The Other Side of Silence: Crisis of Identity for no Institutional Religion – II

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In the second and concluding part of the column, Basudeb tells us how Urvashi Butalia’s novel, The Other Side of Silence, shows that the writer’s Ranamama at Lahore stayed back for practical reasons. He was never a devout Hindu, nor a pious Muslim, after conversion. It’s a unique documentation of alternative sources of history, where memory, identity and orality braid to find expression. Here’s the weekly column, exclusively in Truths.

The Other Side of Silence delineates the traumatic experiences of victims in the post-partitioned period of both India and Pakistan. It is a historical fiction dealing with the problems of rootlessness, nostalgia and economic hardships of those Hindus who either leave for India or stay back to Pakistan after the Indian partition in 1947. In chapter 11 of the book, Urvashi Butalia narrates her of the visit to her uncle who converts himself into Islam during the time of partition violence at Lahore and never leaves for India like other members of his family. In 1987, she decides to visit her uncle, Ranamama at Lahore. There she meets him and has a week-long stay with his family. The writer introduces her of how her uncle even after a long period of the appropriation of the faith of Islam suffers a kind poignant crisis of identity. Ranamama’s crisis of identity is not in any religious line.

Ranamama is the youngest brother of Butalia’s mother. When the partition violence breaks out, everyone except Ranamama decides to leave for India. Ranamama makes up his mind to have his access to the property of his father and forefathers. The writer’s grandmother also decides to live at Lahore with Ranamama. Everyone leaves for India and if he stays at Lahore, he will be the lone owner of the entire property. To fulfill this ambition he converts himself into Islam. Ranamama’s conversion to Islam is not prompted by his faith in Islam; it is for the sake of his convenience. Let me refer to an excerpt from The Other Side of Silence, which spells out the reasons his to stay back at Lahore:

Why had he not left with his brother and sisters at Partition, I asked him. ‘Why did you stay back?’ Well, Ranamama said, like a lot of other people he had never expected Partition to happen the way it had. ‘Many of us thought, yes, there’ll be change, but why should we have to move?’ He hadn’t thought political decisions affect his life, and by the time he realised otherwise, it was too late, the point of no return had actually been reached. ‘I was barely twenty. I’d had little education. What would I have done in India? I had no qualifications, no job, nothing to recommend me’….No one forced me to do anything. But in a sense, there wasn’t really a choice. The only way I could have stayed on was by converting. And so, well, I did. I a Muslim girl, changed my religion, and took a Muslim name’. (Urvashi Butalia, pp.36-37)

His mother who had also stayed back at Lahore converts herself into Islam and takes a Muslim name, ‘Ayesha Bibi’. When she dies, he practices the Muslim rituals and buries her.

The problem with Ranamama is that his former identity i.e., he belonged to the Hindu religion, has not wiped out his present one. He has married a Muslim lady; he has fathered two children. He has never visited India after 1947. Still he fails to identify himself with Pakistan. It will be a mistake if someone thinks that Ranamama is a devout Hindu or after his conversion into Islam he becomes a pious Musalman. Actually, religion does not mean much to him. His problem lies somewhere else. Butalia narrates his predicament:

‘One thing I’ll tell you,’ said Mamu in answer to my , ‘I have not slept one night in these forty years without regretting my decision. . . . ‘You see, my child,’ he said, repeating something that was to become a sort of refrain in the days we spent together, ‘somehow a convert is never forgiven. Your past follows you, it hounds you. For me, it’s worse because I’ve continued to live in the same place. Even today, when I walk out to the market I often hear people whispering “Hindu, Hindu”. No, you don’t know what it is like. They never forgive you for being a convert.’ (Urvashi Butalia, p.38)

Ranamama’s emotional suffering and consequent crisis of identity is free from any religious point of reference. Normally when a Hindu or a Muslim leaves for India or for Pakistan leaving his land where he is born and brought up, he feels alienated in his new environment and suffers a crisis of identity. Here Ranamama’s crisis is unique because he is born and brought up at Lahore but all his friends and relatives leave for India during the time of the partition. He becomes a Muslim and happily leads her married life at Lahore with his and children; he has not left behind the land where he grows old from the first day of his birth; he is at Lahore, his hometown; still he suffers and considers India his home. By converting himself into Islam, by marrying a Muslim woman, he formally makes Pakistan his own country; still he cannot think Pakistan as his own land. And this issues out his emotional predicament that results in the crisis of his identity. Butalia observes:

…And, although he had told me that his home in Lahore was the only home he had ever known, it was to India that he turned for a sense of home. There is a word in Punjabi that is enormously evocative and emotive for most Punjabis: watan. It’s a difficult word to translate: it means home, country, land – all and any of them. When a Punjabi speaks of his or her watan, you know they are referring to something inexpressible, some longing for a sense of place, of belonging, of rootedness. For most Punjabis who were displaced as a result of Partition, their watan lay in the home they had left behind. For Ranamama, in a curious travesty of this, while he continued to live on in the family home in Pakistan, his watan became India, a country he had visited only briefly, once. (Urvashi Butalia, p.39)

Ranamama’s crisis of identity pertains to neither Hindu identity nor Muslim identity. It is the crisis of identity that is universal in nature. It has nothing to do with any institutional religion.

Primary Source

Urvashi Butalia, The Other Side of Silence, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1998.


©Basudeb Chakraborti

Photos from the internet.

#OtherSideOfSilence #MakingOfLiterature #UrvashiBhutalia #HinduMuslim #

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti

Basudeb Chakraborti is a retired professor of English and Faculty Dean, University of Kalyani. He founded the Department of English in Sikkim Central University (2013). He taught in the USA and India. He wrote more than 100 articles in different literary journals in India and abroad. Among his books, Thomas Hardy's View of Happiness, Some Problems of Translation: A Study of 's Red Oleanders, Indian Partition Fiction in English and in English Translation, etc.
Basudeb Chakraborti