Partition, Migration and Immigration as Travel Stories: Stories of Three Women Who Wro(i)te

Madhushree Ghosh


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Where I come from, we talk about distance in memories. Remember when your mother tied the suitcase with a chain to the railway berth so the riff-raff couldn’t steal it when you traveled cross-country from Delhi to Kolkata? Do you remember how hot the train ride was? Or the samosas we bought at the bus station—the ones with whole coriander seeds and spicy potatoes? Not the Bengali kind with peanuts but the North Indian kind, the kind that made our tongues swell because of the green chilies but which were so addictive? Distance isn’t kilometers or miles. Distance is how far we have moved away from what was home. Or how far one’s home is now we have moved elsewhere and perhaps made new homes. How far away was that world? How foreign does home feel now? Where is home and where is home now? Where I come from, a country of migrants, a country of immigrants, we talk of distance in memories.


Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel has been a landmark literary magazine asking the age-old question: What does it mean to travel? What is ‘the journey’? Can it be one inside our hearts? In our minds? From our armchairs? Or trekking through mountains in Peru? Or through rain forests in Guatemala? Is it a combination of all these? In literature, especially South Asian literature, travel for decades, centuries even, was not a journey of choice. Mostly, it was on impulse to find a better life—a migrant in search of economic security, or more so lately, the journey of an immigrant, a refugee, looking for safety. The travel there is still a journey, still a trek, but it is about memories we leave behind, of friendships we abandon, of families we save by leaving.

I come from a land of stories. Current western literature would tend to refer to the stories of South Asia as fables, fairy tales, as and-then-this-happened type of writing. It has been that, yes. But it is more if we look beyond the immediate journeys.

Amrita Pritam was a ferocious Punjabi poet and novelist. I discovered her in New Delhi, when my father was transferred there from the eastern state of Orissa (now Odisha). The ‘No-Culture-Only-Agriculture’ people is what my Bengali parents called Punjabis. The language wasn’t as lyrical and mellifluous as Bengali, the songs were often sad, of love always lost, and the essence of the works were simple, about daily life, about the Partition. Punjab—a state known for agriculture, loud music, a state divided between Pakistan and India, a state of contradictions that gave us a wide variety of writing from poets and writers like Khushwant Singh, Waris Shah, Bulleh Shah, Saadat Hasan Manto (born in Punjab, lived in pre-Partition Bombay before moving to Pakistan), Sujan Singh and Amrita. “Punjabis have no culture, only agriculture” thereby solidifies the myth that Punjabi poetry wasn’t lyrical, the words held less power and that their stories were sad laments of what used to be. Therein lies the contradiction of travel literature—are stories of memories still travel journeys? Are immigrant journeys still intelligent travel? Do memories travel? A feminist progressive writer, Amrita was the answer to all these queries.

Indian writing and people who read it also curtail their view on which part of the country they come from. Regionalism blooms across generations, but also leads to passionate arguments about the essence of each author. While my father may not have understood the subtleties of Amrita’s work, they were both bound by the Partition of India. The 1947 Partition of India was our pogrom, our genocide.

Across the world, at a similar time, Clarice Lispector’s life bore the stamp of Jewish discrimination, and the Russian pogrom. Amrita and Clarice were born a year apart, one in Gujranwala, British India (now in Punjab, Pakistan), and the other in Chechelnyk, Ukraine. Both grew up in a time of political and religious unrest. Clarice’s father was exiled, penniless, her mother was brutally raped, and her grandfather was murdered during the pogrom. Fleeing Europe, Lispector’s family landed in Romania before moving to Brazil where her mother had family.


In current and very present explorations of the immigrant experience, the very different, very funny, very millennial and yet very South Asian Canadian, Scaachi Koul, writes in her  essay, Tawi River, Elbow River (One day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter, 2017) “…my memories of India are sparse but vivid, such as how I couldn’t speak to the other kids who didn’t know any English, so instead I acted like a dog to make them laugh, and this was our language.” Explorations of what we lost when we made the journey affects generations.

Amrita Kaur was born in a united India to a Sikh-preacher father who also edited a Punjabi journal and a mother who died when she was nine. Writing was Amrita’s refuge. Her first book of romantic poems, Amrit Lehren, or Immortal Waves, was published in 1936 when she was sixteen. That same year, Amrita married Pritam Singh, the son of a hosiery merchant and a literary journal editor. This is how the daily life of contradictions takes place, even in modern India—to be married to a man who dealt in business, but still had a literary mind.


How does the Partition or Jewish persecution affect your life, and in turn, your art? For Clarice, her mother died when she was eleven, and her journey was her escape from Ukraine, through Romania, to Brazil—it isn’t a pleasant trip romanticized in her writing. Her first story, O triunfo or The Triumph, was published when Clarice was nineteen, a year before her father died. O triunfo celebrated the musings of a very keenly observant writer. The narrator says, “And since she had nothing to do and was afraid of thinking, she took some clothes lying out to be washed and went to the back of the yard, where there was a large sink.” Clarice’s journey is through the eyes of an observant of daily routine—that’s the journey, the absurdity and the monotony of daily life from a woman’s point of view. In her early twenties, her travels lead her to journalism and with her legal degree, Clarice traveled back to Europe, this time with the pedigree of being a diplomat’s wife.

But since childhood, Clarice’s life was shaped by her family’s exit from Ukraine, refugees of religious persecution. Her writing, through the decades, while not overt, shows possible Jewish mysticism and realism in her sentence fragmentations and points of view. But that wasn’t so obvious in her writing when she was still a journalist (with a law degree) in Rio.


Much like Clarice, persecution surreptitiously shaped Amrita’s life. The journey of Amrita’s literary career took off when, at 28, she fled Lahore with her family to settle in divided India in Delhi. As did my parents in 1947, when as children they left Bangladesh to enter a free India. It was in this year that Amrita, now pregnant with her son, wrote her famous poem, an ode and plaintive lament to Punjab’s favorite and tortured poet, Waris Shah, I ask Waris Shah today, cementing a poignant reminder of the Partition of India, and the horrors witnessed by citizens of both countries. In the poem, she says:

Today, I call Waris Shah, “Speak from your grave,”

And turn to the next page in your book of love,

Once, a daughter of Punjab cried and you wrote an entire saga,

Today, a million daughters cry out to you, Waris Shah,

Rise! O’ narrator of the grieving! Look at your Punjab,

Today, fields are lined with corpses, and blood fills the Chenab.


Note: Waris Shah, a 16th -century Punjabi Sufi poet, wrote the romantic saga Heer Ranjha, about a famous Romeo/Juliet-like doomed romance in Punjab.


The Partition of India is believed to have led to the deaths of 200,000—2 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs with about 14 million people being displaced in its wake, the largest mass migration in history. Travel it was not. A desire to escape the horrors of communal violence is what guided the feet of those millions of refugees and immigrants. Amrita’s work was, from then on, influenced by the Partition as well as a progressive writers’ group she belonged to and her own burgeoning feminist stance. In 1950, she wrote the acclaimed novel, Pinjar, or Skeleton, about Pooru, a Hindu girl, abducted by a Muslim before the Partition. The story revolves around the defining moment when Pooru escapes from her captor and arrives at the home of her parents, who refuse to take her back.

How then did this author relate her daily existence to our modern-day quest for travel? You see, travel isn’t always pretty places, spectacular adventures or even heartbreaking poverty. Travel is also escaping with only your life, travel is seeking a future, any future. Travel is finding shelter when you’re suddenly unwelcome where you thought you were home. That’s a link that transcends the past and the present. Amrita’s writing, especially after her divorce, explores the role of women in society, how women were expected to be followers, and how women mutinied, in ways however small, against the backdrop of a journey no one wanted to make.


In 2017, Scaachi explores through her mother’s memories of what she left behind in India when she married her husband, through food. She writes in Inheritance Tax, “Mom’s arthritis got worse but she kept cooking rogan josh so spicy it ripped the roof of your mouth clean off, whipping a wooden spoon around a pressure cooker with her aching wrist.”

Amrita explored her feminism many decades ago, and now in the kitchen Scaachi shows the love a child has for a mother, a child of immigrants holding onto rogan josh as much as her parents’ (un)-founded fears of death, as much as her love of Twitter (she is after all, the culture editor at BuzzFeed).


Clarice published her explosive debut, Perto do Coração Selvagem or Near to the Wild Heart, in 1943. In typical chauvinistic fashion, her work was heralded as ‘the greatest novel a woman has written in the Portuguese language’. It was the first time in Brazilian literature that any writer had attempted to work toward an introspective stream of consciousness narrative, reminiscent of Woolf or Joyce’s work, despite the fact that she read both these authors only after her debut. The novel won the Graca Aranha prize that year. Her stories too grew out of a restless girl’s musings and wrestling as she navigated the role of mother and a diplomat’s wife.


While living in Switzerland, as part of her diplomat husband’s tour of duty, Clarice responded to Europe as if in exile. Switzerland, she wrote to her sister, is like living in ‘a cemetery of sensations’. It is here that she wrote The Besieged City (1946), and gave birth to her son. She said of that time: “What saved me from the monotony of Bern was living in the Middle Ages, it was waiting for the snow to pass and for the red geraniums to be reflected once again in the water, it was having a son born there, it was writing The Besieged City…”

In Happy Birthday or Feliz Aniversario, the story is of the birthday of an 89-year old grandmother. Being that Clarice was a seasoned writer by then, the almost chanting exploration of language seems deliberate, rhythmic, needed. Ben Moser, in a 2015 New Yorker essay, The True Glamor of Clarice Lispector, mentions the role of Kabbalism in Clarice’s spiritual impulses—the rearranged words, repeating nonsensical phrases and seeking a somewhat irrational logic. I am more inclined to disagree with Moser—it wasn’t religion or religious order that made Clarice’s writing fragmented, but her experimentation, almost Cubist in artistic license, that guided her sentence construction. In Happy Birthday, the repetitive words stop us from moving ahead, giving us pause to examine the grandmother celebrating her 89th birthday. The sentences recurring are:

 “See you next year!” Jose suddenly exclaimed mischievously…

“See you next year, eh?” he repeated afraid…

And: …the cups dirtied, only the cake intact—she was the mother. The birthday girl blinked.

Followed by: …the tablecloth stained with Coco-Cola, the cake in ruins, she was the mother. The birthday girl blinked.

In fact, Clarice explains the need for repetition in her commentary on her own writing as: “…repetition pleases me, and repetition happening in the same place ends up digging down bit by bit, the same old song ad nauseam says something.”


As Clarice grew older, her stories reflected an upper middle-class woman’s explorations into aging, children and a revelatory ‘unconscious elaboration’. As is in literature and life, many of our explorations come from the world in which we exist. Clarice was known as a very glamorous and attractive woman. It was as if as a writer, she could exist only in relation to her beauty. In 1975, she published Onde estivestes de noite (Where Were You at Night), partly an exploration of aging in women. At the First World Congress of Sorcery in Bogota, in 1975, her story, The Hen and The Egg, was released in English. She said of the story, “My inspiration does not come from the supernatural, but from unconscious elaboration, which comes to the surface as a kind of revelation. Moreover, I don’t write in order to gratify anybody else.”

In divided India, Amrita too wrote over 28 novels, 18 prose anthologies, 5 short story collections and 16 miscellaneous prose volumes. While she was still married to Pritam Singh, Amrita fell in love with eminent lyricist and poet, Sahir Ludhianvi, a love that transpired and progressed through letters.

In her autobiography, Rasidi Ticket, Pritam writes that she and Ludhianvi stared into each other’s eyes as he chain-smoked. After he left, Amrita picked up the stubs left by him, and smoked them, imprinting his mark on her lips. While early in the unrequited yet scandalous romance, Amrita was willing to give up her marriage, Ludhianvi wasn’t so ready to relinquish his freedom. Amrita’s poetry reflected Ludhianvi’s hold on her. And even when his affections moved on to another woman, singer Sudha Malhotra, in 1960, Amrita’s poetry didn’t make her love for him a secret.


Scaachi, meanwhile, writes about the craving for the familiar—a craving only children of immigrants feel. In her essay, “Mute”, about online bullying, she writes about when she discovered she wanted to be a writer. “…later that year, I read another book by an Indian writer about a first-generation Indian girl trying to date as a teenager, the plot alone blossoming in my heart when I read it. It changes you, when you see someone similar to you, doing the thing you might have wanted to do yourself.” Scaachi writes about the familiar, the daily, the new, and yet the old. Looking to grow into her writing, part of a generation that doesn’t see gender or color, her writing still is fragrant with immigrant travel.


Clarice returned to Rio with her sons in 1959 after her divorce so she could be closer to her sisters. She lived in Rio till her death from inoperable ovarian cancer in 1977. Her writing changed with age, circumstance and introspection, much like Amrita’s. Translator Katrina Dodson, in The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector, says: “Even as Clarice’s voice is distinctly her own from the start, the early stories show a young writer enamored of words… revealing a sophisticated knowledge of Portuguese and the ability to write fluid, beautiful prose when she chooses.”

Clarice struggled to get her work published, nine of her novels were published by eight different publishers, giving the reader a view into the ever-changing publishing industry. Amrita’s work also saw many publishers before she and her partner of forty years, the artist Imroz, focused on Nagmani, a poetry literary journal, which she published until 2002, just two years before she died.


Discussing three very different and yet very similar women from times long past and the present through their writing is obviously unfair. How can we even fathom the journeys taken under duress where characters in their stories only discussed the inner journeys that they traveled on? Or when they write of a journey their parents took decades before they were born? What did Amrita experience when she lost her love, or Clarice when she moved back to Brazil? What the mind travels for, what the heart beats for, is a journey experienced internally. Can we really fathom that journey? When we travel, do we remember just the mountains, or the dark nights? Or do we remember what a mountain made us feel? Amrita died over a decade ago, Clarice at least four, but the legend of both continues. Amrita’s love for Ludhianvi has now been transformed into a play and a movie. Her poetry is quoted in Hindi movies and her unusual relationship with her partner now considered more mainstream than it was when she was alive. Her feminism has been quiet yet strident and appeals to the Indian youth whose view of the Partition is romantic, almost magical, far different what our parents actually experienced. The legend of Clarice is almost mythical. Much like her fragmented sentence structures, her life and writing appears in snippets—her luminous eyes in magazines, her elegant outfits remind us of an era long gone. All these seem to fog the idea of the radical storytelling she implemented in the Portuguese language. Clarice’s life—messy, complicated, scrappy, disjointed, clever, present, the truly lived life of a woman—is what her journey presents. Scaachi’s just beginning—a social media fixture, a strident voice of humor, and yet, her reflections of identity and race makes her a welcome voice to hear.


We remember distance in memories. We remember figures in memories. And those people, once gone, live through their words, the written word. The journey we go on, reading works of Lispector, Pritam, or Koul, gives us a glimpse of what discrimination was in an era forgotten and even today—not only of religion, but of gender as well. The daily routine tasks of a Lispector character takes us on a journey where a few chance words transform a world unfamiliar. Pritam’s world now feels almost alien, but a violent one where language was simple, and love was passionate. And in Koul’s present reflections, we live in the present, but with the fears and hopes of the past. We live in a world of memories.

That’s our intelligent travel.

Madhushree Ghosh

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.


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