The Partition of colonial India is one of the most significant and unfortunate events in the history of mankind. The sheer brutality of this helpless situation has often been the subject of print and media representations on both sides of the border. The thought of the ill-fated displacement of millions of families, the massacres, rapes, and riots still makes our souls shiver. Literature has been produced in several languages- mainly Urdu, Punjabi, Bengali, Hindi, and English- on this topic. These texts deal with the subject in the most graphic yet humane way possible. These are the stories that celebrate love and fellow feeling amid death and violence.
In this list, we will focus on the novels based on the Partition of colonial India and not the other forms of fiction. I agree that no one writer can ever write about the Partition as well as Manto does but since he was not a novelist, he has been excluded from the list. Here’s a list of the most heart-wrenching partition novels that narrativize the horrors of the event.
1. Ice-Candy Man by Bapsi Sidhwa
It is also known as Cracking India. It is narrated through the voice of a Parsi child, who is differently-abled. It thus makes the narrative more effective with an innocent yet distanced narration. The characters feel real and their relationships, although complicated, are palpable. It shows how the spark of religious hatred and burn down relationships that were nurtured for years. This theme mainly evolves through the character of the Ice-Candy Man. The novel is heart-breaking, contemplative, and painfully well-crafted. If you like this novel then you can also try its movie adaptation by Deepa Mehta- 1947: Earth.
2. Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain
This is Hosain’s only novel that was published in 1961 while she was still alive. It is an autobiographical novel through which Hosain attempts to document and capture her experiences of the events that led to the unfortunate partition of colonial India. Through the eyes of a 15-year-old orphaned Muslim girl named Laila, we encounter an extremely poignant story. It is considered to be Attia Hosain’s most definitive work.
3. Tamas by Bhisham Sahni
Sahitya Akademi Award winner, Bhisham Sahni’s magnum opus, Tamas, is a saga of human barbarism amid the violent riots during the Partition. The dark side of human insecurity is beautifully portrayed in this novel by Sahni. The novel is fearless, graphic, and blood-curdling; and this is exactly why you should read it. If you find the time, do watch its 1988 television adaptation starring Om Puri and Deepa Sahi.
4. Azadi by Chaman Nahal
This novel is a journey, from a pre-partition era to the chaos of the actual event and the subsequent sorrows of the displaced refugees. It is considered to be one of the best novels written by Nahal. Nahal was himself a refugee and hence has presented a very real and poignant presentation of the entire bitter event. This novel is a must-read among the many Partition novels written over the years.
5. The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh
Nothing but a set of arbitrary lines or ‘shadow lines’ have divided a nation into three countries that will forever be stained with the ugliness of Partition. This beautiful novel by Ghosh cruises through history narrating a wonderful and heart-wrenching story. Ghosh, the winner of the 1989 Sahitya Akademi Award, has crafted an endearingly tangible and palpable story that is nothing but a product of memories. Memories that are sweet, sour, and sometimes utterly bitter.
6. The Broken Mirror by Krishna Baldev Vaid
This powerful piece of literature written by Krishna Baldev Vaid has so many layers that it takes several readings to discover them all. The imagery, the characters, the metaphors, they are all inexplicably poignant. Just have a look at the title, for instance, the broken mirror of our country, of humanity, that reflects so many versions that we never knew the existence of. This novel is dark, very dark; but at the same time, it is relatable in the most terrifying way possible.
7. Basti by Intizar Hussain
Basti is a beautiful novel by Hussain that explores the pain of displacement and the longing for a place to call home. The protagonist of the novel, Zakir (the name means the one who remembers) takes us along on his journey of self-realization and contemplation of his past and the hope for a better future. The book was originally written in Urdu but it has been translated into English by Frances W. Pritchett.
8. Pinjar by Amrita Pritam
Pinjar, also known as The Skeleton and That Man, is a Punjabi novel that was written in 1950. It is the story of a Hindu girl named Puro who manages to escape from her Muslim kidnapper, Rashid. Her family refuses to accept her. This unusual beginning, surprisingly is the start of a love story, yes, Stockholm Syndrome. But it is a little complicated. You have to read the novel to find out more. Do find time to watch the 2003 movie adaptation of this novel starring Urmila Matondkar and Manoj Bajpayee.
9. Looking through Glass by Mukul Keshavan
One of the most unique and interesting Partition novels ever written, ‘Looking through Glass’ is a travel through time, a study of the inevitable events that led to the devastating events of the Partition. A young photographer finds himself in the past, having travelled to 1942. He desperately attempts to avert the inevitable and tries to change the course of history. This novel stays with you long after you’ve read it. It’s definitely worth the read.
10. Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh
It is the story of a village that is shoved into the darkness of communal violence and hatred due to the Partition. Mano Majra is the fictitious village in this novel, home to Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu families. The once harmonious community falls prey to fear and communalism and this feeling lurk throughout the novel. Human emotions are depicted in the rawest form possible, and the character development is spot on. It is one of the most famous and important partition novels ever written.
The scars of the dark past can never be removed. All we can do is take it as a lesson and try to build a better, peaceful, and tolerant future. A future where love thrives and humanity survives. Hope that you liked this list of Partition novels. Do let me know in the comments section if any of these Partition novels touched your heart.