After Separation: The Poetry of India’s Partition

By Andrea QuaidSeptember 5, 2012

    After Separation: The Poetry of India’s Partition

    Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil. Nightboat Books. 84 pages.

    BHANU KAPIL’S SCHIZOPHRENE BEGINS, “I threw the book into the dark garden. The account begun mid-ocean, in a storm.” What follows is the story of “what happened in a particular country on a particular day”: August 14, 1947, the date of the Partition of India, a geo-political and religious separation that divided one country into two. Partition marked the end of 89 years of British colonial rule and ostensibly created a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. But instead of the intended peaceful separation, Partition brought about civil, ethnic, and religious conflict and inaugurated years of homelessness, riots, and war.

    Rejecting the ideological fantasy of separation, Kapil pronounces it “psychotic to draw a line between two places” and illuminates how a historical trauma, like a personal one, can have lasting effects that refuse to be contained in a singular time and place. As the literary scholar Lauren Berlant claims in Cruel Optimism, her most recent work on affect and attachment, an initial traumatic event “is at once enigmatic and overpresent.” It is the shock of a violence experienced yet obscured, immediate and still enduring, often repressed and returned to at later, unexpected dates. Prolonged consequence replaces any quick clasp between cause and effect with results surfacing and taking shape belatedly, often in displaced and transformed ways.

    As a dynamic, alternative mapping of the Partition’s aftermath, Schizophrene depicts the ensuing violence of forced migration and the unsettled issues of racism resonating across generations, inside relocated homes, and within the bodies and psyches of those reproached as outsiders. A single line, sans speaker, records an encounter as interpellation: “Immigrant. Nothing happens. Immigrant.” The emphasized word reverberates, beating back the accused behind a dividing line, lodging the malediction into the recipient’s self until the voices within and without merge, and Immigrant becomes a schizophrenic experience.

    Bodies, likewise, bear the mark of trauma. One man is “collapsed, screaming, insensate to the arrival of his wife a week later, her sari caked with blood” and another, in the public corridor of a mental health institute, lies upright “on a stretcher propped against a wall. Something vertical when it should have been sideways.” Schizophene is full of such painful images: in one instance, “Against a tree, a woman is pinned, upright and strung with lights or gunpowder flares and nodes”; in another, we see “row after row of women tied to the border trees” with their stomachs cut open. Throughout, Kapil’s text expresses the pressure of social upheaval in physical terms: people press a forehead against a door, back into the snow, spine “flat against the wallpaper, which is velvet and cream with a bumpy motif of paisley swirls as per the era.”

    Schizophrene is also an account of writing itself, which is thematized as an unpredictable series of events of difficult-to-calculate durations. The opening image returns: “I threw the book into the dark garden. A dotted line. A white hole. An unseen shape rotating and twisting on the icy crust.” This persistent action signifies a question that preoccupies Kapil: how does one tell this story of disruption? “Maybe there’s a different way to tell this quick, black tale,” she wonders. “Maybe I am not a writer.” Kapil’s reply to such uncertainty is to craft a work that is at once a failed epic (or an epic in reverse, as the story documents not the founding but the unfounding of a homeland) and a collection of drafts, notes, paper and pages, all taking shape through one another.

    Formally, Schizophrene refuses any definitive division between sections for, as Kapil warns, “to write this narrative is not to split it.” Instead, paragraphs, sentences and phrases, distanced by generous white space, create a circuit of intensities. Compiled fragments resonate in a tension of separation and attraction, emphasizing relation over disjunction and association over asymmetry. Each of the eight sections maintains a narrative thread, sometimes subtle and tenuous, as the recurrence of words and images draw and gather connections between parts: the shifting image of the grid as urban city structure, chessboard, map, and airplane monitor, on one side, and all that resists such implied, neat coherence on the other, including scattered minutes, broken urns and the magnetized “swarm of iron fillings” piled on a plate.

    Schizophrene’s iterations signal traumatic persistence rather than repetition. In the section subtitled “Partition,“ it is always the same day, in perpetual occurrence: “The date and time; 12:20 on the third day.” A page later declares “12:20 on the third day; notes from the glass coffin. Schizophrene.” Four pages later, it remains “12:20 on the third day and I’m eating in the node deep in the pock of the grid.” Nine pages later, Kapil presents a temporal paradox to any possible narrative telos: “NOON: This is the same day but later.” We turn backward and forward in time, caught in fate’s momentum.


    In her previous works, Incubation: A Space for Monsters and Humanimal [Project for Future Children], Kapil has paid attention to the inventive possibilities of the sentence, and this continues in Schizophrene, where sentences are lines of flight in concert with the arc of a thrown book, a plane crossing an ocean, a body mid-space between take off and arrival. “The line the book makes is an axis, a hunk of electromagnetic fur torn from the side of something still living and thrown, like a wire, threaded, a spark toward the grass,” Kapil writes, emphasizing the sentence’s own trajectory, its movement from transformative phrase to transformative phrase, with the commas marking each small, new departure through almost alchemical conversions.

    The book remains in the frozen garden until it is retrieved by the writer at winter’s end: “I unstuck [the pages] to see. To read. I transcribe what I can, then throw the dirty book into the bin.” While the resilient pages deflect writer and word, they also absorb and preserve the story that, in epic fashion, articulates not an “individual sorrow” but the tale of a now dispersed community. The story, returned to the writer, is her subsequent offering to the reader.


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    LARB Contributor

    Andrea Quaid is a writer and critic. She co-directs the Poetry and Politics Research Cluster and Reading/Lecture series at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is a founding editor of the new UCSC Poetry and Politics imprint. She is currently a faculty member in Bard’s Language & Thinking Program. Recent critical and creative publications include the American Book Review, aPlod, BOMBlog, Jacket2, and Lana Turner.


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