In the twilight of the Raj, for some, love was in the air and knew no boundaries. In a poor rural community in colonial Punjab, a well-off Muslim man fell in love with a beautiful Hindu widow who had a daughter and some very nice tracts of land. They all moved in together and lived unhappily ever after. The local Hindu peasants watched in growing revulsion (in an ever-worsening atmosphere of mutual suspicion, hostility and the abduction of Hindu women) when he also got engaged to the daughter.
The keeper of the local Hindu conscience, the respected Bhagat Phool Singh, could not let such behaviour go unchecked, and he tirelessly spoke out against the liaisons. What followed makes Romeo and Juliet look like a tea party. The women were murdered with farm implements, their heads severed and thrown down a well; the Muslim lover was also killed. In retribution, Bhagat Phool was shot dead. And so it went on. Then came Partition in 1947, and the communal bloodbath was fully unleashed.
Historian Nonica Datta's wonderful book rescues this history through the memories of Bhagat Phool's daughter, Subhashini. She was a young woman at the time of these terrible events, struggling with the burden of her father's expectation that she - despite being a low-caste Hindu woman - would devote her life to educating poor girls hitherto denied such opportunities. Although deeply traumatised by events, significantly her father's murder in 1942, Subhashini spent the rest of her life rescuing vulnerable and abused girls.
Today - in the wake of the 2007 electoral victory in Uttar Pradesh by a party led by a Dalit, Mayawati Kumari, which marks previously unimaginable political success for low-caste women - this book is a timely insight into how such women triumph within a patriarchy that too often devours them. Indeed, what initially inspired Datta was rescuing a story of one of the "invisible... anonymous.... toiling poor" whose "extraordinary lives rarely get written about", through a single oral testimony.
This is a humbling read. Rarely is historical biography as authentic, intimate and honest. Datta sets out the history of this region with clarity and charm. But the coup de maitre is her painstaking effort to record and craft as history Subhashini's testimony.
Spending months with her towards the end of her life, Datta gently questioned her, switching off the microphone when instructed, learning how to interpret her silences. She then painstakingly translated the broken narratives from a mixture of Haryanavi-Hindi-Sanskrit into English, keeping elements of the vernacular intact, while inventing ways to incorporate her gestures, expressions, emphases and evasions.
Such dedication paid off. We, too, sit with Subhashini, her anger and her stories. What they reveal is complex, upsetting but honest. Anyone working on the end of empire, violence, gender and memory will find this a rewarding read. The mental anguish of a victim of violence - its witness and then its guilty partner - comes through strongly. Subhashini revisits the murders searching in vain for closure and redemption, like a dog chasing its tail. Datta draws out from her a remarkable candour about the horrors visited on Muslims during Partition: "Our Jats killed small children... they cut off their legs right from the middle... How women were molested? Their breasts were cut and thrown away. How can I describe those ghastly scenes? Don't hear all this. Nor tell. Na suno, na sunao. There was no end to atrocity. God forbid anybody should witness such scenes."
Not surprisingly, her beatification of her father and her recollections of equally horrific violence by Muslim men helped Subhashini cope with such memories. Her everyday experience of hardship, sacrifice and the brutality within patriarchy was itself difficult enough to survive, as Datta helps her unveil. What a bloody mess. But beautifully handled.
Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter's Testimony
By Nonica Datta
Oxford University Press
Published 12 March 2009