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What Can We Learn From The Legacies of 1947: The Silencing Of Trauma - Sarah Nabi

August 13th, 1947

Pre-Partition India

The sun beat down relentlessly, another humid and dusty day of Ludhiana sunshine. The muffled hollering of angry men in the distance could be heard. Inayat rolled over, groggily, trying to ward off the headache she felt approaching. Her mother had suggested she go and lie down-this heat was too much for anyone to bear, especially a young woman in the early stages of her pregnancy. Yet she was finding it hard to settle. The day was laced with a strange air of expectation, as thick as the heat that came with it. There had been announcements of a separate nation state for Muslims for quite some time now-although no one seemed to have any real answers as to how this would happen. A rather comical vision of well-to-do Angrez men, sweating and lobster red from the heat, popped into her head. She pictured them bustling around a map of the Subcontinent and arguing about the best way to divide it, with Mr Jinnah watching disapprovingly in the background.

There had also been reports of Hindu mobs roaming around, finding Muslim households in the area to terrorise…and worse. But surely that wouldn’t happen here? The idea of having to uproot the whole family from all they’d known simply because of the fantasies of a few politicians seemed both silly and unfair. At this present moment in time, the headache that refused to abate seemed of more pressing concern. Sighing deeply, she pressed her hands to her forehead.

“Inayat!” she heard her mother calling from the next room. Perhaps she needs my help with something, she thought, rising to her feet. Her mother burst into the room, dupatta askew.

“What’s wrong?” Inayat asked. She’d never seen her mother look so distressed before.

“Your grandad got word from a Hindu neighbour that an attack is being planned on our house-we need to leave tonight. We have family in Sialkot, we’ll be safe there. Grab the jewellery, hide it. The girls are using coal-you need to make yourself look old and ugly. Quick, we haven’t got time to waste.” She explained hurriedly, all the while ransacking Inayat’s wardrobe. “Put this on as well, you don’t want to draw any attention to yourself” With that she left, muttering anxiously to herself. Inayat picked up the garment her mother had flung out, letting the cool material run through her fingers. Outside, the muffled cries of the men continued to ring out, only now they had taken on a more menacing quality. She swallowed down the lump that had formed in her throat, trying to ignore the blood that was banging in her head now, reaching a crescendo. So, this was it then. It was really happening.

Inayat was my grandmother. Over the next week or so, she would bear witness to the bloodshed that erupted during the 1947 Partition of the Indian Subcontinent. She would experience the constant fear that she could be abducted or raped at any moment, the death of her grandfather during the journey to Pakistan and suffer a miscarriage.

As both Pakistan and India celebrate their 73rd anniversary from British rule, I’m left wondering about what the legacy of Partition means for British Asians. The thing that struck me was the trauma experienced by many of our grandparents-trauma that isn’t commonly discussed. We often talk about Partition as a celebration of victory, an escape from British colonialism-and each other. However, the cost of this victory isn’t analysed-it’s often ignored.


On a political level, Partition was regarded as a moment of insanity from which the people had recovered, and the focus was put on the triumph of independence. But where does this leave the individuals affected and the subsequent generations?

Intergenerational trauma refers to trauma that is passed down through families, triggered by an event. This then has an impact on how individuals in the family process and cope with trauma. “One important thing to understand is that Partition was not one event, but thousands of events that we speak of as if they were a single ‘thing’,” Dr Taylor Sherman, an expert in Modern South Asian History at LSE, tells me. “Although there were shared experiences, it would be hard to identify one or more particular effects that Partition definitively had on everyone, as gender, class, caste and locality affected the level of violence experienced and perpetrated”.


On a societal level the aftermath of Partition was characterised by silence, as the anthropologist Veena Das points out-in which “any spontaneous reference to atrocities done, witnessed or suffered during Partition was not allowed to surface.”. We can see the same silence present in our culture when it comes to taboo topics, such as mental health and abuse. Could the silence surrounding Partition be a by-product of this, especially when it came to the treatment of women?


“I would say those taboos pre-dated Partition,” Dr Sherman agrees. “The way people speak about mental health and sexual assault has changed a great deal. In the same period, women’s movements have gained prominence. These two wider social trends have inspired historians – many of them women – to look again at Partition. As they have done so, they have uncovered not only the experiences of Partition, but examined the norms that long kept people from revealing those experiences.”


This notion of silence is still ever-present. It demands we keep our mouths shut about anything that might put our families’ reputations at stake. Topics such as mental health, abuse, sex and sexuality are brushed quietly under the rug and left to gather dust. Brave individuals who try to subvert these norms are put back in their place. This silence is glaringly obvious when you’ve grown up straddling both British and South Asian culture. It often causes an internal conflict-does wanting to break these negative cultural norms mean I hate my heritage? This is how our parents’ generation thinks but as with most things it isn’t as black and white as that. Tradition isn’t always a positive thing.


So where do we go from here? In the short period of time I’ve spent researching for this article and dwelling on my own personal history, it seems there are no clear-cut answers. By writing this article, I hoped to pay respect to my heritage whilst at the same time try to figure out how to heal from negative cultural norms. I believe speaking openly is the most important thing we can do. If we don’t talk about certain topics, such as the Partition, we give them power over us. By breaking the cycle of shame and silence, we can learn to heal from these hardships and shape a better future for the next generation.

Born and raised in Bristol, Sarah has always had a passion for writing. After graduating with a 2:1 in English Language from Cardiff University, she is now pursuing a career where she can put this passion to good use. Drawing on her experiences as a woman of colour, she hopes to bring awareness to social issues such as intersectional feminism, racism, environmentalism and mental health. In her spare time she can be found chilling with a good book in one hand and a cuppa in another.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sarah-nabi-75abab195/

Personal Blog: https://diaryofabrowngal.wordpress.com/blog-2/

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