Updated: Mar 10
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On the eve of India’s independence and the creation of the two nation-states of India and Pakistan, the peoples of the subcontinent saw one of the biggest migrations and convulsions in human history—the Partition of 1947. The political partition of the subcontinent was envisaged as a politically expedient solution in the face of increasing demands for a separate ‘Muslim state’ and rising communal tensions between the Hindus and Muslims. However, the governments of the newly created nation-states were surprisingly unprepared to deal with the large numbers of displaced peoples, and also the large-scale violence that was unleashed by populations on one another—not to mention the lack of clarity in the government’s laws and pronouncements relating to the rehabilitation and resettlement of migrant groups, which added to the distress of the displaced groups of people. However, underneath these visible and reported histories of the Partition lie its particularities which pertain to the ‘human dimensions’ of Partition.[i] While recovering and exploring these histories, several ‘silences’ in the narrative are encountered, which relate especially to the experiences of women. These are histories of displacement and dispossession; lost identities; bonds of belonging and friendship; experiences of betrayal and empathy; and a nostalgia for the lost homeland.
Qurratulain Hyder, an eminent woman author of several novels, novellas and short stories, explored these human dimensions of Partition through her writings. In many of her writings, she explored the long shadow of Partition as an event that was not only limited to 1947 but that continues to have its ramifications for several generations of peoples long after that date.[ii] Thus, it might be noted here that the stories are not set right in 1947 but a decade or more after that year. Yet, Partition and its ramifications are always very much present in the narrative and in the experiences of the characters.
This paper studies two of Hyder’s works—a novella, Sita Betrayed (originally Sita Haran), and a short story, The Sound of Falling Leaves (originally Patjhar ki Avaz). Both of these were originally written in Urdu, the former in 1960 and the latter in around 1963. Through this research, my aim is to understand how Hyder explores the theme of women experiencing partition and looking for a lost identity and homeland in a world that is chiefly dominated by men who dictate and determine their lifeways. Indeed, Partition itself was a decision taken predominantly by politically powerful men and imposed on the bodies of women who in most cases were left without a home of their own and had to grapple with their lost identities.
Women and Partition: Displaced and Disgraced
As already observed, the histories of women and their experiences of Partition lie hidden beneath the visible, general histories of Partition. It is only when one reads through the silences, gaps and erasures in these official and recorded histories that one discovers how many women were displaced, how many abducted, how many forcibly raped and mutilated, and how many had to lead the rest of their lives as wives and mothers in households of alien men.[iii] In other words, they were both displaced and disgraced.
The problems in this mode of historical research are many; for one, women have always been considered as outside the realm of the public and political, and thus outside the realm of history. Very rarely, they might even witness historical events but their role would be limited to only that. To quote Ritu Menon:
[G]enerally they are the flotsam and jetsam of historical events—present perhaps, but of no great significance. Afterwards they are called upon to pick up the pieces, clean up the mess, rebuild and resettle, somehow manage, somehow forgive and forget. Above all, forget. Their ‘natural’ inclination is to preserve, to do good works, engage in charitable and welfare activities, continuing to do what they do best: nurture and mothering. Theirs is the precinct of the personal, and once the calamity is behind them, the chaos ordered again, they withdraw from their brief foray into the public.[iv]
Again, oral narratives of women are not easy to collect, mostly as women have to be interviewed in the same household spaces where the men are present. Men do not often consider the women to have anything of much significance to say. Thus, the oral accounts of the women are determined and dictated by the norms of the patriarchal family where the honour of the women is conflated with the honour of the family and household.[v] Numerous cases of women being raped, mutilated, or abducted and taken for marriage, form a part of the history of Partition: these are often not revealed as they are perceived to be violations of the honour of the family in the world of men. However, this painful history of physical violence and trauma of the past very much forms a part of the mental and social landscape of the woman’s world for as long as she is alive.[vi] On the one hand, she is confined to the niches and corners of the patriarchal world, and on the other hand she has to keep searching for her lost homeland and lost sense of identity.
Turning towards Qurratulain Hyder’s works, two of her writings selected for this study explore the mental dilemma of Partition and these questions of a woman’s sense of belonging and identity in greater detail. Although the chief protagonists of both these writings are women—Sita Mirchandani in Sita Betrayed, and Tanvir Fatima in The Sound of Falling Leaves—the narratives eventually push them to the margins of the patriarchal order where different men seem to dictate and determine the lifeways of both these women. As C.M. Naim observes:
Not that they are befuddled, unintelligent, or inert; rather, they seem unmoored, though not unnerved, by the cataclysmic events around them. It is important to note that despite the crumbling away of the social and economic certainties of their childhoods and adolescent days, these women do not fail to shore up new lives for themselves. They are not benumbed into total inaction. However, there does remain a deep emptiness at the centre of their lives which they repeatedly and vainly seek to fill through new human contacts. One reason is that the cataclysms have not dislodged men from their essential position of authority and control. In fact, the changed times seem to provide the men with ever-new channels for exercising dominance (emphasis added).[vii]
Sita Betrayed: A Sindhi Woman’s Experience of Partition
Sita Mirchandani, the protagonist of the novella Sita Betrayed, was born in Sindh in pre-Partition India and spent her childhood in Hyderabad, Karachi and other places. After Partition, she and her family had to leave Sindh, which then became a part of Pakistan, and they came to India as Hindu refugees. Her father used to be a doctor in Sindh but he fell ill while they were travelling to India. After having to stay in refugee camps for a long time, and moving from Gujarat to Delhi, Sita and her family eventually came to settle in a small house in Karol Bagh, Delhi. Since it was becoming increasingly difficult to support Sita’s education, her parents sent her to her uncle’s place in Canada. From there, Sita went to do her PhD at Columbia University, USA. It is there that she falls in love with a man called Jamil and marries him. However, things soon turn bitter and Jamil forces Sita to leave the house and her son. Sita comes back to India and keeps relations with Jamil’s family who live in Delhi but are originally from Tulasipur in Uttar Pradesh. What starts from here are multiple experiences that take Sita through a whirlwind of emotions as she travels places—Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Paris—and meets different men in her life—Irfan, Qamar, Projesh and Leslie. These are experiences primarily of love and betrayal. Although the migration from Sindh forms a prologue to her narrative, it occupies almost all her experiences in the story.
Like most Hindu migrants from Sindh, Sita and her family took a ship to India and reached the Gujarat coast. Thus, they were spared travelling miles across the border in railways or even worse, on foot, having to encounter millions of others travelling across the same route. However, that did not make their experience of Partition one of painless transition from statelessness to statehood. For one, Sita and her family were part of that Hindu minority group in Sindh who belonged to the affluent Amil class and were owners of land and property in pre-Partition Sindh; Partition created a sense of insecurity in their life and like most other Sindhi Hindus of their rank and standing, they left their property and home in Sindh and came to India in the face of increasing communal tension and violence. Yet, the perpetrators of violence are not identified as the residents and insiders of Sindh but as mohajirs or ‘outsiders’, generally Muslim immigrants from Bihar and elsewhere in India. In fact, the Sindhi Hindus and Muslims shared a relatively friendly and peaceful relation with one another, though often somewhat feudal and exploitative.[viii] This intercommunal bond of belongingness and syncretism contributed immensely to the composite cultural milieu of Sindh—something which Sita harks back to continuously for a major portion of the novella. The memory of this shared past had become an inalienable part of Sita and her family’s identity, and this constituted their ‘homeland’. This homeland is what she and her family could never reclaim for themselves, at least physically.
As Rita Kothari observes, most Sindhi Hindu experiences of Partition came to be deliberately relegated to a marginal position in their own recollections as these men and women moved on in their lives, creating new identities for themselves and stepping into new professions—chiefly through their entrepreneurial abilities. For some others, it was like leaving a ‘well’ and coming into an ‘ocean’.[ix] However, Partition was not really a concluded event, and for women like Sita, it continued to haunt them through the rest of their lives. Sita’s father fell ill while in India and her family was in a troubled state. Without any roots in this alien land and among complete strangers, Sita had to forge new relationships with people around her, mostly women. It was Farkhunda, her sister Bilqis, and their friend Heema who met Sita as a refugee and made her a part of their lives. Sita struggled hard to find a place for herself and these women became an important support system for her. In Heema’s house Sita found that sense of peace, stability and security that she almost seemed to have lost from her life:
‘For her this house was still like a safe and quiet ship anchored in a harbour; every once in a while she came here to harmonise herself to its peace. Down there, beyond the long, serpentine, silent road, gently flowed the Jamuna: “Is so much peace really possible?” ’[x]
Incidentally, Bilqis and her cousins, whom Sita already knew before marrying Jamil, turn out to be her in-laws. They would be by Sita’s side and try providing her comfort at a time when her world is almost torn apart due to her separation with Jamil and her son, Rahul. When Jamil announces his decision to marry another woman without giving Sita a divorce, her in-laws could only empathize with her; one of her mothers-in-law tells her many times: ‘we stand ashamed before you’.
Even after several years of navigating her way through India and the USA, Sita continues her quest for a homeland and asks herself where her home lies. As Kavita Panjabi reminds us, ‘home’ and ‘homeland’ are two distinct entities: for even though the home keeps moving and can be set up where the person settles down, the homeland remains in some distant land of the past.[xi] Sita also demonstrates the psyche of a homeless person that Panjabi writes about: she is eager to go back and revisit the land where she was born and brought up, and yet, she is scared that things might not be the same there anymore, and is reluctant to visit her homeland. Thus, for Sita, and several other displaced Sindhi men and women like her:
What, then, in the now, can the sense of a homeland be that is no more a home? Had they dared to step out from memory land into the reality of Sindh, how would they have related to it? Even if their houses still existed [ . . . ] they did not have the same concrete, intimate referents of home, of their families, their possessions, their land. What, I wondered, could a homeland mean without a sense of actual territorial possession?[xii]
While travelling through Sindh in a car with one of her male acquaintances, Irfan, Sita notes with anguish: ‘Don’t you see that this is my land? My fields—my villages—my saints’ tombs?’[xiii]
This, she calls ‘Sindhudesh’. For Sita, the temples, the saints and deities, and every individual—living or dead—reminds her of that past which she can never possibly recover from the present. Although Irfan calls her ‘sentimental’, Sita believes that this is an experience not unique to her but to anyone revisiting their homeland after several years. She yearns to come back to this land even after death, as the Sindhu river carries the bodies of the dead back to their places of birth.
The memory of the lost homeland seems to haunt not only Sita but also her mother. Although the present circumstances have forced them to live in a small house at Karol Bagh, Delhi, the old lady keeps talking about and reminiscing the good old days in Sindh where they used to have a big house called ‘Daulat Mahal’, and several resources at their disposal (daulat in Urdu also meaning wealth). Although she is mocked by the more pragmatic of her relatives, clinging to the memory of a lost home and fantasizing about that past keeps her going. She fondly remembers the two-storeyed house, the marble floors, blue glass windows—things which she could claim as her own, and none of which she now possesses. In effect, Hyder’s novella portrays the entire post-colonial landscape itself as having been inflected with memory.[xiv]
The Sound of Falling Leaves: Search for the Lost Homeland Continues
Tanvir Fatima, the female protagonist and narrator of the story, continues Sita’s search for a home of her own. She tries attaching herself to numerous men of different age groups and hopes to secure a stable identity in each of her dealings. She feels alienated in the company of her girl batchmates in college and does not think of them as her friends. She prepares herself to travel anywhere and to go to any length to be with men whom she identifies as her own. Through several turbulent experiences and in the face of the growing threat of Partition violence, she moves to Lahore, leaving her father and her family back in Meerut in India where they have some property of their own. She posits all trust in a man called Faruq and ends up abandoning what was her own home to eventually be at a place which she could hardly call her own. Her life was almost that of a refugee. Fatima observes, ‘The change in my life was sudden and drastic; it left me stunned. I just couldn’t understand what had happened. One moment there had been my gay and abundant life in undivided India, the next I found myself in a dark and dingy house in the Lahore of ’48. Allah be praised! What terrible days these eyes have seen!’[xv]
Although she possessed enough useful professional skills that could help her find a respectable job in Pakistan, Fatima wondered whether all of that really meant anything now. She struggled hard to give meaning to her life in Lahore and looked eagerly forward to meeting Faruq. Another old lady, settled with her in Lahore, would fondly remember her good old days in India when she had enough wealth and prosperity, and would shudder thinking about the painful migration to Pakistan. All of that made little sense to Fatima. Her world seemed to revolve only around Faruq now and the last few ties that Faruq had retained with India. Fatima would often ask Faruq to get her sarees from select shops in Connaught Circus in Delhi, with which she could identify herself better and which reminded her of her own homeland back in India.
When finally she ends up marrying a man called Viqar Sahib, and moves in with him in his house, Fatima continues her struggle to reconcile with the new house and tries reasoning to herself that this is the only thing that she could now call her own home: ‘Now I stay busy in the house all day long. My looks are a forgotten tale. Though I hate parties and noisy affairs, my home constantly rocks with dance music. But now, this is the only home I have.’[xvi]
The ‘New Woman’ and Her Identity
Just after their marriage, Jamil describes Sita in a letter to his sister Bilqis, where he observes: ‘The trouble, little girl, is that you’re still an A-class old fogey. Despite all your fancy education and your progressive pretensions, you continue to be very feudal. Sita is a New Woman. She is not a rustic like the rest of you.’[xvii] Jamil identifies Sita as a ‘New Woman’. This implies a distinction between the women who are more liberal and forward-thinking, and women who are considered to be inward-looking and orthodox by their male counterparts. Although Sita keeps acquiring knowledge and travelling places—leading the life of a ‘progressive’ woman—this does not prove to be a very emancipatory experience for her. Her multiple interactions with different groups of men were the cause of much concern and scandal for people around her: her husband, Jamil, throws her out of his house suspecting her relationship with Qamar; and later even Bilqis, one of her female relatives, suspects her of having a romantic relationship with Irfan. In the world of men, Sita fails to understand what is counted as scandalous and what is considered normal.
The ‘New Woman’ is an elusive entity even for Fatima of The Sound of Falling Leaves. She has seen enough women gossiping about girls who were identified as having fallen to disgrace and as ‘loose’. They debate over the possible reasons why an educated and illustrious woman might become a ‘bad woman’ and bring dishonour to their families:
In our hostel, we’d often talk about them. ‘People have given them a bad name for no reason’: Sa’diya would say after a great deal of thought.
‘Of course. They can’t be that bad!’’
‘The fact of the matter is,’ Sarla would add,‘Our society is not prepared yet to accept modern, educated girls.’
‘Well, some girls tend to lose their sense of balance,’ Rehana would comment.
We just couldn’t believe that any girl, who looked just like us, could do such horrible things. (Emphasis added).[xviii]
In the Hindu-Right’s imagination, the ‘New Indian Woman’ is one who has digressed from the ‘traditional Indian values’—identifying with the rural hinterland, devotion to one’s husband and household—not someone who travels back from a movie theatre with a male friend. The argument continues that these were the kind of women who were the most likely to be raped, mutilated and subjected to dishonour in the wake of Partition, especially by men of the other community.[xix]
However, Sita and Fatima do not wish to abandon or break free from marital ties: they are not active flag bearers of feminism as one might like to think of them. Rather than revolting against the norms of marriage and male domination over their bodies, these women let themselves be beaten up, loved, scorned and abused by the men they love and from whom they cannot bear being separated. One of Sita’s primary concerns and driving force continues to be her quest to get her son, Rahul, back and she continues to nurture the hope of Jamil accepting her back. She readily accepts all blame and is willing to ask for Jamil’s forgiveness. The moment she falls in love with Jamil, she realizes that she is not an ‘encyclopedia’ but a ‘woman’. Her experiences would not let her distinguish between an intellectual and a non-intellectual. She does not think of herself as any different from the other women she has known in her life: ‘All girls make a play for men one way or another. Their modus operandi may differ, and silly folks like you may call it Love, but that doesn’t mean anything. The one goal—the one burning desire of every girl is to catch some fool and make him marry her. The rest is nonsense.’[xx]
At her house in Lahore, Fatima reflects upon the fact that it is marriage which provides ‘a roof over a girl’s head’. She fails to identify herself with girls who scorn this institution, and longs only for a happy married life and a home of her own. She had always dreamed of marrying some handsome prince, and could never reconcile with the fact that her life was to only be spent being a mistress to other men, and moving around from one place to another in search of security and peace. Everything else, including her education, seems inconsequential to her.
Thus, for Sita, Fatima and many other women in Hyder’s writings, the patriarchal social order is a crucial part of their lives and a reality that they cannot escape. Although they have not completely compromised with the ways of the world of men, they do feel the basic and essential need to secure a home and identity for themselves—the need for love, care, trust and belongingness. However, the catastrophic political partition and its long shadow displaces and disgraces them in ways that could not easily be reconciled with.
An exploration of Qurratulain Hyder’s women and their lives provides us important insight into the complex questions of women and their agency, Partition and the patriarchal social order.
Urvashi Butalia observed that although the feminist narrative often highlights women as only being at the receiving end of the indignities hurled at them by men and the challenges thrown by Partition, they have often been found actively colluding with the interests of men and their community.[xxi] This particular observation offers us a possible way to understand why Sita and Fatima behave in the way they do. They could not outright reject or shun patriarchal social institutions like marriage or the household but tried binding themselves more closely to these institutions. These were the sources of their stability, identity and also the markers of their home—something they had lost to Partition and something they yearned for in their lives.
While a lot of the discussion in popular media revolves around Sindhi women who have endured the pains of Partition and emerged as successful professionals, what lies hidden and remains less explored is perhaps stories of women like Sita Mirchandani, who could not reconcile with the fact of a lost homeland and spent her life searching for that homeland of her own.[xxii] Moving across places and professions does not offer her solace, and she searches for meaningful human relations that can keep her going. In this research, an attempt has been made to explore these experiences and understand why these women persisted in searching for their homeland even in the face of rising odds.
[i] Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 7. [ii] Qurratulain Hyder, A Season of Betrayals: A Short Story and Two Novellas (C. M. Naim trans.) (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1999), pp. viii–ix. [iii] Ritu Menon (ed.), No Woman's Land: Women from Pakistan, India & Bangladesh Write on the Partition of India (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2004); Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2014). [iv] Menon, No Woman’s Land, p. 3. [v] Butalia, The Other Side of Silence, pp.126–27. [vi] Rashné Limki, ‘Representing Subjugation: Or, the Figure of the Woman in Partition History,’ Social Identities 26 ( 6) (2020): 774–790, here pp. 785–86.
[vii] Hyder, A Season of Betrayals, pp. x–xi. [viii] Rita Kothari (ed.), Unbordered Memories: Sindhi Stories of Partition (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2018), p. 15. [ix] Urvashi Butalia ( ed.), Partition: The Long Shadow (London: Penguin Books, 2015), p. 52. [x] Hyder, A Season of Betrayals, p.30.
[xiii] Hyder, A Season of Betrayals, p. 58.
[xiv] Mitra, ‘States of Affect: Trauma in Partition/post-partition South Asia,’ English-Doctor of Philosophy (2015); p. 99–100. [xv] Hyder, A Season of Betrayals, p. 12. [xvi] Hyder, A Season of Betrayals, p. 40. [xvii] Hyder, A Season of Betrayals, p. 25. [xviii] Hyder, A Season of Betrayals, p.7. [xix] Deepti Misri, Beyond Partition: Gender, Violence and Representation in Postcolonial India(Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014), p. 1.
[xx] Hyder, A Season of Betrayals, p. 75.
[xxi] Urvashi Butalia, ‘Community, State and Gender: On Women's Agency during Partition’ Economic and Political Weekly 28 (17) (1993), WS12–WS24. [xxii] Saaz Aggarwal, ‘After Partition, Sindhis Turned Displacement Into Determination and Enterprise’, The Wire (11 August 2017) (available at: https://bit.ly/38ZrzU8; last accessed on: 11 September 2021); Saaz Aggarwal, ‘Freedom fighters and ticket checkers: The trail-blazing women of pre-Partition Sindh’, Scroll.In (20 September 2018) (available at: https://scroll.in/magazine/888565/freedom-fighters-and-ticket-checkers-women-in-pre-partition-sindh-blazed-their-own-trail ; last accessed on: 11 September 2021).
Classroom Activity Ideas
A major theme running through Qurratulain Hyder's writings and her portrayal of women characters is the memory of a homeland, and the search for a lost identity of one's own. For example, Sita Mirchandani of Sita Betrayed is constantly troubled by the fact that the ‘Sindhudesh’ which was once her very own, no longer belongs to her. She cherishes the memory of her past possessions, much like her mother and many other women in the novella. So is the case with Fatima of The Sound of Falling Leaves. There are other authors, like Jhumpa Lahiri, who have portrayed and explored this theme of memory and longing for a lost homeland among displaced women in their works of fiction. In 'A Real Durwan', Jhumpa Lahiri writes about an old lady's cherishing of her past possessions in East Bengal, amid all the hardships that the present partitioned landscape of Bengal has placed her. Similarly, there are several collections documenting real life experiences of displaced women.
Aside from Hyder’s works and the Jhumpa Lahiri text mentioned, students are encouraged to explore other works related to women’s experiences of partition (a short list of suggestions is given below). Groups of students can each take up one such text of their choice and attempt to write/present a literary review OR make an illustration board, focusing on questions such as i) how the author has dealt with the subject of Partition ii) how the identity and experiences of the women characters in the chosen text are coloured by Partition.
i) Sadat Hasan Manto's short story 'The Girl from Delhi', translated into English by Khalid Hasan, in Khushwant Singh's edited volume, City Improbable: Writings on Delhi. (Penguin Books, 2014).
ii) Urvashi Butalia's The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (Penguin Books, 2014).
iii) Ritu Menon's edited volume No Woman's Land: Women from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh Write on the Partition of India (Kali for Women, 2017).
iv) Marina Wheeler's The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab (Hodder & Stoughton, 2020).
The teacher can divide the classroom into two groups. One group of students can start talking to men and women in their family, neighbourhood or someone in their acquaintance who belongs to a Sindhi family that migrated from Sindh during Partition. The other group can talk to people who continued to stay back in Sindh or who had to accommodate Sindhi neighbours in India. A set of questions should be designed to gather the experiences and memories of these groups of peoples, and how they remember the event of Partition in their own lives.
Qurratulain Hyder's Sita Betrayed speaks of a culturally composite past in pre-Partition Sindh, that Sita remembers. For example, in the following excerpt from Sita Betrayed, while describing life and times in pre-Partition Sindh, Sita says:
Well, just as the Hindus have a god or goddess for everything, so the Muslims of Sindh have Pirs. They have Pirs for songs, Pirs for clay pots, Pirs for cradles—the entire Sindh region is a land of Pirs. Did you know that all the snake charmers were Muslims, but were also Shaivite Yogis and also followed Gorakhnath? The month of Ramadan was also sacred for the Hindus; and the Hindus used to make offerings before the ta'zias of Muharram.
Does that feature in the memories and oral narratives of these groups of peoples as well?
How did the communities in India who took up Sindhi migrants as their guests or as neighbours perceive the latter, and how did these interpersonal relations work out in post-Partition India?
The Sound of Falling Leaves illustrates the experiences of partition and displacement of an affluent woman from an economically well-off background. Fatima is not only the daughter of a well-to-do individual but she also possesses the necessary educational qualifications to help her find a suitable job and support herself. Despite that, her life does not seem to be going in a way that she would have wanted. Fatima constantly reflects upon her past and finds it difficult to navigate through the present circumstances. Compare and contrast this with the experiences of other women who may have come from some other socio-economic backgrounds, and how they responded to the dilemmas and challenges of the head and the heart in the face of partition. Is there some kind of relation between the socio-economic background from which a woman comes and her experiences of partition? Are there some crucial intersections across class and caste affiliations?
Why do you think it is difficult to recover the voices of women from partition narratives, and oral histories? Try speaking to women in your family and ask them about their experiences of partition. What are the objects or memories that they hold dear, and which they might have carried with themselves or left back in their homeland? Try to explore how partition might have altered their lives. Compare your observations and findings with that of your other classmates, and attempt to collectively and creatively build a museum-space/audio archive, etc. with these narratives.
1. Qurratulain Hyder, A Season of Betrayals: A Short Story and Two Novellas (C. M. Naim trans.), (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1999), p. 62.
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