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The Necessity Of Anti-Sentimentalism

By Ananya Jahanara Kabir

23 July, 2003

It is now widely accepted, in the academic domain, at least, that the
Partition of India in 1947 was a traumatic event with continuing
emotional and political repercussions on personal as well as
collective levels of identity formation. Perhaps it is not too
optimistic to observe scholarly responses to the Partition moving
from a nostalgic, overwhelmingly sentimental phase towards more
searching, self-reflexive acts of remembrance, recuperation and
mourning. From 'merely remembering', the emphasis seems to have
shifted to examining 'how we remember/ forget'.

Yet this awakening of interest in the memorial dimension of the
Partition and its attendant complexities has been tied almost
exclusively to the partition of Punjab and its impact on the North
and Northwest of the Indian subcontinent. There are a number of
reasons for this emphasis.

Most obviously, the magnitude of the violence in Punjab and the
almost complete transfer of population along religious lines meant
that, from the immediate aftermath of 1947 onwards, the horrors of
the Punjab partition have become metonymic for Partition itself.
Secondly, the violence against the Sikhs in 1984 catalysed a new
urgency among (largely) Punjabi intellectual-activists to return to
1947 and reassess the present inÝthe light of that past. Many of
these efforts coalesced around the fiftieth anniversary of Indian and
Pakistani independence to produce a critical mass of writing that
memorialised the impact of Partition as the impact on Punjabi culture
and identity.

One wonders what are the corresponding reasons for the relative
absence of Bengal within this emerging discourse on Partition.
Locating and historicising these reasons themselves should be the
starting-point of a critical and collective discussion of the Bengal
partition- aÝ discussion that should not be derivative of but at the
very least parallel the discussion centring on the Punjab. After all,
the history and politics of 'thrice-partitioned' Bengal present a
picture dramatically divergent from post-Partition Punjab. Firstly,
the very different patterns of migration and attendant violence meant
that substantial minorities remain in both Bengals. Secondly, the
successful post-Partition integration of Punjab on both sides of the
border can be contrasted with Bengal's decline in South Asia, with
West Bengal and East Pakistan having been marginalized vis-ý-vis
their respective political centres-that, in the case of West Bengal,
can be seen as part of the North-East's decline. Thirdly, the
experience and memory of the Bengal partition has been vastly
complicated, in ways totally different from the Punjab experience, by
the creation of Bangladesh, a development with immense geopolitical
impact. Finally, we must note the freighted cultural investment in
Bengali language, literature and music, including the role it played
in Bangladesh's independence movement.

Scholarship from different fields needs to come together to explain
how and why the Bengal partition was experienced in such a unique
way, andÝto factor these findings into explorations of trauma, memory
and mourning with specific respect to Bengal, alongside radically
imaginative work around the same issues. The first task in this
regard, for both scholarship and art, is to move away from
sentimentalism and melodrama.

As Dipesh Chakrabarty demonstrated in his discussion of 'Remembered
Villages', Bengali Hindu memory of pre-Partition Bengal has tended
too easily to slip into nostalgic evocations of rural innocence, theÝ
'golden age' before rupture and reality. The recent, much-acclaimed
documentary Abar Ashibo Firey by Supriyo Sen, demonstrates how this
purely sentimental recreation evokes unmediated emotion and what I
would term unhelpful nostalgia.

How can a film-maker, an artist, or a novelist for that matter, evoke
'helpful' nostalgia, or avoid sentimentalism while paying homage to
memory? This balancing act can be accomplished by paying attention
toÝthe constructed nature of memory itself, as well as the
impossibility ofÝ every journeying back. For instance, Ararat, by the
Canadian-Armenian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, responds to the Turkish
forced expulsion of the ArmeniansÝof Anatolia in 1915 through frantic
sequences of a film crew seeking to recreate an authentic narrative
of the event. Through this film withinÝthe film, Egoyan points out
the impossibility of narrativising trauma, with the desired whole
always contaminated by actual holes- gaps and omissions that signify
the fundamental difficulty of integrating traumatic into narrative

Today, when all of us in South Asia, not merely the two Bengals,
grapple with the ugly side of naturalised omissions and selections
within collective memory projects, it becomes all the more necessary
to complicate the process of remembering in order to reach a more
searing level of honesty within ourselves as compromised subjects of
a still-traumatic rupture.

Using artwork and analysis not merely to continue valorising some
sitesÝof memory- such as the [east] Bengali village- but to unravel
how those process shape the present, even by marginalizing other
modes of remembering: this should be the collective endeavour of all
those revisiting Bengal's traumas to learn constructively from the