Skip to content

Beyond Partition

By Nishat Haider

Partition is the “originary trauma” in Indian national memory, and scholars like Suvir Kaul, Kavita Daiya, Jisha Menon, and Priya Kumar have “excavated its lasting impact on the postcolonial life of the nation-state and explored in particular how the violence of Partition left its mark on Indian literary and cultural production” (Misri 8). Written from a position informed by a critique of trauma theory’s model of subjectivity, and its relations with theories of referentiality and representation, history and testimony, this paper foregrounds Nandita Das’s Firaaq (2008) to explicate that the legacy of the partition communal violence is more dangerous than violence itself. Framing the subject of post-riot trauma faced in a cross-section of society in Gujarat, the film (which presents six stories running parallel), spanning a day, one month after the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, revolves around a set of characters, a Muslim musician/singer and his faithful servant, a Hindu wife and her Muslim husband, a poor Muslim couple, a Gujarati Hindu family, an orphaned Muslim kid and a set of Muslim friends who are hell bent on taking revenge against the atrocities they have faced. However, it must be conceded at the outset that I will avoid analyzing all the stories in the film, but will choose only those scenes that unravel the memorialization of a child’s (Mohsin) loss in the post-Godhra carnage. The paper aims to map out child(ren)’s trauma as a structuring yet elusive subject of representation by exploring the relationship between the experiences of terror and helplessness that have caused trauma, the ways in which the young survivors remember, and the representation that seek not only to comprehend connections between trauma and memory in the shifting terrain of history making and its reception, but also to work through the trauma. Though there is a lot of research on men and women’s response to Partition trauma and its reverberation in the post-Independence communal conflagrations and violence, what so far has been left out of the debate is the issue of the appropriateness of children’s traumatic memories as viable narratives that attempt to access and to represent a painful past that is by definition inaccessible.

The history(ies) and memories of Partition live on in post-colonial times to such a degree that “we should truly prefer the phrase ‘partitioned times’ to the more common ‘post-colonial times’” (Samaddar 21). The collective memory of Partition within the subcontinent has, during the past century and more, been refracted through communal and state ideologies. The vast majority of general population is of Hindu religion, and the traumatic partition of India in 1947, which was accompanied by a large scale rioting and genocide amongst Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, had a long term effect on the relationship between religious and national identity. The analytical studies on the repercussion of violence and its implication for the making/marking of identity, collective and individual (Das and Nandy 1986; Durkheim 1965 [1912]; Girard 1977; and Scarry 1985) has led to a greater understanding of the critical and traumatic effect of post-Partition riots and pogroms in the structuring of memory and negotiating/delineating group or individual subjectivities. Memory is “based on traces from the past.” Our present is “haunted” by the past and that past is “modeled, invented, reinvented, and reconstructed by the present” (Assmann 9). Historical memories of partition trauma and its aftermath to a large extent are constituted by and through “institutionalized sites of memory” like literature and cinema. A film that unforgettably captured the memories and sensibilities of the anguish and tribulations of Muslim families, which chose to stay on in India after the Partition, was MS Sathyu’s debut film, Garm Hawa (1973).  Another movie that creates the same lasting impression on the collective conscience is Firaaq, which means both separation – the estrangement between communities – and quest, a search, for hope and the meeting again of hearts.

Film as cultural memory is a locus of history, a mode of remembering, a mnemonic practice with a ‘mnemohistorical logic’ which focuses on the following questions: “who is telling the story, how is it being told, and with what underlying intentions?” (Assman 117). Though the film Firaaq has a multi-voiced narrative, but at the centre of this narrative is a little boy named Mohsin seen moving through the streets, trying to find his missing father. He emerges as the youngest witness to the city set on fire. His memories are filled with trauma, of which he cannot break free. The fear of death haunts him. He has lost his family in the post-Godhra riots. He was a witness to his family being butchered and has escaped from the camp where he had been sheltered, in search of his father. In yet another story in the movie, there is a battered middle class Hindu housewife, Aarti (performed by Deepti Naval) who refuses to help a Muslim woman who had come to her doorstep, desperately seeking refuge. Further, Das indicates her (Aarti) husband’s role in the riots subtly by showing him as being part of the upmarket mob that raided shops and establishments, which belonged to Muslims.  Even one month after the riots, this housewife is suffering from the guilt of not helping a victim. She tries to make amends by sheltering the young Muslim orphan boy, Mohsin, and tries to help him. She gives him a Hindu name, Mohan, to conceal his identity in order to protect him from the rioteers.

In Firaaq, both Aarti and Mohsin have suffered abuse at the hands of ruthless heteronormative nationalism, at home and without. Aarti overhears a chat between her husband and his brother, which shows his involvement in a Muslim woman’s gang rape and murder.  Aarti herself is ill-treated and battered by her husband. Battered and isolated, she starts empathizing with Mohsin. This compassionate relationship must be understood as “a politics based on concrete heartfelt understanding of what it means to be Other” (Rich 400). In a poignant scene, Mohsin describes the slaughter: the women, he said, were stripped naked and then burnt alive and thrown in mass graves. The men, he innocently adds, were not stripped naked. Aarti listens to the orphaned child Mohsin:

Mohsin: There were many. They were all shouting. They burnt my mother and brother too. They even killed my younger sister, aunt and uncle.

Aarti: Did you see all this?

Mohsin: Yes, some even brought swords. They killed aunt after stripping her. But they didn’t disrobe the men.

Aarti: And where were you?

Mohsin: I was hiding in the dustbin.

Aarti: Then?

Mohsin: Then Uncle Yusuf took me to the survivors’ camp. But I want to go to Abbu [father]. (Firaaq)

Mohsin’s acknowledgement of his trauma in a household whose members were openly responsible for such victimization is ironic and significant. In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, the little boy in search of his father smacks an ant dead with sudden force. While killing the ant, he says with unexpected fervor, “Maar diya sale ko [I’ve killed the bastard].” He has borne witness to vast and tiny cruelties. Now, he is a premonition of a new generation. The final scene of the film, which shows the young Mohsin running on the streets to locate his father, presumably dead, is quite agonizing. In doing this, the movie neither offers a notion of closure nor resolves the traumas. On the one hand, it does offer hope that with the next generation lays the opportunity to bury the past and forge a new future ahead filled with better understanding, and the appreciation that such violence should never occur again. On the other hand, it also seeks to remind us of how within an impressionable young mind wandering inside a relief camp, taking in the sights of the aftermath of atrocities committed, the seeds of revenge could have been innately planted for further atrocities to be committed, sometime in the future. It’s extremely difficult, but not impossible, to break the stranglehold that violence begets more violence.

Traumatic memories are not “encoded like the ordinary memories of adults in a verbal, linear narrative that is assimilated into an ongoing life story” (Herman 156-57). In making Firaaq, the challenge for Das was “to find a way of making this fundamental truth accessible to the mind and emotions of the [viewer]” (Langer xxi). Firaaq offers modes of representation adequate to such events. Since the movie detours from the usual linear story-telling format, the viewer operates within the ‘trauma process,’ struggling to bridge the gap between event and representation (Alexander 11). By framing the film from multiple viewpoints, Das not only asks the adult viewers to reconsider the manner, in which they grasp, process and assimilate information, but also to consequently relearn in an unconventional way. A section of the film is framed from the vantage point of the child-actor Mohsin. The apparent directness and frankness of the child’s focalization, and the haptic images enable Nandita Das to frame the cinematic experience of postcolonial trauma in terms of innocence lost. Whilst the act of witnessing violence changes the child, the act of watching it changes the viewer. Das calls upon the viewer to inhabit the narrator as child, and to embark on an analogous psychological journey of discovery and maturity, which absorbs and sublimates the ‘remnants’ of the ‘originary’ trauma or ‘traces’ of trauma that defies depiction. Firaaq frames Mohsin, the child, to inflect the act of representation of trauma with an ostensible naiveté, inoffensiveness, innocence, and a certain degree of dispassionateness. The film enunciates the traumatic depiction of communal riots reminiscent of partition violence from a child’s perspective that transparently looks back, eliding all the representational difficulty that necessitated the action in the first instance. The character of the child thus becomes a means of establishing a literary realism that would otherwise be untenable. Das frames the innocence of child’s perspective as a deferral of the full presence of trauma, that is, the partial depictions as testimonies offer a ruse for full representations. In other words, the innocuous, innocent quality of childhood is ample rationalization for the film’s absences, elisions, deferrals, and descriptive gaps.

The frame of childhood in Firaaq enables Das not only to re-witness the realm of the unofficial/non-mainstream historical memories and narrate the violent loss that might otherwise challenge representation, but also to explore, albeit innocuously, the ways in which family, religion and society intersect with postcolonial identities. The film Firaaq, as a site of reminiscences of the violent past, is a historical document that constructs filmic expression and discourse that restores individual and collective memories without privileging the official, mainstream version of the events. Remembering, witnessing and telling the truth about violence, injury and deeply rooted psychological traumas are prerequisites both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims. The film ultimately provides a vehicle for the eventual incorporation, by an audience, of the narrative of survival and therefore “acts to mitigate traumatized isolation and create empathy with the sufferings of others in the present” (Radstone 192). The viewer is positioned as a witness interpreting how he construes what occurred, that is, his own trauma or cultural memory of that event. This involves the viewers in the production of the meaning of the experiences of the child-actor and alters the loss of experience into an experience of loss. Through the testimonies of Mohsin, the audiences not only become witness of what simply happened during post-Godhra in Gujarat, but also grasp some of the entanglements of Partition history and its reverberations in the present, such that what we understand or experience provides us a rationalization of why and how communal violence like those in Gujarat (2002) happen; thereby performing a socio-cultural evaluation, which is already a form of recovery. Firaaq endeavours not only to bear witness and testify, but also to negotiate the fissures between memory and history, and remembrance and representation.                                          

 Works Cited

Alexander, J.C., ed. “Towards a Theory of Cultural Trauma.” Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity. Berkley, California: U of California P, 2004. 1-30.

Assmann, Jan Moses the Egyptian: The memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1997.

—. The Price of Monotheism. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2010.

Das, Veena and Ashis Nandy. “Violence, Victimhood and the Language of Silence.” Ed. Veena Das. The Word and the World: Fantasy, Symbol and Record. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1986.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of The Religious Life. New York: Free P, 1965 [1912].

Girard, Rene. Violence and the Sacred.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1977.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery. 1992. Afterword by Herman. New York: Basic, 1997.

Langer, Lawrence L. Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Misri, Deepti. Beyond Partition: Gender, Violence, and Representation in Postcolonial India. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014.

Radstone, Susannah, ed. “Special Debate: Trauma and Screen Studies.” Screen 42 .2 (2001): 188-216.

Rich, Adrienne. “If Not With Others, How?” Feminism and Community. Ed. Penny E. Weiss and Marilyn Friedman. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 1995. 399-406.

Samaddar, Ranabir. “The Last Hurrah That Continues.” Divided Countries, Separated Cities.The Modern Legacy of Partition. Ed. Deschaumes Ghislaine Glasson and Rada Ivekovic. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 2003.

 Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

Dr. Nishat Haider is Professor of English and Director, Institute of Women’s Studies, at the University of Lucknow. She is the author of Contemporary Indian Women’s Poetry (2010). Recipient of Meenakshi Mukherji Prize (2016), C. D. Narasimhaiah Award (2010) and Isaac Sequeira Memorial Award (2011), she has presented papers at numerous academic conferences and her essays have been included in a variety of international journals and books. She has conducted numerous workshops on gender budgeting and gender sensitization. She has lectured extensively on subjects at the cusp of cinema, culture and gender studies. Her research interests include Postcolonial Studies, Popular Culture, Cinema and Gender Studies.


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

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: