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Partitioned Selves

By Rosy Sinha

Partition of India may be an event that is (temporally speaking) beyond us. As a cultural trauma, it continues to dominate our social, political, ideological imaginations. The trauma hasn’t mitigated. Instead the trauma through counter transference of memories continues to affect millions. Defined as the Holocaust of the Indian subcontinent, Partition entailed loss of home and mass scale displacement of millions. A tragedy that found representation in literature as well as visual culture. In this article I will focus on the film Mammo by Shyam Benegal besides touching works of some other artists to explore how one of the most enduring legacies of Partition has been the loss of ‘identity’ for millions who were rendered homeless. These ‘refugees’ in India and ‘mujahirs’ in Pakistan are in most instances engaged in a futile search of a, ‘nutan badi,’ as represented by Ritwik Ghatak in his iconic film Subarnarekha.

The idea of lost home configures in several works addressing Partition whether it is Benegal’s film Mammo, or the art works of artists like Sardari Lal Parasher, Nilima Sheikh, Nalini Malani, Zarina Hashmi, etc. I will focus on the works of two contemporary artists: one from India and one from Pakistan to assert the continuing impact of Partition. Nalini Malani was born in Karachi in undivided India in 1946. When the subcontinent was divided, her family chose to move to India. In her works one finds a resonance of Partition’s horrific legacy. In one of her works titled City in Pain/City in Escape, she has painted images which are suggestive of riot, carnage, fallen naked figures and pain. These are a sombre reminder of how religion configures as a recurrent principle of contention between Hindu and Muslim communities since 1947.


Nalini Malani City in Pain/City in Escape, 1989.

In a video installation, Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998), Malani makes use of video screens. These screens display archival footage of Partition compelling the audience to go back in time and experience the trauma of millions dispossessed in the wake of Partition – bedding, tin trunks refugees used to carry their goods during forced migrations, images of deportations and childbirth. Heightening the impact is the voice over which reads out excerpts from Manto’s “Toba Tek Singh” pointing out the puerility of Partition. Through this pastiche Malini offers an abrasive and powerful critique of Partition. What is even more significant is that it asserts the fact that Partition’s horrific memories are still holding us hostage.

In another video installation, “Mother India: Transactions in the Construction of Pain (2005)”, Malini returns to the theme of Partition and the recurrent instances of intercommunity violence. While the demolition of Babri Masjid was the catalyst for Remembering Toba Tek Singh, it is the horror of Godhra riots which compel Malini to return to this narrative. The image of the motherland is juxtaposed with the contradictory narrative of interethnic cleansings. Displayed on the five large screens are images of Partition followed by anti-Muslim attacks in Gujarat in 2002. “A burning mouth recalls the terrible deeds of the Gujrat incidents while the voice of a woman and a man are heard in succession, recalling the reactions of women abducted during the Partition and that of Indian parliamentarians who dismissed them with a ‘Nehru’ tone – ‘the honour of the state is at stake’.”[1]

Zarina Hashmi (b. 1937 India) like Nalini Malani belongs to the ‘hinge generation’. Like Malani, Hashmi’s understanding of Partition came through the stories of loss, displacement and trauma that were trans-generationally transmitted. Born in 1937, it was her family’s decision to migrate to Pakistan in the 1960s that deeply influenced the ways in which she relates to Partition. Search for a lost ‘home’ is deeply etched in the works of Hashmi. In almost all her works, the dominant metaphor is home. One of her work is titled Home is a Foreign Place (1999); it is through this work that Hashmi explores the connotations of ‘home’. The series is reminiscent of the childhood home in Aligarh that she had to leave behind and the nostalgia it evokes is very touching.

Moving from the field of paintings to films, I would refer to a very profound film by Benegal called Mammo, which like Hashmi’s works is a meditation on the idea of belonging, roots and home. Mammo focusses on the minority community in post-Partition India. In doing so it offers a divergent perspective on Partition. The film is a subtle representation of the dilemma experienced by those Muslims for whom Pakistan was not what they had envisaged and who wanted to return to the land of their birth (Mammo). A great human document, Mammo sensitively captures the trauma of Mehmooda Begum, or fondly called Mammo. Once Partition becomes a reality her husband’s decision to migrate to Pakistan leaving behind her family in Panipat becomes Mammo’s destiny. As a woman she is completely marginalized in this decision-making process. Upon the death of her husband she wants to return to her sister in India, but it is easier thought than done. If patriarchy impinged upon her ability to decide for herself when her family migrated to Pakistan, the state impinges upon her desire to return to the land of birth. Born in undivided, India she was now by choice a Pakistani; that her heart lay in India was of no consequence for the state. Now her identity has been redefined – she is a Pakistani national entitled to live in India for a period of three months extendable by a few weeks.

By bringing this to the fore, the film captures not the immediate history of violence but rather the tragic tale of an old woman trying to return to the land of her birth. Unlike several films made on partition such as Train to Pakistan, Earth 1947, Pinjar which largely situate the action during Partition or in its immediate aftermath, Mammo through voyeuristic reference to Garam Hawa, coupled with Mammo’s reminiscing of the horrific days of Partition in presence of Riyaaz, not only captures the pathos partition continues to generate even decades later, but more significantly shows how memories influences the generations born much later. Thus, though Riyaaz is born in post partition India he still partakes of the Partition experience, through countertransference of memories.

The film is loaded with subtle nuances all evoking a deep sense of loss and nostalgia – the reference to the Panipat Haveli where the three sisters had spent their childhood and which eventually becomes a source of discord between them is reminiscent of the political differences that materialized into the division of the nations with a shared legacy of memories of a relatively happier past. In the opening scene, an adult Riyaaz is rudely awakened by a nightmare in which he sees his Mammo nani being forced into a train bound for Pakistan. The trauma that Riyaaz experienced as a child when Mammo was forced to leave India for Pakistan has stayed with him even years later establishing that partition generated such intense repercussions that they have ruptured the social fabric beyond repair.

The most significant and ironical scene in the entire film is the last scene when Mammo after years surprisingly returns. Mammo returns, never to return to Pakistan for she has declared herself as dead. She chooses to negate her existence by getting her false death certificate made. As a dead woman she no longer is a Pakistani desirous of staying with family in India. A radical act of disowning life allows her to live it her own way – in India.

Thus, as the work of these artists reveal, Partition is not a thing of the past. It continues to cast its shadow in multiple ways be it in Kashmir or the innumerable instances of cross border exchange of hostilities. Wars have been fought yet the dispute and rift continue. Recently a museum Yaadgaar-e-Taqseem dedicated to Partition has been set up in Town Hall, Amritsar India. Besides this, several attempts are being made to recover the people’s story of Partition. If Art Speigelman’s Maus was an attempt to graphically narrate the horror of Holocaust, then Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s This Side, That Side is a recent attempt which has made a great impact upon Partition scholarship.

[1] Kayser, Christine Vial. “Nalini Malini, a global Storyteller.” Studies in Visual Arts and Communications: an International Journal, Volume 2, No.1, 2005, p.3

Dr. Rosy Sinha is Assistant Professor, Department of English, ARSD College, University of Delhi. Her doctoral thesis is on Naipaul and her area of interest is Indian Writing in English.


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

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