Published: Feb. 1, 2006 By

If the humanities have a future as cultural criticism, and cultural criticism has a task at the present moment, it is no doubt to return us to the human where we do not expect to find it, in its frailty and at the limits of its capacity to make sense.  We would have to interrogate the emergence and vanishing of the human at the limits of what we can know, what we can hear…to create a sense of the public in which oppositional voices are not feared, degraded or dismissed, but valued for the instigation to a sensate democracy they occasionally perform (Butler, 151).

[1] Much of the current scholarship on the vexed relationship between nationalism and gender, especially feminist cultural criticism and the postcolonial critique of nationalist discourses, has illuminated how women are constructed as signs and symbols of the nation or ethnic/cultural community in nationalism.  As such, women’s bodies often begin to bear the symbolic burden, as evidenced by colonial historians like Partha Chatterjee and literary critics like Sangeeta Ray, amongst others, of signifying culture and tradition, community and nation (Chatterjee, 233; Ray, 25).  However, in the process of examining the gendering of nationalism, these critiques translate the relation between “gender” and nation, as one between “woman” and nation.   This leads us to questions we are now prepared and need to address, about men and masculinity in the production of gender:  What happens to men’s roles, male bodies, and conceptions of masculinity in the discursive articulation of nationalism in the public sphere?  How are male bodies represented, deployed and refashioned in the creation and contestation of nationalism?

[2] To complicate the equation of “gender” and “woman,” to offer a fuller account of the gendering of nationalism, I want to argue that it is imperative to examine the construction of both masculinity and femininity together in the articulation of cultural and national belonging in public and political discourse.  Thus, while recent feminist work has argued that women become symbols of the nation in moments of ethnic conflict – not only in South Asia, but around the world -, I suggest that a new look at the narration of violence against men in the postcolonial Indian public sphere reveals that masculinity and men as gendered subjects can also become critical sites for the symbolization of nationality and belonging.  While the violence perpetrated by men against women’s bodies has received much attention, this essay deliberately focuses on the cultural representation of violence suffered by male bodies in the public sphere.

[3] New directions in feminist studies have begun to take up this problem of rethinking masculinity, towards reconceptualizing the project and politics of feminist transformation.  With the exception of Mrinalini Sinha’s Colonial Masculinity, these studies explore new conversations and questions about the historical and cultural production of masculinity in largely Euro-American contexts (Gardiner, 5; Eng, 32).  For example, in his historical exploration of Euro-American conceptions of masculinity, Leo Brady has already illuminated how the ideal of European masculinity “has been shaped by the idea of the nation and citizenship” (451).  This piece seeks to pluralize this engagement, by exploring the question of masculinity and nationalism in decolonization and postcoloniality.  In interrogating the slide from “gender” to “woman” by re-examining masculinity, I hope to, as Peter Hitchcock suggests about masculinity in a different context, “complicate our historical sense of the relationship between” gender and nation.  Many scholars like Anne McClintock and Elleke Boehmer have suggested that in the nationalist scenario, women “are typically constructed as the symbolic bearers of the nation” while in contrast, men are “contiguous” with each other and with the national whole (92).  However, in the literature of the 1947 Partition of India, it is notable that often, men become symbolic national icons; through their suffering masculinities, they index the violence of both colonialism and elite nationalism. In excavating then, the gendering of nationalism in the Indian public sphere post 1947 – in what I will call the postcolonial public sphere -, what one witnesses is an ambivalent, complex construction of both male as well as female subjects as symbolic representatives of (ethnic) community and nationality.  In particular, the literature that engages the history of decolonization, Partition and independence in India, deploys the gendered body, marked by ethnic difference, as the literal and symbolic site of national violence.  This literature, as a part of postcolonial public spheres that become increasingly transnational, articulates a critique of nationalism through the representation of violence and displacement experienced by its heterosexual male and female subjects, by the couple and the patriarchal family.  In the process, these narratives make visible how both male and female bodies become sites subject to intimate violence and displacement. By showing how the state thus generates suffering citizens and resisting subjects, these cultural accounts reveal new contours of gendering that mark discourses of ethnic identity, nationalism, and postcolonial citizenship.

Suffering Masculinities

The task of a critique of violence may be summarized as that of expounding its relation to law and justice. (Benjamin, 277)

The common assumption for all of us who begin, in the study of colonial and postcolonial culture, with the intolerable facts of global suffering and injustice, ought surely to be…that progress is an absolute necessity. (Robbins, 165)

[4] On 21 March 2000 in the war torn state of Kashmir, Islamic militants massacred 35 Sikh men from the village of Chitti Singhpora.  It was Holi, the festival of colors.  Militants with bright Holi colors on their faces wore Indian military uniforms, arrived in the village, told the villagers they were from the army, and dragged the Sikh men out of their houses on the pretext of an “identification parade.”  All the Sikh men, young and old, were lined up against two walls in the village, and then shot to death.  Since the targeting and subsequent exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from Kashmir, this was the first time the Sikh community was targeted and brutally massacred.

[5] This incident immediately invoked the 1947 Partition of India: as one newspaper headline remarked, “Ghosts of Partition return to haunt Sikhs.”  Many of the Sikhs in the villages in Jammu and Kashmir were migrants from Pakistan who had been displaced during the Partition.  The killing of the male members of the family also evoked Partition: once again, it left so many women without any traditional male support.  Many women, young and old, were now faced with utter poverty, bereft of the breadwinners in the family.  The Sikhs constitute only two per cent of the population in the valley (around 80,000), and this massacre in what has largely been a Hindu-Muslim conflict in Kashmir filled the Sikh survivors with terror.  Kashmiri Sikhs were forced to contemplate an exodus similar to that of the Kashmiri Pandits over the past decade – for many, a double displacement due to ethnic violence, once in 1947, and again, 53 years later in 2000.

[6] This event is exemplary in many ways.  Caught up in the midst of writing the cultural story of South Asian ethnic and national belongings after 1947, it brought home to me with indelible force and clarity how Partition continues to haunt contemporary life in India — not only for discourses that debate the place of religion in India, but also for the historical interpretation of justice and minority belonging, and for the tension-ridden struggle over the production of secular national culture in the subcontinent.  After all, the militants chose, not Christians, Parsis, Tibetans, or other minorities in Kashmir as targets: they targeted Sikhs – Sikh men, as if re-iterating the violence of 1947.  Furthermore, the narrativization of this massacre in public culture made visible how it is to Partition that we often turn, even today, as an evocative repository of the meanings, metaphors, and conceptions of contemporary ethnic belonging in South Asia.  This gendered ethnic violence, like the violent demolition of the Babri Masjid, is a crisis that refracts the ethnicization of territory and national belonging that have marked the checkered history of secularism in the subcontinent.

[7] The decolonization of India in 1947 was accompanied by its partition into two nations, India and Pakistan along religious lines.  This partition granted Independence to a supposedly Hindu India, and created a new nation Pakistan to be predominantly populated by Muslims.  What made this simultaneous partition and independence a singular event was the large scale ethnic violence and mass migration that accompanied it: in the nine months between August 1947 and the spring of the following year, by unofficial counts, at least 18 million people – Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims – were forced to flee their homes and became refugees; at least a million were killed in ethnic violence.  Many of these refugees eventually migrated to the UK and the US.  A singular feature of this violence was the large-scale abduction of over 120,000 women by men from the other community.  Thus, freedom was accompanied by traumatic loss, nations gained through homes lost forever for millions.  Despite the scale and nature of violence involved in this partition, making it one of the most violent events in the history of nation-formation, and indeed the world’s biggest mass migration in under nine months, very little attention has been paid to the critical impact of this violence and mass migration on the discourses of national belonging and citizenship in South Asian public spheres.  Unmemorialized institutionally, the collective memory and cultural effects of the 1947 violence and migration can be apprehended in their imaginative inscription in the literature and film that inhabit the public sphere.   In particular, this public sphere archive illuminates the contours of the complex relationships amongst rhetorics of masculinity and femininity in nationalist violence (be it civil war, fascism, or ethnic cleansing) that marks the life of nations in the modern world.

Secular Masculinities

[8] Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children (1981) was, apart from Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day(1980), one of the first South Asian novels in English that returned to the question of nation formation and partition after a long silence in the South Asian public sphere.  Furthermore, this turn to re-considering 1947 emerged in the South Asian diaspora, and after Partition had largely disappeared from discussion in public life in India for over a decade.  Thus, Rushdie’s return to the meaning and effects of Partition marks the diasporic return to questions about national history and memory, a turn paralleled by subsequent work in the late twentieth century by film-makers, Subaltern Studies historians and anthropologists on Partition.  The novel is particularly interesting for its representation of the violence suffered by male bodies in postcolonial India and its relationship to the history and legacy of the Partition.

[9] In Midnight’s Children, the story of the male narrator Saleem Sinai, “buffeted by too much history,” becomes an allegory of the divided Indian subcontinent.  Midnight’s Children is about the one thousand and one children born in India in the novel at precisely the moment India gained independence from British colonialism, and became a nation-state.  The protagonist and narrator Saleem Sinai is one of the five hundred and thirty-one children who survive adolescence, and so symbolize the post-independence generation.  When Saleem is born at midnight on August 14, 1947, newspapers designate Saleem as “MIDNIGHT’S CHILD” and “the Happy Child of that glorious Hour,” and a personal letter from the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru also claims him as the representative citizen of the new nation:

“Dear Baby Saleem, My belated congratulations on the happy accident of your moment of birth!  You are the newest bearer of the ancient fate of India, which is also eternally young.  We shall be watching over your life with the closest attention; it will be, in a sense, the mirror of our own.” (138)

Nehru’s congratulatory note and its eventual tragic denouement emblematize the complex, collusive and conflicted relations between the nation form and the everyday life of its citizens.  The nation’s address to Saleem in this note not only writes him as the nation’s present and its representative citizen, but also subjects him to the disciplining scrutiny of the nation-state apparatus as its pedagogical object.

[10] This metaphor of Saleem’s masculine body as the Indian nation is suggested throughout the narrative.  Hence, “as the body politic began to crack,” Saleem began to be physically mutilated: for example, his finger is lopped off in an accident (coinciding with the bloody language riots in Bombay); as he lives through Pakistan’s civil war of 1965 and India’s Emergency in 1975, Saleem ends up forcibly lobotomized, sterilized and sperectomized.  Nehru’s note to “Baby Saleem” then not only writes him as the nation’s representative; it signals that the dismembering, bodily violence suffered by Saleem’s male body will emblematize the fragmentation of the postcolonial national body.  Saleem’s mutilated body thus embodies the spatial and social partitions of the nation, and his life becomes an allegory of Indian national life.  As he says: “the cracks in the earth” “will-be-have-been reborn in my skin.”  Saleem’s impotent and dismembered body, in scenes scattered throughout the subcontinent, not only allegorizes the nation, but is also revealed to be the effect of elite and ethno nationalist violence.  His wounded, emasculated male body becomes then, both witness and victim of the violence of nations and nationalisms.

[11] Thus, the 1947 Partition appears throughout Midnight’s Childrennot only as the history that splinters and spreads Saleem’s extended family over two countries India and Pakistan.  It also remains present in the novel in its reiteration in the male citizen’s sexual body.  Partition here is not only a historical event, but also a motif of postcolonial national experience; thus, Rushdie suggests, fragmentation and dismembering of the nation’s body politic and of the narrator’s own physical body mark the experience of postcolonial citizenship.  Through the representation of this hybrid subject’s suffering masculinity, Rushdie criticizes the failure of secular national ideals in postcolonial India. As Saleem says early on in the novel:

Please believe that I am falling apart.

I am not speaking metaphorically; nor is this the opening gambit of some melodramatic, riddling, grubby appeal for pity.  I mean quite simply that I have begun to crack all over like an old jug – that my poor body, singular, unlovely, buffeted by too much history, subjected to drainage above and drainage below, mutilated by doors, brained by spittoons, has started coming apart at the seams.  In short, I am literally disintegrating, slowly for the moment, although there are signs of acceleration.  I ask you only to accept (as I have accepted) that I shall eventually crumble into (approximately) six hundred and thirty million particles of anonymous and necessarily oblivious dust.  This is why I have resolved to confide in paper, before I forget. (We are a nation of forgetters). (37)

Clearly, the phrase “six hundred and thirty million particles” refers to the population of India; as Saleem disintegrates so does the myth and body politic of the nation.  While this discussion of Rushdie’sMidnight’s Children is brief and necessarily partial, what it usefully illuminates is the contemporary Indian novel’s symbolization of suffering masculinity as embodied secular nationalism in the postcolonial context.  The sterilized Saleem becomes iconic victim and critic of the postcolonial nation and its political elite.  Moreover, this novel also problematizes, even as it makes visible, the heroicization of the violent masculinity of Shiva-an Indian Army war hero and government bureaucrat-from the seventies onwards.  In this way, Rushdie both signals and criticizes the emerging dominance of a muscular, militant, masculine Hindu nationalism in the postcolonial public sphere.

[12] In Saleem Sinai’s mutilated body as the mirror of the nation, Rushdie describes the historical legacy of that first, violent, national partition of 1947.  Rushdie’s urban, hybrid, and secular middle-class male subject’s impotence represents the failed secular promises of postcolonial Indian nationalism – reconfiguring in the process, the dominant nationalist discourse of the nation as “Mother India” that prevailed in colonial India.  Hence, in Midnight’s Children, Rushdie imaginatively pictures for us not only a magical realist revision and remembrance of the violent territorial splitting of 1947, but also its historical continuity and repetition in national life upon embodied national subjects.  In doing so, he articulates a powerful critique of the limitations of the nation as an imagined community.

Secular Peasants, Subaltern Citizenships

[13] If, in contemporary postcolonial literature, suffering secular masculinities that represent the nation are often urban and middle-class, the 2002 mass media representation of the Sikh male villagers shot in Kashmir evoked earlier popular cultural accounts of the Partition.  In the early national period in India immediately after 1947, considerable Partition literature constructed the male peasant as secular hero and suffering citizen in the new nation.  Khushwant Singh’s novel Train to Pakistan (1956) is a prize-winning novel from the early national period about how Partition violence in different parts of India eventually creeps into the once syncretic village community, an oasis of peace – Mano Majra.  A small village near the Indo-Pakistan border, Mano Majra’s seventy families include one Hindu (a moneylender Lala Ram Lal), and about an equal number of Sikh and Muslim families.  The Sikhs are largely landowners and the Muslims are tenants who shared the tilling of the land.  The novel’s melodramatic plot centers on the forbidden inter-ethnic romance of Juggut Singh, a Sikh ruffian, and Nooran, a young woman who is Muslim.  Set in the summer of 1947, the novel describes Mano Majra as initially untouched by the Partition, its harmonious everyday life regulated by the rhythms of the trains that rattle across the nearby river bridge.  When, in this peaceful haven, the moneylender is murdered by some thieves, suspicion falls on Juggut Singh who is a known village thief.  In the meantime, even as a Western-educated Communist political worker Iqbal arrives in the village to preach class struggle and communal harmony, a train from Pakistan comes over the bridge at an unusual time and the villagers discover it is full of dead Sikhs.  When the same thing happens a few days later and another train carrying dead Sikhs arrives, the village becomes a site of ethnic violence and forced migration.

[14] When the large scale migration or ‘exchange’ of populations between India and Pakistan began in 1947, large numbers of people went across the new national borders every imaginable way: by train, by air for the elite, by ship for those going from Karachi (now in Pakistan) to Bombay (in India), and most common of all, by foot.  Once the communal violence escalated, organized gangs of Hindus and Sikhs, as well as Muslims ambushed and attacked trains carrying people of the ‘other’ community across the border.  They systematically killed every man, woman and child on board, leaving the engine driver alive to carry “the gift” (as they would call it) to India or Pakistan.

[15] Train to Pakistan makes visible how, locally and individually, the villagers begin to rearticulate their identities and alliances following the advent of the trains laden with dead Sikh bodies and of the Sikh refugees from Pakistan.  From being unified as an old, rural community of Mano Majrans, they now become polarized into new ethnic groups – Hindus and Sikhs vs. Muslims – in an abstract nation.  When their desire for revenge violence is questioned, “what have the Muslims of this village done?” (my emphasis), many, from native Sikh Mano Majrans to the local sub-inspector say, “They are Muslims.”  Thus, neighbors are marked ethnically, and in that process, othered – a familiar story of many other global scenes of ethnic violence.

[16] In the end, events proceed very dramatically: as Hukum Chand (the magistrate newly arrived in Mano Majra “to maintain the peace”) has planned, the Muslims of Mano Majra are forced to leave the village.  They are evacuated first to a refugee camp in a nearby town Chundunnugger, and then to Pakistan by train, with only as many belongings as they can carry in hand.  Their property is ransacked and taken over by local dacoits and Sikh refugees from Pakistan that had taken shelter in the village.  Finally, these same people hatch a plot to kill as many Muslims as they can when the train carrying the Muslim refugees from the Chundunnugger camp passes through Mano Majra’s railway station.  Refugee trains at this time, overflowed with passengers, with people traveling even on the rooftops of the trains, as the compartments were overcrowded.  Their plan was to stretch a strong rope across the span of the bridge, a foot above the height of the funnel of the engine, such that when the train passes under it, it will sweep off all the people (at least five hundred) sitting on the roof of the train.  The plan is foiled when Jugga uncovers it, and discovers that his beloved Nooran (who, unbeknownst to him, is pregnant with his child) is on that same train.  He heroically cuts off the rope just as the train arrives; wounded, he falls and is crushed under the train even as it passes on safely to Pakistan.  Jugga’s love for his departing Muslim beloved saves the lives of hundreds of refugees.  The novel thus valorizes heroic inter-ethnic love, and envisions it as the only redemptive force in the midst of this senseless violence.

[17] On the one hand, Train to Pakistan registers the rhetoric of avenging women’s dishonor that many men from both communities voiced at this time.  The conversation between the sub-inspector at Mano Majra and the magistrate Hukum Chand early on, when Chand arrives there, is pertinent.  As government employees, both are responsible for maintaining law and order; Chand is expressly sent to the district for this purpose.  However, the conversation between them sheds light on a much regretted but underplayed aspect of Partition violence: that despite the purported official condemnation of the violence on the part of both, the Indian and the Pakistani states, the workers and officials that constituted the state apparatus were not always neutral or secular.  In fact, they often deployed their position as state officials and representatives to engineer communal violence and displace people from the other community.  The sub-inspector says, “Sometimes Sir, one cannot restrain oneself.  What do the Gandhi caps in Delhi know about the Punjab?  What is happening on the other side in Pakistan does not matter to them.  They have not lost their homes and belongings; they haven’t had their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters raped and murdered in the street.” (31)  Like the “Gandhi caps” or nationalist politicians he is criticizing, the sub-inspector has not lost his home or belongings, seen his wife, sister or daughter raped and murdered in the street either.  On the other hand then, this scene also makes visible the distance and dissonance between elite, secular nationalist politics, and the alienated, resentful actors in the state apparatus entrusted to translate that secular national vision into reality – actors voicing popular communalist rhetoric and for whom local, ethnic, class, and caste affiliations were often more compelling than the imagined nation.  To the sub-inspector’s outburst Hukum Chand responds, “I know it all.  Our Hindu women […]: so pure that they would rather commit suicide than let a stranger touch them.” (31)  Chand’s response not only erases from the ethnic community the presence of the raped Hindu woman, but also endorses the contemporaneous popular ideology, voiced momentarily even by Gandhi, of suicide as the only option for women raped, or about to be raped.  Chand thus not only reinforces the common Hindu nationalist rhetoric about women’s purity and defilement, but also locks the ‘Hindu woman’ into a discourse where sexual violence is a form of ‘dishonor:’ a dishonoring which amounts to social death, and therefore supposedly makes the very victim – the woman – of that violence desire physical death.  The novel’s structure reinforces this symbolic violence to the figure of the ‘Hindu woman:’ the Hindu and Sikh women who are raped die in the novel’s account.  In contrast, both the Muslim women—Nooran and Haseena Begum, who have sexual relations with non-Muslim men-Juggut Singh and Chand—do not die, but migrate to Pakistan – their troubling bodies banished beyond the Indian national border.  In addition, Nooran, the new Muslim citizen of the incipient nation Pakistan is pregnant with a child fathered by a Sikh.

[18] Hukum Chand’s machinations to displace Muslim Mano Majrans and his relationship with Haseena Begum (a Muslim child prostitute) both reveal Chand to be a corrupt bureaucrat.  He rationalizes away his misgivings about her age, because she has been procured for him at his own behest.  He reminisces that she reminds him of his daughter, and then deliberately dismisses those thoughts to proceed to have sexual relations with her.  Later, he realizes that he has developed feelings for this girl, whom he had sent away to Chundunnugger after a couple of days with her in Mano Majra: “‘No fool like an old fool.’  It was bad enough for a married man in his fifties to go picking up women.  To get emotionally involved with a girl young enough to be his daughter and a Muslim prostitute at that!  That wastoo ludicrous.  He must be losing his grip on things.  He was getting senile and stupid.” (200)  It is when he realizes that as per his own plans, she was being evacuated along with all the Muslims in the district to Pakistan, that Chand seems to regret his actions:

Why had he let the girl go back to Chundunnugger?  Why?  He asked himself, hitting his forehead with his fist.  If only she were here in the rest house with him, he would not bother if the rest of the world went to hell.  But she was not here; she was in the train. He could hear its rumble. Hukum Chand slid off his chair, covered his face with his arms and started to cry.  Then he raised his face to the sky and began to pray. (204)

Thus, the end of the novel redeems Hukum Chand’s communalist acts through his realization of his ‘feelings’ for the Muslim girl sex worker.  In other words, his sentimentality about the Muslim sex-worker and refugee mitigates his communalist sentiments.  In doing so, the novel criticizes communalist ideology, but fails to challenge the production of women as sexual objects and cultural symbols that grounds ethnic sexual violence.  Ultimately, the novel’s ambivalence towards Chand perhaps exemplifies the middle-class sentiment about communal violence in this moment: the narrator both embraces Chand’s criticism of nationalist politicians and the price that ordinary Indians paid for their so called freedom and tryst with destiny, as well as reveals Chand to be a communalist, mean, and corrupt state representative who engineers the destruction of Mano Majra’s peace.  In this ambivalence, where Chand is almost but not quite a hero or a villain, the novel articulates the middle-classes’ ambivalence towards communalism—and consequent complicity with its ethnic violence–at this time.  It is this ambivalence that becomes the condition of possibility for the resurgence of Hindu ethnic nationalism in contemporary India; in a sense, the bureaucrat Chand prefigures the current popular heroicization of militant, middle-class, statist, Hindu masculinities in transnational Indian public spheres as also uncovered in Anand Patwardhan’s critical documentary Father, Son and the Holy War (1994).  Here also lies the novel’s failure in transcending and envisioning a beyond to the patriarchal and communalist discourses of its time.

[19] Although the state official Chand ends up being partially redeemed by his sentimental love in the narrative, it is Jugga – a common criminal – who is good-hearted, sincere, and ultimately, a secular hero.  Jugga is seen to be ethical in that he does not commit crimes against his fellow Mano Majrans, and ultimately, a hero because he sacrifices his life for true love.  In doing so, he contradicts Chand’s class-prejudiced assertion that “His type never risked their necks for women.  If Nooran was killed he would pick up another girl;” thus, Jugga transcends dominant discourses of class identity and religious belonging that mark national citizenship and engender ethnic violence in the nation.  It is significant and ironic that it is the figure of Jugga, as the young, hyper-masculine, sexual, ‘bad’ man, and not the state representative, that ensures the safety of Muslim refugees going to Pakistan.  Jugga’s heroic act of saving the life of hundreds of Muslims thus undercuts Chand’s best efforts to engineer the saboteurs’ violence.  However, if Jugga’s lower class criminality is redeemed by his heroic true love, it does so only through the dematerialization of his body.  It is on his crushed, rural, masculine body that the triumph of secularism—figured as heterosexual inter-faith love–is inscribed.

[20] It is notable that all the inter-ethnic sexual relationships that appear in the novel are between Sikh/Hindu men and Muslim women.  Nowhere is the Muslim man a figure of embodied masculinity and heroism, involved with a non-Muslim woman.  The Muslim woman here is represented through the paradigmatic opposition of either girl-whore (Haseena Begum) or mother (Nooran).  Nooran’s pregnant body carrying the product of Sikh-Muslim love becomes symbolic not only of the birth of the Pakistani nation, but also suggestive of the impurity of ethnic and national identities.  At the same time, this birth of the Pakistani nation is inscribed as symbolically enabled through the violent sacrifice of Jugga’s strong, potent, masculine, and heroic body – the Sikh male body.  Jugga’s wounded, peasant body becomes an embodiment of both the region of Punjab and the secular Indian nation.  Simultaneously however, this embodiment of true India becomes a victim of nationalist politics and its failures.  Thus, in the epic romance of this novel, it is the sincere, secular, male peasant who is both victim and authentic representative of true India.  In other words, through the performativity of sexed masculine identities, reinforcing codes of chivalrous masculinity, the novel produces Jugga as both secular hero and victim of the nation.  The violence to the heterosexual male citizen’s body thus becomes the evidence of the failure of the Indian nation-state as a utopian site for granting freedom from colonial violence, and the failure of nationalist politics, in much contemporary literature.  Like Saleem in Midnight’s Children later, Jugga embodies a secular Indian nationalism.  But if Saleem is an urban mirror-citizen of the nation and of ‘the great Indian middle class,’ Jugga as a secular peasant hero typifies the critical representation of national citizenship and its suffering in the early years of Indian independence.

[21] Train to Pakistan draws upon a familiar motif of epic romance: the lover takes care of the beloved, at the cost of his life.  Jugga’s secular love, transcending communalism, is banished from the structural-symbolic world of nations secured through ethnic difference in this novel; yet, Jugga’s somatic sacrifice is not simply an imaginary contestation that engineers the failure of communalism in this moment of crisis.  It is also, in the shape and form of Nooran’s pregnant body and his own crushed one, a troubling return of a humanist, non-national, non-communal force illuminating the violent and contingent boundaries of communalist nationalism – as Judith Butler puts it in a different context, “an enabling disruption, the occasion for a radical re-articulation of the symbolic horizon in which bodies come to matter at all” (Butler, 23).  Jugga’s male body takes the wound of the nation-state, in an embodied performance of a sensate, secular democracy; however, Nooran and Haseena’s bodies, sexually and culturally othered (through prostitution and pre-marital pregnancy) are deployed differently – they are not coded as heroic.  The only heroic femininity in this discourse is that of the Sikh women who commit suicide to stave off potential rape and are dead.  Both male as well as female bodies are being worked in this novel’s narrative; yet, if the male body is heroicized, the female body is a transitional object, a symbolizing site of intelligibility in the rhetoric of nationalism.  In other words, the imminent temporality of the Indian nation can exist only through the traumatizing banishment of inter-ethnic love, and of impure, unintelligible, inter-ethnic identities whose future possibility is embodied by a pregnant Nooran.  The novel brings out the what Arjun Appadurai has called the uncertainty and impurity of ethnic national identities- which communalism disavows-through the figure of Nooran; yet it displaces this uncertainty and hybridity of ethnic location embodied by Nooran’s fetus elsewhere, on the other side of the national border, in Pakistan (225).  If Jugga’s is an ideal, honorable masculinity, then Nooran’s fecund femininity, because of its Islamic origins, must both inspire it (to symbolize the secular) and disappear (to stave off the threat of ethnic impurity in the “secular” nation).

[22] This theme of inter-ethnic romantic love as the only transcending force in the face of ethnic violence was also popular in other novels, short stories and films.  It also resurfaces in the contemporary public sphere, in representations like Deepa Mehta’s 1998 film Earth, which was based on Pakistani writer Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Cracking India(1991). That such narrations of inter-ethnic love usually ends in tragic ways suggests that the problem of imagining a way of living with ethnic difference in the intimacy of domesticity, (thus destabilizing the family purity upon which ethnic communities are built), perhaps foreclosed the realization of this love.  A similar and melodramatic narrative is the contemporary Punjabi film Shahid-e-Mohabbat (Martyr of Love), which was popular in the UK and US, and has been broadcast regularly on television in India since 1998.  It is based on a true story, widely reported in Indian newspapers in the early fifties, of a Punjabi Sikh man living in India who is forcibly separated from his Muslim wife (when she is “returned” to Pakistan by the Indian government as part of the rescue and recovery project).  The man, Buta Singh, after several futile efforts to be reunited with her across the border, died pining for her love. However, in Train to Pakistan the origins of this motif lie, at least in part, in the tropes of urban middle-class secularist discourse about ethnic difference in India: the syncretism of religious social life in rural India; the fabled peaceful and harmonious communal relations pre-Partition; the rural as both destroyed by urban politics, and as the site of ‘real’ India.  Both Gandhi’s Autobiography: Story of My Experiments with Truth as well as Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India contributed to this dominant nationalist construction of the rural as folk, as “authentic” and representative of true India.

[23] In accounting for the collective, historical production of nationalist discourse in South Asia, it is also important to examine how certain kinds of oppositions, like Hindu-Muslim, men-women, and secular-communal become conventional and become the norm in our historicist accounts.  The literary recollection of partition violence, as in Train to Pakistan, shows how these terms are not opposite but aligned to constitute the nation on the body of the heterosexual couple.  The literature of this crisis, and this novel in particular, shows how communality and nationality do not always coincide or work in tandem.  Train to Pakistan illustrates that often, people cared little for the nationality being thrust upon them, and ambivalently responded to communalism, in a political situation where one nation (Pakistan) was being explicitly founded on the basis of religious commonality – for Muslims.  It is this very anxious and ambivalent space between the communal and the national that the state seeks to fill through the figure of the ethnicized woman.  This ethnicized woman, Hindu, Muslim or Sikh, enjoins nation-state and community as both property owners (of women’s bodies) and masculine authority.  Train to Pakistan, in placing Nooran squarely within the territorial limits of Pakistan, re-inscribes this patriarchal social and ideological discourse about gendered ethnic belonging.  These texts’ ambivalence towards inter-ethnic love emerges in their movement from the valorization of inter-ethnic romance, to their inability to allow its realization in their representations – all such romances end in heroic-tragic ways.


[24] Elsewhere, I have also written about how South Asian writers like Saadat Hasan Manto, Bapsi Sidhwa and others have taken up the history of the dehumanizing sexual violence suffered by women during Partition (Daiya, 72).  The official estimate of the number of abducted women during Partition was placed at 33,000 non-Muslim (Hindu or Sikh, predominantly) women in Pakistan, and 50,000 Muslim women in India.  However, Mridula Sarabhai, a prominent worker in the project of the Indian and Pakistani government to ‘recover’ abducted women, placed the unofficial count of abducted women in Pakistan at ten times the 1948 official figure of 12,500 (Basu, 155). Recent feminist historiography by scholars like Ritu Menon, Kamala Bhasin, and Urvashi Butalia has shown that during Partition, abducting women from the other community became a common way to dishonor the Muslim/Hindu/Sikh ‘other;’ the appropriation of women from the other community was a way to affect the collective honor, religious sentiment and the physical reproduction of that community.  Dominant Indian nationalist discourses at this time not only constructed women as representatives of ethnic community and honor; they also only valued and valorized the Hindu/Sikh woman who, under threat of rape or abduction, committed suicide, and thus safeguarded that honor.  As evident earlier in Chand’s comment in Train to Pakistan, it was the subjectivity of women who committed suicide in the face of ethnic sexual violence that was coded as heroic national femininity by patriarchal nationalist ideology.  Although Gandhi recanted his stance later, initially, even he responded with approval of this heroicized femininity whose agency is presented in and through suicide: “I have heard that many women who did not want to lose their honour chose to die.  Many men killed their own wives.  I think that is truly great, because I know that such things make India brave … [T]hey [the women] have gone with courage.  They have not sold away their honour.  Not that their life was not dear to them, but they felt it was better to die than to be forcibly converted to Islam by the Muslims and allow them to assault their bodies.” (360)  Thus, it is dead women who commit suicide in the face of rape that are heroicized and nationalized posthumously at this time.  Simultaneously, it is a suffering, secular, peasant masculinity that symbolizes the violence of elite nationalism and communalism in the early national period.  However, this early popular discourse of heroic, suffering peasant masculinity as ideal secular citizenship gives way, by the end of the twentieth century, to the violent, urban, ethnic masculinity of Saleem’s nemesis Shiva the Hindu state hero (and unsung, unrecognized midnight’s child) in Midnight’s Children.  In problematizing these new violent masculinities then, Rushdie critiques the violent and powerful Hindu nationalist movement in contemporary India. Yet, in this transition, the journalistic account of the Sikh men killed and families destroyed in rural Kashmir that we began with insistently historicizes that injustice and ethnic violence, and instigates us to the democratic interrogation of the continual costs of nations, nationalisms and inter-national politics.

[25] In exploring the representation of specific ethnic masculinities, and the allegorization of the male body as nation, I am not endorsing it.  Nor am I suggesting that we erase or overlook the specificity of women’s experiences of sexual and gendered violence, or the violence of cultural discourses that construct women as objects and subjects of patriarchal nationalisms.  I am also not suggesting that women’s and men’s bodies are subject to intimate violence in identical or equivalent ways. However, what I am arguing is that it is important to explore the situated, intertwined emergence of both masculinity and femininity, their deployment in conjunction with other discourses about class, ethnicity, secularism and normative heterosexuality, to expose the pressures of nationalism on the lived experience of gendered embodiments.  While violence to men’s bodies as sexual subjects is represented in considerable postcolonial Indian writing, and this often includes scenes of castration, there has been little historical work done on this experience of violence to male bodies.  Abducted women’s experiences and memories of 1947 have been an object of interview and investigation by anthropologists and historians.  However, the intimate violence done to men’s bodies has yet to be investigated.  Perhaps because its effects remain invisible in public life, unlike the woman whose social presence simply vanished when she was abducted, men’s experiences of ethnic violence, and the cultural reinvention of the ethnic male body as citizen, have yet to be written into the story of gender and nationalism.

[26] Through this exploration of masculinity, embodiment and the representation of violence in postcoloniality, I want to suggest that we must problematize the discourses of nationalist and subaltern histories that assimilate violence against women into explanatory rhetorics of male, community, and national honor.  Questions about justice and democracy, about the narratives of history and memory are now strongly in play not only in India, but also in global geographies including North America, such that literary and cultural histories are themselves part of a political struggle over the meaning of violence, secularism and national belonging.  As Ania Loomba rightly notes, “If postcolonial studies is to survive in any meaningful way, it needs to absorb itself far more deeply with the contemporary world, with the local circumstances…which define our contemporary ‘globality.'” (257)  This essay hopefully shows how literature forms the archive for measuring the discontinuity between political ideologies of nationalism (like secularism) and their gendered embodiment in everyday life.  The formation of ordinariness and of hegemony in the public sphere in the face of violence requires tracking the articulation of that violence in different registers and in a transnational form; this is imperative, in order to raise questions about what the terms of national life should be, especially in the context of internal and international migration, and in order to create new spaces for the ethical and political re-articulation of the human and humane.


I would like to thank Ann Kibbey, the reviewers at Genders, and Geeta Patel for their generous and inspired comments on an earlier version of this essay.  My special thanks also to Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty and Lauren Berlant, who offered invaluable conversations and suggestions on the early inception of this argument.

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