Ghosh, Vishwajyoti. This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, Graphic narratives from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. Delhi: Yoda Press, 2013. 340 pages. $17.38 paperback.
ptaneja [at] emory [dot] edu
Partition Literature has always had a somewhat fraught yet fascinating relationship with history. In Borders and Boundaries, feminist historiographers Ritu Menon and Kamla Bhasin briefly remark on the fact that Partition Literature made up for the lack of social history at a time when the political reasoning behind the catastrophe seemed a prime concern. The literature written around the time of Partition was most likely a way to respond or to understand the chaos and violence of the time thus relying heavily on memory and lived experience. Writers like Saadat Hasan Manto painted a disturbing picture of humanity (or lack thereof) with short stories like “Khol Do” and “Toba Tek Singh”. Later, others such as Salman Rushdie chose a broader canvas in Midnight’s Children filled with magic realism to comment on the post-partition time. The present, however, has been mostly indifferent to the experience of the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and the subsequent partition of Pakistan and Bangladesh in 1971, events pushed aside in current discussions. The graphic anthology, This Side, That Side, challenges this indifference, and makes an attempt to “restory” the event for contemporary readers.
Providing an apt answer to the question what now, the collection is the first of its kind in the field, consisting of twenty-eight stories composed by forty-two artists after an open call was released in 2011. The stories are curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh who also contributes to the anthology. The collaborating artists belong mainly to the three affected parties, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, and experiment with varying styles of graphic narratives ranging from a simple comic book format, digital collages to photo essays. The cover of the book itself reveals the approach that this partition anthology is going to undertake. “That Side” becomes a mirror image of “This Side” and thus the stories, in whatever form they may be, concern themselves with revealing several common threads across the borders. While the title and collaborative effort imply a certain type of fluidity, the immigration stamp impressions inside the cover draw the reader’s attention to the fractured social legacy of Partition. The stamps thus become a prologue to the narratives to come, recording not just the oft-repeated history of what happened but rather looking at how these boundaries still affect our lives.
The book begins with a Curator’s Note that provides a vague description of how the task of partitioning was executed, “‘Nation-making in progress. Inconvenience is not regretted’” (11). The black markers distributed in the name of democracy to make one’s own maps become a symbol, in the hands of the masses, they are at first an addiction and then a lost opportunity. In the hands of these composers, the hope is that they will initiate “collective mapmaking” of a new kind. The new black and white maps that the group creates are then based on the archives in the metal trunks that outlived people and at times the imaginary landscapes of a generation that has some distance from the actual event. The latter provides a freshness to the decades-old tale.
The first story in the anthology, “An Old Fable,” is the only one that directly engages with the political history of the event, and does not take a subtle approach at that. Thus, the Indian subcontinent is represented by a baby that is divided according to Reason and Law of the King when two mothers claim it as their own. While the fractured unhappiness of the child’s life is highlighted, the story in part is a sharp comment on the indifference of the King or the British government and the helplessness of the mothers who do not get a say in the final decision. The story is formatted like a comic which makes it easy to follow and understand. Therefore, while it is an obvious and maybe even a little biased interpretation of the event, it provides a good entry point for anyone new to the genre of graphic narrative.
The collection becomes home to many interesting if somewhat complex stories. “Tamasha-e-Tetwal,” seemingly a tribute to Manto’s “The Dog of Tetwal,” examines the current Kashmir situation, a land neither Indian nor Pakistani in essence, just like the dog. The visuals complement the narrative which takes precedence in this tale. Interestingly, however, one never hears the actual questions that the reporter asks in the tale, forcing the reader to engage and deduce the questions from the answer provided. The final scene with a man and a woman standing on opposite sides of the river (and border) making conversation about their children reinforces the mirrored title of the book, and at the same time, the collaborators manage to bring the political and the everyday together in one tale. The mirror also makes a distinct reappearance in Bani Abidi’s “The News”. Adapted from a video project that places news reports from India and Pakistan side-by-side, the frames bring to light the stark similarities between the two using just eight sets of images and a few incomplete sentences from the news ticker.
“Welcome to the Geneva Camp” is another powerful narrative that uses the form of a photo essay to record the lives of predominantly Urdu speaking people living in “the largest camp in Bangladesh, housing roughly 25,000 people in an area spanning three football fields” (251). The author, Maria M. Litwa, begins with a wide shot of the area while she talks about its history and then moves on to some particular stories from the camp. The photographs capture the plight of these permanent refugees so poignantly that there is hardly a need for words. The “stateless” refugees are a constant presence in this collection. Some other stories that look at these questions of migration, rights, and subsequently one of belonging that persist even now are “The Taboo,” “Know Directions Home?” and “Karachi-Delhi Katha”.
Vishwajyoti Ghosh does a commendable job of bringing the diverse second and third generation voices together and unveiling a new picture of partition. The voices not only work in tandem with the lived experiences of the survivors and refugees but also lead the composers of the stories to integrate themselves into the grand narrative, proving the point that the Partition is not a static event that occurred in 1947 but continues to live in the present through inherited memories, interactions, and issues. Ghosh’s contribution, “A Good Education” becomes part of such an endeavor as he skillfully juxtaposes his grandmother Amiya Sen’s harsh experiences in camps for East Bengali refugees in Dandakaranya with his own innocent childhood memories of the refugee kids in Kasturba Niketan, Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi.
If Ghosh’s story questions his privilege in having been able to afford to go to an English medium school, thereby separating hims from the lot of many refugees, “Making of a Poet” by M. Hasan and Sukanya Ghosh poses the question of what land means to a poet, especially a dispossessed one. Then there are tales that reveal some happy coincidences as well, like Ahmad Rafay Alam’s and Martand’s Khosla’s “90 Upper Mall.” These two met as international students (from Pakistan and India respectively) in the UK. Once they moved past what the history books taught them about the neighboring nation they discovered some common connections that included their grandparent’s alma mater and a house, 90 Upper Mall or 1 Bawa Park. This house in Lahore that belonged to Khosla’s family before Partition and was allotted to Alam’s family after thus became a story about the “absurd and arbitrary nature of Partition” (189). While rare, the coincidental but shared legacy of 90 Upper Mall connects them, creating an odd but real sense of hope for coming together of the future generations.
The stories are not arranged in any particular order of theme or geographical area, which can be unnerving on the one hand, but on the other, suggests that it is not necessary to follow the thread from beginning to end. Each narrative stands on its own, and together the stories work as a collage of memories and experiences. Like any other anthology though, some stories fit better than the others. Stories like “A Letter from India,” a tribute to the original penned by Intizar Hussain, takes on an essentially oral Dastangoi tradition. The attempt is bold and original, yet the narrative loses some of its crispness and captivating quality by virtue of being translated and written down instead of spoken aloud. There are others where the visual components distract one from the narrative or vice versa. Finally, some like “Bastards of Utopia” with its highly experimental style might seem too abstract for some readers.
This Side, That Side is a significant addition to the corpus of Partition Literature. As an attempt to “restory” Partition through the eyes of the children and grandchildren of Partition survivors, the anthology succeeds. In doing so, however, it avoids some of the more harrowing subjects of violence and loss. Nevertheless, the themes that the stories do engage in, and the visual tools that they use, make them valuable to both an academic and non-academic audience. Subaltern studies scholars might be a little disappointed in its partial treatment of a historically charged subject, but overall it is a useful resource for anybody working in the area of Partition studies, and/or graphic narrative scene in South Asia.