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

“If we had a keen vision of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” George Eliot in Middlemarch.

History is made by everyone and recorded by the powerful. The silence of the poor, the weak, the illiterate – mainly women – is seldom noticed. Urvashi Butalia, an Indian feminist, writer and publisher, grew up in a family whose life was shaped by the Partition. The roar was suppressed but still there.

This 1947 event which divided India into India, supposedly a Hindu nation and into Muslim West Pakistan and East Pakistan, that later became Bangladesh. Ten million people crossed the border which divided Punjab into two countries. It is now widely accepted that about one million people died in this transport across invisible lines. It was a violent and bloody birth for new nations, based on religious differences; the messages of peace and love of all religions were lost in the frenzy of upheaval, movement and loss. The author says this data, including the widespread abduction and rape of women, is “the generality of Partition: it exists in history books.”

It even exists in travel guides. When I crossed the border from India to Pakistan, at the only open point, between Amritsar and Lahore, more than fifty years later, I choose not to go by train; our guide book described refugees fleeing for safety during partition using this train. When the trains arrived and doors were opened blood and bodies poured out. We walked across the border.

“…The truth is that this experience has been with us for a long time. Do you think these tapes will make any difference to the next set of rules?” These are the doubting word of one of the villagers the author interviewed for this book and they stay with her throughout; her doubt is infectious, I ask the same question.

She wrote the book with the hope, I think, that she, like all of us, can make a difference and affect the powerful: that the truth can make a difference. She wanted to record the private stories that only families know; the secrets that women had not broadcast, but held within them, scars on their souls. The author knew some stories but they seemed remote to her until in 1984 Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh security guards, again an orgy of terror and killing swept India and Partition did not seem so remote anymore. She has to acknowledge that Partition is still alive and present. In her efforts to understand and reveal the experience and meaning of Partition, Butalia searched for stories beyond written history. She went to the survivors, the families of survivors, to the stories passed down to find the other side of silence.

The stories, recorded verbatim, are heart rending. Honour is such a strong concept in this culture, that fathers and male relatives killed women and girls so they would not be raped by marauding men from the other religions. Women jumped down wells, some survived and live with memories of those who did not survive. Homes were burned, people abandoned villages, hospitals had no staff, and there was no one to bury the dead. Raped women were stigmatized when they bore the children of rapists. All this happened. And yet people did not really know what was happening; Butalia tries to set these stories in a context of known history and searches to explain why neighbours, friends and relatives will murder, rape and injure one another. The personal trauma remains fresh.

“We did wonder what was happening but we had little understanding of it. It was the big people who seemed to know what was happening.” said one person she interviewed. Most blamed people of other religions; some blamed their leaders or the English.

So will this book help to end hatred and fear? Will it help us disclose our deepest feelings about ‘the other’ and understand how we can all so easy turn against those with whom we share life and feeling? Why do aggressors become aggressors? Why do victims become aggressors? To be a victim is to justify one’s own violence? Is that the universal truth of all wars? She creates many questions, examines her doubts and yet continued in her recording. Words are all that many of us have to verify our experience.

The author is a feminist with a deep awareness of the official disregard for women’s lives and self–regard; she understands the marginalization of women’s experience, so she listened and tried to understand them, to place them in the history of their time and location, along side of official history.

She says that, “Although my book is not ‘only’ about women, I have come to the conclusion that, women, their histories, and where those histories lead us, lie at the core of it.” Many would not speak, or would not speak of the worst of horrors, silence takes many forms. Butalia writes about her work, “I believe this can only take us further forward in our understanding.”

It helps to know and read her stories of those who refused to be consumed by hatred, those who helped their friends and neighbours and who refused to commit acts of horror. These stories are part of the whole and yet, I still wonder, why can some people, everywhere, refuse to engage in horror and why will some embrace brutality with self–righteous relish?

Filed under Book Reviews, Urvashi Butalia