Woman, Madness, and Partition Literature

Any study on partition literature cites Manto’s Toba Tek Singh as the archetypal figure of insanity. In the “Introduction” to their volume, Translating Partition, Ravikant and Tarun K. Saint write that ”Toba Tek Singh” is a triumph of ambivalence and a great story because it proclaims that in-betweenness of its protagonist blurring the edges of fixed notions of identity. Madness is an oft repeated theme in partition discourse, metaphorically representing the madness of political partition by the nationalist leaders: “They make an important point that the metaphor of madness has been used in Partition literature to communicate a sense of incomprehension and that it denotes a refusal to understand.”

Commenting on Toba Tek Singh’s incomprehensibility of partition violence, Veena Das and Ashis Nandy ask, “Could Manto be suggesting that the voice of the madman is the only sane voice that could be heard in the midst of these events?” In her essay, “Cementing the Fissure: Urdu Literature from Across the Border,” Sukrita Paul Kumar writes, “…ironically, what emerges through his madness is a very sane rejection of the insanity of political decisions. He dies on no man’s land rather than crossing the border.” Crossing the border would have suggested uncritical acceptance of the political ideology of the newly-created nation-states. Historian Gyan Pandey writes: “Thus, it seems, Manto offers a resolution of the paradox that he sets out at the beginning of his story through the suggestion that, in this time of “madness”, it was only the “insane” who retained any sanity.”

The asylum which confined Toba Tek Singh, along with other madmen, was under surveillance of the political state and located in the public sphere. Though emasculated, Toba Tek Singh’s refusal to cross the border is a public/political performance which subverts the hegemony of the newly independent political states. His performance blurs the edges of sanity and insanity in turbulent times.

I highlight this public dimension of Toba Tek Singh’s refusal in order to contrast it with the disciplined figure of a mad woman confined in the domestic space and in the attic. Shankha Ghosh’s Bengali novella, Supuribaner Sari (Rows of Acernut Trees, 1990), juxtaposes the putative lunatic figure of the bereft daughter-in-law and the figure of a male revolutionary fighting colonial domination, thereby pointing out the overt mascaulinity that undergirds the very idea of sub-continental nationhood. This image of a mad woman in the attic critiques the masculine notion of political independence which confines women to the gendered domestic space and disciplines them by envisaging women as “symbols of culture and tradition.”

The novella is narrated through the viewpoint of adolescent Nilu and is set against the backdrop of partition of India and the emergence of newly independent nations. Nilu visits his maternal grandfather’s house in Bangladesh every Durga Puja along with his family but this turns out to be his last journey to his grandfather’s ancestral place.  On this particular journey to the village by a steamer and later by a boat, he remembers one of his previous journeys when he heard a commotion on the deck of the steamer at the dead of night. Nilu vaguely remembers the nebulous bearded figure of a man clad in a shawl. The man, being pursued by the police, jumps into the river and vanishes.

Nilu gathers from his parents that the man is a revolutionary who is fighting against colonial domination. I quote from the text:

“Ma looked at Ranjuda and said, ‘They are not dacoits. They are good people who work for the country.’

‘Is that the reason why the police pursue them?

‘Yes, that’s why the British are after these people. They are fighting for all of us.’

‘But,’ Nilu wondered, ‘those who have been pursuing them are not white. They look dark-skinned like us.’

Mother said, ‘They are our country folks, too. But they work for the British.’

Bado Mama said, ‘That’s enough, now stop Khuki. People might hear about what we talk. Moreover, everyone is saying that he is already caught.’

‘Already caught!’ my mother’s face darkened with sadness.”

This particular episode frames the discourse of nation in the novella: the image of the revolutionary, whose dare-devil masculine act exerted its imaginative appeal on the people (reminiscent of the Naxal movement of the Seventies in the post-colonial state).

Nilu also discreetly learns about the putative madness of Fulmami (or wife of the youngest uncle) from the conversation among the elders: “Everyone says that Fulmami has gone insane. Nilu tries to remember their previous conversation; he can’t belive that she has turned mad…Who is called a mad person? If she is now mad, won’t she write poetry anymore? Won’t he be able to read her poems anymore?” The novella ends with Fulmami’s escape from home and their eventual return to Calcutta along with other family members for good.

In Shankha Ghosh’s Rows of Acernut Trees (Supuribaner Sari), the theme of madness is gendered and interiorized. Unlike the figure of Toba Tek Sigh in Manto’s story, Pramila, the mad woman, in this story does not proclaim her political ideology but, one fine day, simply, vanishes. When Nilu first goes to meet her after reaching his grandfather’s house, he finds her in the attic, where she spends her whole day writing. However, the other members of the family feel that she spends her day as a reclusive lunatic. She allows Nilu to read from her book of poems. In one of her poems, she writes, “Who do I confess to? /That morning bird/ Invites me to fly! / No one understands / They call me mad/ I keep my secrets to myself.”

Pramila requests Nilu to take her one day to the haunted, dilapidated house that could be seen from her window. While Nilu reads her poems, Nilu’s mother comes to her and admonishes Pramila to be more sociable: “Why do you spend your whole day in this room? We are all here after a year. You should be with us and look after us…Ma cannot take care of all the cooking alone. Can’t you see, she is growing old? You should go to the kitchen.” Pramila replies: “I don’t like to go to the kitchen.” Nilu fails to comprehend why Fulmami, who writes wonderful poetry, is called ‘insane’.

Nilu questions why his Sejomama, who is equally given to idealism, should not be called mad, “Ma, why do you call Fulmami mad? Is she madder than Sejomama?” This question subtly points out how not all acts of transgression are termed as madness. Madness is gendered and linked to the subversion of gender-roles supposed to be performed in a rural middle-class Bengali household. Thus, the notion of madness, to use the Foucaudian discourse, is one of deviance from the cultural norms and, as such, “[a]ll those forms of evil that border on unreason must be thrust into secrecy.” If the figure of Toba Tek Singh could be read as a figure of ambiguity at the level of the political, the figure of Pramila is subversive, first, by aspiring access to the public/political and secondly, by deviating from middle-class gender norms.

Set against the backdrop of Partition, Pramila’s confinement denotes a sanctification of the inner/domestic space (Partha Chatterjee). There have been numerous studies exploring the cultural role of women during the nationalist struggle. In her study, Bharati Ray avers that the reform movements were meant to “lend the bhadralok social support in the colonial world and to produce ‘enlightened’ sons for them. That is why the paradigm of a model woman was imported from Victorian England with the ‘traditional’ qualities of Indian women added to it.”

During partition, community identities were crystallized around discourses of cultural purity. A particular discourse of cultural purity was embodied in the recovery operation of the abducted women. The body of the abducted and recovered women became a contested site for inscribing patriarchal values of community honor and shame. The recovery operation, vindicated by logic of masculinity, served as an act of legitimizing the newly formed nation state. As has been argued by Kamla Bhasin and Ritu Menon, the recovery operation ‘emasculated’ the family and the communities as the state infringed on the domain of these two entities.  Shankha Ghosh’s novella foregrounds the surveillance of the ‘emasculated’ families (and communities) in regulating the bodies of women, in times of crisis, as “the symbols of culture and tradition” (Amrita Chachi).

The escalating tension between the family and the state is evident toward the end of the novella when the spectral figure of the revolutionary terrorist returns. He visits Nilu’s ancestral house in the village. When Nilu’s mother informs him about Pramila’s absence, the erstwhile revolutionary, whose name is Bishu, tells her: “You have done everything that was possible. The police stations have been informed. What can you do now except for waiting?” Interestingly, the erstwhile revolutionary, who once sought to subvert the colonial state, reposes faith in the newly independent post-colonial state (denoted by the police station here).

Thus, Pramila by vanishing at the end of the novel not only transgresses gendered roles in the domestic sphere but also manages to subvert the masculine surveillance of the state, on the one hand, and the coercive disciplining by the family, on the other. She certainly lacked the performative appeal of Toba Tek Singh, but succeeds in recovering her subjectivity. That’s no mean feat for a mad woman!!

This entry was posted in Bangladesh, Bengali Literature, Fiction, Literature, Partition of India, Violence and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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