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A feminist writer/publisher sought out stories of the partition of India: atrocity and hardship, looting, rape and murder committed by and upon Hindu, Muslim and Sikh.
In the course of conversation with Urvashi Butalia, author of The Other Side of Silence, on a Saturday afternoon last July, and for some weeks following, I felt or sensed, like an occasional distant rumble, the movement of History, or perhaps the undead hand of Empire, reaching from deep in the past into the present moment, a slightly absurd sensation, disconcerting, discombobulating at times, easily muted by the routines of daily life, but never silenced.
Urvashi Butalia is a well-known writer, historian, feminist and publisher; she had travelled from Delhi to Vancouver as a guest of the Indian Summer Festival, where she was to speak about the making of The Other Side of Silence, a major work of oral history, analysis and commentary, subtitled Voices from the Partition of India, which I had not yet read.
I knew Urvashi Butalia slightly, at least in a manner of speaking: we had been introduced twenty-four years earlier in 1988 in Vancouver at a conference of Pacific Rim book publishers paid for by the Canadian government. Urvashi Butalia was the founder of Kali for Women, the first feminist book publishing house in India, operating from a friend’s garage in Delhi, and much too tiny a firm, she said at the time, to be invited to an international conference; nevertheless she had managed to hitch rides with a “legitimate” firm for herself and her publishing partner Ritu Menon, and they had been assigned rooms in the Four Seasons Hotel along with the big publishers from Australia, New Zealand, China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines. I represented the tiniest Canadian house present, a press on the literary fringe, which I had been running for seventeen years in a series of decaying warehouses.
Kali for Women was at the stage in fringe publishing when survival itself is the primary goal; not only were these women inventing a milieu, they were inventing the writers and the writing that the milieu called for. Such had been the condition of cultural publishing in Canada in the ’70s, a decade that had extended well into the ’80s and was perhaps only ending then, in 1988.
I recall wishing to explain to the women of Kali for Women, and perhaps I tried to, that publishing in Canada at that time had entered a period of relative calm; politicians had ceased imputing to publishers, and their writers, crimes of immorality, obscenity, terrorism and sedition; gay, lesbian, feminist and Aboriginal voices were finding places on the fringe among the literary and social issues publishers; book and magazine distributors were (briefly, as I recall) not going bankrupt; the world of bookselling was not yet hollowed out (I say now, in hindsight): there were plenty of independent bookstores in the country.
It was precisely this optimism (short-lived, as it turned out) that encouraged the sponsoring publishers in Toronto and Vancouver and their allies in the federal government to undertake a gathering of this scale, the aim of which was to jump-start a new trade fair for the Pacific Rim along the lines of the Frankfurt Book Fair (the biggest in the world), and, by a kind of coup de main, break the hegemony of Frankfurt.
The opening session, which neither the women of Kali for Women nor I attended, was addressed by the Lieutenant-Governor, the local representative of the Crown and vestigially of the Empire that had once joined Canada to India and the other pink parts of the globe.
In fact, I had only a cynical interest in the Pacific Rim conference, and my attention was easily diverted to the women of Kali for Women, who manifested new publishing energy and a readiness for the challenge that they had taken up, which stood as a rebuke to my own world-weariness—and by whom, I confess, I was somewhat dazzled. When I asked them to explain Kali to me, they said, be careful with Kali.
Later I discovered that Kali, the fierce Tantric goddess, is known as the black one, a figure of time, change, annihilation and death, and as the mother and protector of the universe. You don’t want to get too close to Kali, is what I remember Urvashi Butalia or Ritu Menon saying to me at the Pacific Rim conference, with the result that I wished to go to India immediately to join forces with the feminist publishing fringe.
When I left the final reception at the Four Seasons Hotel, late at night and full of wine, I carried a familiar dream of India as given by the movie Gandhi, the poem “Gunga Din” and a few lines from the Bhagavad Gita, to which the goddess Kali had been added as demiurge to the feminists of India.
Now Urvashi Butalia had returned to Vancouver as the guest of the Indian Summer Festival, and after twenty-four years I had not yet been to India. Did we recognize each other? I couldn’t say: within moments Urvashi Butalia seemed completely familiar to me, and we seemed to be quite at home with each other. Her connecting flight from Seattle to Vancouver had been inexplicably (but not, for some of us, surprisingly) cancelled by Air Canada, leaving her stranded at the Air Canada “information” counter, at the mercy of stony-eyed clerks who dispensed a “number to call” and no other assistance; she waited on hold on her cell phone for forty minutes, she said, surrounded by her fellow strandees, some forty or fifty in number, all on their cell phones, all waiting to get through to the same number.
Finally she broke away from the embrace of our national airline and found a shuttle bus to carry her over the border to Vancouver; five hours later she was ensconced in the Pan Pacific Hotel. Before meeting with me, she had gone across the city to visit a family whose relatives in India had not been in touch since 1947, when Partition divided India into two nations. In the course of her research, Urvashi Butalia said, she had often acted in this way as an instrument of reunion and reconnection amongst survivors of Partition, which was a catastrophe of immense proportions, as you probably know, she said.
Before I could formulate a response excusing my ignorance of Partition (and of India), a terrifying scene from the movie Gandhi sprang unbidden to mind, in which columns of refugees, deportees, displaced persons, women, children, old people, entire extended families, whole villages in carts and on foot, are streaming across the screen in opposite directions when marauders from each side fall upon each other with machetes, swords, knives and rocks—a scene that has stayed with me since seeing the movie some thirty years ago, and I confessed to Urvashi Butalia that that single image was all I knew of Partition.
Within moments she had enlightened me with basic statistics: twelve million people made homeless in a period of months; at least a million slaughtered; seventy-five thousand women raped; untold numbers of women and children abducted. She had learned some of these numbers in school; they were in the history books, she said, where they were understood more or less to be the history of Partition, along with lists of politicians, British administrators, dates and political decisions.
The word partition had no particular resonance for her until 1984, she said, when as a young woman she joined a citizens’ group assisting victims of the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in which thousands of Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and other parts of India, many of them burned alive, in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. During this period of terror she heard older victims say that “nothing had been this bad since Partition,” and stories that she had heard as a child, stories of atrocity and hardship, looting, rape and murder committed by and upon Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, and which, she said, had seemed to belong to the world of fairy tales, began now to take on the aspect of reality. None of these stories had entered the public realm; they were private memories.
She began to seek out stories of Partition, beginning with her mother, who had not seen her brother or her mother for forty years. Slowly Urvashi took on the immense project of listening to survivors who would agree to speak, asking questions, writing things down and listening again.
As Urvashi Butalia described her early search into Partition, the image from the movie Gandhi continued to linger between us like a billboard on the highway. I could hear her clearly and I could see her on the other side of it, describing the effects of Partition that continue to churn through the cultures of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which put me in mind of the destructive force that lay behind the bland language of a bureaucracy closer to home: internment, residential schools—neutral labels seeming to signify rest or domesticity, supplied by those who make and remake the maps that control and divide peoples, cultures, classes, castes, families.
The voices of Partition that Urvashi sought out, and that began to seek her out, and can now be heard in the pages of The Other Side of Silence, were the voices of women not accustomed to speaking publicly, or at first unwilling to speak at all; the voices of men who had killed their own children, wives, mothers, brothers and parents for fear of capture by the “enemy,” and now lived with replacement families, children and grandchildren, carrying their crimes within themselves; the stories of women and children throwing themselves into wells to drown and suffocate; stories of women abducted, rescued, abducted again; the voices of children now grown up who witnessed the murder of parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, and were left to fend for themselves; children abducted; and thousands of children “unclaimed.”
“It became difficult to continue,” she writes, with “stories so harrowing, so full of grief and anguish that often I could not bear to listen.” Many of the women and men who chose to tell their stories to Urvasha Butalia did so reluctantly, even though in many cases the details were known to other family members and neighbours. To this day, she writes, she has not solved the ethical problem of transcribing voices that might otherwise choose to remain silent, from shame, from fear of reprisal (even today) or from a simple desire for privacy, and instead trying to find a place for them in history.
The tools of feminist historiography, she writes, often allowed her to listen to that most unheard-of thing, silence itself: that which is left unsaid in the stories told to her, or the silence of those who remain mute. One comes to understand silence, she says, even to work with it.
The Other Side of Silence reveals the uneasy relationship between history and memory. Often the writing of history pulls a veil over the lived experience of events, and the stories people tell each other—that is, the memory of events—are pushed to and beyond the margins of public discourse: the depths of memory are not accessible to traditional historiography, whose role is to narrate events rather than to memorialize experience.
But once memory finds a way into history, Butalia proposes, the look of history is changed: we are invited, challenged, not only to ask what happened but also what happened to you? and to seek out answers—from this woman, that man, this child. The smooth surface of history slips to the side.
The partition of India precipitated the largest dispersal of human beings in history; twelve million people were rendered homeless (in 1947, the entire population of Canada was twelve million). Similar catastrophes of dispersal on different scales are to be found in Canadian history: the dispossession and imprisonment of Canadians of Japanese descent in the 1940s, an event known as internment, and the serial abductions (a species of hostage-taking) of 100,000 Aboriginal children over a period of a hundred years, known as residential school, the effects of which will continue to shudder, seen or unseen, through “history” for generations to come. “Abducted children posed the greatest challenge of all,” writes Urvashi Butalia. “How do we make sense of the experiences of children?”
Kali for Women became a leading publisher in feminist theory and practice, and a publisher of fiction and stories of and for people on the “margins.” In 2003, after twenty years, the founding partners developed separate imprints with extensive lists of their own: Women Unlimited, under Ritu Menon, and Zubaan Books, under Urvashi Butalia.
The cover of Time magazine for Partition Day, October 27, 1947, carries a “colourful rendering” of the goddess Kali, depicted with four arms, wielding two swords and a burning torch, and holding a bleeding map of India above the caption “INDIA: Liberty and death.”