Event as Metaphor: Memory, History and Meaning of a Murder in Pre-Partition Punjab

Abstract: This article seeks to explore the peculiar martyrological configurations that operate in a recent oral/life history of al-laryanvi fat woman, Subhashini as presented in Nonica Datta’s Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony. It demonstrates how memory intervenes in history and manipulates factual details and chronological sequence of events. Specifically, it focuses on the way in which the critical events in one’s life are interpreted, detailed, and transformed in the longue durée of remembrance and culture, in the process of fashioning a desirable identity for oneself

Keywords: memory, oral history, violence, gender, martyrdom, partition

For an experienced event, is finite at any rate, confined to one sphere of experience; a remembered event is infinite, because it is only a key to everything that happened before and after it, (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations 202)

The human urge to narrate personal experiences or memories is a natural one common to all cultures and times. As the cultural theorist Roland Barthes has pointed out, narrative has always been present among human groups (251). Today, enthused by the ubiquity of personal narratives in contemporary culture and politics, an increasing number of scholars across diverse disciplines recognise that narrating events from one’s own life is a compelling endeavour that helps to make. sense of one’s own past, self and identity in the world. Psychologist Amia Lieblich, Rivka Tuval-Mashiach, and Tamar Zilber, in their work, Narrative Research: Reading, Analysis, and Interpretation, deftly capture this contemporary enthusiasm for life narratives: “In the fields of psychology, gender studies, education, anthropology, sociology linguistics, law, and history, life narratives are flourishing as a means of understanding the personal identity, lifestyle, culture and historical world of the narrator” (3).

As Leiblich et al. point out, life narratives, especially life histories, allow us to explore how a narrator attributes meanings to events, makes culturally meaningful history, and how history is produced in the act of narration and in the narrator’s retrospective reflections on that action. Life narrators do make “history” in a sense when they speak/write to chronicle an event, to explore a certain time period, or to preserve a community. At the same time, they also undertake diverse rhetorical acts: validating their own viewpoints, foregrounding their reputations, contradicting the accounts of others, inflicting revenge, communicating cultural agendas, and inventing desirable identities among other things. Such inherent complexity of life narratives warrants careful reading practices that reflect on the narrative tropes, socio-cultural contexts, rhetorical motives, and narrative quirks within the historical or chronological trajectory of the text. Burgeoning studies in the history and sociology of memory, literary and film testimonies on traumatic events, and general postmodern concerns about the (re)presentation of the past further complicate the study of life narratives. These subtleties have made the usefulness of oral /life narratives as a source of historical analysis, a matter of debate among traditional historians heavily oriented towards quantitative methods and archival research. However, in the last few decades or so, oral/life narrative as a research method has become a respectable enterprise within the academia.

One reason for the flurry of personal narratives flooding contemporary culture is of course the impact of a postmodern scepticism about the nature of objective, universal or historical “truth,” validating the emergence of multiple, individual/personal truths. The realisation that their voices too matter has prompted hitherto oppressed and marginalised groups like women, gays, lesbians, transgenders, bisexuals, disabled, adivasis and dalits to come out with their own life narratives. The unprecedented nature of the traumatic experiences underwent during the course of the last century (holocaust, genocides, partitions, civil wars, world wars, etc) also prompted people to give voice to their lived experiences both as personal acts of coming to terms with one’s own self and as political acts of resistance. Most of these events were so unsettling and traumatic that many of their victims entered a phase of silence which could be broken only many years later. Perhaps, it was the enormous impact and popularity of the Holocaust narratives that gave currency to the current trend of life narratives, from the 1960s onwards.1

Partition, Trauma, Memory

South Asia too has recently witnessed a surge in the number of life narratives, many of them related to the experiences of the partition of British India.2 The partition continues to raise bewildering conundrums regarding the moral and ethical crises of mankind and more pertinently, the need for a more sophisticated exploration of tropes such as memory, representation, narration, violence and their re-articulation over the passage of time. Especially since 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of that traumatic and critical event, there has been a revival of popular as well as scholarly interest to understand the rupture in its human dimensions, while trying to produce new readings and meanings vis à vis both nations’ contemporary politics and the politics of remembering. The partition, like other major cataclysms in human history, induces its victims, perpetrators and the general community to re-evaluate their motives and the parts they played, and demands intricate answers that require an investigation of individual as well as communal consciousness. Many creative minds have responded to this demand as evidenced by the truly overwhelming surge of literature on the partition witnessed in the recent times.

As decades pass by, escalating the distance between our everyday lives and the events of the partition, many victims, survivors, witnesses and perpetrators of violence have bid us adieu. There seems to be an increasing urgency among many contemporary historians to dig up and make public the experiences and perceptions of an ageing population before their voices are stilled forever. Human memories linger, as well as archives and private histories which have not been fully incorporated into the official discourse of history. The impassioned quest for memory, in its myriad forms, seems to be the most sensible way of connecting to that event which continues to induce ardent emotions about the most troubled epoch in the individual and collective consciousness of both nations. However, excavating the archives of partition memories is no mean task.3 As a political commentator on south Asia puts it:

In some ways, mining memories of Partition is trickier than taking testimony from survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, as American director Steven Spielberg is doing on videotape. No moral apartheid classifies Partition’s protagonists into neat categories of victim and villain. The wars—between. Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis—are not over. Whoever copyrights the memory of Partition owns an important part of the present. (Old Journeys Revisited 45)

Most significantly, over the last decade or so, women’s memories have become more copious and conspicuous at every level of the partition discourse. With the growing consciousness that their experiences matter too, many female survivors are now coming out of silence with their individual memories and histories, adding an extra dimension to the history of the Indian partition. However, most of the recently unearthed histories of women’s experience of the partition present tales of suffering and violation of women in the immediate wake of that grievous event. Also, most of the recent fieldwork in the area of partition studies has been done by Indian historiographers and anthropologists among Hindu and Sikh survivors in India, so much so that there is a near erasure of the suffering of the Muslims in India and Hindus in Pakistan at the time of the partition.4 Very often, in the available ethnographic literature, the individual and local stories of violence are placed in a universalised/national context of the partition so much so that the local tenor and flavour of the incidents are lost. Nor do these narratives give any room to the ways in which individuals make sense of these events as they often reify the available stereotypical notions regarding partition violence—that both the communities competed with each other and were equally culpable in perpetrating heinous violence; that unlike the Holocaust, the neat categories of victim and victimiser cannot be applied to the partition.5

Narrating the Historical Oblivion

Nationalist historiography on India’s partition has consistently sidelined highly localised narratives of violence as “disturbances” and riots, thus assimilating them into the larger fold of the nationalising narratives.6 However, such behind the scene, highly localised micro-histories of the partition offer us a cue towards a better understanding of the ghastly communal violence unleashed in 1947. They efface the neatly carved out distinctions among the victim, victimiser and witness, and opens up new possibilities in making sense of the otherwise senseless violence unleashed in 1947. Significantly, such narrative acts help their narrators also to redefine and reposition themselves in the present by creating a suitable self-identity in the process.

This article centres on one such recently published oral/life history of a Haryanvi ‘at woman, Subhashini, as presented in Nonica Datta’s Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony. No doubt, this piece of memory emerges as a multilayered mythic tale that can be subjected to different interpretations. At one level, it can be seen as a rscattered “montage of vignettes, anecdotes and fragments” (Kuhn 190) that calls into question the nation’s overarching effacement of the victimiser identity from the carefully crafted narrative of its seamless, untroubled past. At another level, it becomes a veritable document the on social history of gender, community, caste and violence in colonial India. It also tells us how colluding ideas of colonialism, religious nationalism, sexuality and domesticity shaped, reshaped and problematised women’s identities during the run up to the partition, and how this eventually dictated the modes of partition violence. Moreover, Subhashini’s narrative assumes significance as it corroborates much of the recent work on the partition which looks at the partition as a case of ethnic cleansing/”retributive genocide.”7

However, this article focuses on the way in which the critical events in one’s life are interpreted, detailed, and transformed in the longue durée of memory and culture—as evidenced by Subhashini’s life ‘story—in the process of fashioning a desirable identity for oneself.

Assuming that oral history research is a prime source for understanding meaning making and the inconsistencies in the meanings we attribute to events over time, this article seeks to locate and foreground one major event—the murder/martyrdom of her father—and its possible meanings in Subhashini’s narrative. In fact, the entire narrative seems to be answering the question, “what is the meaning of this death?” Subhashini attributes the halo of martyrdom to her father’s death by relating events in such a way that they form a mythos, or a plot, which gives rise to a discernible pattern, a certain martyrological configuration, with its own meanings. The narrative obsession with the notion of “martyrdom” also recalls a particular narrative pattern which amounts to a verdict on a sequence of events, helping us to locate her narrative within the extensive tradition of martyrological narratives.8 I argue that this construction of martyrological configurations within the narrative is key to Subhashini’s attempt at constructing a strident Arya-Hindu identity for herself in the wake of her father’s murder, however questionable that identity maybe.

In Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony, Konica Datta recounts the life-narrative of Subhashini Devi Malik, one of the renowned pioneers of Gurukul education for girl students and a prominent Arya Samaj activist in rural Haryana.9 Written in the first person narrative and organised into three sections, this work attempts to present individual testimony as history10 The first section, “Introducing Subhashini”, positions Subhashini as an individual and attempts to position her individual story against the larger historical context of the partition. The Second section entitled, “A Daughter’s Testimony”, is a jumbled monologue by Subhashini devoted to the theme of Bhagat Phool Singh’s murder as martyrdom and the retaliatory violence that followed. This section is further divided into three sub-sections, where she unpacks her set of stories within stories and demonstrates a steady interplay of memory, testimony and history. The final section, “A Letter to Subhashini”, penned three years after Subhashini’s demise, may be described as a “supplement” to her testimony where Datta contrasts Subhashini’s testimony with the “parallel histories” of her own aunt, ‘dash and the Punjabi writer, Amrita Pritam both of whom were victims of the partition.11

Subhashini was born Sarti on August 14, 1914 into an obscure and poor Jat family of peasants in Buwana village in Karnal district of present-day Haryana. She was later renamed “Subhashini”—one who speaks auspiciously—by Acharya Vidyavati Seth, her teacher at the Gurukul in Dehradun. Astonishingly, for a girl child, Subhashini was hailed by her father as a harbinger of good fortune for the family. She lost her mother when she was hardly one year old and her father, Phool Singh—an Arya Samaj preacher who later became beatified as Bhagat Phool Singh—soon remarried his late brother’s widow. In this second marriage, he had a daughter, Subhashini’s half-sister called Gunvati. Subhashini’s childhood days were filled with domestic activities still taken up by many peasant girls of rural Haryana: milking the cows, preparing fodder, grinding grain, tending the fire, cooking food and drawing water from the well. While Subhashini was still a child, Phool Singh declared that he was entering Sanyasa (the life-stage of renunciation) and as an initial step, he entered Vanaprastha, opting out to live in a jungle. In 1919, young Subhashini was initiated into the Arya Samaj—an event that would shape her worldview and determine the remaining course of her life as a Brahmacharini. Thereafter, her father sent her to one Kanya Gurukul after another—to Gurukuls in Delhi, Dehradun and even to Sabarmati where she worked in association with Mahatma Gandhi. Each time she would come back unhappily to her father and was finally married off to Abhimanyu, an ardent Arya Samaj activist, and lived the rest of her life as a rand-lugai (a married woman living the austere, lustreless life of a widow). On 14 August, 1942, her father Phool Singh—by an act of emotional blackmailing—coerced her into dedicating her life to the Kanya Vedic Pathshala he had set up for the education of girl students. The same day, he was shot dead by unknown killers who could neither be recognised nor traced, marking a point of permanent rupture in both Subhashini’s life and narrative.

In a broader sense, Nonica Datta’s narrative gathers Subhashini’s testimony and remembrance to explore a colonial, Arya Samajist peasant woman’s troubled understanding of the subcontinental partition in postcolonial times. More importantly, it explores the impact of the death of one towering patriarchal figure in the everyday life of his daughter. Subhashini appears as the careworn daughter of a martyr, Bhagat Phool Singh (1885 – 1942) who was actively involved in the Gauraksha (cow protection), Shuddhi (religious reconversion), Ved Prachar (proselytisation) and Sangathan (religious organisation) movements—the main planks of the Arya Samaj which in turn painfully agonised and antagonised the local Muslim community, the pastoralist Rangars. Bhagat Phool Singh, no doubt, had been enthused by the Arya Samaj militant rhetoric on these religious campaigns. More significantly, inspired by the Arya Samaj’s impetus on the education of women, Bhagatji had dedicated his life to the improvement of the lives of girls in rural southeast Punjab (Haryana).12

Nonica Datta constructed the narrative over many years of dialogue with her old, octogenarian subject, Subhashini (during the period of the prolonged interviews with Datta, Subhashini headed the Kanya Gurukul, an Arya Samaj institution for the education of girls, in village Khanpur in Haryana). Datta scrupulously translated the matriarch’s broken utterances averred in a strange Haryanavi-Hindi-Sanskrit idiolect into a life-narrative in English, garnishing it with Subhashini’s own vernacular expressions that tend to capture the subtle cadence of her thoughts, feelings and gesticulations in all their ebb and flow. It presents the exceptional story of a daughter who relentlessly follows her father’s footsteps in the way of community service;13 a tale of a daughter’s intimate relationship with her father who is also a patriarch of the local (Hindu) Jat community.14 As Datta rightly points out in her introductory section, it is apparently 1942—the year of her father’s “martyrdom”—and not 1947, the year of the partition of India that occupies the core of Subhashini’s memory although her remembrance of 1942 assumes special salience in the context of 1947.

1942 marked the “martyrdom” of Bhagat Phool Singh, murdered by the Muslim Rangars (according to Subhashini’s version of events) and it constitutes the defining moment of Subhashini’s life. He was brutally assassinated on 14 August 1942 by unidentified killers, who orchestrated the murder in the pitch darkness of that disastrous night. It left Subhashini at a very young age with the immense responsibility of running and building the educational institutions her father had founded and envisaged. The conspirators and assassins behind the murderous act were never brought to justice but Phool Singh’s death, claims Subhashini, was hailed as a sublime act of “sacrifice” within the local community. Thus, her recollections of the death of her father acquire the characteristics of a martyrdom that bestows heroic status on the dead and acknowledges the spirit of sacrifice on the part of the survivors.

Subhashini’s claim to the experience of suffering is a strong element in her identity construction as the sacrifice and loss of a prominent male member of the family can be especially traumatic and painful for a woman who directly experienced it. As Michael Jensen points out, the assertion of one’s perceived sense of victimhood and the construction of an emancipatory narrative for the group are keys to the establishment of identity in the contemporary epoch of identity conflicts (30). However, reducing the experience of men and women to the images of “heroic martyr” and “suffering victim,” of course, recalls the gender stereotypes that have historically surfaced during periods of communal conflict and are intimately connected with the construction of masculine and feminine social identities. It also implies that women’s experiences are secondary to masculine identity, since it results from the sacrifices of the males of the family. In the Jat/Hindu communal discourse, however, the assumptions of these gender roles acquire specific meanings as they emphasise, via the suffering of women like Subhashini, the element of victimisation of the Hindu in nationalist thinking. This consistent thrust to occupy the moral high ground of victimhood facilitates a powerful victim discourse which in turn results in the strengthening of loyalties and the ossification of communal identity. Thus, the categories of the “suffering victim” and the “heroic martyr” get employed in Subhashini’s testimony as a ploy aimed at the demonisation of the religious other, the Muslim Rangars, Nonica Datta notes:

The perception of the Muslim as the other came to constitute a key element of Jat identity, and Muslims came to be perceived as a threat to women’s ‘modesty’ and sexuality. Drawing on and in turn, strengthening the colonial stereotypes, the Arya Samaj discourse in Haryana presented Muslim pastoralists, especially the Rangars, as ‘cattle thieves,’ ‘immoral, ‘abductors,’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘scoundrels.’ The Rangars, along with Meos, Bhattis, Pathans and other Muslim pastoralists, were conflated into an essentialised evil ‘Mussalman: (Violence 16)

The murder of Phool Singh surely angered not just Subhashini but the entire local fat community and they deemed it their duty to take revenge upon the murderers. “We were so eager for revenge after Pitaji’s balidaan. We were so greedy for revenge,” says Subhashini (111). At Phool Singh’s funeral, local leaders like Chhotu Ram had declared: “We would avenge blood with blood. Khoon ka badla ham khoon se lenge.” (96). And while standing beside the funeral pyre, the Brahmacharis had taken the pledge: “We will not sit in peace until we avenge on the Mussalmans; jab tak unka badla nahin lenge hum chain se nahin baithenge. Ham gaaon ki ujaad lenge; we will destroy the villages” (71). However, despite all the rage and ire, the Jats failed to avenge the murder of Phool Singh nor could they successfully bring the alleged culprits before the law. It was only at the time of the partition that the Jats could finally settle their score with the Muslims of the locality.

The inability to avenge Phool Singh’s death in the immediate wake of his murder prompts Subhashini’s memory to horizontally displace the death to a different conflict and a different timeframe the 1947 partition so that she could give a meaning to it to suit her identity. In the course of her narrative, Subhashini strives to convince us how the murder of Phool Singh by a group of unidentified killers became a metaphor of victimisation, inspiring a sense of revenge among the Jats. In her final conclusive verdict, she makes the claim that it was the martyrdom of her father that inspired the desire for revenge that took place on a huge, horrible scale—as she describes it in her narrative—during the disastrous partition in 1947: “It was a bad year for some, but not for us who still remembered Pitaji’s balidan” (69). At times, she even goes to the extent of claiming that “147 occurred because of ‘42” (69). Subhashini’s line of argument implies that the meaning of Phool Singh’s death changed over the years from the time of the death (1942) to the interviews years later. Given the fact that one may change perceptions of events as one moves from one stage to another in life, it is reasonable to assume that one may change meanings of remembered events as well. In retrospect, Subhashini sees the massacres of Muslims during the partition in 1947 as a divine retribution provoked by her father’s martyrdom, investing not only her personal sense of loss but also the partition with a whole new sense of meaning.

Memory and/as Myth

In fact, Subhashini’s life narrative may be seen as an exercise in personal myth making, a mythical tale constructing its own mythos of martyrdom. Agnes Hankiss, in her essay, “Ontologies of the Self: On the Mythological Rearranging of One’s Life History,” shows how a narrator may create a view of the past that justifies a decision made then or even a present condition (203). One purpose Subhashini’s narrative serves is definitely the elevation of Phool Singh’s murder to the status of martyrdom. The passion with which Phool Singh’s heroics are observed is reinforced by references to other historical figures who sacrificed themselves for the community. Subhashini, in recalling the character of her father, who had been killed by the Muslim Rangars, remembers how he sought to emulate figures like Shraddhanand: “I remember how the great soul, Swami Shraddhanandji, had been martyred. Likewise, Bhagatji was martyred on the issue of shuddhi” (89). Memory’s transformation of these deaths into martyrdom probably imparts meaning and sense to the loss, and thus can help the daughter withstand the sorrow associated with it.

Subhashini’s hagiography goes even further and elaborates some of the ‘miraculous’ acts her father could perform even after his death. One finds memory working miracles in Subhashini’s narrative as and when she repeatedly recounts her dreams through which her father used to communicate with her in critical junctures of her life. Perhaps, such “miracles” take Phool Singh one step closer to beatification and Subhashini already considers her father a saint: “As soon as one walks into the gate, any person can know that it’s the fruit of some saint’s hard work, dedication and sacrifice” (99). However, the masterstroke in personal mythmaking comes with her interpretation of the massacre of the Muslims during the partition violence as a “divine retribution” for Phool Singh’s murder. For the daughter, such was Phool Singh’s greatness that Parmeshwar (God) Himself would avenge his murder: “Bhagwan ne Mussalmano ki jad ki khatam kar di. To maarne wala to wahi hai, beta. Thankfully God destroyed them from their very roots” (135). From a practical point of view, such saintly representations of the patriarch would have certainly generated considerable goodwill and support for the fledgling institutions founded in his name.

The Social Trial

Apart from the thematic motifs of martyrdom interspersed in the narrative, there are also other, more subtle, narrative techniques employed towards the same end. The clever narrative treatment meted out to the singular episode of her father’s murder would be a case in point. The attack, the shootout, and the murder of Phool Singh lasted less than a few minutes; but, from that moment on, the memory of this brief episode exerts a huge shaping influence on the daughter’s identity and self-narrative. Subhashini’s narrative dwells at length on this brief episode so much so that its temporality appears rather dubious and demands problematisation as she jumbles and tweaks the events to fashion a martyr narrative. For instance, her speech contains substantial shifts in the velocity of narration, that is, in the ratio between the duration of the events described and the duration of the narration. She purposefully slows down the narrative tempo—implying emphasis—as she describes the events related to her father’s death and at other times deliberately accelerates the tempo, revealing a wish to glide over unpleasant details. These oscillations are significant as they reveal a relationship between the velocity of the narrative and the meaning of the narrator. Not surprisingly, Subhashini’s cyclical narrative keeps consistently revisiting the episode of Phool Singh’s death with a certain degree of unconscious determination that gives away the motives and the interests of the narrator.

Dwelling on a particular episode may be a way of stressing its importance but it can also be a strategy to distract attention from other, more delicate events. Subhashini’s narrative, for instance, refers to a number of murders (even massacres), some of them even more heinous than Phool Singh’s but none of them never ever assume the centrestage in her tale. Even the final resolution, the “providential” massacre of the Muslims of her locality gets overshadowed by the profile of her father’s martyrdom. One such particularly poignant event Subhashini relegates in her story refers to the double murder of a Hindu-turned-Muslim widow (Shiriya Devi) and her daughter (Chalti). In fact, this event should have been central to her narrative as the prime reasons behind Phool Singh’s murder (according to Subhashini herself) can be traced to it.

Subhashini calls the whole episode in question, the Kanhi-Puthi-Wala-Kissa. Kanhi was a village in Gohana tehsil and there lived the widowed Jat mother and her daughter who owned 300 bighas of arable land. Puthi was a nearby village of Mussalmans and was home to Karamat, a rich Zarnindar. Karamat got himself involved in a relationship with both the widowed mother and her young daughter, much to the embarrassment of the local Jat villagers. In spite of much pressure from the Jats and their Panchayat, neither the man nor the women pulled out of this longstanding, acutely scandalous licentious liaison. Phool Singh, Subhashini’s father had personally intervened to persuade both the “badmash women” (Datta, Violence 62) to give up their relationship with Karamat but only in vain. Phool Singh had also implored Karamat, the Muslim Zamindar-lover not to let the women enter his house. But Karamat made fun of him: “I never invite them. They come on their own. If they want to come, then what can I do? You try and stop them” (64). Finally, Phool Singh went on an indefinite fast to put moral pressure on the village elders to immediately intervene in the issue. However, Shiriya (the widowed mother in question) remained unrelenting. This was a moment of deep insult to Phool Singh because by discarding the Panchayet’s decision, Shiriya had insulted him and the whole tradition of the Jat community.15 Subhashini recounts that naturally, Phool Singh considered all this the result of the hideous connivance of the evil Mussalman, Karamat.

In Subhashini’s village, the whole Jat community kept fuming over the debauched relationship forged between Shiriya Devi and Karamat. The Jats got angry and agitated but could do nothing. Finally, the issue was settled with the murder of the two “badmash women” (62) at the hands of Baru Ram, a distant relative of theirs, who, after trying to persuade the mother and daughter to give up “immorality,” suddenly flew into a rage of anger and wielded his farm implements to instantly finish off the two. However, even death could not end the scandal as the dead bodies of these women were taken over by Karamat and given an Islamic burial, further infuriating the already peeved Jats: “He had lifted their headless bodies, carrying them to his village. After burying them, he built their graves” (qtd. in Datta, Violence 65). Soon after, the Mussalamans filed a grievance against Baru Ram, the urderer. Subsequently, the court found him guilty and sentenced him to death. However, this put the whole “honour” of the Jats under stake. Baru Ram was their real-life hero who had just restored their communal “honour” by killing the erring women. To save him from the scaffold, Bhagatji contacted Sir Chottu Ram16, an influential politician sympathetic to the Jats. Chottu Ram intervened and Baru Ram was saved from the hangman’s noose. Baru Rain naturally became the local saviour of communal honour and Phool Singh honoured him with a cash reward of Rupees 10,000 in a public gathering attended by thousands of Jats. As for the “errant” women, they were shown the doors of the community and history, and more interestingly, they do not figure often in Subhashini’s story despite its cyclical, repetitive nature nor does she mention the exact year of their murder. She recalls: “Nobody now remembers those women. Everybody abuses them. People still say that if any woman commits any immoral act, she would meet Shiriya’s and Chalti’s fate. Such women were despised by one and all” (qtd. in Datta, Violence 66). Later, Phool Singh dismantled their graves and reclaimed the 300 bighas of land owned by these women. Karamat and his followers were naturally aggrieved by this dastardly act.

Subhashini’s aversion for Shiriya and Chalti can be understood in the context of the Arya Samaj discourse on the concept of the Arya Mahila, the perfect, pure, docile Hindu woman who could be the preserver, carrier and reproducer of a chaste community identity—but ever at the danger of being profaned by the touch of “cruel” Mussalmans. In fact, this acute sense of insecurity haunts Subhashini’s narrative all along, contributing to her notions of victimhood. As aptly explained by Nonica Datta elsewhere, “The imaginary suspicion of a Muslim as an aggressor and a sexual predator continues to haunt the Hindu nationalist’s psyche” (Datta, On the Anti-Muslim 408). However, the story of Shiriya who voluntarily espoused the Mussalman, Karamat cannot be incorporated into such a discourse of victimhood and hence gets left behind in the daughter’s testimony. Subhashini’s projected sense of victimhood, however, gets its lie in her narrative itself as and when she describes the horrendous acts of violence the Jats committed on Muslim women and children during the time of the partition. But, even here, in an interesting quirk of narration, Subhashini transfers the agency of violence and the concomitant victimiser-identity to the providential figure of Parmeshwar in an attempt to maintain the “victimised” identity of her community.” Not surprisingly, even when she presents the Mussalmans as reeling under the jat onslaught, her narrative is haunted by her constant fear of the Mussalman as the abductor/violator of Hindu women:

We were scared that if we were doing this to them, they might also harm us while escaping . . . When a man realises that he is going to die, do you think he would spare others? He would kill as many would come his way. So in addition to being happy, we feared that Mussalmans would abduct our girls. They may do this while fleeing. We were scared that they might cut us into small pieces. (qtd. in Datta, Violence 136)

In another clever quirk of narration, Subhashini adopts a less matter-of-fact, more epic approach in presenting Karamat’s life. She firmly believed that Karamat was instrumental behind her father’s murder: “Karamat and his companions nursed a longstanding grievance against Pitaji, who was worshipped as a saviour of Hindus and an opponent of the Muslims” (qtd. in Datta, Violence 67). “Everybody knew who the killers were. Pitaji was killed by Mussalmans. One of them was Karamat” (68). Obviously, Karamat figures prominently in Subhashini’s narrative. She badly wanted the Jats to take revenge upon Karamat but he roamed the village as freely as ever before and the court did not convict him as there was no concrete, incriminating evidence regarding his role in Phool Singh’s murder. However, there are glaring inconsistencies in her account of the life of Karamat, especially with respect to the question of his death as she offers many versions of his murder. Like Phool Singh’s death, Karamat’s murder becomes the ground upon which Subhashini’s memory and imagination build a duster of tales and imaginary reconstructions. In one version, she claims that Karamat was killed before her father’s death in 1942. In another, she admits that it was Pitaji who got Karamat killed. A third version situates his death during the time between her father’s murder and partition violence. In yet another version, she claims the Jats killed Karamat and his entire family during the partition violence. The recurrent shifting of the date and context of the murder prompts us to believe that most of these tales lie. However, these “false” tales, the chronologically inconsistent versions of Karamat’s death, are still very valuable as they inspire us to recognise the interests of the teller, a the dreams and motivations that instigate them.

It is not difficult to see why Subhashini’s accounts of Karamat death appear less factual, more mythic, and more imaginative. They obviously give vent to her frustration arising from the immediate reality of her inability to avenge Phool Singh’s murder and must be taken as narrative acts of psychological compensation. As Hans Enzensberger argues, “History is an invention which reality supplies with raw materials. It is not, however, an arbitrary invention, and the interest it arouses is rooted in the interests of the teller” (qtd. in Evans 36). Although Subhashini’s stories may not be historically verifiable, unconsciously there must have been something in her mind that yearned for their realisation and she probably makes personal myths of them because she never realised them in fact.


To conclude, in Subhashini’s narrative, memory intervenes history and manipulates factual details and chronological sequence in order to serve three major functions: 1. Metaphoric: Phool Singh’s life, struggle and death become an extended metaphor for the suffering and “victimisation” of the Jots at the hands of the Muslims. The central metaphor of martyrdom generates strong notions of self/communal identity and serves the purpose of a narrative device. 2. Psychoanalytic. The dynamics, causes, and chronology of the events are manipulated in order to psychologically compensate the feeling of disgrace and the loss of self-esteem following upon the immediate inability to adequately avenge the patriarch’s death. Also, the narrative structure is rearranged in order to interpret and attribute meanings to the events of the 1947 partition in the context of the murder of 1942. 3. Structural: The shift of emphasis from 1947 to 1942 endows the narrative with an adequate time-marking function (hinging on 1942 as a critical turning point); all chronology is then rearranged or blurred in order to compensate for the shift and the narrative assumes a rickety, cyclical pattern. This shift in the ground of reference problematises the relationship of individual memory to any certain, definite chronology of experience.

The above disjuncture between fact and memory eventually augments the value of the oral/life narratives as historical documents.

They are not just wanton products of faulty recollections but are actively and creatively generated by memory and imagination in an effort to make sense of crucial events in one’s life, and history, in general. ndeed, if Subhashini’s testimony had given us “exact,” “precise!” “dependable,” and factual reconstructions of the events leading up to and ensuing from the death of Phool Singh, we would know much less about them. Beyond the event as such, the authentic and momentous historical fact which her narrative seems to foreground is her memory itself.


1. The writings of Primo Levi and the scholarly work of James E. Young, Shoshanna Felman, and Lawrence L. Langer on the Holocaust are particularly enlightening on questions of testimony and the afterlife of events as expressed in narrative.

2. I consider feminist oral history, testimonies, interviews and memoirs as forms of life narrative. Good examples in the context of the 1947 partition would be Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence, Begum Anis Kidwai’s In Freedom’s Shade and Talbot and Tatla’s The Epicentre of Violence.

3. Dipesh Chakrabarty, who has worked extensively on the Bengali Partition, has articulated the complexities involved in re-covering the details of past experiences: “Memory is a complex phenomenon that reaches out to far beyond what normally constitutes a historian’s archives, for memory is much more than what the mind can remember or what objects can help us document about the past. It is also about what we do not always consciously know that we remember until something actually, as the saying goes, jogs our memory. . . . Memory, then, is far more complicated that what historians can recover and it poses ethical challenges to the investigator-historian who approaches the past with one injunction: tell me all.” See his article, “Remembered Villages: Representation of Hindu-Bengali Memories in the Aftermath of the Partition,” ( 143).

4. The limited access to resources owing to strict regulations regarding the issue of visas is one major problem that hampers scholarship on the partition. One has to be luckily born a citizen of a third country if s/he wants to do fieldwork in both the countries.

5. Such deliberate balancing acts with regard to the representation of violence are easily discernible in many popular fictional accounts of the partition, where violence from one side is matched by equally horrendous violence from the other side. See the treatment of violence in Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, for example.

6. Gyanendra Pandey, in Remembering Partition, offers an extended meditation on the place of the partition in both memory and history. He explores how violence in particular locales has transformed those centres (Delhi) and the ways events in a specific locality (violence at the Garhmukhteshwar meta in 1946) have been inserted into the framework of nationalist ideologies and national histories. Most importantly, Pandey traces the divergence between the history of historians and the memories of those who lived through 1947.

7. See Anders Bjorn Hansen’s Partition and Genocide: Manifestation of Violence in Punjab, 1937-1947, Paul R. Brass’ “The Partition of India and Retributive Genocide in the Punjab, 1946- 47: Means, Methods, and Purposes” and Ishtiaq Ahmed’s Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed.

8. The Arya Samaj maintained its own pantheon of martyrs—a tradition inaugurated by the murder of Pandit Lekh Ram in 1897 and consolidated by that of Swami Shraddhanand in 1926. Immediately after his death by murder, Bhagat Phool Singh was also beatified and incorporated into this tradition which could be readily invoked to ossify the Jat communal identity.

9. A prominent Arya Samaj activist, Subhashini founded the Kanya Gurukul, Khanpur which later on developed into the Bhagat Phool Singh Women’s University, the only women’s university in north India offering residential, professional education to more than 2000 girl students. She was awarded the Padma Sree, one of the highest civilian honours by the Government of India in 1976, in recognition of her pioneering work in the field of girls’ education in northern India.

10. Datta wants her text to be read as “parallel history” rather than as a “factual” or “historical document.” However, she does not categorically delineate her conception of “parallel history”—perhaps, espousing an aesthetic whose ingenuity lies in the “gaps,” “crevices” and “silences,” the plenitude of which not only infuses but also validates a spoken narrative, as opposed to the “archives” with their fastidiousness of ‘facts.”

11. I use, following Derrida, “supplement” in the dual sense—that which looks like a mere addition, a discretionary extra; but also, that which supplements, or fulfils a lack (see Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology, 149).

12. Southeast Punjab, present-day Haryana was marked by a certain anti-women attitude, making the issue of women empowerment an important one in social and community development. Even today, Haryana is notorious for its lowest sex ratio among the Indian states. The Arya Samaj evinced special interest in girls’ education as it wanted to resist both the “civilising mission” of the colonial administration which foregrounded the “backwardness” of Indian women and the evangelical mission of the Christian missionaries who launched schools for girls. See Madhu Kishwar’s article, “Arya Samaj and Women’s Education: Kanya Mahavidyalaya, Jalandhar.”

13 Usually, mothering and motherhood figure prominently in the personal narratives of female survivors of traumatic events. However, Subhashini’s story is an offbeat one in that it spares little space for her mother or stepmother; nor does she say anything about her own experiences as a mother. Instead, it tells the story of an immortal relationship between a daughter and her father.

14. An agriculturist community of traditionally non-elite tillers in northern India and Pakistan, notified under the category of “Other Backward Classes” by the Government of India. Most of the Jats in Pakistan are Muslim whereas the Jat Population in India is divided into two castes—Sikhs in Punjab and Hindus elsewhere. In the colonial period, Jats emerged as the influential caste. The model of the “dominant caste” in a given region as described by M. N. Srinivas, can be easily applied to the Jats of Haryana—besides being economically and numerically stronger than any other caste, the Jats also occupied a relatively higher position in the ritual hierarchy. (See his volume, Caste in Modern India and Other Essays (Bombay: Asia, 1962)).

15. Panchayat system sanctioned by the principle of Sartgathan —organisation by democratic principles—was a hallmark of the Jat community for centuries and the Panchayat wielded considerable social power.

16. Chhotu Ram was a highly influential Pt politician of the Unionist Party in Punjab. Nonica Datta has elsewhere deftly dealt with the intricate theme of identity formation of the complex community of the Jats in the present-day Haryana. According to her, three factors played the most important role in shaping this identity—the qaumi (community) narratives, the role of the Arya Samaj as a religious reform movement and the politics of Chhotu Ram through the medium of the Unionist Party. (See Nonica Datta’s Forming an Identity: A History of the Jats).

17. Subhashni’s attempts to carve for herself a niche in the world and to define her own unique positionality vis-à-vis the events of the past. In her narrative, however, Subhashini’s identity comes through as a splintered one despite her best efforts to bask in the glory of a strident Arya Hindu identity cast in the crucible of the violent partition. Even as Subhashini strives to achieve a sense of her own self, the “discontents” of her narrative betray multiple selves and identities constructed out of fragmented and disjointed personal and collective memories. She emerges as a split self—the categories of the victim, victimiser and witness coalesce in her fragile identity so much so that she seems to speak in different registers—the tenor of her voice constantly shifting from that of the victimiser to that of the victimised or even that of the passive witness.


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GIREESH J. Assistant Professor of English, University College, Thiruvanathapuram.

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Assistant Professor of English, University College, Thiruvanathapuram.

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