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“Her Thighs Still Smell of Milk”: Partition and Poetry in Northeast India

By Rajashree Bargohain and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar


Recent scholarly works have established the fact that women are disproportionately affected by almost every aspect of war and it has “significant, distinctive and heart-wrenching” effects on women (Sjoberg and Via eds. 10). Women form a large part of the casualties before, during, and after wars: they are the targets of rape and forced pregnancies and they compose the majority of the people displaced by war (ibid.). The issue of crimes against women like rape and forced prostitution during wars has never received sufficient attention in history and most military histories across the world have sought to either dismiss or legitimise them (Copelon 193). The shocking magnitude and brutality of the mass rapes of women in the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides in the mid-90s generated worldwide attention on the issue of the prevalence of sexual abuse of women by men in all wars throughout history (Cockburn 212).

Feminist scholars have since exposed a direct connection between the prevalence of sexual violence against women in war and the inherently masculinist and misogynist logic of nationalism and warfare. They point out that nationalism is founded upon the notion of the nation as an essentially feminine entity and the woman’s body becomes the site of the inscription of the nation’s ‘honour’. As the women’s bodies become the signifiers of the nation, they also become the arenas where violent struggles between communities, regions, nations, and countries are played out (Murthy and Verma xi). War becomes a continuation of this gendered discourse, as warfare becomes a struggle to defend the ‘honour’ of the woman-as-nation (Murthy and Verma xi; Sjoberg and Via 5). Probing into a possible history of the psychological foundations of rape among humans, Susan Brownmiller has proclaimed that from prehistoric times, rape has played a critical function in acting as “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear” (15). She proposes that man’s discovery that his genitalia could be used as a weapon to intimidate and subjugate the female form was one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times, along with the use of fire and the first crude axe (14-15). She extends her characterisation of rape as a conscious weapon for perpetuating fear and control by connecting it to the pervasiveness of rape in war and militant violence throughout human history:

It has been argued that when killing is viewed as not only permissible but heroic behaviour sanctioned by one’s government or cause, the distinction between taking a human life and other forms of impermissible violence gets lost, and rape becomes an unfortunate but inevitable by-product of the necessary game called war. Women, by its reasoning, are simply regrettable victims – incidental, unavoidable casualties – like civilian victims of bombing, lumped together with children, homes, personal belongings, a church, a dike, a water buffalo, or next year’s crop…War provides men with the perfect psychologic backdrop to give vent to their contempt for women. The very maleness of the military – the brute power of weaponry exclusive to their hands, the spiritual bonding of men at arms, the manly discipline of orders given and orders obeyed, the simple logic of the hierarchical command – confirms for men what they long suspect, that women are peripheral, irrelevant to the world that counts, passive spectators to the action in the central ring. (Brownmiller 32)

Brownmiller’s work has been foundational in much of the scholarship which seeks to examine the connections between rape, masculinity, and militarism (Reardon 39; Kelly 47). Rape in war has been found to provide two functions: firstly, to prove a soldier’s ‘loyalty’ to the nation by raping a woman from the enemy group, and secondly, of attacking the enemy through its women. The symbolic positioning of women in national and ethnic identity makes them more vulnerable to the use of rape and forced pregnancies during armed conflicts (McKie and Yuill 51). Women become targeted victims of sexual abuse in group conflicts due to their central status in the national imaginary, due to their reproductive roles and as symbols of purity, for “[o]nly pure and modest women can reproduce the pure nation, without purity in biological reproduction the nation clearly cannot survive” (Mayer 7).

Nabanita Kanungo’s poem, “Her Thighs Still Smell of Milk”, poignantly brings out the violence inflicted on women’s bodies during ethnic and communal conflicts:

Her thighs still smell of milk
and her bosom, of blood.
Why do I want to dredge the music
out of her fluids?
Now when she has seeped down
the stony cracks of my story
with a limp map half-flying
from a shock-stiffened hand,
waiting for the last ceremonial rite
my memory can afford.

For when they killed her at the border
a child was still tugging at her nipple. (A Map 26-27)

Both men and women face violence during conflicts, but women undergo specific forms of violence targeted mainly at their sexuality. The trauma undergone by women victims of such violence is of a specific character. The postcolonial history of South Asia is marked by traumatic events in which large numbers of women have been victims of violence. The Partition holocaust saw the rape, mutilation, and abduction of thousands of women. Yet the episode has been conspicuous by its long absence from public discourse. It is only recently that attempts to excavate narratives recounting the horrors of Partition experiences have gained ground. These projects have so far been largely dominated by feminist endeavours which have tried to understand the gendered nature of the Partition experience. Partition narratives are also largely studied as witness accounts of the lived experiences of its victims. Partition narratives by women are thus marked by a double layer of unspeakability: on the one hand their experiences are rendered unspeakable through traumatic amnesia[i] and on the other hand, they become unspeakable as the stories of their violation become cases of personal and national dishonour. However, the silence of the victims of violence need not necessarily always be read as an erasure or absence. While their silence may be imposed from without – by patriarchal and nationalist forces seeking to produce sanitised versions of national history, their silence may also at times be a deliberately chosen strategy (Mehta 38).

This paper is a brief analysis of narratives of displacement by women poets of Northeast India in the context of Partition violence. It will especially focus on the works on Nabanita Kanungo, a poet based in Shillong, who writes in English.


Writers from Northeast India are faced with the challenge of negotiating with both forms of unspeakability while producing testimonial accounts of the trauma undergone by women of the region. Yet, a third layer of silence is added to the experiences of these women by the underrepresentation of such traumatic stories from the Northeast. Scholarly and literary engagements with Partition have largely limited themselves to the experiences on the western frontier and the Bengal region to some extent. Willem van Schendel draws attention to the almost exclusive focus on the Punjab region in the scholarship on Partition and stereotyped assumptions of the experience in the eastern provinces (28). The partition of Assam and the creation of Northeast India with a border which is much longer than either Punjab or Bengal have been largely ignored in Partition scholarship.

Contemporary writers in the Northeast have not experienced the Partition on a first-hand basis. However, for writers like Nabanita Kanungo, whose ancestors came to Northeast India from the Sylhet region to escape Partition violence, the displacement of her ancestors during Partition continues to hold crucial significance in her life and poetry. Anindita Dasgupta describes how the legacy of the past continues to weigh upon the lives of third generation children of refugees from Sylhet born in Northeast India (21).

Partition trauma appears as a lingering preoccupation in the poems by Nabanita Kanungo. She writes:

You shall be all the poems I chance upon
my mildewed file of poetry,
every ache I cultivate
in the plagued plains of our past,
our battles and pacts with the sky.

I have grown so bitter remembering you
they say I was born old.
But I know I was born dead,
perhaps blind
or you have walked so far away
I cannot trace you in the forlorn map.

And on this side of the denial
I wonder whether the same moon shines on our tears,
when the severed soul of our country
rises like a ghost in my dreams,
or when I see my fugitive ancestors
falling on their knees on an imagined shore.

A part of me, that’s still your daughter
makes an impossible wish:
Surma, flow backwards one day
and undo all of this. (A Map 38-39)

Her poems poignantly communicate the trauma experienced specifically by women victims of Partition:

I was born in my father’s difficult birth;
Habiganj was where he kicked himself to life,
as the mid-wife stifled his mother’s cries
so that the rioters wouldn’t hear.

I was born underneath the feet of a woman
who saw her son being hacked alive
before she was hanged naked to a palaash tree,
and then burnt. (A Map 1)

It is not just the past but the challenges of surviving and belonging as migrants in the often hostile adopted home that constantly run as an undercurrent in most of Kanungo’s poems:

I was there in that time, in pelted stones
and the earthen eyes that froze, oozing dreams,
the pots that bubbled with aid,
camps where life was bought with the last gold.

Still later, I was born in a hill
where the landscape offered alms;
the refuge of delusion.
I was the red-soil where faces fell
and feet stumbled at the gain of memory,
each day, each moment.

I was born in lost businesses,
and talents that grew legs to run away
into the ever-distant markets of favour.
I was born in this need to re-figure everything one has
on geography’s leathery skin, history’s long tongue.

And all the time, there was a difference
of being born in the throes of being up-rooted,
like the event of a wild beast
being transferred to a sanctuary and then a zoo.
But the sameness of it is an insanity killing slowly,
an acceptance that bids me want to be born again
in a snake-hole or a rabbit’s burrow. (A Map 1-2)

The question of citizenship has remained a fraught issue in the lives of the people displaced by Partition in the Northeast. They continue to be labelled ‘refugees’ in spite of having lived in the region for generations. Kanungo’s poem, “Refugee Colony”, brings out the challenges of living as ‘refugees’ in the region:

If it hadn’t been the thorn in our memories,
we would have bled elsewhere.
But that would be the same locale;
shame lying flat on the streets,
stealthy houses dying to disappear,
the mocking community hall,
the passive god in an apologetic temple. (A Map 42)

Dasgupta further states that although Indian Sylhetis gradually reconciled to their changed circumstances and new ‘homes’, yet Sylhet continues to figure as a symbol of loss and a place of longing in their imagined identity. Their identity as a community has assumed a fragmented and ambiguous character. Dasgupta writes, “many little Sylhets, standing uncertainly between a real or imagined identity, were recreated in different parts of north-east India over time” (20). Ananya Shankar Guha, another poet based in Shillong writes of his tenuous connection to Mymensingh in Bangladesh, which had erupted into mass riots during Partition:

My mother was born in Mymensingh
She speaks of it
with the desolateness of a pauper
Sagacity of a saint

Primeval wisdom Mymensingh
Hindus and Muslims Mymensingh
Hindus versus Muslims Mymensingh

Navigates in my blood, Mymensingh
Mother says “the smell of the good earth
is the same everywhere”

Ugly, squalid Mymensingh
Where on the eve of partition
Terrified hindus and muslims gouged each other’s eyes
Spat at one another, astonished at this deceit
Mother we remain astonished till today

My dirty, straggling roots Mymensingh
I’ll never dig them out
but let them remain growing like cacti
in the opal shores of history

That long unwritten poem, Mymensingh
The hammerings of the heart, Mymensingh (29)


Women writers have always found themselves in a difficult relationship to notions of spaces, places, territories, and regions as ethnic or national identity markers. As Dowson and Entwistle have demonstrated, a heterogeneous community of many women poets in Britain grapple with “an often productively uncertain sense of home” (197). This ambiguity regarding the notion of ‘home’ as a definite territory is a reality for all migrant writers. Dowson and Entwistle have added, however, that for expatriate writers, their experience of territorial, social, and linguistic alienation often proves to be rather enriching. And for women writers, their gendered position leads to a deepening of this experience of estrangement and cultural dislocation but they have often successfully exploited the creative opportunities inherent therein (197).

As a woman and migrant writer, concern about a displaced sense of belonging runs through most poems by Nabanita Kanungo. Her anxieties stemming from the shifting character of the entity called ‘home’ are embodied in a poem, also entitled “Home?” where the space of the ‘home’ becomes more of a question and a doubting than a certitude and affirmation:

What is it now? This house? This game of Oranges and Lemons, and its sounds being swallowed by distant cities? This house that has no alternative but in memory. For, we went in, under those arched hands, escaping borders and their horror, escaping persistent questions and shame, escaping the casual local slangs. What is this house but a tent a man had once built, a tent that now flutters in the storm of our future? This house of prosaic gardens and light, our childhood’s and our father’s, this house built with memory and burning lines of foreheads.

Now, oranges and lemons are sold for a penny, we are not school-girls anymore and aren’t so many. The grass is still green and the rose is red and we all seem to be asking it to remember us till we are dead.

There are haunted houses and there are houses that haunt. (“Home?”)

As the question mark in the title suggests, the home is a quest and an uncertainty for migrant writers like Kanungo. In “A Jarring Note/Kanungo in the Hills”, Kanungo writes with poignant awareness of the hatred and alienation directed at people like her, whose existence as ‘outsiders in the hills’ has turned their identities into a mere ‘contradiction’:

We dealt with matters of land,
my grandfather had said.
Ones who kept its records,
measured it, fixed its price.
We knew the kanoon.
I was taught to lick my name’s deep sound
festering in these hills before I was born.
And for a child misplaced on earth,
I took with ease the candour
of how a certain ache didn’t fit
here or anywhere else;
I grew into the fabled tree of my own blood
In tacit questions, raised eyebrows,
Grudging smiles,
everything that seemed to shout
that unjustifiable nature of being
an outsider in the hills;
until I stopped wondering
whether with all the kathas and bighas
they had worked out, my forefathers would have ever gauged
the incredible metaphor
land was to become for me –
a dream I must measure
with another dream,
a file of identity proofs gone quiet weeping
in childish longings to belong
this vast terrain of irony,
where silence is the only kanoon,
and the price of which is that terrible contradiction
that walks the earth
in my name. (“A Jarring Note”)


Although the experience of Partition was markedly different in Northeast India, the region continues to be shaped by cultural, political, and economic impacts of Partition. Babyrani Yumnam argues that Partition was a crucial moment in the postcolonial state-making process, which sealed the fate of the Northeast region as the “loci of geographical, political and economic marginality” (158). Mass displacement of populations during Partition unsettled the demographic composition in the region, which became the major factor underlying much of the political conflict in the Northeast in the subsequent period. As Sanjib Baruah points out, in Assam, the meaning of Partition has been slowly unfolding over decades through a tortuous process (“Partition and the Politics”). A careful engagement with the works of migrant writers like Nabanita Kanungo helps to shed light on the legacies of Partition in the Northeast region of India.

[i] Cathy Caruth, one of the pioneering figures in the field of trauma studies, advanced the theory of ‘traumatic amnesia’ – the victim’s inability to remember a traumatic experience.

Works Cited
Baruah, Sanjib. “Partition and the Politics of Citizenship in Assam”. Partition: the Long Shadow. Ed. Urvashi Butaliya. New Delhi: Penguin, 2015.

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1975.

Cockburn, Cynthia. From Where We Stand: War, Women’s Activism and Feminist Analysis. London: Zed Books, 2007.

Copelon, Rhonda. “Surfacing Gender: Reconceptualizing Crimes Against Women in Time of War”. Violence: A Reader. Ed. Catherine Besteman. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Dasgupta, Anindita. “Remembering Sylhet: A Forgotten Story of India’s 1947 Partition”. Economic and Political Weekly 43.31 (Aug. 2-8, 2008): 18-22.

Dowson, Jane, and Alice Entwistle. A History of Twentieth-Century British Women’s Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Guha, Ananya Shankar. Poems. Kolkata: Writers Workshop, 1997.

Kanungo, Nabanita. “A Jarring Note: Kanungo in the Hills”. The Sunflower Collective. 4 June 2016. Web.

—. A Map of Ruins. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2014.

—. “Home?” Personal Blog post. April 14, 2011. Web.

Kelly, Liz. “Wars Against Women: Sexual Violence, Sexual Politics and the Militarised State”. States of Conflict: Gender, Violence and Resistance. Eds. Susie Jacobs, et al. London and New York: Zed Books, 2000.

Mayer, Tamar, ed. Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

McKie, Linda, and Chris Yuill. “Sociological Prespectives on Defining and Accounting for Violence: Towards Gendering the Conflict in Northern Ireland”. Global Perspectives on War, Gender and Health: The Sociology and Anthropology of Suffering. Eds. Hannah Bradby, and Gillian Lewando Hundt. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2010. 51-68.

Mehta, Parvinder. “A Will to Say or Unsay: Female Silence and Discursive Interventions in Partition Narratives”. Revisiting India’s Partition: New Essays on Memory, Culture and Politics. Eds. Amritjit Singh, et al. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016. 35-52.

Murthy, Laxmi, and Mitu Varma, eds. Garrisoned Minds: Women and Armed Conflict in South Asia. New Delhi: Speaking Tiger, 2016.

Reardon, Betty A. Sexism and the War System. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Sjoberg, Laura, and Sandra Via, eds. Gender, War and Militarism: Feminist Practices. Santa Barbara, Denver and Oxford: Praeger Security International, 2010.

van Schendel, Willem. The Bengal Borderland: Beyond State and Nation in South Asia. Gurgaon: Anthem Press, 2005.

Yumnam, Babyrani. “From Frontiers to Borders: Partition and the Production of Marginal Spaces in North East India”. Revisiting India’s Partition: New Essays on Memory, Culture and Politics. Eds. Amritjit Singh, et al. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016. 157-176. 

Photo source: Here

Dr. Rajashree Borghain
is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Sonapur College, Assam. She recently obtained her PhD degree from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati. The title of her PhD thesis is “Echoes from the Hills: Poetry in English from Northeast India”.

Dr. Rohini Mokashi-Punekar is Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati. She is a translator and works on the interstices between literary history, political change, and social interrogation. Besides several papers in books and journals, she is the author of On the Threshold: Songs of Chokhamela (Altamira Press 2005 and The Book Review Literary Trust 2002), Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon (Manohar 2005), which she co-edited with Eleanor Zelliot, and Vikram Seth: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press 2009). She is currently engaged in two translation projects. The first is an anthology of medieval Varkari poetry in translation, which will be published by Penguin in their Black Classics series. The second is a translation of Phule’s Tritiya Ratna which will be published by Orient Blackswan.


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

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