Amgueddfa Blog

Hafan y Blog

The forced and thoughtless partition of India in 1947 created a unique rupture between the once coexisting communities of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus as well as the spaces (home) inhabited by them. Hence, drawing the borders of the 1947 Partition resulted in the subcontinent inheriting ‘‘a geography of trauma’’ (Jennifer Yusin 2009: The silence of partition). Notwithstanding the almost 75 years that have elapsed, the South Asian subcontinent has been struggling to deal with this event. The trauma of this forceful sundering of geographies, communities and cultures resurfaces socially and politically not only between the partitioned nations—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh-- but has led to other upheavals even within the nations themselves, in the form of wars, terrorist attacks, communal riots and the million types of microaggressions between identity groups. 

The loss of home, land and community caused by the partition has been expressed through literary and cultural works throughout the last seven decades. These expressions of trauma and recording of memory, though specific to this partition and borders, are universal in that they represent the trauma and erasure caused by the drawing of every border, whether physical or socio-cultural. Hence, one could use the phrase “every border is a geography of trauma” to all borders that need crossing in order to construct an identity that liberates one from the patriarchal, nationalist forces, and limitations that restrict individuals and communities.

Our current project, Refugee Wales, which collects the stories of Sri Lankan Tamils and Syrian refugees in Wales, too, resonates with the issues raised by the 1947 partition and both of these topics are part of my research projects for my PhD and my post-doctoral work.  When I had the opportunity to chair a session named South Asian Transcultures at the 17th ECALALS Triennial Conference (28 – 30 June 2021) I focussed specifically on two papers, Devika Karnad’s “Identity Across Borders: Tracing a South Asian 'Transcultural' in Indo-Anglian Women's Fiction and Susan Rajendran’s “Challenging Aesthetic Borders: Postcolonial Narratives and Literary Innovation in Sri-Lankan Writing”. In them I found resemblances to my previously mentioned projects.  

Among the two papers, Devika Karnad covered the issue of trauma caused by borders (between India and Pakistan), and the literary imaginary that allows the characters to think beyond borders and inhabit spaces that were once common heritage of all communities that have now been rendered inaccessible due to national and international politics that emerged from the partition.

Devika discussed two Indian English novels by two Indian female authors. They are, Difficult Daughters (1998) by Manju Kapur and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) by Arundhati Roy. Both the novels represent a ‘transcultural’ conception of identity that spans across borders in South Asia, geographically as well as socio-culturally. These literary imaginaries explore the “capacity for embodying the transitory through its ability to move fluidly between the past and the present” and between the borders created by multiple identities, at a time when identities have been rigidified through decades of ‘partition-wars-terrorism-communal riots’ discourses and rendered further impregnable through the majoritarian discourses that rule these nations today. Devika’s discussion of these two novels, while laying bare the aberrant situation of the partitioned South Asia and the socio-political turn these nations have taken, also exposes the shallowness of the politics of “identity harvesting” (Manuel Castell: The Power of Identity, 2011) by the ideologies and demagogues who rule South Asian nations today. Devika’s presentation was a critique of the politics that feeds on borders, identities and the apparatuses that sustain them.

In a similar vein to Devika’s choice of texts that focus on the transgression of borders despite the current trends of majoritarian identity politics, Susan Rajendran also examined “how early to mid-twentieth century writers in Sri-Lanka aspired to construct a Sinhala identity through artistic and literary production” that defy the majoritarian identity politics. Covering the works of two authors: Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1976) and Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914-1996), Susan tries to prove that these two authors used disparate literary traditions “to explore the commonalities of human experience in a manner geared to local sensibilities”. While the authors used Buddhist themes and Sinhala folklore to construct a Sinhala identity they also guarded against nativist attitudes and tried to foster a transcultural approach. 

As the Refugee Wales project progresses, we realise that in Sri Lanka, the postcolonial effort at nation building has focussed predominantly on political and ideological discourses about “preserving the ‘purity’ of Sinhala Buddhist culture from Western influence as well as perceived threats from the Muslim and Tamil minorities” as Susan has argued. This was a majoritarian ethno-religious-linguistic project where the minorities and their culture(s) were to be downgraded, then erased. This was an exercise at guarding and harvesting identities for political power by excluding other stakeholders. We know what it produced: ethnic strife that resulted in a civil war which lasted of and on for over five decades, rendering a huge population into refugees. Against such a dominant cultural and political discourse Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra, through their art and literature, try to construct alternate responses to the vexed question of national identity and highlight the possibility of a transcultural/transnational identity. Given Sri Lanka’s fractured national identity caused by majoritarian politics and ethnic conflict, if any national reconciliation must happen, a new national imaginary is essential. This could be found especially through works such as the ones produced by Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra. 

South Asian identity politics is as much a legacy of the colonial rule as it is the outcome of ethno-religious-linguistic ideologies’ identity harvesting power game. When the power transferred from the British to the native elites there were efforts at building multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation states. Struggle for power and resources eventually gave way to majoritarian rule that discriminated against minorities resulting in conflicts. In Sri Lanka, the conflicts morphed into civil war. In India, Hindu majoritarianism is on full display today where discrimination and the persecution of minorities and Dalits have become systemic. It is only a matter of time before this could morph into violence and a war of secession as happened during pre-partition days. At such times focus on cultural works that can offer a counter narrative that helps people imagine transcultural/transnational identities is a valuable effort.

These two papers, as they try to offer a transcultural imaginary, also help us with insights into what line of exploration in our interview process could shed light on the area of our research in the Refugee Wales project.

Gadael sylw