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Lived and Living Agonies

Alok Rai

By Kamla Patel Translated by Uma Randeria
Women Unlimited, Delhi, 2006, pp. 236, Rs. 350.00


Kamlaben Patel’s Partition memoir, Mool Sotan Ukhdelan, the translator’s note tells us, is considered as a neglected classic in Gujarati. How much more creditable it is, then, to redeem it from the neglect of its original location, and make it available in English translation — Torn from the Roots! Because, given the sheer tide of Partition things in which we are drowning, after the silence of half a century, it isn’t easy for something to stand out. And yet, this modest memoir does.   I must confess that my first reaction on being asked to write about yet another Partition book was, well, acute ennui. I expected to encounter the recycling of the same old clichés, not just the hallowed (and dusty) images that have been collecting in the seams of the allegedly creative writing about the Partition—the trains piled with bodies, the dismembered limbs, the wells choked with the bodies of women whose men preferred the women’s deaths to their own “dishonour”—but also the academic clichés about the nation-state and its necessary violence, or about secularism and its discontents. I dreading encountering the old witches—caste, class and gender—being pressed to yield up their familiar insights yet again, obscuring the specificity of what is being observed, and reducing all the diversity that passes before the glazed eye to the same universal, anti-universalist narrative.   In fact, the unique value of this memoir derives from the fact that the author is no intellectual, no ideologue, she has no axe to grind, no point to prove. I’m in no position to talk about the original, but the short, naïve sentences of the English translation capture brilliantly the particular quality of this memoir. The author—Kamlaben Patel—was a trusted lieutenant of the indomitable Mridula Sarabhai, and as such was intimately involved with the day-to-day work of the rehabilitation of “abducted women” in the aftermath of Partition. And the memoir tells of that work in a loose, unstructured fashion, rather like gossip, in which there is a beginning and an end, of course, but what comes in between those two points is random, casual, incidental. Rather in the manner of those desultory conversations that are jogged along by various forms of “that reminds me…” As a consequence, it renders faithfully the diversity of experiences that is subsumed under the false unity of the official ...

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