Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Methodical Worlds: Partition, Secularism, and Communalism in India

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

Methodical Worlds: Partition, Secularism, and Communalism in India

Article excerpt

Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, was the bastard offspring of a one-shot encounter between a departing Britisher, William Methwold (last of a long line of angrezi robber barons), and Vanita, wife of a poor Maharashtrian accordionist--a proletarian Mumbaikar given to singing maudlin Broadway hits in the homes of the rich to earn his supper. The seductive allure of Methwold rose largely from the clean-cut parting that ran through the middle of his brilliantined hair. Hypnotized by its clarity and metric precision, Vanita, like many another Indian in Methwold's circle, succumbed to his charm. As the sun set on August 14, 1947, over Methwold's estate on Malabar Hills, Bombay, and Vanita went into an excruciating labor that would produce Saleem Sinai/Modern India but that she herself would not survive, Methwold stood in the center of the courtyard and his "long tapering white fingers twitched towards centre-parting, and the . . . secret was revealed, because fingers curled, an d seized hair; drawing away from his head, they failed to release their prey; and in the moment after the disappearance of the sun Mr Methwold stood in the afterglow of his Estate with his hairpiece in his hand." (1)

Rushdie may be read as suggesting that the whole enterprise of British colonialism in India was, ultimately, a con job--in the real sense that it was a confidence trick resting as much on the willingness to believe deeply on the side of the duped as it did on the machinations of the trickster. Just as the clarity and precision of Methwold's parting proved illusory, the methodical world that was to arise from the Indian subcontinent's entry into postcolonial modernity has turned out to be a promise belied, full of false solutions and con jobs, most propelled by a desire for neat and precise solutions to the vexing, but ultimately unresolvable, "problem" of human difference. Rushdie may also be read as suggesting that the business of nation building is the endless effort to colonize all forms of belonging into conformity with a simulacrum called the nation, an idealized copy based on an original that does not exist anywhere. Ultimately, the seduction of Partition lay in the belief entertained by many in the sub continent that the enormity of this rupture may bring us into conformity with an ideal and normalized original called the nation that exists ever elsewhere--an elsewhere whose coordinates can never be precisely established because it is more a statement of desire than of reality.

In this article, I engage in a series of ruminations that seek to dislodge the solidity of mainstream narratives about partition in South Asia. My reasons for doing so stem from a realization that mainstream narratives have energized and sustained the animosity and violence between communities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and are, even as I write this, preparing the ground for yet another war fought by antagonists convinced of the historical and ethical correctness of their actions and choices. There is something about the ways in which history has been narrated in South Asia that has corralled our entire future into a box labeled "The Unfinished Business of Partition," and this article is an effort to escape its confines.

Displacing the Assumed Singularity of Partition

In an influential essay written a decade ago now, Gyanendra Pandey noted the assiduousness and energy with which Partition was not talked about in mainstream histories of the subcontinent. It is variously elided as the price to pay for national independence, as an irrational and inexplicable event remarkable for its suddenness, naturalized by metaphors that removed it from the realm of human agency and seen as an aberration in the story of the coming-to-being of an immanent destiny called "India." In all these ways the actual details of the events themselves have escaped sustained or frontal attention. …

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