Butalia, Urvashi. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000.

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Summary: Butalia’s book is an oral history of the experience and aftermath of the partition of India and Pakistan in the late 1940s, focused (due to language barriers and restricted movement across national borders) on the experience of Hindis and Sikhs in the Punjab region who crossed the newly created border, leaving current-day Pakistan for India. A mix of lengthy trascripts from interviews with participants and her own commentary on the stories participants told and the “official” history of Partition, Butalia argues that how and when people remember an event (that is, the stories they tell and the ways in which they tell them) are just as much a part of the history of the event as the accepted historical facts, even in the fictive aspects of these stories. While Butalia struggles throughout the book with the question of what the value of asking people to recall traumatic memories is, and how to collect oral histories of traumatic events in an ethical manner, she ultimately argues that confronting the memories of Partition is an important step in recognizing and confronting the ways in which this history continues to shape contemporary experiences in India. Beyond its immediate historical project, Butalia’s book makes important contributions to feminist conversations about research methodologies, particularly with regard to feminist ethics of representation. Without ever offering easy, reductive answers to these troubling ethical and methodological questions, Butalia encourages readers to critically engage with the tensions inherent in trying to listen for and break down silences in history while also respecting the necessity of some silences, especially when breaking those silences risks exploiting (and reproducing) traumatic experience.

Notes:

  • This project was born out of Butalia’s work helping Sikhs who came under attack after the assassination of Indira Ghandi in 1984. These experiences of communal violence brought up stories of Partition, highlighting for Butalia the ways in which this history continued to haunt contemporary experience.
  • Found as she began collecting stories that the telling of these stories often happened in groups, wherein women’s voices were often silenced or marginalized, creating the need for different story-collecting strategies.
  • Butalia emphasizes that although the book is not only about women, the stories were collected and the text itself written from an explicitly feminist framework, resulting in an increased attention to historically marginalized voices.
  • Chapter 4, “Women” deals at length with recovery efforts post-Partition to return abducted women back to their families. Butalia puts pressure on the specific way India decided to handle recovery, pointing to evidence that suggests that recovery was always more about a sense of national honour than about the women themselves and that, for many women, recovery constituted additional displacement, trauma, and even familial rejection.
  • The standards for recovery set by the state stripped women of any choice about their own movements between families and ultimately defined them purely along religious lines.
  • Butalia argues that the evidence suggests that recovery was especially contentious in India because of religious concerns with purity–resulted in women being separated from their children, a sizeable state-supported abortion effort, and the establishment of ashrams for women whose families wouldn’t take them back.
  • Also questions about who should carry out recovery since authority figures like the police had often been involved in abductions.
  • The language of recovery in India often covered over or euphemized the fact that Hindi and Sikh men had abducted Muslim women, instead treating the abduction of Hind and Sikh women by Muslim men as evidence of the brute, uncivilized character of Pakistan.
  • While the first half of Chapter 5, “Honour,” continues discussions about recovery, the second half focuses on the suicides and familial murders of women done in the name of protecting “honour”–acts which were later cast in the language of martyrdom. Butalia uses this discussion to point out the way intra-familial or intra-community violence during Partition has been removed from the definition of violence altogether.
  • Butalia also points out that patriarchal notions of violence often prevent us from understanding the ways in which women themselves can be violent beings.
  • Butalia closes with the question of memorials, pointing out that while India has done much to celebrate its independence, it has done nothing to officially memorialize the lives lost and violence perpetrated during Partition. How, Butalia asks, is the state supposed to memorialize the victims of Partition when it was complicit in the violence that occurred?

Quotes:

  • On collecting stories: “No neat chronologies marked the telling; there were no clear beginnings and endings. I began to understand how much, and how easily, the past flowed into the present, how remembering also means reliing the past from within the context of the present.” (18)
  • “My focus here is on the small actors and bit-players, whose lives, as the lives of all people, were inextricably interwoven with broader political realities. How these realities touched on and transformed their lives is what my work is concerned with.” (71)
  • “Just as a whole generation of women were destroyed by Partition, so also Partition provided an opportunity for many to move into the public sphere in a hitherto unprecedented way.” (90)
  • “There are, of course, no complete pictures. This I know now: everyone who makes on, draws it afresh. Each time, retrospectively, the picture changes: who you are, where you come from, who you’re talking to, when you talk to them, where you talk to them, what you listen to, what they choose to tell you . . . all of these affect the picture you draw.” (100)
  • “Talk of the martyrdom of women is almost always accompanied by talk of those women who lives were saved, at the cost of those which were lost, and although there may not be any direct condemnation, it is clear that those who got away are in some ways seen as being inferior to those who ‘offered’ themselves up to death to save their religion.” (165-6)
  • “[T]here are instances where silence is more important than speech, times at which it is invasive to force speech, and I think we need to be able to recognize those when we meet them.” (283)
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