Reading Into Silences

Every fifteen days my husband brings me three books from the British Council Library in my city.

Why don’t I go  and choose for myself the books I want to read? Well, for one, the library is  not very close to where we stay and I don’t know how to drive well enough to go any place farther than the neighbourhood provisions store. For another, going by public transport is a daunting task for me, because I’ll have to take my toddler along.

And hubby doesn’t mind doing me this favour because his office is quite literally next to this library. So he gets to earn brownie points with me at very little extra trouble 😉

To his credit, he does make an effort to find books that he thinks I’ll like, and more often than not, he is right too!!

But still, relying upon somebody to bring you books to read is a bit like relying on someone to bring you clothes to wear. You are sometimes stuck with something you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself.

This past week, one of the books hubby got me was Urvashi Butalia’s ‘The Other Side Of Silence :Voices From The Partition Of India’. I have read a fair number of books on the partition and since they make for disturbing reading, I had been making a conscious effort to steer clear of any more books on this topic. So I wasn’t quite happy at the prospect of reading this book, which deals with oral accounts of partition survivors. But something told me to go ahead and read it anyway. And I am glad I did read it– I came to know many hitherto unknown things.

For sure, the book is literally full of harrowing tales of mind-numbing loss and senseless violence which cannot but be difficult reading. But the perspective is different and provides food for thought. Oral accounts of survivors have a way of providing strange, startling insights into how the human mind deals with tragic memories. The narrative is often meandering and repetitive and could have done with some serious editing, but it still is very readable because the depth of the author’s feeling for her subjects shines through. The title of the book is an allusion to the conspiracy of silence that makes its presence felt, time and again, during the course of the book–a reluctance to speak about and acknowledge the horrors that visited the females of the population in particular.

The author dwells, at some length, at how  the violence faced by women at the time of partition is generally assumed to have come at the hands of men from the ‘other’ community, when in fact women perished in great numbers at the hands of men not just of their own community but actually their own family, often their fathers and brothers, ostensibly to save them from abduction, rape and conversion. Of course, these women were never even asked if they would rather be killed than face conversion. As carriers of family and community honour, their fates were sealed –and  these women apparently accepted it without even a whimper of protest.(The author’s suggestion that at least some might have tried to save their lives was met with self-righteous indignation by a survivor recalling the horror of being witness to the slaughter of young girls and women by family elders.)

These killings were often cloaked in terms of ‘martyrdom’ of the victims . To this day, memorial services are held in certain gurudwaras in Delhi in honour of those women who thus sacrificed their lives–making no mention of the fact that were actually killed without being given a choice. If anything, the survivors tended to sympathise more with the male elders who ‘had to carry out the killings as an instrument of God’s will–how helpless they must have felt!!’ , choosing not to delve too deep into just how helpless the girls must have felt.

Families  of the women thus killed are among the most honoured members of their community today. They are believed to have upheld the community’s  honour and pride. In sharp contrast, families which lost their girls to abductors or whose girls went missing are looked down upon and  spoken about in hushed tones. They are supposed to have failed in their duty of preventing their girls from falling into the hands of the enemy. The tacit feeling is that they have a past to be ashamed of and are somehow among the less worthy members of their community. (One particular survivor whose account features in the book did not mention, even in passing, that two of his sisters had gone missing while they were on their way to India in one of those infamous kaafilas. It was apparently too shameful to be mentioned. The author got to know about it only through other, possibly related,survivors.)

Nobody seems to question the ethics of killing one’s kin in order to ‘protect’ them. Nobody, not even the woman whose daughter was killed by her own father, seems to blame the killers. They, after all, had the girls’ –and the community’s–best interests in mind, or so everyone seems to think.

At least in one instance it appears as though the decision to kill the women along with the children, the old and the disabled was taken to facilitate the escape of the able-bodied male members. Trying to escape with these apparently vulnerable people would have been a bit like swimming with a weight tied to your back. Leaving them behind would have been unacceptable as well. Hence the most logical thing to do was to kill them. A survivor, only nine years of age at the time of the incidents, recalls that the impending ‘martyrdom’ of family members was being discussed freely since several days before the actual event , by his uncles who had taken it upon themselves to ‘martyr’ them. Sensing that being a child, he too would be ‘martyred’, he pleaded with his uncles to let him live, that he would rather die of the hardships on the way to India than be killed then and there. He was fortunate–his uncles decided to let him live and later took him along with them on the difficult march to India. Other ‘martyrs’ probably never even got the chance to say whether they really wished to die.

I cannot get over the story of one particular survivor, Basant Kaur, who was part of a group of ninety women and children who marched to a village well and jumped in, the women typically throwing in their children before jumping themselves. Basant Kaur threw six of her children in, and by the time it was her turn to jump in,  there simply wasn’t enough water left in the well for her to drown. The well had more bodies than water. By Basant’s own horrendous account, she came out of the well and jumped again no less than four times. She was eventually rescued by an army unit which came only later that day. Basant and one of her sons were the only survivors of a large, prosperous and close-knit family. She recounted her story without once breaking down–some tragedies are too deep for tears.

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4 Responses to Reading Into Silences

  1. gypsydoodles says:

    oh. your husband is sweet…and he is lucky of marrying a woman who reads. =)

  2. Scribby says:

    Shudders @ Basant Kaur’s story !

    I agree getting to read books by someone’s choice is a bit difficult task..but I’m glad that your husband knows your liking so there must not be much of a problem 🙂

    Happy Reading…Special hugs to you cause I love people who read 🙂

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