‘My other mother’: Separated families and mourning as agency in narratives in the 1947 Indian partition
Oral History seminar
7 February 2013
Anindya Raychauduri (St Andrews)

This is a guest post by Charlotte De Val, one of IHR Digital’s interns from the University of Leicester.


As many as 15 million people crossed the borders that were created in the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Aside from the major political impact this had nationally and world-wide, the partition transformed families physically and emotionally. In February 2013, Anindya Raychauduri delivered a lecture on the separation of families and the agency of mourning in partition narratives. Following current historiographical trends, the project is interdisciplinary; oral history narratives, literature and cinema are studied together to identify the lasting impact of familial trauma and the areas in which it is most pronounced.

migration into Pakistan (1947) (wikipedia)

migration into Pakistan (1947) (wikipedia)

From the total eighty-five interviews conducted by February 2013, five are used in the lecture, and these are used to discuss various issues, including the representation of partition through the disintegration of the family. Familial decline and the disintegration of the stable family-based community it also explored; Raychauduri discusses this with particular reference to the famous partition short-story – Toba Tek Singh – which, published in 1955, follows Lahore asylum inmates through their transfer to India, and the 1973 film Garma Hava (Scorching Wind).

The use of literature and cinema is particularly useful in the discussion of public discourse, where the family is used as a metaphor to depict the trauma of partition.  Raychauduri observes that the memories of individual family members in the oral narratives were female; the issue of gender is central to the memory of partition, where the ‘lone woman’ was an iconic symbol of suffering. Women were disproportionately affected by partition, and over 75,000 women were abducted, raped and/or forced to covert religion. While recognising this disproportion, Raychauduri confronts the problems with appropriating women’s trauma to reflect the wider trauma of partition; the discourse appropriates women’s victimhood to represent the entire nation which reduces women to symbolic victims, and thus robs them of agency.

Finally, Raychauduri addresses agency and mourning using the films Garm Hava and Khamosh Pani to expose the tropes of female victimhood. The value of an interdisciplinary approach is particularly evident in the discussion of the politics of subtitling, where female agency is particularly manipulated and mis-represented. Raychauduri concludes that women must be viewed not just as victims, but as active agents who often found ways of exerting agency even when they were often alienated. With respect to his approach, Raychauduri asserts that the strength of history is in its ‘multi-layered interpretation’; the collective use of cinematic and literary sources with oral narratives can provide insights into the individual, collective and national trauma of the 1947 partition, while exposing problematic representations and appropriations.

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