Academic journal article ARIEL

Contextualizing Ayah's Abduction: Patterns of Violence against Women in Sidhwa's Cracking India

Academic journal article ARIEL

Contextualizing Ayah's Abduction: Patterns of Violence against Women in Sidhwa's Cracking India

Article excerpt

The 1947 Partition of British India into two independent nations (India and Pakistan) was accompanied by communal violence unspeakable in its brutality and ferocity, leading Mushirul Hasan to label it a "bloody vivisection" (The Partition Omnibus xii). One of the profound ironies of the period is that while a rhetoric and ideology of non-violence prevailed in the political push for freedom from colonial rule, a bloodbath accompanied the actual attainment of this goal. (1) In the months immediately preceding and following the creation of "free" nation-states, untold numbers of murders, kidnappings, rapes and arsons were committed by ordinary citizens of all the major religious groups (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) caught up in the turmoil. Many historians have documented the horrors that unfolded, often, like G. D. Khosla in Stern Reckoning, with painstaking thoroughness. It is certainly true that communal violence was not unprecedented in sub-continental society, (2) but the fact of impending Partition and subsequently, its reality, unleashed a maelstrom that was so horrific that some aspects of its history have been occluded. (3) There is substantial evidence that many instances of religious violence were orchestrated by politically organized groups; however, there is also plenty of evidence that some of the violence was also "spontaneous," where individuals, incited into group-think, perpetrated opportunistic acts of aggression, sometimes unleashing escalating cycles of retribution. How did people who lived together for centuries (albeit sometimes uneasily) turn upon one another; how did average people become murderers, kidnappers, rapists and arsonists?

Bapsi Sidhwa's novel Cracking India, which has garnered considerable attention as a trenchant portrayal of the violence surrounding the Partition, can profitably be explored as an examination of this issue, for it depicts a broad cross-section of Lahore society both before and after the city became a part of Pakistan. This approach to the novel, one that treats it as a quasi-historical register, necessitates an acknowledgment of arguments about Partition historiography. In recent years, historians have directed attention to the shortcomings of treating the grand narrative of the state's central, bureaucratic archive as the definitive History of the event. As scholars such as Gyanendra Pandey have shown, the "concentration on high politics" (65) has to be supplemented or even supplanted by a focus on the everyday experiences of the people who lived through the "History." (4) Urvashi Butalia's seminal compilation of oral histories has proven to be both influential and instructive. The impulse to document people's lives is, of course, the primary impulse behind literary narratives (fiction and/or autobiography) like Cracking India. Though fictive, we can approach it as akin to documentary material, provided we are mindful of its status as fictional representation, and attend to its narratological nuances. Jill Didur has written persuasively on this subject in her essay "Fragments of the Imagination," cautioning us about the need for "tracking the epistemological assumptions about representation embedded" in literary texts. (5) In the analysis that follows, I treat Cracking India as a piece of fiction that seeks to represent the psychological and social realities of a specific place at a specific time (Lahore ca. 1942-1948), and am attentive to the representational strategies that allow the text to accrue meaning.

Deploying a child-narrator, Lenny Sethi, the novel's plot focuses on Lenny's Hindu nanny or Ayah (referred to as Shanta twice in the novel), (6) her abduction by a mob led by one of her (spurned) Muslim suitors, Ice-candy-man, and her eventual escape from his clutches. The Ayah's story is paradigmatic: like her, thousands of women were abducted and/or raped by men of the "enemy" community during the chaotic months before and after Partition, Scholarship on the novel has repeatedly, and justifiably, focused on the figure of the Ayah, analyzing the ways she inhabits the subaltern subject position and how her abduction and recovery participate in the contested ideologies of Partition history. …

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