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An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao: Another Harvest Savaged!

July 24, 2016

The last time I stumbled upon one such unsettling experience – it also opened to me an unknown side of the author MS Sarna – as I journeyed through canvasses of the vivid and moving stories he painted. But it was too late to pose some existential questions arising from his creations.

Shobha Rao’s book launch in faraway Seattle coincided with my holiday there. Yet another set of partition account? As I headed to The Elliot Bay Book Company where Shobha was reading her short stories titled An Unrestored Woman, I conjured some form of detached and benign fiction. My mental construct said she was too young to be authentic. Moreover, given her origins from nowhere near the epicenter of the un-great divide and living in the U.S. of A – this could only be a harmless though creative concoction!

Such is the intensity and immensity of the consequences of the line Mr Radcliffe drew across the subcontinent that it continues to pollinate the imaginations of distant generations in faraway geographies even today. And Shobha for sure is one such recipient who chose to deal with this historical aberration in her uniquely creative style. The bonus this time – I could speak to the author after the book reading and can seek answers if and when there are more questions.

The transfer of populations between India and Pakistan is considered the largest peacetime migration in all of human history. It is believed, says the author in her introduction, that eight to ten million people were displaced from their homes and villages, with primarily Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs seeking refuge in what they hoped would be the relative safety of the religious majority. This mass movement of people incited numerous acts of violence on both sides, with nearly a million people killed in the migratory effort.

As with a majority of conflicts, says Shobha, women and children during the Partition were often the most vulnerable. Her key focus is on the specific brutalities inflicted on women including kidnappings. She cites official estimates that 50,000 Muslim women in India and 33,000 Hindu and Sikh women in Pakistan were abducted. Many of these were forcibly returned to families who, in some instances, no longer wanted them, considering them impure. Though the commonly used term for these women is recovered women, she chooses to refer to them as restored. The distinction may seem trivial, she says, but it is necessary, for I believe that while recovery of a person is possible, the restoration of a human being to her original state is not.

While she did interview a lot of survivors who went through the partition upheavals – Shobha says she then distanced herself from the real stories and let her imagination takeover. Read her stories and you can sense shades of aftermath of a war, holocaust, full of depravity, bestiality, siege, revenge, greed and deviant behaviour – be it the cause of what followed or caused by what followed? Relationships were tested, cracking the fragile ones and brought out of the blue some into a blossom. Kavitha and Mustafa perhaps is the most priceless of the stories.

The circumstances that unfold on the train ride suddenly witness the marriage of Kavitha and Vinod outlive its utility. Kavitha finds herself supporting little Mustafa’s cause who must cross into the Indian border and be ferried across to East Pakistan. The social fabric that held together its diverse constituents – suddenly gave way to a communal frenzy but there was always some hope. Kavitha’s fondness for Mustafa was surely one.

Shobha herself is a brilliant representation of how the Partition continues to influence a generation removed both by time and geography. In Curfew, she too very sensitively captures the remote melancholia of Safia who moves from Lahore to the UK as a small child. She seems to be forever running from or for something. As she says “We leave the places we’re born, the places we’re meant to die, and we wander into the world as defenceless as children. Against such wilderness, such desert.”

Farther in the United States Meena runs into erstwhile Police Officer Jenkins from Rawalpindi under strange circumstances leading to stranger outcome. Or Renu who turns from a housemaid to The Merchant’s Mistress and eventually fakes her way to South Africa disguised as the merchant! So it’s not just Safia alone, everyone’s running away from something that’s got something to do with Partition. It’s not always a flight. And Shobha brings out how women who suffer the most from civilisational upheavals can fight too.

A tonsured Neela ended up in CAMP FOR REFUGEES AND UNRESTORED WOMEN. District 15, East Punjab because her husband Babu was supposedly dead. Reunited yet again, Neela however decides to end her life. A tragic but heroic one. Some very moving words embellish this “The branches reached down and just as she closed her eyes they gathered her up onto their shoulders and held her as she had always dreamed of being held. As she would never be held again.”

Abheet Singh’s widow to Jenkins “Yes, I know”, she interrupted in Urdu. “ You want to express some condolence, some sadness. Isn’t that so?” and later, “Cruelty’s a strange thing,” she said after a long moment. “It gets so you actually miss it.” The exploitations of Bandra and how Zubaida pays back in Blindfold. The brave mother who chose not to leave her Noora behind because the law said no child of a Muslim father was to be allowed, in The Lost Ribbon. In The Opposite of Sex, the manipulative Mohan changes the boundary demarcation between India and East Pakistan to win over Lalita. A dramatic end follows but Lalita holds her ground. Another brilliant story in the form of Such A Mighty River is also set on the Eastern front.

While the stories leave you very uneasy, that’s the price one must pay to experience the tumultuous times many of us were not physically present in. The creator’s imagination, creativity and research are a fine attempt to simulate the ground reality as it unfolded back then. Thanks to her story telling, readers get their fair share of pathos, fear, anxiety, despair and all kinds of unsettled feelings. You are bound to be transformed to the gloomy and tragic past of our recent history.

Shobha duly credits sources of her inspiration, yet the craft is distinctly hers. What stands out is her graphic portrayal of the price women end up paying again and again in moments such as these and bear the brunt.Ms Rao would certainly make a great role model to aspiring authors in ensuring all such struggles find their due place in modern literature.

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