Akhil Chandra Borah

Research Scholar (M.phil), Dibrugarh University (Department of Political Science)
([email protected])


Amrita Pritam is known for her contribution towards the partition literature. In her writings, the readers can find the living history of the event of partition of India. Through her writings, readers can visualise and realise the actual trauma of the people during the partition of India. In the genre of partition literature, her popular novel Pinjar (The Skeleton) finds a remarkable place. Published in 1950 in Punjabi, it was subsequently translated into English by Khushwant Singh. Through the novel, the novelist shows how the women were subjected to sexual violence, trauma and alienation during the partition of India. This article is an attempt to show how the writer through the lens of Pinjar sheds important lights upon the issues of identity and sexuality of women. It is in this context that the paper would attempt to analyse the writer’s ways of depicting sexual violence against women, their trauma and about how they were alienated from the ‘self’- body as an aftermath of the partition.

Keywords : Partition, Sexual Violence, Women, Trauma, Alienation, Self

The partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 was a glorifying event for the nationalists and for the people of the newly demarcated nations. Simultaneously, this event was one of the darkest moments in the history of South-Asia as well as for entire humanity. Particularly for the women, the partition was an event of unbearable trauma- individually and collectively. Feminist scholars like Urvashi Butalia, Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin through their writings brought the issues of women’s sufferings and their trauma during partition but in the texts of history this chapter is neutral/absent due to the dichotomy of public and private. Since women are presumed as the outsiders of public and politics, consequently they are excluded from the history because history is the manifestation of politics (Dey 106). Thus it is necessary to locate the trauma meted out to the women in the history of partition. We can read or locate women’s trauma in partition engaging with the theoretical ground of ‘trauma’.

The term ‘trauma’ generally refers to repeated infliction of wound over body. But in medical and psychiatric literature, especially in Sigmund Freud’s text, the word ‘trauma’ suggests the infliction of wounds not upon body but in the mind (Caruth 3). In Beyond the Pleasure Principle Freud argued that the wound of mind is not like the wound of body. While the wound of the body is easily healable, the later is not. The wound of mind appears repeatedly in nightmares and inflicts again the same wound to the survivors as they pass through the original event. Thus the trauma is not located simply in the past event of an individual but it repeats again and again to haunt the survivor later on (Caruth 4). Though Freud concentrated on wound of mind as trauma, but we cannot exclude the wound on the body, while discussing trauma of individual. Because, if we link trauma with its etymology, we will find that wound of mind is explicitly linked with body and its injuries. Radhika Mohanram, in her article Trauma, Cultural Memory and the India Partitionargues that bodily injury inaugurates trauma and is linked to the notion of identity within a psychoanalytic framework (Mohanram 926). Thus by linking the nature of the trauma of women in partition with the theoretical ground, it can be said that the trauma experienced by women during the partition are of two folds- bodily wound and wound over the mind. While analysing women’s trauma in this chaotic partition, the author suggests that it is impossible to proceed by relegating bodily wound from the wounds of mind. We need an integrated approach as Radhika Mohanram too suggests. Now the question that comes to the mind is, “How bodily wound leads to the wound of mind?” Here the author argues that it is violence over the women’s body that leads to the process of the wound over their mind i.e. trauma. Trauma theorists such as Cathy Caruth, Judith Lewis Herman suggest that while there is absence of coherency and control over life and body of the victims, trauma occurs (Mohanram 918). As during partition of India and Pakistan, the women had neither control over their lives and bodies, nor they could resist the infliction of violence over them, thus they were made victims of trauma. The nature of violence on women was two folds during the period of partition – the violence inflicted on women by the males of the opposite religious faith and violence inflicted by their own family members (Dey 104). Abduction, rape, mutilation of genitalia, public humiliation, ripping out the wombs, branding sexual organs with religious symbols or tattooing religious symbols on the private part of the women’s body, naked parade on the streets, amputating breasts, burning vaginas –were the sinister violence inflicted on women’s body during the partition of India and Pakistan in general as the form of ‘violence inflicted by the opposite religious group of men’.

Apart from these, in some cases the family heads compelled their women to commit suicide; many girls and women were beheaded by their own men folk due to the faith on the notion of ‘purity and pollution’. They held the view that the body, mind and family name would be polluted if their women were touched by the males of the opposite religious group. Moreover, it is believed in the patriarchal society that the honour of family and society rests on the hands of their women. So if their women are defiled by men of opposite religion then it would affect their family and social honour. Therefore, the men folk of the society inflicted violence until death over their own women so that they could save their family and social honour. The trauma meted out to the women through the bodily wounds took the form of cultural trauma as Jeffrey C. Allexander argues in his book Trauma: A Social Theory. Allexander suggested that when a number of people collectively feel that they are subjected to a horrendous event that leaves inalienable marks upon their consciousness, making their memories forever and change their identity fundamentally, cultural trauma occurs (Allexander 6). Thus, from the perspective of Allexander it can be argued that the trauma of the women during the partition is cultural trauma which can be equated to collective trauma. As collective trauma suggests, a blow to the basic framework of social life of the people that damage the bonds shared by individual with other and ruin the sense of community (Erikson 187).

In partition, there was an important cause of women’s trauma, i.e. extension of the motherhood. Women are usually equated to the nation. For instance, India is commonly referred to as “Bharatmata” or “Mother India”. Thus, the protection of nation i.e. mother from the external threats and protection of her honour and purity is deemed the prime duty of each and every individual of India. Here the women or the mother has no control over her ‘self’- body and sexuality. It is the men who are the sole protectors of women. Therefore, women were the worst sufferers of trauma during in partition. Moreover, this extended concept of motherhood made the men of both sides keener towards revenge. Hence, violence and counter- violence on women were in extreme level. For example if Hindu women were raped by the Islam men, then it was perceived that Mother India was raped and to take revenge of polluting the womb of Bharatmata, the Islam women were raped by their Hindu male counterparts.

This was the greater scenario of women’s trauma (collective or cultural trauma) which was initiated by the infliction of violence over women. The aim of the author here is to bring the collective trauma and to connect it to the individual trauma of women. Further, the individual trauma of the women is not properly documented as the collective trauma. Hence, it is difficult to access to the individual trauma without knowing the greater view of that turbulent period. A few scholars are engaged to penetrate to the individual trauma of the women experienced during partition through oral history but it is not accessible to all. Thus, its contemporary literary works are important source to study individual trauma of the people. The novel Pinjar is a contemporary fiction of partition. Therefore, Pinjar is worth analysing while studying sexual violence against women and trauma unleashed by partition.

Apart from the medical and psychiatric connotation, Trauma can be described as individual’s experience in life. But the nature of experience must be catastrophic so that the individual cannot respond to that immediately. Further such experiences are uncontrolled and their repetitive appearances are like that of hallucinations, as Cathy Caruth argues (Caruth 11). Following the same tract, Kai Erikson argues that trauma means a blow to the psyche that destroys one’s capacity of defence against the blow. Further, the victim can’t react to the blow effectively (Erikson 187). Thus trauma signifies a state of helplessness, lack of ‘the fight-or-flight response’, loss of ‘volume control’, activation of ‘on-or-off’ switch of the trauma experienced by individual (Bloom 1-14). In the novel Pinjar, the female characters are exposed to such experiences in their lives, and the novelist crafts all these quite faithfully.

Pooro, a Hindu girl, from the ‘Shahukar’ family was abducted by Rashida, a young Islam boy of ‘Sheikh’ family to take the family revenge before her already fixed wedding with Ramchan. Though one night Pooro successfully escaped to her natal family, her parents refused to accept her. The next day a ‘maulvi’ performed Rashida’s ‘nikah with Pooro. The name of Pooro was changed into Hamida and it was tattooed in her arm. With the passing of time Pooro became the mother Javed. During partition, their village Sakkar got included in Pakistan and Pooro’s entire family remained in India. In case of Pooro, the novelist shows that she had no control over all these circumstances. Though she entered into ‘nikah’ with Rasida, there was not her consent; rather she was helpless. Her family refusal compelled her to do so and consequently she was alienated from her family and birthplace. The traumatic cause behind her family refusal was in religion and the notion of being polluted. If her family accepted her, they would be killed.

Apart from this, Pooro’s new identity i.e. Hamida left her in a trauma of dualism. She had no control over her body when her new name was tattooed. It so happened as directed by Rashida. Her dual identity confused her to determine herself actually “who is she?” Whether a Hindu or Islam. Within herself she was a Hindu but for the society, an Islam.“Hamida by day, Pooro by night” (Pritam 25).

The novel also depicts how motherhood is turned into trauma. When Pooro became the mother of her husband’s son, there was absent of her will. Thus, she felt her son as a slimy slung, she would not take care of him if in his veins, he doesn’t carry her parents’ blood (Pritam 34). Further, when her son tugged her breast, she felt as if he was draining her milk forcefully as his father forced her. She felt that Javed only belonged to her husband as he planted him forcefully inside her and nourished in her womb against her will (Pritam 35).

During partition, many families lost their sons, daughters and other members. In the novel, the novelist describes how Lajo, Pooro’s sister-in-law, was dislocated from her family during partition when she was in her maternal home at Rttoval. She was abducted and confined in her maternal home by a Muslim family as they occupied her home. Lajo was alienated from herself in her own house as she was forced to do every household work. Every time she was in the surveillance of them so that she couldn’t escape. She was forced to cohabit with the man of her own house but she refused to do so. She thus compares her own house with a coffin (Pritam 105). Though she was rescued by Pooro, she refused to join with her husband’s family. She felt as she became polluted. Hence, no one would welcome her in her husband’s house. But Pooro ensured her that she would be accepted by her brother and in- laws in India.

Apart from Pooro’s own experience of partition violence and trauma, she heard that Hindu girls were abducted by Muslims and Muslim girls by Hindus. Many girls were forced to get married, some murdered, stripped and paraded naked in the streets (Pritam 85). Hamida was a witness of such violence against women and their trauma- helplessness, lack of ‘fight-or-flight response’, and loss of ‘volume control’. One day she saw how a band of a dozen or more goondas pushed a naked young girl before them. The goondas beat drams and danced about the naked girl. This trauma shaped a thought in Hamida’s mind- “it was a crime to be born a girl” (Pritam 87). This thought reflects her trauma, the situation of helplessly watching the girl in torment. Further, at that evening she rescued a young girl from their sugarcane field. She was forced to spend nine nights with different men. Pritam described that from the refugee camp the Pakistani soldiers picked out women according to their choice, took them with them for the night and returned them to the camp (Pritam 88). In other word, women were forced i.e. raped by the soldiers. In such situation the women had no control over their own bodies and sexuality.

The women who experienced sexual violence and trauma unleashed through the partition, were challenged by self-alienation too. Self alienation or alienation of self can be experienced by self-loathing, internal struggle between vulnerability and control, and love and hatred (Fisher 5). Women were more vulnerable and they had no control over their own bodies, sexuality and even their identity. The identity, both self and national, was determined by the border and culture. In Pinjar, it was seen that Pooro’s identity was determined by the Redcliffe line and Muslim culture. Similarly, Lajo, the naked girl and the girl rescued by Pooro- their bodies were controlled by others. Further, Lajo was in the internal conflict between love and hatred. Though her ‘self’ love pushed her to come out from her containment, she started the felling of self-loathing as she said “I am not good for anyone now. No one will accept me.” (Pritam 118). In other word, Lajo had a strong and abominable feeling of being polluted by the Muslim.

In conclusion, it can be said that Pinjar gives us a means to have a look at the gory pictures of sexual violence against women, their trauma and their alienation of ‘self’ during partition. Besides, the writer through the lens of Pinjar also sheds important lights upon the issues of identity and sexuality of women. The work is the writer’s ways of depicting sexual violence against women, their trauma and about how they were alienated from the ‘self’- body as an aftermath of the partition.

References :

Allexander, Jeffrey C. Trauma: A Social Theory. Polity Press, 2012.

Bloom, Sandra L. “Trauma Theory Abbreviated”. Community Works. 1999, pp. 1-14.

Boyd, Mary R. And Marlene C. Mackey.   “Alienation from Self and Others: The Psychosocial Problem of Rural Alcoholic Women.” Archives of Psychiatric Nurssing, vol. XIV, no. 3, June 2000, pp. 134-141.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1996.

Caruth, Cathy. “Trauma: Explorations in Memory”. Introduction, edited by Cathy Caruth. Hohns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Dey, Arunima.  “Violence against Women During the Partition of India: Interpreting Women and Their Bodies in the Context of Ethnic Genocide”. Es. Revista de Filologia Inglesa, vol.37, 2016, pp. 103-118.

Erikson, Kai. “Trauma: Exploration in Memory”. Notes on Trauma and Community, edited by   Cathy Caruth. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

Fisher, Janina. Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. Routledge, 2017.

Mohanram, Radhika. “Trauma, Cultural Memory and the Indian Partition”. Cultural Studies, vol.25, no.6. 2011, pp. 917-934.

Pandey, Gyanandra. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Pritam, Amrita.  Pinjar: The Skeleton and Other Stories. Tara, 2015.

Silva, Neluka.  The Gendered Nation; Contemporary Writings from South Asia. Sage Publication, 2004.

Yusin, Jennifer. “Beyond Nationalism: The Border, Trauma and Partition Fiction”. Thesis Eleven 105(1), 2011, pp.23-34.

About Drishti: the Sight

Drishti:the Sight is a National refereed Bi-annual Research Journal in the disciplines of Arts and Humanities founded in the year 2012 publishing articles in the subjects of English Literature, Assamese Literature, Folklore, Culture.The journal has been enlisted in the UGC-CARE list (Sr.No. 42) in Arts and Humanities section.The journal is dedicated to the cause of young upcoming scholars of the nation.The journal publishes only authentic research articles. It tries to follow the research ethics to the core.