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Partition and its aftermath in common lore, cinema, and literature

By Puja Roy

In the seven decades since India was partitioned, more than 25 million refugees have crossed the new frontiers mapped out by Radcliffe between East Pakistan and the state of West Bengal in India. The migration out of East Bengal was very different from the rush of refugees into India from West Pakistan, which was immediate and immense as was the way the disposed were received by the country to which they fled. Unlike refugees from the west, the refugees from the east did not flood into India in one huge wave; they came sometimes in surges but often in barely perceptible trickles over five decades of independence. The element of violence in the Punjab explains why millions crossed its plain in 1947. By contrast the much larger migration out of East Bengal over a much longer time span is more complex.

In the 19th century, India was still a place where people did not define themselves primarily through their religious faith and where languages, cultures and traditions cut across religious groupings. For instance, a Muslim weaver from Bengal would have had far more in common in his language, his outlook, and his fondness for fish with one of his Hindu neighbors than he would with a Karachi laborer or Pashtun man from the North West Frontier Province.

There are several people from that generation who lived through the harrowing times of Partition and are invaluable historical archives. There is so much that happened during those days that needs to be cataloged. During my undergraduate days in Kolkata, I had the privilege of an interaction with one such person, an inhabitant of Jadavpur area, who had spoken of his ordeal to me post crossing the then East Pakistan and India border.

I had duly taken an appointment with him and his family earlier and had clearly mentioned the intent of my visit. However, when I asked them about speaking on their experiences, the man of the house, Mr. Nirmal Kanti Choudhury was quite reluctant initially. Being an overenthusiastic 20-year-old, probably I had not started the conversation on the right note, I realized. Partition after all, wasn’t something that people liked to speak about. It was that wound, which never healed, so the best cure was to avoid looking at it.

That day, sitting in their drawing room, amidst a room full of silence, I had first encountered the impact of Partition even after seven decades of its occurrence. We chatted over cups of tea and gradually the emotional doors opened. From a lighthearted discussion the mood slowly turned towards a somber and painfully nostalgic recount of an era long forgotten yet very much fresh in the minds of its victim. Mr. Choudhury started speaking, as his wife looked on.

After crossing the borders, Mr. Choudhury had lived in a rented house along with 5 other families in the Southern fringes of Kolkata which then looked much different from what it is now. He said that in the initial days, he felt an utter vacuum crushing his soul, and at times even resolved to go back; however, responsibilities of looking after his younger fellows and concern for everybody’s security back home (Chittagong) held him back. He continued, as I listened intently.

He said, “I had gone to his village in Chittagong after some years in 1964 with the hope of getting back the lost affection and loving touch of my motherland. But what surprised me was equally sad and cruel. Once home, I met with an old friend (Muslim), someone with whom I literally grew up, and even before I could tell him how things are here at my village, my childhood friend greeted me with fury, ‘tora akhono benche achish?’ (So you people are still alive?)”. Such was the state of chaos and violence that people were supposed to be dead when they were quite alive.


Right from suffering the incessant taunts of being called a “bangaal” (a derisive term which the residents from this part of Bengal used, to refer to the migrants who came from across the border) which invariably was a mockery on their distinct accent, quite different from the people of West Bengal, these people had to eventually come to terms with the fact that the same lawns where they would once play freely, the abundance of food from their own fields, their huge houses, their lanes, their ponds, the love and warmth of their own people was now gone forever.

When boundaries lay asunder and homes and communities are broken into pieces, people try to form similar communities in different set ups, an attempt to continue living, even though things would never be the same. Such severing of ties led to the formation of a lot of organizations by these East Bengalis in their new settlements – a way in which their ruptured identities received some kind of assuage. Organizations like Dhaka Kalibari, the East Bengal Club and several other such groups emerged in West Bengal.

Mr. Choudhury himself was part of an organization called “Chattogram Parishad”. When I asked him what exactly the members do in such groups, he replied with lot of fondness that they talk about their food, their native nitty-gritties, their folk songs, culture and mandatorily speak in their mother tongue.

Post-partition, such refugee narratives found expression in cinema and literature. In Bengali literature, partition is often seen in its metaphysical terms. The hurt is not in the body but in the soul. Madness is not a trope in Bangla stories and cinema; rather, it is a nostalgia and a constant dazed search to know how and why and wherefore. The pain comes out effusively through cinema and other creative arts and bear witness to the feelings of bewilderment, loss and dislocation.

The grim savagery of that tumultuous period where men were killed in huge numbers in communal riots has been brought out quite nonchalantly by Hasan Azizul Haque in his Bengali book, Ekattor Korotole Chhinnomatha. He writes, “It was not known to me that when human corpse is afloat in water, men’s bodies float facing the sky and women’s bodies float upside down.”

Perhaps one of the early depictions of Partition happened in Chhinnamul (The Uprooted), the 1950 film by Nemai Ghosh that reflected the agrarian distress of peasants of Bengal and the subsequent migration after partition in a documentary style. Made with the help of the IPTA, the movie was made with people from different refugee camps to give a realistic approach. The film was made using 6 strict principles: only non-actors, no make-up (except whiskers), no songs, no outtakes, concealed camera on all occasions and regional dialect in dialogues. It turned out to be a big commercial failure. However, it managed to recover costs later on as on Pudovkin’s recommendation the USSR bought it, where it was later dubbed and retitled Obejdolni. Very few people know that Ritwik Ghatak, who later on went on to document some of the most heart wrenching tales around the subject of Partition, was involved in this film as an actor and assistant director.


Komal Gandhar

National award winning director Ritwik Ghatak’s emotions were more analytical than his reasons. They defied his piteous ideological repertoire to produce some of the finest psychological documentations of the Partition. His self-destruction through alcoholism, like that of Manto, could itself be read as a statement, as a trauma of partition violence and as interjections of the larger self-destruction he had seen around him.

Ghatak born in Dhaka, now in Bangladesh, in 1952 experienced the same fate as those of the other refugees and came to Calcutta in the 1950s. Being one of them who had to abandon their motherland and settle in refugee camps, he never could come to terms with this horrific event which created a sudden void that rendered these refugees devoid of both material security and mental and spiritual strength.

In Ghatak’s Komol Gandhar, one can recollect the poignancy embedded in the sequence where Bhrigu shows Anushuya by pointing out to her the other side of the river Ichamati (river connecting west and east Bengal) saying, “that was our land, our home”. The state of ‘homelessness’ that emerged out of these lines was the tale of thousands of others like Ghatak himself.

The partition trauma and its subsequent repercussion find a strong voice repeatedly in Ghatak’s characters. The genuine feelings of refugees came alive on celluloid through these people enacting them onscreen. In another sequence of Komol Gandhar, Bhrigu expresses his sorrow after having come to this part of Bengal (West Bengal) and cries, “I refuse to accept this land across the river (Ichamati) as my foreign country. I was born there, it’s my land. I’ll go back there.”

Ghatak, a victim of partition himself, had channelized his own agony and poured it into his films. Almost all his works are fraught with partition motifs and symbolism. He believed that the Bengali lower middle class, with their bourgeois aspirations and petty middle class value system, are to be held responsible, for the social and cultural fragmentation that occurred in India.

Characters in Ghatak’s movies emerged stronger and bolder from the trauma that they were subjected to. After facing the horrific realities of partition and losing almost everything, these characters were now desperate to hold on to those they were left with. In this process, some lost themselves (Neeta in Meghe Dhaka Tara), some lost the ones they were living for (Ishwar in Subarnarekha) and some were united in the bond of love as a symbol of Ghatak’s hope to see the two Bengals reunited (Brigu and Anushuya in Komal Gandhar).

The pain and agony of leaving someone’s homeland coupled with a deep sense of abandonment led to an immense hatred, so much so that one would imagine killing even strangers they have never met. In one of Ghatak’s the short stories, “Sarak” (The Road), Israel who is supposed to leave his home (in India) for Pakistan when asked by a friend, “Who would stay at your place now?” replies seething in anger, “Who knows? Whoever he may be I will find no peace until I can tear him to pieces. He is my enemy now; the whole country is my enemy.”

Nisid Hajari, in Midnight’s Furies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), a fast-paced new narrative history of Partition and its aftermath, writes, “Gangs of killers set whole villages aflame, hacking to death men and children and the aged while carrying off young women to be raped. Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”


The most interesting part of Ghatak’s partition movies was that it never directly addressed or spoke of Partition. It rather narrated the effect of Partition and the condition of refugees and the subsequent poverty that befell them in this country.

A small yet strange episode in one of Ghatak’s lesser known films made for children, Bari Theke Paliye sums up the trauma of Partition as it haunted the creative minds who lived those times. Ghatak had extrapolated this episode into the original story by the famous children’s writer Shibram Chakraborty. It depicts the young hero’s encounter with a motherly, old, heavily myopic woman wearing a plain dark-bordered white sari who befriends a child in the streets of Calcutta and is mistaken for a child lifter and badly beaten up. While being beaten, she pathetically cries out that she was not trying to steal the child, that the young boy reminded her of someone else. No one listens. Her accent makes clear which part of Bengal she is from. Is she a refugee who has lost her own in the holocaust? Ghatak does not say. Nor does he in any of his writings later on explain why he had to introduce that scene in the midst of such a charming, innocent story of a young boy’s escapade in Calcutta.

Puja Roy
 studied Comparative Literature (Hons) from Jadavpur University and has a Diploma in Film Studies. She holds a Master’s degree in Advertising and Public Relations and is a writer by profession. An avid reader, Puja loves to research on history, cinema, art and culture.  Currently she is working on her debut book of short stories.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Hatred and Mass Violence: Lessons from History”, edited by Navras J. Aafreedi, Presidency University, Kolkata, India.

2 Responses to “Partition and its aftermath in common lore, cinema, and literature”

  1. Raj

    A great read..
    A nice literary presentation of the celluloid chronicle on the era of geographical division.


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