khamosh pani: a partition story
I recently attended ‘Decolonising Partition’, a day-long symposium organised by Consented to mark the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India and Pakistan (and present-day Bangladesh, initially East Pakistan). As is most often the case with representations of, and discourse on, Partition the issue of intimate violence was never too far from thought and speech. Being at the event reminded me of my first ‘real’ encounter with these stories – through Urvashi Butalia’s seminal text, The other side of silence.
There is no way to describe what it is, as a young Indian woman, to face the violence of Partition, not in the abstract but in its full flesh-and-bloodness. Butalia’s work is necessary, even if harrowing, initiation into the meanings of Partition. Another crucial piece I find myself often returning to is the film Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters). Like many Partition films, the themes of love and loss lie at the heart of the story. But, unlike most that focus on romantic love between Hindu and Muslim, this focuses on the love – more precisely, the impossibility of love – between a son and his mother, one that is structured by the layered loss of ‘home’ wrought by Partition.
In popular discourse, the meanings assigned to ‘home’ are fundamentally gendered, so that it is recognized as a site of political contention as the locus of patriarchal power. However, home as the site for the formation of intimate subjectivities through configurations of love, violence, and loss, is feminized and thus necessarily de-politicized. Yet, in the case of violence within the space of the ‘home’, it is precisely this intimacy that becomes targeted to effect violation and loss. Intimacy itself becomes an instrument of political violence. This is starkly evident in the unfolding of Partition violence.
Gendered conceptions of home are highly pervasive in Partition discourse, where intimate narrations of home are excluded from the process of signification that has cast Partition as a universal signifier of nation and nationalism, thereby reproducing the depoliticization of the feminized dimension of home. Yet, for numerous women in Partition, home was the site of unspeakable acts of political violence – of fathers and brothers killing women in their families; and of hundreds of women committing mass suicide. These acts of intimate violence were performed in familiar places – in the houses of family and friends, at the village temple, at the local well. But Partition discourse about home – especially about homes lost – rarely touches upon this intimate violence, focusing instead on the more politically potent idea of a ‘homeland.’ This is, the only way in which intimate violence can be spoken of, indeed valorized – if it is attached to a larger social formation. Thus, for instance, intimate violence becomes explained as the sacrifice or ‘martyrdom’ enacted by women in protecting the honour of their family, faith and nation. This valorisation of the martyred woman, and the consequent (re-)domestication of home within the context intimate violence is made possible, however, against the spectral figure of the abducted woman.
In the context of Partition, the abducted woman represents a failure – not only her own, but also that of the patriarchal subject, i.e. the father, brother, uncles – in preserving the proper social order. By extension, then, she also represents the failure of the nation. Consequently, the abducted woman – referred to in Partition discourse as “disappeared” – is (re-)disappeared by Partition discourse itself. This re-disappearance is possible, however, only because of the depoliticization of the intimate. Yet, suspended within both, the material and subjective crisis produced by Partition, the abducted woman exists in constant confrontation with imminent subjective denial and the material loss of home. This contingent existence is demonstrated in terrifyingly violent ways in Khamosh Pani.
Khamosh Pani introduces us to Ayesha, a single mother living with her teenage son in a small village in Pakistan. The film develops Ayesha’s sense of home by displaying her mutual relationships of love and recognition with her son – her only apparent kin – as well as with other villagers; moreover, the film moves through her house and her village, spatiotemporally marking them through the development of her intimate subjectivity, through for instance, pictures and memories of her deceased husband, and the continuum of her interactions at the village market. The contingency of Ayesha’s seemingly stable, un-ruptured existence, however, is revealed through the spectre of the village well.
We are initially informed that Ayesha refuses to draw her own water from the well, preferring instead to have her neighbour deliver it to her house each day. For those familiar with the history of Partition, this detail, offered only in passing, bears grave significance for it forebodes the terrifying reality of Ayesha’s existence. This foreboding is later intensified through images of Ayesha’s memories – of young feet and laughing voices playing around a well. The narrative thread of these memories is developed in conjunction with the changing realities in Ayesha’s exterior life – with her son being swept up in a national movement towards extremist Islamic ideology, and the arrival of a group of Sikh pilgrims to her village. These events cause an unravelling of Ayesha’s subjective experience of home. The arrival of the Sikh men, one of whom is searching for his lost sister, provides the background for the deterioration of her relationship with her son, who begins to question his mother’s Muslim-ness, as well as the breaking off of ties between Ayesha and her closest friend, who wishes no longer to be seen with her. And the playing, laughing feet of her memories, become screaming, escaping ones.
The Sikh man looking for his lost sister is indeed the brother of Ayesha – Ayesha who once, before Partition, was Veero. The terrified feet in Ayesha’s memory, are Veero’s, escaping her father’s demands for martyrdom at the site of the village well. Her son is the one she bore with her abductor. Her deceased husband is that abductor.
Insofar as ‘home’ is bound to structures of feeling, it is the anchored in desire. From a Lacanian perspective, desire is configured in its narcissistic form – it is the desire of the subject to be whole, directed at an object that holds the promise of fulfilling this desire. This description of desire may be seen to emerge from the primordial Oedipal moment wherein the child desires its Mother as that thing that holds the potential to fill-in the lack experienced by it. Of course, the child’s desire for the Mother is frustrated by the prohibitive Law of the Father. Lacan writes this moment of prohibition, and the consequent frustration of desire, as that which provokes the primordial transition from Nature to Culture, i.e. the moment at which a subject emerges. The subject, then, is always already a desiring, unfulfilled and incomplete being. Yet, a partial fulfilment of this desire is achievable through the performance of intersubjective recognition. Thus, home, as a structure of feeling, is produced through a dialectic of desire and recognition.
Before Partition, Veero was tied to her village as home through the bonds of love and recognition developed through her biological family; now, that same village is, or was, home to Ayesha, developed through the bonds of recognition with her husband and her son. For Veero, the place of the well represents a subjective denial, or death. For, I would suggest that the moment at which Veero was asked to jump into the well, was also that at which her desire, her demand for ‘home,’ was denied. Moreover, when Veero’s desire for recognition was answered by a summons of death, it replaced her name – Veero, that which defined her as the subject-object of love and belonging – with ‘woman’ – a mere signifier and the object of Law. In running away, then, Veero refused a choice between corporeal death and subjective death, hoping perhaps to be ‘re-found.’
Indeed, the only moment at which the film offers a glimpse of Veero/Ayesha’s abductor/husband is when he offers to marry her, for this pivotal gesture is constitutive of a moment of recognition that re-confers upon her a subjective existence, from which emerges the re-figuration of her old village as her new home. The well however remains a place of death, and thus, out of bounds. However, as Ayesha’s contingent existent approaches its limit, she is coerced back to the well due to the refusal of her friend to deliver water. Here she encounters her brother, who informs her that her ailing father wishes to see her before her dies. Refusing to return, however, Ayesha reminds him of what happened the last time they were at the scene of the well. “So many years since you’ve been happy after killing me. But I was alive. I made my own life without you all. Now this is my life, and this is my home. Now go, and leave me alone as I am.”
The reality however is that the re-surfacing of her brother, unearthed the threatening spectre of Veero, destabilizing Ayesha’s contingent existence. The loss of love and recognition from her son and her best friend, and potentially from the rest of the village meant that for Ayesha the loss of home once again loomed before her. This time, however, Ayesha invited death to descend upon her, for the silent waters that had so long held her secret to finally engulf her. And so, Ayesha rejoins Veero, as a stark white figure set against a dark night takes that leap into the well – a leap that had merely been postponed but whose possibility had never been foreclosed.
The interplay of love and loss in Partition narrative highlights the fundamentally political nature of home. Indeed, the intimate, affective, femininized dimension of home is always already vulnerable to the violence of the political, and hence must be recognized as such. For, as the suicidal act of Ayesha/Veero insists, the realm of the intimate home is never beyond the purview of the political.