who dreams of working in the city after completing her education. Zubeida is a complete contrast to loafer Saleem. Saleem’s idleness is channelized by two Islamic activists who come to the village from Rawalpindi and, supported by the village Choudhury, spread their message of Islamic zealotry and gain recruits to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The elderly village men are sceptical of them and do not toe their line of intolerance and fanaticism. They are shown to be cynical about General Zia’s postponement of elections. However, the activists gain a following amongst some of the village youth, including Saleem, and are able to cajole and intimidate Saleem into attending a political meeting in Rawalpindi, where the youth are asked to commit themselves to jihad for the creation of an Islamic Pakistani state. Saleem is attracted by their zeal and responds to their call to serve Islam and Pakistan. He breaks up with Zubeida and also becomes estranged from his mother, Ayesha, who seems to him too “liberal” for Islam. The plot intensifies when a group of Sikh pilgrims come to Charkhi and Ayesha’s past is revealed. She belonged to a Sikh family and her name was Veero. When the village was under threat of attack by Muslims, her father ordered all the women in the family to jump into the village well. Veero ran away because she did not want to commit suicide out of sheer apprehension for what might befall. Her father, wanting to protect the “honor” of the family, had already compelled her mother and sister to jump into the well. After the death of all the female members of the family, and Veero’s running away, her family migrated to India. Veero stayed back in her native village. Yet it was she who was also displaced. Staying on physically, Veero had to take on a Muslim name, religion, and identity. Her Muslim abductor had somehow been overcome with remorse and married her. She now lives a displaced life in her own village as Ayesha. Displacement is thus not necessarily merely physical – it is often the displacement of one’s identity. Being female in a time of conflict is doubly dangerous and hence an attempt to live is purchased by dissolving one’s identity. The water of the village well is the Khamosh Pani – Silent Waters. It has engulfed many a female life. The title is of course ironical because the water is not silent, rather, there is no one willing to hear the story. Ayesha/ Veero’s attempt at life and living is ultimately defeated. When her son grows up to become first a directionless youth and then a misdirected fanatic misled by scheming fundamentalists, Ayesha becomes her own son’s victim. Saleem, a bigot, is unable to accept his mother’s past Sikh identity. He humiliates her and asks her to publicly proclaim her Islamic faith. Realising the futility of it all, Ayesha/Veero chooses the very fate that she had once refused – she commits suicide by jumping into the village well.

Only Zubeida seems to have partially achieved her dream as she is shown to be living in Rawalpindi, presumably a working woman as she had wanted to be. Yet, in spite of the realistic and despondent note on which it ends, the film does harp on human relationships as the challenge to fundamentalism. A flashback shows that Ayesha/Veero’s rapist had been repentant and the relationship between Ayesha and Zubeida is also a glint of hope. Made by one whose identity and life traverses many nations (Sabiha Sumar was born in Pakistan, educated in USA, lives in India, and is married to a Sri Lankan), Khamosh Pani questions how identities are created and sustained and destroyed and suggests how it is only human relationships that may hope to defeat fundamentalism. 

Pinjar: All’s well that ends well?

In the same year that Khamosh Pani was released in Pakistan, India saw Pinjar, having a very similar theme as the former. Directed by Chandraprakash Dwivedi, Pinjar is based on a Punjabi novel of the same name, written by Amrita Pritam. Set during Partition, this film tells the story of Puro, Ramchand, and Rashid. Engaged to Ramchand, Puro leads a happy life with her family in a village. One day she is suddenly kidnapped by Rashid, owing to a past family feud. Puro attempts to return to her family but they do not take her back. Meanwhile Rashid is drawn to her and treats her kindly, ultimately marrying her. Puro on her part finds Rashid unacceptable at first but is gradually overcome by his care and attention and love. The film ends at a point where given a choice to go to India with her family, and begin a new life with Ramchand, Puro chooses to stay back with Rashid. She has been able to understand Rashid’s repentance and has also begun to reciprocate his feelings for her. This film may be seen as interweaving the Partition theme with a kind of reversal of the Ramayana plot. The abducted woman here chooses her abductor over her family because when she had earlier gone back to her family, it had refused to take her back. This time when she has more agency she chooses to exert her will and make the choice that she wants, not that which is deemed proper by societal or family standards. Puro like Ayesha/Veero is also a displaced woman, and her choice is commendable, but whether her story is truly representative of displaced women is questionable. Although initially displaced, Puro is able to resolve her inner conflicts and the men in her life seem remarkably unreal. They seem too virtuous, too good to be true. Ram – the man to whom Puro was betrothed before she was kidnapped by Rashid – is more of an ideal figure than a real person. Puro’s story therefore reflects the displaced woman’s fate but partially. 

The Liberation of Sita: Reinventing displacement

Ayesha/Veero’s predicament in Khamosh Pani and that of Puro in Pinjar may be read against The Liberation of Sita, a retelling of the Ramayana by Telugu writer, Volga. Sita is an archetype of the displaced woman. In fact, we may well say that the Ramayana is a repertoire of displaced women. If we stretch the idea of displacement to include disfigured, deranged, deserted, disinherited women, Ramayana offers displacement stories galore. Volga boldly re-imagines and reinvents some of these stories and characters. The Liberation of Sita comprises of five short narratives, of which I would be referring to two – the third narrative, “The Sand Pot” and the final narrative, “The Shackled”.

The final narrative essentially questions the hitherto unquestioned Ram. While the Ramayana made its women culpable and answerable, and positioned Ram as the redeemer, Volga here shifts the agency to Sita. It is Sita who liberates herself while Ram remains in shackles. Sita renounces Ram and his world and chooses emancipation. Ram is no more ideal but human and weak and imperfect. His vulnerability lies exposed:

Like a wild beast stamping on a tender creeper every time it tried to rise with the help of some prop or the other, he destroyed Sita’s desire to live every time she nurtured it… But by giving him his sons, Sita had cleared the way for his liberation. She had always stood by him. She had always protected him. In Ayodhya, everyone swore by Rama’s protection.

Who knew that Sita was Rama’s protective charm? (97)

“The Sand Pot”, the third narrative in the book, is the story of Renuka, mother of Parashuram. Renuka – derived from Sanskrit Renu which means “fine grain of sand” – means “atom” or “mother of the universe”. The story of Parashuram and Renuka is part of the Ramayana.  Renuka was a very chaste woman and is said to have thus gained an immense power of concentration. She could create unbaked sand pots that would remain whole because of her mental powers. One day she got distracted seeing gandhars playing and frolicking by the riverside. A few moments of distraction took away all her powers of concentration and thus her sand pot broke. It enraged her husband so much that he ordered his sons to behead her. Parashuram was absent and the other sons did not agree as a result of which they were turned to ashes by their father. Renuka escaped and committed penance. When Parashuram returned, he was asked to do the same and he obeyed his father and beheaded Renuka. The sage was so pleased that he then granted Parashuram a boon, by dint of which Parashuram is said to have brought Renuka and all his brothers back to life. There is a remarkable similarity between the Renuka of Ramayana and the Ayesha/Veero of twentieth century Pakistan. Both women are essentially displaced in their own homes. Both women are castigated and penalized by their own sons. Being a woman in a time of conflict is precarious, but the very basic condition that one is a woman seems to subject her to displacement anywhere and at anytime at the slightest misbalance. Renuka’s story has been retold many a time, and one of the most brilliant of these is one of the five narratives of The Liberation of Sita. Volga’s Renuka is not a repentant woman. She questions the very meaning of a woman’s life if it is under constant test, under constant pressure to prove one’s identity and one’s chastity. She defies her moral guardians by asking if only a few moments’ distraction can ruin her, is it at all meaningful to try to be chaste or to try to prove it?

Concluding Questions

Volga’s imagination of a defiant Renuka, who is rooted to her personal choices and beliefs, is inspirational. However, there are in real life many Ayeshas/Veeros who have lived displacement, who have tried to fight back but had to ultimately succumb. Ayesha’s jumping to death may be read poetically as her route to freedom. But should a woman’s freedom lie in death and not in life? Do we need to redefine displacement? Is it not true that one may go nowhere and yet be displaced? The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement states that internally displaced persons (IDPs) are:

persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border. (Introductory para. 2)

Lives such as those of Ayesha tell different tales, problematize such neat definitions, and demand that we redefine what we mean and understand by the term displacement itself.

Photo source: Here

Ali Farzana S. and ‎ Mohammad Sabir The Trauma of Partitioned Lives… in Films and Fiction Partition. Dattsons Publishers, 2012.

Bharat, Meenakshi, Nirmal Kumar. Filming the Line of Control: The Indo–Pak Relationship Through the Cinematic Lens. Routledge, 2012

Bhattacharya, Nandini. Hindi Cinema: Repeating the Subject. Routledge, 2013

Dwyer, Rachel. 100 Bollywood Films. Roli Books Pvt. Ltd., 2005

———– Bollywood’s India: Hindi Cinema as a Guide to Contemporary India. Reaktion Books, 2014

Mehta, Rini Bhattacharya and Mookerjea-Leonard, Debali The Indian Partition in Literature and Films: History, Politics, and Aesthetics. Routledge, 2014.

Pandey, Gyanendra. Routine Violence: Nations, Fragments, Histories. Routledge, 2005.

———– Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Poppuri, Lalita Kumari. The Liberation of Sita. Harper Perennial, 2017.

Sinha, Babli. South Asian Transnationalisms: Cultural Exchange in the Twentieth Century. Routledge, 2014.

Virde, Jyotika. The cinematic imagiNation: Indian popular films as social history. Rutgers University Press, 2003.

UNHCR, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. Source here.  

Films Referred:

Khamosh Pani. Dir. Sabiha Sumar, 2003.

Pinjar. Dir. Chandraprakash Dwivedi, 2003.

Dr. Paromita Sengupta is Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English, Sovarani Memorial College, West Bengal. An alumni of Presidency College, she has earned her PhD from the University of Calcutta in 2009. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, nineteenth century Indian writing in English, gender studies, and nation and identity. Paromita’s research has been published on national as well as international platforms. She has published an edition of Krishna Mohana Banerjea’s The Persecuted. She is currently working on her book on the constructs of motherhood.


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

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