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Guest-Editorial: Women as the “Displaced” in South Asia

By Suranjana Choudhury and Nabanita Sengupta

“I am a lost individual/Left divided between here and there” (Sozan Mohammed, “Here and There”)

“They will never be the same again because you just cannot be the same once you leave behind who and what you are, you just cannot be the same”
(NoViolet BulawayoWe Need New Names)

The views expressed in the lines quoted above evoke a sense of loss, dispossession, and anxiety. These experiences are essentially symptomatic of most displaced consciousness. Is displacement all about pain and suffering? Does one look beyond? How do women in South Asia receive and negotiate with such experiences? How do South Asian writings and cultural representations by and about women map a history of discursive and gendered displacement? We had begun with these crucial questions, we have not really arrived at conclusive answers. We were not seeking answers because questions were more important. This rich and fascinating journey has led us to explore some more meaningful issues and concerns. The importance of raising these issues and writing about them in a collected volume would be further evidence, if any were required, of the extraordinary dimensions of the subject.   

Partition, 1947: Unsettled lives, unwritten chaos…

The partition of India is still a living reality, it continues to exercise enormous impact on the lives of the divided nations. None would deny its everydayness. Partition had displaced lives, it had destroyed souls. Women and children were undeniably the most vulnerable lot. Amrita Pritam had profoundly echoed the anguish of the victimised through her ode to Waris Shah, “a million daughters weep today and/look at you for solace.” Million daughters across borders truly suffered woes of displacement and violence. As expected, we received multiple submissions on women’s experiences of partition-induced displacement. The essays included in this segment, diverse as they are in other ways, raise some compelling questions regarding the plight of women displaced during partition. These illuminating essays are in the forms of literary responses, critical reviews of films, historical narratives, and personal reflections.

Dr. Amarinder Gill’s article is a personal account regarding one of the survivors of Punjab partition riots. Through a sensitive narrative of her great aunt, a born Muslim but later incorporated within a Sikh family, she explores the dynamics of relationship in those turbulent days of violence and uprootedness. Displacement here comes in the form of love, family, and a re-settlement, though some scars do remain.

Effect of partition upon Assam, though not as widely chronicled as that of Bengal and Punjab, does have its own share of tragedies. Dr. Binayak Dutta highlights the plight of the displaced women of Sylhet, who had to leave their homes as a result of partition and move to safer places like Shillong. The voiceless and displaced women heighten the sense of marginalisation that women as a gender face during any kind of social disruption, whether due to war, riots or natural calamities.

Dr. Debasri Basu’s paper explores a range of literary narratives comprising novels, short stories, and memoirs to bring forth different dimensions of displacement experienced by the women on account of the officially-sanctioned rescue missions conducted in the wake of rampant abductions during Partition. The essay examines how abducted women’s survival challenged the forging of dichotomous relationship between civic and domestic sphere in the wake of post-independence transitional phase.

Dr. Paromita Sengupta’s article engages with the continued impact of displacement in the lives of women through a nuanced analysis of two films, Khamosh Pani and Pinjar and another text, The Liberation of Sita, which is interestingly a retelling of the Ramayana. Her paper highlights the contradictions that arise from competing ideologies of home, nation, and gender at the return of abducted women to their families and nations.

Dr. Sudeshna Chakravorty’s paper focuses on the silver screen narratives of the same issue through Chaliya, Gadar: Ek Premkatha, and Pinjar. Her essay shows how there is a movement towards a greater acceptability of the victim by her family and society in a chronological progression from Chaliya to Gadar to Pinjar. The woman from being a complete social outcast gradually moves towards reconciliation with her family and as an active agency vested with some control over her destiny.

The figure of “refugee woman” generates a complex configuration of meanings and interpretations. Dr. Anindita Ghoshal’s paper situates the location of women within the construction of refugeehood in the context of post-partitioned Bengal. It examines how despite the growth of Refugee Studies, the predicament and the representations of refugee women remain extremely flawed and inadequate.

Poetry has often been the medium of expression for the repressed. In ““Her Thighs Still Smell of Milk”: Partition and Poetry in Northeast India” by Rajashree Borgohain and Dr. Rohini Mokashi-Punekar, the authors analyse the poetry of displacement and partition trauma as faced by women of North-east India, particularly focusing on the works of Nabanita Kanungo.

One would find it difficult to identify Khasi-Jaintia terrain of Meghalaya as one of the receptacles of Partition-induced displacement. Sashi Teibor Laloo’s narrative, interestingly, delivers a different picture. His granny’s storytelling sessions unfold a significant corpus of forgotten histories of Partition in the northeast. These anecdotes add to our understanding of the experiential legacy of the displaced.

Diasporic voices: Voices from beyond the homeland

Migration to foreign shores, forced or otherwise, entails a desire to return to one’s land of birth. The displaced community, straddled between the traditions, cultures and politics of two lands live in a continuous struggle to interpret themselves through their identities of their mother countries. The dialectics of surviving in one culture with a sense of dislocation from one’s own is not easy to be resolved and often comes out as angst, unresolved yearnings, and a sense of loss. South Asian population constitutes one of the largest diasporic communities with India playing a key role. It is only natural therefore that a journal issue on women’s displacement in South Asia will include several articles highlighting such migrations.

Dr. Dolikajyoti Sharma chronicles the displacement of Afghan women, particularly focusing on the life of Zarghuna Karghar, as narrated in her autobiographical work, Dear Zari: Hidden stories from women in Afghanistan. Sharma’s paper sensitively portrays the struggles of Karghar’s life, which can be seen as a series of displacements. But the story here is also affirmative as Zarghuna ultimately finds her voice through the radio programme that she produces with BBC.

Joanna Antoniak’s essay takes up Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers, which focuses on the lives of Pakistani diaspora formed in one of the small towns in England. The paper explores this novel to reflect on exile as an experience constitutive of isolation, pain and layers of marginalisation. It primarily analyses the difficulties experienced by a female diasporic subject.

Bharati Mukherjee is the focus of Rima Bhattacharya’s article. Rima examines specifically Mukherjee’s short story “A Wife’s Story” to explicate how the story without taking a cliched romantic turn stages a twenty-first century immigrant woman’s use of her erotic as well as psychic autonomy to resist her colonization by the state and its patriarchal norms.

For Saumya B. Verma, fresh from her homeland, the sense of belonging is yet unfazed though a thin layer of nostalgia gradually sets in. She tries to understand her position as an Indian migrant in the city of New York vis-a-vis the two women characters in the movie Dhobi Ghat in search of their own identities in a new city. An anxiety of belonging, alongside the excitement of novelty in their new habitat, resonates in the stories of these urban women, where displacement is not always loss, but an exploration beyond one’s familiar territory.

Dr. Kaustav Bakshi’s paper on Mohanraj’s Bodies in Motion interestingly explores the idea(s) of sexuality in three Sri Lankan migrant women. He problematises the concepts of desire and expected sexual behaviour by exploring the three female bodies as sites of sexual conduct and repository of tradition and honour. As migrants, they continuously negotiate between the traditional views of sexuality that they have imbibed from their culture, juxtaposed with the more liberating atmosphere of their resident country and each has a different approach to it.

Displacement induced by social institutions

Displacement or dislocation is not always a movement outside one’s homeland. Often socially accepted institutions lead to a shift from one’s own home – at times voluntary or even forced.

Marriage, one of the most important institutions of our social fabric is responsible for a largescale displacement of women. However, it has for long eluded the scanner of displacement studies, perhaps due to its long and continuous history. Debomitra Kar explores displacement of women due to marriage through her paper in which she draws illustrations both from short fictions as well as real life individuals.

Dr. Vineeth Mathoor reads displacement of women from the perspective of rigid caste structure of Indian society. His paper explores the life of the unfortunate Pulaya actress, P. K. Rosie, whose role as a Nair woman in a Malayalam movie led to her becoming a complete outcast. Though mystery still shrouds the actual life of this actress, one thing that is made clear is her complete displacement from her own society and people. Bearing the brunt of the anger of upper caste Hindus of Travancore, Rosie’s life is completely disrupted and she has to live (if she did survive the attack) a life of anonymity.   

Conflicts and calamities: Disorders of displacement

Communal riots, ethnic conflicts, environmental ravages cause displacements of different measures. Lives change forever. Women, as usual, suffer the most. What special constraints are imposed on those who write about such episodes? Can journalistic accounts and documentary narratives add to the grim chronicle of these incidents? Subhajit Sengupta’s essay is an intervention in this regard.

Sengupta’s journalistic account touches upon a very critical impact of displacement in the subcontinental space. His professional assignments in riot-ridden areas of Assam and Uttar Pradesh help him in witnessing the ugly sequence of trafficking induced by the episodes of forced dislocation in such places. He also looks into the ruined predicaments of uprooted women in Nepal after the devastating earthquake had hit the country

Displacement as empowerment

Displacement does not always induce loss. Embedded within the concept of displacement/ dislocation is also the idea of emplacement/relocation. There are narratives of affirmation where moving away from home has led to a more empowering position for the displaced.

Mahuya has a very interesting take on displacement, hers is a personal narrative. She recounts how her displacement from Silchar, her small native town, to a larger metropolis, Bangalore, has offered her infinitely meaningful avenues to explore in life. She considers herself a global citizen now.

Lapdiang Syiem too talks about her negotiations with life and surroundings after she leaves her homeland to find new homes. Her vision as an artist empowers her to grow roots elsewhere. Her displacement does not render her vulnerable; her life is invested with a new set of opportunities and possibilities.

All these articles, included in this volume of Café Dissensus bring out the amorphous and multi-layered nature of displacement. Just as its causes are numerous, so are the ways in which each community or each individual engages with it. South Asia being one of the largest community of migrants and IDPs, gives rise to multiple discourses in terms of displacement. Through these essays here, we have tried to bring to our readers as many different perspectives on the agenda of displacement of South Asian women as we could. There are still many aspects left to be explored. Still, we hope to have been able to touch upon some of the key issues of displacement and open newer avenues of discourses. We remain deeply indebted to our contributors for having submitted a bunch of interesting and insightful articles. We are equally grateful to Café Dissensus for providing us with this fantastic space.

Guest-Editors:
Dr. Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of interest include Narratives on Partition and Displacement, Women Studies, Travel Writings, and Translation Studies. She has published articles in numerous journals and edited volumes. She has also presented papers in many national and international conferences. Besides her academic writings, she has also contributed to Scroll.in, Humanities UndergroundThe StatesmanCafe Dissensus, Coldnoon Travel Poetics. She may be contacted at suranjanaz@gmail.com

Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is presently working as assistant professor in English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. Her areas of specialization are 19th century travel writings, women’s studies, translation studies, and disability studies. Some of her translated short stories have been published, the latest contribution being in the Anthology of Modern Bengali short stories, published by the Sahitya Akademi. Her creative writings have also been published at various places like Muse India, NewsMinute.in, etc. She has also participated in various national and international seminars. She may be contacted at nabanita.sengupta@gmail.com

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

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