Portrayal of Post Independence and Partition Struggle through Indian English Literature


The soul cum quintessence of patriotism is alive and flexing intensely in the hearts of millions of proud Indians. The 75th year of independence that is widely evident in a new India with a breed of youngsters, pragmatic and sensible representatives who are looking for new horizons to touch upon, need to realize and remember always how the country broke age old shackles of colonialism, got freedom and came out of post independence’ tear-jerking and heart-rendering traumatic experiences of horrendous partition where every person of the country was angst-ridden directly or indirectly. The independence got after almost two hundred years heaved under the yoke of British colonial rule has been documented in the historical chronicles but with mere facts and details of the deaths happened due to massacres and number of people who crossed the borders. Therefore it was literature only and literary writers such as Khushwant Singh, Ismat Chugtai, Amrita Pritam, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sardar Singh Duggal, Bhishma Sahani and many more who described gut-wrenching scenes of devastating partition in their works and portrayed how humanity tattered into pieces and survived during hard times with a ray of hope for better future. This paper is an attempt to explore how Indian English Literature proved to be a canvas for the portrayal of struggle during partition time and till date, leaving imprints on upcoming generations via reading of outstanding literary texts to value the freedom got by ancestors’ efforts invoking nationalistic feelings inside for country’s all-inclusive growth.

Keywords: Independence; nationalism; partition; traumatic; canvas; literature; humanity.

Portrayal of Post Independence and Partition Struggle through Indian English Literature

Indian Writings in English is a product of historical confront between two cultures including Indian and Western Culture. It refers to the body of the works by authors in India who write in English and whose native or co-native language could be one of the numerous languages of India (Wikipedia). Moreover Indian English Literature is defined as “literature written originally in English by authors, Indian by birth, ancestry or nationality” (Naik).

Indian Literature in English deals with Indian subjects and backgrounds/ settings that can be rural or urban. Diversified culture of India is portrayed in the works using Indianized English and Indian feelings. Many works from regional languages have also been translated into English for the worldwide readers to know about Indian culture and issues. Indian English Literature

  • was initiated due to colonial encounter of India and Britain;
  • exchanged the culture, language and literature with Britishers;
  • opened new doors of knowledge, power and freedom to Indians;
  • led to literary renaissance in the country;
  • influenced the language of thinkers, philosophers, and reformers, and
  • assisted in resisting orthodoxy, superstitions and rituals, ill practices prevailing in the society. 

In Pre Independence era, Sake Dean Mahomed was the first one who had got his book published The Travels of Dean Mahomet in English adopting epistolary form. It was written in the form of thirty-eight letters. At the age of 11, Dean Mahomed had started working at the East India Company’s Bengal Army as a camp follower and he travelled all over the Gangetic plain, from Delhi to Dhaka over the period of next fifteen years. In 1996 a historian, Michael H. Fisher, talked about Sake Dean Mahomed’s work in his own scholarly work, The First Indian Author in English: Dean Mahomed (1795-1851). Though he is chronologically the first, yet it is not proven that Dean Mahomet’s work is the first one in the history of Indian English writing,

Raja Rammohan Roy’s essay “A Defense of Hindu Theism” is counted as the first original publication in expository prose form in the history of Indian writing in English. Raja Rammohan Roy was a great scholar and knew many languages including Bengali, Persian, Sanskrit, Arabic and English, moreover, he had read the Bible in Hebrew and Latin. Being a great social, religious and cultural reformer of the period, he founded the Brahmo Samaj in 1828. He is known in the country for fighting for women’s rights and leading a drive against the prevailing practice of sati. Knowing the importance of English, he wrote articles such as “practice of burning widows alive” and “Address to Lord William Bentinck” in English and wished to modernize the country.

Following the footsteps of Raja Rammohan Roy, in the pre-independence period, many poets and writers came into light and wrote in English or their work got translated into English from regional languages. Toru Dutt wrote poetry in both languages English and French whereas Nightingale of India Sarojini Naidua portrayed the festivals, occupations and life of the Indian. 

Indian Jewish poet Nissim Ezekiel has been considered as a pioneering figure who enriched the poetry with modernist innovations and techniques. Additionally Aurbindo Ghosh, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhay, Mulk Raj Anand and R K Narayan exhibited imperialism and Indian Culture in their works.

‘Viswa Kavi’ and visionary spirit Rabindranath Tagore revolutionized education and literature in India and was the first non-European to receive Nobel Prize in literature in 1913. He enriched literature and contributed to the freedom struggle in pre-Independence India by his incredible social reforms that assisted in uniting Bengal. His famous song Banglar Mati Banglar Jol (Soil of Bengal, Water of Bengal) helped in uniting the Bengali population. 

Further Tagore being against conventional classroom education, remodeled education as a holistic development process where teachers would be more like mentors, guiding students towards emotional, intellectual and spiritual upliftment, moreover he laid the foundation stone of Visva Bharati University. Tagore believed in the universality of man. The identity of India after independence was closely based on Tagore’s ideology of peace and universal brotherhood and he expressed his feelings through a poem ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’. He wanted a country after independence where everybody could have a right to express without fear.

Many nationalist leaders like Mahadev Govind Ranade, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, C Rajagopalachari, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were excellent orators of English. All of them had good command over the language and promoted the learning of language in India in pre independence and post independence period.

Initially post independence literature faced some issues hence the writers and poets were struggling and going through identity crisis and the age was reflected as the painstaking age of ‘dark modernism’. Consequently the writings presented the clashes between traditional cultures and western modernity. Under the western influence, the concept of experimentation was also developed and literature of India that time perceived several key changes in terms of literary writings. Independence of India from British Rule was a turning historic episode with its socio-political significance that no one can deny till now. This happening of freedom struggle, attaining independence and partition struggle not only had an outstanding impact on the literary works done in various regional languages but also on Indian English Literature. 

Before independence, the whole nation was dreaming and struggling for achieving independence with mixed emotions of anguish and hope. But after attaining freedom from colonial power with an unusual condition of partition followed with riots in whole country, the whole nation was in double and mixed expression state. Happiness and hopefulness of better future at one side where social and economical growth were a part of its credo, and destruction, despair and blood shed due to partition were there to let everyone down on other side. 

The epitome of human sufferings was witnessed in various forms during the cataclysmic partition of India in 1947. Massacres and mutilation of human bodies were going on parallel with migration and uprootedness. Sexual assaults became quite common experience belilttling and terrifying women of that period, moreover loss of honour, property, relations, mental peace, sense of security, nationality, identity etc everything was on stake. The sentiments of the people who suffered at that time of partition have not been expressed in history books and chronicles hence these books have just collected the data and facts related to the procedure of partition. The real sufferings faced by people were portrayed through literature in most obvious way. Literaure has expressed and told the next generations of the country how people of that period suffered and no doubt it has left never ending impression on the hearts, minds and souls of the people. 

In the works of writers such as Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Krishan Chandra, Rajendra Singh Bedi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Sardar Singh Duggal, Bhishma Sahani, B. Rajan, Amrita Pritam, Nanak Singh, Ismat Chugtai, Chaman Nahal, Yashpal, Kamleshwar and Khushwant Singh, there are some very emotional and heart-rending delineations about catastrophic and horrified partition which became more about despair than hope after the division. Their works are full of overwhelming and gut-wrenching scenes of devastating partition and description of the inner psychology of the characters who struggled and managed to live during hard times. That unbearable suffering was such a mental-physical state which caught the psyche of people in such a way that it can’t be cured with passing years and keeps bringing never-ending problems to society. 

“Today the legacy of 1947 looms larger than ever before on the subcontinent. Partition has actually proved to be a trauma from which the subcontinent has never fully recovered. But sadly, this is not reflected in its history writings, a fact that is lamented by many” (Roy 18). 

Many poets of that period lamented the bloodshed through their poetry. Few of such works are Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Subh-e-Azaadi’, Annada Shankar Ray’s ‘Khoka O Khuku’, Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s ‘Dudh Da Qatl’, Amrita Pritam’s ‘Waris Shah’, Agha Shahid Ali’s ‘By the Waters of Sind’ and Mehjoor’s ‘Azadee’ etc. which are translated in English too. Amrita Pritam’s poem ‘Waris Shah’ is one of the best illustrations to understand the disastrous condition of that time. She wrote the poem when she was going from Delhi to Dehradun through a train as a refugee and prayed through the following lines-

Today Waris Shah I call out to you

To speak out from the graves
Rise today and open a new page

0f the immortal book of love
A daughter of Punjab once wept

And you wrote many a dirge
A million daughters weep today

and look up at you for solace
Rise o beloved of the aggrieved

just look at your Punjab
Today corpses haunt the woods

Chenab river overflows with blood

Some one has mixed poison

In the Five Rivers of Punjab…


In India post independence people became more aware in terms of reading our own languages’ literature and beyond the boundaries started reading the literature of richer languages too. Translation work was initiated a lot and writers started publicizing their works stimulating a literary atmosphere. In addition technological advancement gradually left an impact on Indian literature but still partition time literature due to tragic setting is counted in the best including these novels such as Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan (1956), B. Rajan’s The Dark Dancer (1959), Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961), Manohar Malgaonkar’s A Bend in the Ganges (1964), Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar (1956) and short stories like “Of Ram and Rahim” by Mahasweta Devi, “Toba Tek Singh” by Saadat Hassan Manto and “The Crossing” by Jotirmoyee Devi and many more.

The independence of India from British rule took its own price in the form of partition of the countries into two countries- India and Pakistan. The hearts and souls who became happy and cheerful with a thought of attaining freedom out of sudden became very sad and gloomy due to partition. The country was parted on religious parameters hence Pakistan turned into a Muslim state and India continued to be a secular country. The religious identities of the people became troublesome for them over nights and created chaos everywhere in the whole country espeacially in Punjab area. The divide and hatred between the communities of Hindus and Muslims grew wider and more grave. The partition smeared, smashed and turned the feeling of the light and brightness of freedom into darkness and gloom. The riots aroused on both sides of the border led to extreme destruction, mournfulness, and killing spree. The whole Indian society had got a set back by such diastrous condition of the country which was completely out of control. 

The tragic memories are still haunting people who were wounded, fractured and survived in that period.  Those terrifying scenes are well portrayed and depicted in the literature by writers and poets who suffered mentally and physically. How people suffered, struggled, migrated, became homeless, without a penny and food in that period can never be forgotten. More than eight million migrated and around one million were either killed or died. Our historical documentation doesn’t decribe in detail all that trauma faced by people and just calculates the numbers of migrated people and killed ones. The impression it left on people’s souls and psyche can never be erased.

Literature either English Literature or regional such as Punjabi, Hindu, Urdu, Bengali and English, in both type of, writers and poets have tried to describe the heinousness and havoc of tragic partition through characters and settings portrayed in the literary pieces touching the hearts of the readers to realize utmost what people exactly suffered. The terror overpowered their souls and body, the fear of losing everything, the insecurities, the pain to leave the roots behind, and the lose of reverence and homelessness everything has been skillfully portrayed and narrated in the stories in literature to reach the unreach.  

Everyone including normal populace to great leaders of the country experienced the same. Intensity could be little less or more but people of all states and religion suffered mentally, physically, psychologically as the mother earth was full of bloodshed and dead bodies. People were at one side filled with anxiety and fear, and another side with hope of upliftment of the country. Tahira Naqvi talks about what Ismat Chugtai
has written in her essay “Communal Violence and Literature”:

“The flood of communal violence came and went with all its evils, but it left a pile of living, dead and gasping corpses in its wake. It wasn’t only that the country was split into two bodies and minds were also divided. Moral beliefs were tossed aside and humanity was in shreds” (Naqvi 3).

Khushwant Singh’s most famous novel Train To Pakistan (1956) is a historical novel which is based on partition of India in 1947 and how the country was splitted by Britain- Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan. It narrates how social and religious groups were rearranged and clashed violently. A human dimension is exhibitly meticulously by Khushwant Singh which brings to the event a sense of reality, horror, and believability. Train to Pakistan explored the themes of heart-throbbing ravages of war, cultural and social perception of partition time and religious practices etc. Depicting the moral paradox, Khushwant Singh says, “The bullet is neutral. It hits the good and the bad, the important and the insignificant, without distinction” (Singh 170).

A movie was also directed by Pamela Rooks, based on the novel given the same title Train to Pakistan. It was released in 1998 and nominated in Cinequest Film Festival, 1999 in the best feature film category.  The first chapter “Dacoity” of the novel was staged in the form of a play named ‘Train to Pakistan’ at Lamakaan- an open cultural space in Hyderabad, India that was adapted and directed by Krishna Shukla.

Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar narrated the gendered experience of the trauma, exploitation, sacrifices and sufferings of partition. It is an extraordinary saga that depicted the issues of displacement, marginalization, abduction, dual identity and powerlessness moreover, different dimensions of violence against women on religious, social and most prominently physical and mental levels. Further via the portrayal of character of Puro, Pritam brought forth the fact that women have been the prime victims in every communal strife, riots and wars. She highlighted that women are considered merely bodies and nothing more than bodies. The heart-breaking story symbolized the fate of thousands of women at the time of partition whose voices were silenced (Arora). Moreover Pinjar is a story which detailed how women were mutilated, sexually assaulted, raped, rotated naked in the surroundings, impregnated and fetus killed in the womb during the tremulous time of partition. Double yoke of patriarchy and dislocation oppressed them. In addition they were questioned in terms of chastity, purity and dignity though there was no fault of them.

The fifth novel of Khushwant Singh, Burial at Sea took the psychedelic insight into an individual’s life and the freedom struggle of India. The title sounds little spiritual but mundane affairs like societal, political and individual’s struggle are at prior. It’s a saga of an individual named Victor Jai Bhagwan who is made legendary in the novel because of his actions and economical support he provided to the country by industrialization while struggling for freedom. He took his first breath in slave India but he was determined to make India economically stronger and independent. ‘Modernize or perish’ was the slogan he gave to Indian industrialists to be a free and developed country. On the other hand, Gandhi and his followers were working to throw the Britishers out of the country. Khushwant Singh basically portrayed the two different kinds of strata of freedom fighters in the novel. 

In colonized India whereas one side people were fighting for freedom following Mahatma Gandhi credo of non-violence, celibacy and the boycott of everything foreign, some people with good fortune and reputation wanted their kids to study English to tell the British to their faces that it is time to buzz off from India and let Indians handle their own affairs. They found it the other way of bringing India honor and self-respect by worsening the British in their own law. 

Khushwant Singh’s different kind of representation supporting those who had been in guilt for being a slave to English custom by anglicizing their children is utterly an illustration of his sharp intellect. Krishan Lal hired a nanny governess Valerie Bottomley from London who changes Jai Bhagwan into Victor “the son of an English county gentleman: cravat, waistcoat, and stripped trousers… impeccable manners” (Singh 12). Later on because of her immense efforts, Victor got admission in Eton and went England to finish his higher education from there. He came back after finishing his studies and tried to industrialize the country but Gandhi was not in the favour of that.

Mahatma Gandhi strongly objected on the use of machinery, since in his time machines typically led to “the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few, extremely rich people” (Iyer 348). Today, of course, the situation is not like that. For example, information technology has led to decentralization of power, rather than centralization of it. But in that phase where colonial India was struggling for freedom, Gandhiji felt that industrialization will increase the problem of economic equality in the country later on. In K Kripalani’s book All Men Are Brothers, Mahatma Gandhi says,

“I cannot picture to myself a time when no man shall be richer than another. But I do picture a time when the rich will spurn to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and the poor will cease to envy the rich. Even in a most perfect world, we shall fail to avoid inequalities, but we can and must avoid strife and bitterness.” (Kriplani 136) 

Gandhi supported an economic theory of simple living and self-sufficiency/import substitution. He envisioned for a more agrarian India after independence with a focal point to meet the material needs of its public prior to generating riches and industrializing. After Nehru, Victor Jai Bhagwan was Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite Indian- a brilliant young man with the temperament of a leader and fiercely committed to his country. Though Victor adored and respected Gandhi, he disagreed with the Mahatma’s vision for the future of India and moreover, he 

“…contradicted everything Gandhi stood for: handspun cloth, self-sufficient villages, very basic education…wanted to see an India which had modern textile mills, steel plants, automobile factories, huge dams and thousands of miles of canals, every village connected by road, more schools, colleges and hospitals.” (Singh 16) 

According to Gandhi, people “might achieve these material ambitions but in the process lose their souls and their Indianness” (Singh 19). He was also decisive about industrialization calling it an indefinite multiplication of wants. He said that the reliance on machinery will destroy man’s inseparable relationship with nature; moreover, this overdependence on machinery may demolish the stable and long-established agrarian village communities which are environment-friendly and which for him constituted the core of the nation’s strength, not just material, but ethical and spiritual. For Victor “it was more important to industrialize India, to make it economically strong. Because what freedom could there be without that?” (Singh 61)

People were in dilemma either to celebrate or to sing gloomy songs due to partition. It has been well portrayed in the novel by Khushwant Singh the way he described that Victor didn’t take part in the independence celebrations going on in Delhi though “the city was in festive mood with the Indian flag flying on all buildings and processions marching down the streets shouting slogans” (Singh 76). He was not happy thinking about future prospect he was looking at for the country and was completely disturbed by partition. The only one who looked happy at his home was his “little daughter, who went around Shanti Bhawan marching like a soldier carrying the tricoloured flag of Independent India and shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ (Long Live Mother India!)..” (Singh 75) 

Khushwant Singh has depicted the after effects of partition with excellent rhythmic gait and a sense of believability, horror and human emotions’ dimensions. He describes through the character of Victor that people had not dreamt for such freedom like Victor also didn’t in his younger days. The whole country was burning in the fire of partition, which Khushwant Singh has depicted with his in-depth knowledge about the after effects of partition- 

“Fratricidal war erupted on the subcontinent between Hindus and… Muslims…slitting each other’s throats from the banks of the Indus to beyond the Hooghly…the city was flooded with Hindu and Sikh refugees who had fled from Pakistan…they were living in ancient monuments, on footpaths and roundabouts.” (Singh 75) 

Victor felt too secluded than ever before because the British, the Congress and the Muslim League had distorted the country into something terribly unrecognizable. Khushwant Singh’s architectonic skills and profound critical insight into human emotions are extremely exceptional how he expressed the sufferings through the character of Victor in the story. 

Imprints and marks of partition memories on the hearts and minds of people are alive due to literature that can never be faded away. The startling narratives of many writers from the time of partition till today mention this catastrophic episode. In Borders and Boundaries: How Women Experienced the Partition of India Ritu Menon says, “The rending of the social and emotional fabric that took place in 1947 is still far from mended” (Menon 91). Though the suffering is Unsalvaged after the subcontinent was blooded, yet survived and colonizer or partition riots could not kill the spirit of the country.   

Henceforth post independence Indian English Literature is virtually synonymous with Post-colonial Indian English Literature. It continues to evoke colonial legacies in the contemporary society. It seeks to compete with English language fiction for International prizes like the Commonwealth Fiction Prize, and the Booker Prize, etc. Post-Independence Indian English fiction is rich in thematic content. Many writers such as Kamala Markandaya, Arundhati Roy, Nayantara Sehgal, Shashi Deshpande, Shobha De, Kamala Das, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Bharati Mukherjee, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie, Shiv K. Kumar, Upmanyu Chatterjee and Manju Kapur and many more have contributed to the growth of Indian English Literature and popularized it in the country and abroad. Area of Indian English Literature is also broaden up by including Dalit issues, Feminist movements and LGBTQ writings in it and still continued to embrace new perspectives.

Dr Shalini Yadav
Professor, Department of English
Compucom Institute of Technology and Management
Jaipur, Rajasthan

Works Cited

  1. Arora, Rachna & Smita Jha. “Women’s Body as the site of Encroachment: A Critical Study of Amrita Pritam’s Novel Pinjar.” Social Science Review. Volume 2, Issue 2, December 2016. 
  2. en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Indian_English_literature
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  4. https://thewire.in/books/amrita-pritam-centenary
  5. Iyer, Raghavan. The Essential Writings of Mahatma Gandhi. Ed. (Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1990), 348-402. 
  6. Kripalani, K. All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as Told in His Own Words. Ed. (Paris: UNESCO, 1969), 129-136. 
  7. Menon, Ritu. Borders and Boundaries: How Women Experienced the Partition of India. New Jersey: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998.
  8. Naik, M. K. A History of English Literature. Sahitya Akademi, 2009.
  9. Naqvi, Tahira. (Trans.) Ismat Chugtai’s My Friend, My Enemy: Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2001.
  10. Roy, Rituparna. South Asian Partition Fiction in English: From Khushwant Singh to Amitav Ghosh. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010.
  11. Singh, Khushwant. Burial at Sea. Penguin Books India, 2004. 
  12. Singh, Khushwant.Train to Pakistan. 1956.