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Testimonies of loss and memory: Partition and the haunting of a nation

Abstract: While the partition of the Indian subcontinent, as an event of shattering consequence, underlies the very origin of the postcolonial Indian state, historiographies of Indian nationhood are often marked by their failure to acknowledge or claim this cataclysmic history. This paper, examines three post-partition ‘testimonies’ — Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines, Qurratulain Hyder's Sita Haran, and Shyam Benegal's film Mammo — that in their return to this founding trauma of subcontinental nationalism compel us to concede the past-in-presentness of partition as a history that is not done with, that refuses to be past. Though these texts are not situated during the actual turmoil of 1947, all of them hinge around the partition in ways which testify to the abiding legacies of partition in our world. While The Shadow Lines is a meditation on the borders constituted by the division of the subcontinent, Sita Haran and Mammo investigate the ramifications of partition as a traumatic history that continues to impinge upon the present of its survivors. In their different ways, all three texts attest to experiences emanating from different kinds of losses: the loss of home, of family, or of a more syncretic past. These ‘testimonies of loss and memory’ not only become crucial to our understanding of partition as a history that cannot be frozen in the past, but also help us to reflect on the successes and failures of nationstatehood, especially the fact that in some ways it is impossible to disentangle the memories of anti-colonial struggle from the more distressing and fragmented recollections of partition.

Priya Kumar
Taylor and Francis Online