Kavita Daiya Explores The Cultural Reality Of The 1947 Partition

Daiya’s text allows the reader to imagine the lived experiences of South Asians actors who migrated during the Partition

Kavita Daiya Explores The Cultural Reality Of The 1947 Partition

Violent Belongings: Partition, Gender, and National Culture in Postcolonial India by Kavita Daiya is an analytical account that explores the political and cultural reality of the Partition of India in 1947. Through accounts of violence and memory, the text investigates and theorises popular postcolonial literature and media to better understand the politics of migration and the re-gendering of the nation.

Quite early in the text, Daiya quotes Purnima Mankekar from her paper Screening Culture, Viewing Politics: An Ethnography of Television, Womanhood, and Nation in Postcolonial India, which states that the events during the Partition have been “remade by the violence and curious memory-history we have of it” and hence, we need to “re-examine the cultural and political transformation that the 1947 Partition was.” For Daiya, then, Violent Belongings comes as a project to bridge the gap between “political history and oral testimony” that examines “how South Asians in the diaspora, fashion belongings, perform citizenship, and survive nationalism.” These intricacies, represented in media and culture, are studied politically and theoretically, in order to understand the complexity of the gendered nation that is mapped onto male and female bodies.

Daiya distributes the vast canon of post-colonial literature, theory and film into six chapters that explore a major trope evident within the media she chooses to assemble. The first chapter, titled, “Train to Pakistan 2007: Decolonization, Partition, and Identity in the Transnational Public Sphere” discusses the anxieties of the Partition of Punjab and Sikh identity. In order to understand this parallel occurrence, the carving of India and Sikh subjectivity in Singh’s Train to Pakistan, Daiya employs social theory by the Frankfurt School (Habermas, Negt, Kulg) with an overarching lens of Foucault’s theory of “subjugated knowledges.” She continues to build an understanding of refuges, homeland, identity and migration by introducing the works of contemporary theorists like Francesca Orsini, Rita Felski and Liisa H Malkki, among many. This build-up becomes a backdrop for the discussion of Singh’s text which amalgamates the experience of Hukum Chand and threatened Sikh masculinity.

Additionally, through her analysis of the condition of characters in literature and cinema, Daiya’s text allows the reader to imagine the lived experiences of South Asians actors who migrated during the Partition. Quite possibly, the most artistic and effective element of the text is its ability to connect two major mediums of cultural communication to convey and compare their perception and constraint regarding narratives about the nation, gender and religion. At one point, Daiya analyzes literature and film to show the reader how the same story, when cinematized, produces a different political message. In the second chapter, under the sub-heading, “Sanctioned Sexualities and Sentimental Secularism in Diasporic Cinema,” Daiya discusses the politics of Indian cinema and its need to create a secularist national history though “inter-ethnic heterosexual romance.”

Daiya chooses to compare the novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa to its cinematic adaptation Earth by Deepa Mehta. After giving an overview of the text’s history and the film’s international success, Daiya proceeds to pinpoint the varying portrayal of Leni Sehti’s family, violent masculinity and the condition of women in both mediums. Earth portrays “an idealized, romanticized family life depicted in sepia tones,” hiding the text’s admission of Lenny’s “father’s extra marital affair, her mother’s protests and the bruises on her mother’s body from domestic abuse.” Additionally, in Earth, Ayah’s “abduction and implied rape [mark her] death as a social subject, a citizen and an agent” for after this, she “disappears from the horizon of national history of this film.” In order to affirm the reader, Daiya revisits the book to show Ayah’s eventual fate, her discovery and migration to India which is deeply rooted in the symbolic representation of the nation as being affiliated with her religion.

Hence, in discussing the film’s inability “to imagine [Ayah’s] beyond,” Daiya succeeds in showing the reader a political appropriation of Cracking India. Through her critique of Earth, Daiya accuses Bollywood cinema for championing a “nationalistic construction of women’s abduction by violent Muslim masculinity as the moment of ultimate horror” which helps feed into the jingoistic misogynistic rhetoric of the captured or raped woman as “dishonorable” and “impure” while simultaneously holding “Muslim masculinity responsible.” This process of analysis becomes a catalyst for realizing firstly, the trouble of translating text to television and secondly, the influence of mass media over a recently separated Hindu-Indian audience.

However, often in the text, Daiya’s extensive knowledge of theorists makes the reader lose track of her purpose. Even in the subsection of each chapter, which on average consisted of a mere six pages, Daiya would introduce almost ten to fifteen academics who had contributed to a topic she was exploring. Although it supported her claim, too often, it made it hard for me to fully grasp the argument that those theorists, writers or public figures were making since their work was only touched on, never fully investigated along the literary text that was being referred. For example, in a subsection from Chapter 4, titled, “Stories that Cause Slaughter: The Threat of Speaking Refugees” almost twelve to thirteen references are cited to discuss the “specific experience of Partition refugees into the story of independent India through their representation in the public sphere.”

From Hannah Ardent, Giorgo Agamben, Joya Chatterji, Pandey, Bhutalia, Menon and Bhasin to various issues of the Times newspaper, a speech by DF Karaka and Nehru’s public statement, Daiya deposits her knowledge only to discuss its representation in Agyeya’s “No Revenge” about a Sikh refugee living between trains connecting Pakistan and India for a mere paragraph. Quickly, she moves on to discuss Sound and Filmindia, English Magazines that are presenting the same argument. Unfortunately, they are not afforded the luxury of even a paragraph worth of investigation since she rapidly switches to discuss the simultaneously occurring BJP-led Hindu nationalistic discourse in India at that time.

Although I believe that this method is used to create a solid grounding for Daiya’s claim, her wide-range of theorists, figures and media to back an argument or an assentation, rather than support her work, confuses the reader and delays her in the execution of her analysis.

Furthermore, Daiya’s constant aim for Violent Belongings to represent the experiences of South Asians within the subcontinent falls short when the reader begins to recognise the origin of all the theory and postcolonial texts used in the book. Apart from Sidhwa’s Cracking India and a mention of Anchal’s poetry at the very end of the book, Daiya primarily cites postcolonial Indian authors and theorists. There are very few Pakistani, and I would say almost no Bangladeshi, authorship or experience provided to reveal the experience of refuges, gendered bodies, or nationalism to understand the Partition of India in 1947.

Evident from her extensive use of European theory, the reader is aware that Daiya has a strong grasp on this topic and yet, she fails to bring into conversation the voices of postcolonial authors from an entire South Asian region which seceded and created this moment in history. Hence, this makes it a single-frame account of postcolonial Indian refugees and migrants who experience violent belongings. This is not to discard any similar emotions felt by Pakistani and/or Bangladeshi migrants, but to emphasize the text’s limitation because they are very rarely mentioned.

Albeit, all things considered, Violent Belongings succeeds in creating a well-structured and precise history of emotions, events and experiences that examines the lives of multiple postcolonial subjects to better understand how deeply the South Asian “identity [is] rooted in the recognition of historical violence and shared human-ness.” Presented in a chronological sequence, the texts and films Daiya employs become evidence to support the changing memories and discourses of the Partition. Through its structure and its content, the text intimately conveys the contrasting nature of the Partition. By weaving media to its historical time, Daiya produces the Partition moment which not only exists in history but is also in every form of cultural communication where exile and home existed simultaneously.