The story of women in India’s partition is often that of an event frozen in time, recalled only in mental images of violence and violation; in stories of women who were either killed or “heroically” took their own lives in the face of threat to protect their honour. One must ask though, whether these deaths were less about heroism and honour and more about self preservation from the relational trauma that would follow the corporeal trauma.

Veena Das’s book ‘Life and Words’ voices stories of women who lived through the partition and relived their trauma through everyday interactions that held them accountable for the violence inflicted upon them. Below are two stories of individuals in whose lives the political event of the partition became deeply personal due to their identity location as women situated in an event in time that reeked of hypermasculinity and patriarchy. 

Women’s agency in witnessing trauma

The first story is about Asha who was widowed at 20 but continued to live with her conjugal family. After the partition, her conjugal family scattered across different parts of India while Asha was compelled to live with her parents. She was made to feel like a burden by her brother and his wife which compelled her to move back with her conjugal family. While she saw this as “making peace with her fate”, this peace was not one of passive acceptance of her circumstances, but rather one of an active embodiment of her “widowness” as the only acceptable identity location that she can occupy. The love and support she got from her families before the partition was shattered by the decline in finances and replaced by a constant scapegoating of Asha. For Asha, the partition was not just about violence and displacement but also about the interpersonal violence and betrayal in trusted relationships that followed. The trauma from the partition did not just exist in the past but in the ‘past continuous’, constantly showing up in everyday relationships where there used to be love and support, pre-partition. 

Eventually, Asha remarried but continued to maintain cordial relations with her conjugal family. This cordiality between Asha and her sisters-in-law is hinged on their positions as witnesses of a traumatic event that tore their family apart. Although they remind each other of that lived experience, they make the remarkable choice to continue to maintain a relationship with each other and in doing so, choose to remain witness to their shared trauma. There is a complex and exemplary agency in choosing to “occupy the very signs of injury and give them a meaning not only through acts of narration but through the work of repairing relationships”.

The power of time and patience

The second story is that of Manjit who alludes to having sexual violence inflicted upon during the partition. The man she is married to presumed that she has been “spoiled” and mistreated her and their son. Manjit silently enabled her son to get an education against her father’s wishes. She patiently resisted her husband’s attempts to decide her son’s future in terms of where he works and who he marries. When his son got married, Manjit’s husband physically abused his wife as well. Manjit once again enabled her son and his wife to subvert the norm and move away from their family home. Years later, when her husband grew old and frail, Manjit’s son and his wife moved back in with them. Manjit enjoyed the presence of her children and grandchildren in the home while her husband faded away alone in his room; his physical needs were addressed but no one ever spoke to him.

While one might see Manjit’s stance as one of passive acceptance of her circumstances while her husband outwardly appears to be aggressive and powerful, Veena Das suggests that Manjit seized opportunities in time from within her role as a dutiful and patient wife to actually author her own story; a power that even the most powerful members of her life seemed to lack.

As a mental health practitioner, there are moments in my practice when I feel caged in the careful confines of patriarchy, wondering what my work is worth, if the people I am working with have been stripped of their agency to choose for themselves because of the power structures within which they are located. However, what I have been supported to consider (through these stories and through supervision) is that perhaps my own limited understanding of what agency and power should look like is what is making me feel caged. To see that Asha’s choice to bear witness to trauma is an act of resistance and that there is agency in Manjit’s seemingly passive and patient subversion of the norm has really pushed against the boundaries of my privileged understanding of what agency looks like. These stories have filled me with hope, that our choice to bear witness to trauma as therapist and client is an act of resistance in itself; that the walls within which my understanding of agency and power are held are the same walls within which my clients are constantly showing me that they are here to author their own stories.  

This post is written by our Therapist Aishwarya

Read Part I here & Part III here