Homes lost and found

One of the hurdles in creating an anthology about the Partition of India is that many of the people who lived through it are now dying. A young writer who sets out to tell a story about Partition must necessarily resort to fiction, reporting, or interpretation. And in an extreme case, to play with the idea of Partition itself, and to examine not merely the legal separation of two nations and the accompanying violence, but also its consequences in the years to follow.

Most of the contributors to This Side That Side—Restorying Partition, Yoda Press’s anthology of short graphic stories on Partition, have taken the last approach. Along with the stories about Partition as we traditionally understand it—the sudden, slaughter-filled tearing apart of India in 1947—there are other stories: about the creation of Bangladesh, and the flow of refugees that preceded, and followed, it. There are stories about the bitter migrations from India to Pakistan once the killing had stopped. There are stories, too, about the alienation of minorities in every country that Partition left behind and about attempts to cut down on visa restrictions that keep reinforcing past partitions.

But before we examine the stories themselves, we must look at the stories that are missing. In his editor’s preface, Vishwajyoti Ghosh does state that he has tried to chase fresh voices and the interpretations of subsequent generations. This was a worthwhile goal, and he seems to have achieved it. The anthology did expose me to perspectives I had never known before. It also left me uneasy.

This Side, That Side—Restorying Partition: Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Yoda Press, 336 pages, Rs595
This Side, That Side—Restorying Partition: Curated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Yoda Press, 336 pages, Rs595

But this incompleteness is a necessary outcome of the anthology’s aims, and we can complete our understanding of Partition with other texts while judging This Side, That Side on its own merits. What, then, are these merits?

To begin with, it has a superb array of contributors. The illustrators are among the best in South Asia. This does not always guarantee success. Sometimes the writing is sloppy and the illustration lazy. The first story in the anthology, Tabish Khair’s An Old Fable, is especially heavy-handed, subjecting the reader to a Message with a capital M, and is a waste of the illustrator Priya Kuriyan’s talent. Things improve after that, with some excellent stories, in particular Khademul Islam and Sarabjit Sen’s The Exit Plan, Mahmood Farooqui and Fariha Rehman’s A Letter From India, Beena Sarwar and Prasanna Dhandarphale’s Milne Do, and Sonya Fatah and Archana Sreenivasan’s Delhi-Karachi Katha.

If there is a sin of commission in the anthology, it is the number of stories in which elite Bengali writers and artists tell the stories of less-privileged Bengali refugees, instead of letting these people speak for themselves. Perhaps this is because it is difficult to give dispossessed refugees who already lack access to the media a voice of their own, just as it is tough to get new generations to speak about a direct experience of Partition. Maybe for this reason it became necessary to have someone with that media access speak for them. Nevertheless, it was jarring, considering that the anthology also includes Nina Sabnani’s Know Directions Home?, which translates and illustrates the account of Raniben Bhanani, a Gujarati refugee who crosses from Pakistan to India after the 1972 war, without inserting a third party directly into the story.

This, along with some stories where the artists’ styles do not really contribute to the storytelling—such as Arundhati Ghosh and Appupen’s Water Stories and Kaiser Haq and Hemant Puri’s Border—make the anthology somewhat uneven. But its best stories make up for that, and make it a valuable read.

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