Divided: Partition Memoirs from Two Bengals is a collection of translations of the memoirs of partition survivors from both sides of Bengal, edited by Angshuman Kar. The book is an outcome of the DRS SAP (Phase II) programme carried out by the department of English and cultural studies, University of Burdwan, West Bengal, with sponsorship from the University Grants Commission. This anthology contains sixteen recollections of partition experiences translated from Bengali to English. The translations are a collaborative effort of thirty-eight translators from different colleges and universities in West Bengal working in groups. The book deserves readers’ attention for reasons more than one.
The first thing that draws the attention of the readers is the book’s exclusive focus on the partition of the eastern part of the country. While a plethora of fiction and non-fiction (including research, journals, memoirs, etc.) on the partition of the Western part of the country can be easily found, the partition of the East has not received its due attention. It has rather been seen by the people outside the region only as secondary to the partition of the West. The global readership is not yet fully aware of the real picture of the damage, devastation, trauma and subsequent migrations associated with it. Needless to say, this book fills in this gap. It accommodates first-hand recollections of partition memories of people belonging to different classes, castes, creeds, religions and genders.
The book could be considered a part of the recent ‘memory boom’. The term ‘memory boom’, coined by Jay Winter in “The Generation of Memory: Reflections on the ‘Memory Boom’ in Contemporary Historical Studies,” refers to the proliferation of oral narratives of the partition refugees. In most such examples, the emergent discourses move away from the high politics of the event. They attempt to highlight the individual predicament of those who experienced the loss of home and family members. This book is certainly not the first of its kind in the genre, with one preceding example being Jasodhara Bagchi and Subhoranjan Dasgupta’s The Trauma and the Triumph: Gender and Partition in Eastern India. But it is an important addition to the field.
The anthology is also poignant because of its emphasis on non-statistical details of the partition. It is rather more concerned with the memories and trauma that the partition has produced. In fact, Kar makes it evident in his brilliant and insightful introduction to the book, in which he talks about different kinds of memories and their impact on the lives of partition survivors. In doing so, he, interestingly, uses the marine trope to underline a partition-survivor’s negotiations with the past. He introduces a new concept, namely, ‘buoyant memory’, to distinguish it from sedimentary memories. He argues that while the sedimentary memories go deep into our mind (which, in memory studies, is often compared with a sea) and remain embedded there, it is the ‘buoyant memory’ that floats on the surface and never sinks. It does not let the trauma heal. In some of the memoirs in the book, this floating and recurrent memory is distinctly visible.
Not only does the book address events and memories related to the Bengal partition, but it also seeks to do so in an inclusive manner. Evidence of such inclusivity can be traced in the careful selection of pieces anthologized. Firstly, the recollections span all four stages of the Bengal partition and subsequent migrations. The time ranges from August 1947 to the defeat of Pakistan in the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. The book also includes memoirs of people from both sides of Bengal. Nityapriya Ghosh’s memoir, for example, begins with his anecdotal references to the family’s days in present-day Bangladesh before the partition. It extends to their days as refugees in Kolkata post-partition. On the other hand, Hasan Azizul Haque narrates his journey from Burdwan to East Pakistan after the partition. Social position is an important determinant of how social situations are perceived. Keeping this in mind, the anthology includes reminiscences of people belonging to various strata of the social hierarchy. Tarun Sanyal, Nityapriya Ghosh or Hasan Azizul Haque were comparatively privileged migrants by having access to education, shelter (however paltry that may be), and means of economic sustenance. Hafizul Molla or Chora Hafizul, on the other hand, is a subaltern in the strictly Spivakian sense of the term. Hafizul is a social outcast belonging to a family of thieves. Lack of prospects in the previous means of stealing provokes him to join the new ‘line’ of cow smuggling across borders. Partition for him, therefore, has an altogether different connotative value when compared to the ‘privileged’ survivors of partition.
Divided, thus, tries to make the voice of the subalterns audible. The book not only focuses on the economically marginal but also on the gender marginal. It includes the memoirs of three women. Urvashi Butalia—the eminent partition historian and author of The Other Side of Silence—notices that women’s perspectives were grossly neglected when it came to recounting partition experiences. She has rightly observed that male experiences have been considered not only important but also normative. This book, however, attaches adequate importance to women’s lived experiences. In Sita Sarkar’s memoir, for example, partition trauma involves, apart from many other things, removing the marks of married women, i.e., conch shell bangles and vermillion marks. This kind of identity crisis is unique to Bengali women.
It must also be remembered that, apart from being a collection of partition memoirs, the book is also a work in translation. Translating pieces that are different from each other in terms of the experiences narrated is difficult. The forms of language used to express such myriad memories also display much variety. Translating these pieces to keep their local essence intact is extremely challenging. Added to that is the task of maintaining homogeneity in translation to create an organic structure for the book. Fortunately, the book accomplishes the task of retaining the local flavours while making it a collection of translations fit for global consumption.
Divided is not only a very important but also a necessary book for shedding much-needed light on the partition of Bengal. As Kar has mentioned in his exhaustive introduction, it is an invocation to the past to speak. And the ‘past’ does speak in the book. Curating anecdotes and personal narratives of different individuals facilitates the heteroglossia needed for understanding partition from multiple perspectives. The book is a good read not only for scholars and experts but also for ordinary readers.