Directed by Sabiha Sumar, 2003
In order to concretize the notion of a nation, various alternative narratives are side stepped and brushed away. A dominant hegemonic discourse is created to give the nation state an identity of its own that upholds the permanence of the nation as a singular monolithic entity. However, when such alternative private narratives are recovered from the cobwebs of history, they question the grand narrative of the nation state. In fact, it is our memory that acts as a storehouse of all such alternative private narratives that tend to hint at the shadowiness of the border-lines. In Khamosh Pani: Silent Waters, by the Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sabiha Sumar, the well, along with its ‘silent black water’, probably turns out a signifier of haunting memories regarding Partition, memories that create a vicious circle from where there is no scope of escape.
The film is set in the village Charkhi, near Rawalpindi, in Pakistan, and often reminds us of Mano Majra, the locale in Khushwant Singh’s novel Train to Pakistan. Khamosh Pani: Silent Waters is a story of Ayesha, played by Kiron Kher, a widow in her forties, raising her young son Saleem, played by Aamir Malik, during the years of General Zia’s military coup. Charkhi has always been a serene and quiet place until the arrival of the radical Islamists from Lahore, to recruit new arrivals for the jihadi cause and to generate the ideologies of an Islamic country among the youth. Initially Saleem has been dismissive of the Islamists sour and serious rhetoric:
Onu te lagda ae qabaz hoi ae…” –
(That one looks constipated…)
Nevertheless, Saleem was soon taken over by the sheer powerful rhetoric of the radical Islamists, befriends them, grows an intense desire to become ‘a respectable person’ and joins the jihadi cause. Saleem grows frustrated with the lack of opportunities in his village and secretly threatens the educational ambitions of his girlfriend Zubeida, played by Shilpa Shukla, either by constructing walls around the girls’ school compound or cautioning Zubeida from going to the city school. Sumar narrates how Saleem is slowly interpellated by the radical Islamic ideologies, through pamphlets and occasional political lectures in Rawalpindi. Both Ayesha and Zubeida grow increasingly concerned at Saleem’s rapid transformation from a village lad playing flute to a radical Islamist, preaching the jihadi cause.
The arrival of the Sikh pilgrims in the village, after an agreement between India and Pakistan, leads to the revelation of the long buried secrets of Ayesha that raise questions regarding her identity as a devout Muslim. Ayesha is the only lady of the village who never visits the well in Charkha, to fetch water, probably to avoid confrontation with her haunted past. It is the same well where she once stood in her childhood, during the partition of India, witnessing death. Ayesha was an onlooker, during the partition of India, of the scene where the Sikh women, often being forced by the male members of the family, jumped into the well rather than let their ‘honour’ be put to test. This scene that scarred Ayesha’s psyche is similar to the documentated events in Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence where she writes:
‘There is no record of the numbers of women and children who were who were killed by the men of their own families, their own communities’.
One might associate at least three ‘moments of death’ in Ayesha’s life: once in her childhood when she ran away from the well and was soon gang-raped, years later, when Saleem questions her religious identity and her final suicide by jumping into the well rather than publicly accepting her Islamic identity. Ayesha’s death probably gives a rude shock to the belief that being Islamic can hardly be the only identity a Muslim has, as Amartya Sen writes in Identity and Violence that ‘the denial of Plurality as well as the rejection of choice in matters of identity can produce an astonishingly narrow and misdirected view’.
The well in the village Charkhi remains a silent observer of Partition that gave birth to the notion of nationalism or rather, as Aijaz Ahmad terms, ‘nationalism of mourning’, a form of valediction, for what we witnessed was the British policy of divide and rule, and our own willingness to break up our civilizational unity, to kill our neighbours or our family members and to forego the civic ethos and ethics, without which human community is impossible. The death of Ayesha pertinently hints at the territorialisation of women body, be it during Partition or much later. Sumar’s narrative thus reminds us that the partition of India is only a trauma without a terminal that cannot be sealed because the wounds are always reopened, no matter how much the nation state tries to suppress the private narratives of such ‘silent waters’ that are embedded into wells of memories.
– Sagnik Chakraborty
(The writer would like to mention that the term ‘trauma without terminal’ is the caffeine-and-discussion induced intellectual child of Dr Abin Chakraborty, born and proclaimed at the Plato’s session on Partition literature. He thanks Dr Chakraborty for allowing him the immediate borrowing of his infant.)