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The Chronicle of the Caged Bird: Gender, Quotidian, and “New Women” in Post-Partition Literature

By Anuparna Mukherjee

The emergence of “new women” in the Post-Partition literary and cultural ethos, often directs us to the assertion of the female presence in the professional domain. Their heightened participation in the economic workforce was mainly mobilized under the auspice of the refugee women who sought jobs in various fields to hold their impoverished families together. By breaking through the male exclusivity and dominance, they altered the configurations of workspaces. The resilient struggle of these professional women in organized and unorganized job sectors for better pay, respect and equal opportunities frequently consolidated into movements that compelled the government to review the traditional work-ethics under changed circumstances, frame policies and laws to accommodate the new gender-relations in offices. Their emergence as breadwinners inspired hundreds of women to step out of their homes to join the labour-force in the public sphere. The participation of working women contributed to the incipient economy of the postcolonial nation, still reeling under the aftermath of colonial exploitation and the wreckage of India’s Partition.

However, this essay explores the discursive category, “new women”, in a more restricted and localized context to speak about those whose contribution does not lie in revolutionizing the public world, but in the silent assertion to stand their ground within the inner domain of their homes as a way of resisting the debacle of Partition. It delves into the journey of the unnamed protagonist within the textual space of Hasan Ajijul Huq’s novel, Agun Pakhi (The Bird of Fire), to talk about a rural housewife whose life, like several others, was suddenly catapulted by the Partition. I aim to locate her transformation through her response to this colossal tragedy that not only destabilized the contour of national borders, but disrupted the relational matrix within close-knit social and familial orders. 

The Home, History and the Quotidian

In his essay, “The World and the Home”, Homi Bhabha succinctly purports that “often the intimate recesses of the domestic space become sites for history’s most intricate invasions.” In Partition literature, to use Bhabha’s words, “uncannily, the private and the public become part of each other” as the violence of the external world cross the threshold of the private, to force upon people a bewildering realization of their home’s disintegration into an unhomely space, incapable of holding its inhabitants together. So, Partition texts often deal with exiles who emigrate to a new country because their religious beliefs are perceived or projected as threat to themselves and to the others in the vicinity. Nevertheless, there are quite a few exceptions in Partition narratives where the story hinges upon the lives of those who repudiate this ethno-religious envisioning of the nation by refusing to leave their homes in the face of imminent danger. Like Saleem Mirza in M. S. Sathyu’s 1973 celluloid classic Garam Hawa, the price these men and women had to pay for their choice, however, is indeed very dear. Deprived of equal citizenship in the new postcolonial state, they feel like internal exiles. Home loses its familiar moorings in the territorial battle as the country assumes the mantle of a new identity after the Partition. Yet for the others the geographical location in which they are coerced to migrate after 1947 cannot become home in its comprehensive sense because they do not feel the same sense of containment or affinity with the place in their new country. That is precisely why in Ismat Chugtai’s “Roots”, Amma, the matriarch of a thriving Muslim family in India, refuses to go to Pakistan after the Partition. The narrator compares her steadfastness to a “banyan tree that stands upright through storms and blizzards”. Her argument in favour of not leaving India is incisive:

‘What’s this strange bird called “our land”? Tell me where’s that land? This is the place where one was born, one grew up in body and mind. If this cannot be one’s own land, then how can the place where one simply goes and settles down for a couple of days be one’s own? And who knows whether one won’t be driven out from there as well and be told “Go and inhabit a new land”? … As though the land is no better than a pair of shoes—if one gets a little tight, throw it away and get a new one,’ (translation M. Asaduddin) 

Similarly in Hasan Ajijul Huq’s Agun Pakhi, the novel which I intend to discuss at some length,  the anonymous protagonist – a semi-literate Muslim wife of a village chief – revolts against her family’s decision to shift their base to East Pakistan. Instead, as she battles to hold the ‘everyday’ from crumbling in the chaos, she braces herself on a private journey to understand the layered implications of freedom, belonging, country, and exile. It comes as a way of negotiating with complex forms of trauma and victimhood in her quotidian life, as a female subject whose home is permanently scarred by the Partition. 

Huq’s Fiction on Partition

Hasan Ajijul Huq (1937 – ) was born in the Burdwan district in the Western region of undivided Bengal. His family had moved over to East Pakistan a few years after the Independence. Like Huq’s literary mentor Manik Bandopadhyay, India’s independence that was overshadowed by the unsightly specter of the Partition left a bitter taste in his mouth. His stories are peopled with characters from the working class who live on a meagre income. The country’s freedom that came with the spatial upheavals caused by the Partition, only escalated their existing burden of woes. Even the paltry belongings that these poor villagers had were lost in the chaos of Partition, which becomes a major theme in Huq’s short fictions like “Atmaja O Karabi Gachh” (“The Daughter and the Karabi Tree”), “Mari” and ‘Parabashi” (“The Exile”). In Agun Pakhi (The Bird of Fire), however, the Partition is introduced only in the penultimate pages of the novel.

The narrative begins a few decades before 1947, in a remote hamlet of Rarh Bengal. Agun Pakhi spins its yarn around the quotidian life of an ordinary village woman. Her perceptive observation of the humdrum affairs of the everyday world she inhabits forms the crux of the novel that traces the arc of her growth like a bildungsroman. Initially cast in the role of a docile daughter, then a pliant wife in a large joint family, she is practically denied any autonomy within the patriarchal community she lives in. Her gender subalternity is imbricated in the absence of her name in the story that couples with her voiceless-ness in the family where she is usually identified through her male relations.

We learn that the protagonist lacks a formal schooling. However, she is introduced to the letters due to her husband’s zeal who taught her privately at night without the knowledge of his family. As she labours through the alphabets, she hesitantly succeeds in stringing them into words and sentences of her own. Gradually she manages to read the Bengali daily which becomes her window to the outer world, otherwise beyond her reach. Being narrated from her vantage, the narrative in Agun Pakhi is inflected with demotic idioms and crafted entirely in the rural, colloquial dialect that she speaks. Her annals begin with the depiction of sundry events within the family – deaths, child births, marriages – that populate her inconspicuous, sedentary life of domestic chores and perfunctory familial duties. Gradually these microstorias at the locus of her small world are enfolded into the wider realm beyond the four squares of her “home” when global occurrences ruffle the solitude of her sequestered life in the village.

With the eruption of World War II, the cholera epidemic sweeping through the village, crop failures, famine, and finally, the Hindu-Muslim schism, her story embraces the incidents of the outer world through her local prism that holds her subjective centrality. However, her personal anecdotes attain a valence when couched and corroborated by such “big events” in the larger domain of public histories. Thus, placed at an intersection of affective and empirical, her(stories), selected as recollections, subtend to certain archives of intermedial histories. They bridge the discursive gaps between emotions, imagination, and facticity as a local supplement to the dominant historiography of the nation, charted, predominantly by the male historians.

It is in the final pages of the novel with the outbreak of communal tension that jeopardizes the syncretic fabric of her neighbourhood, the protagonist tries to grapple with the concept of the Partition. Initially she believes that the Partition and its concomitant violence is an ailment afflicting people that would be cured once the heat of communal fervour abates. Riots are an aberration of the general law of life that holds “peace not violence as the order of our existence”. However, her hopes are crushed when the country is balkanized by the factional politics which demanded a territorial segmentation without realizing its human consequence. The last few pages of Agun Pakhi address this rapidly changing milieu of religious hostility and incertitude. To reconcile with the baffling pronouncement of the Partition that ruptured the framework of her everyday world, the protagonist raises a series of pointed questions which the “learned” and the “experienced” men” in her village fail to answer, or willfully evade to avoid confrontation with uncomfortable truths. Despite their non-responsiveness, she continues asking these questions, overcoming her general subservience to her male relations. After her son gets a job in Dhaka and leaves for East Pakistan, her family consoles her by affirming that there is hardly any difference between Kolkata and Dhaka. They assert that the birth of Pakistan has not changed anything at all. Dhaka is only a few hours away from Kolkata. She then thinks in her mind, if Pakistan has made no difference in the lives of the people, and if working in Dhaka is just like working in Kolkata then “why did the country plummet into a bloodbath over India and Pakistan? Why were the men killed? Why did so many mothers lose their children?” As a mother who had once experienced the agony of losing her child, she is appalled to see others suffering from a similar fate for a cause which for her, could neither justify its means nor its ends. Her pain becomes most evident when she meets a Hindu woman in her village whose son has been trounced to death in a communal carnage in Kolkata. She ruefully recalls that the boy had once befriended her own dead son. The protagonist refuses to accept the political claptrap that Hindus and Muslims need two separate lands premised on religious exclusivity. So, after Bengal has been segregated, she asks her son:

So long we [the Hindus and the Muslims] have lived together, sharing the same piece of land, even speaking the same language. Why then, are we fighting for two separate countries now? Is it because we have just realized that our religions differ? … the trees that grow on this earth grow there [Pakistan] as well…. the sky that covers us, is there too. Then how is that country different from ours? Don’t just talk to me about religion. People cannot merely survive on that” (translation mine).

Incidentally, the protagonist’s attempts to resolve her doubts about the Partition that frayed the age-old relationship between Hindu and Muslim neighbours in the village, enable her to come out of her cocoon of false complacence. Being unable to find the answers from those she trusted, she is forced to think independently “on her own”. This becomes her first fledgling steps toward the liberation from a self-effacing individual, incapable of an existence without her male custodians. Instead, now she gradually learns to apply her reasons to assert her agency and speak truth to the powers that visibly controlled her life. A remarkable moment in the novel is when the she makes her final choice to stay back in her ancestral land after the Partition against the persuasion of her family who eventually leave for East Pakistan:

Do not misapprehend my decision to stay back as my pigheadedness. I have not disobeyed anyone. I only wanted to know the truth, but nobody could explain it to me why, just because I am a Musalmaan, I belonged to that country and not this place. They also failed to make me understand why, just because my children had left for another land, I must follow them as well. What can I do if my husband decides to leave?

And then, despite her muted existence in the family, she compellingly asserts her individuality from her husband:

We are not the same, we are different. He is my own, very own, he dwells in my heart, and yet he is a different person.

Since she has been taught never to question or to seek, but to listen and to follow her male guardians, her unflinching resolve to stay back in India against her family’s will surprises her husband who scornfully questions, “When did you learn so much?”. However, this time quick comes her rejoinder: “All these years I’ve only learned what you have instructed me and I’ve only said what you expected me to say. Now I’ve picked up a thing or two on my own.” Notwithstanding her naiveté, now she speaks like one who is capable of taking her own counsel. Throughout her life her male relatives made choices for her and spoke on her behalf. She lived on their terms without questioning the position accorded to her in the family. This is for the first time in her regimented existence she recognizes her agency with a voice and a cause to stand for. The novel closes with a triumphant assertion of her individuality. Its last word is appropriately eka (alone) – this eka is not a cry of desolation after being forsaken, but a conviction in herself:

Let the day awaken…I’ll stand up once again facing the sun.  Yes, I’m alone, but this does not bother me. Alone, I have the strength to take everybody in my bosom. Alone. (italics mine)

As indicated earlier, in the context of Indian Partition, the allusion to “New Women” is generally made in reference to the tenacious struggle of pioneering women whose foray into the public domain as professionals by fighting the stigma within the folds of their family and outside, inspired several generations that followed. While their contribution is enormous in combatting the victimhood and dispossession of women in third-world postcolonial societies, “new women” as a notion can be more protean when taken into consideration the unsung individuals in small, local pockets who showed unusual strength in resisting the absurdity of  the Partition. Even though their agencies were limited, their micro-actions seldom consolidated into a mass expression, and were too personal, isolated or contingent when placed against the larger rubric of Post-Partition movements, their gestures cannot be undermined. Agun Pakhi traces the transformation of one such individual from a submissive housewife who tacitly yielded to gender norms ordained by the patriarchy, to the discovery of her “new” self against the turmoil of the Partition that brought out facets of her personality hitherto unknown. Here “new” must be interpreted in relation to her former life and the trajectory of self-knowledge that many women like her acquired through the consuming pain and their encounter with loss in the “evil-hours” of the country’s vivisection.

Thus during the Partition while most women lost their bearings, “alone” she stood against the tide to shore the fragments against her ruins in her desolate home. Alone, she decided to pick up the broken threads, snapped by the lines drawn across maps and between people by the Partition that surreptitiously altered intimate spaces and relationships. From her position of initial powerlessness to her ultimate affirmation of authority – “eka”, her journey is elevating. At the end of the novel, it is her fiery strength that shines through her resolve. And the very association with the bird (pakhi) in the title, registers her final libratory flight from the juggernaut by breaking those pinions, camouflaging as convention and familial obligations.

Photo: Kenchuk Bhutia

Bio:
Anuparna Mukherjee holds a PhD degree in literature from the Australian National University. She completed her graduation from Presidency College, Kolkata. She has guest-edited a special issue on ‘City, Space and Literature’ with Arunima Bhattacharya in 2017. Email: mukherjeeanuparna@gmail.com

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

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