Citizen Issue |

Everyday Partitions: ‘My East is Your West’ (2015) & ‘This Night-Bitten Dawn’ (2016)

Sonal Khullar

“There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”

Saadat Hasan Manto, “Toba Tek Singh” (1955).1

“Borders are the most imaginary of all territories. But, then, people are imaginative. India as we know it shares borders with six other states. Seven, if you believe in Tibet. Eleven,
if you count the stretches of water that divide the Indian archipelagos from the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Sumatra. Twelve, if you accept India’s wishful image of an undivided Kashmir stretching up to the Pamir panhandle in Afghanistan.”

Kai Friese, “Marginalia” (2001).2

Kai Friese’s essay “Marginalia” (2001) recalls Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Toba Tek Singh” (1955) about the exchange of inmates between mental asylums in India and Pakistan following the Partition of 1947. In Manto’s story, the Sikh inmate Bishan Singh, a landowner and longtime resident of the Lahore asylum, who is known as Toba Tek Singh after his hometown, tries to make sense of his belonging in the world and the status of his lands by iterating a nonsensical utterance to guards, family members, and fellow inmates: “Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di daal of the lantern.”3 During his fifteen-year tenure at the asylum, Toba Tek Singh never slept and always stood, which gave him a fierce and somewhat frightening appearance. Yet officers find him lying at the border on the day after the inmate exchange as he refused to be “returned” to India and reunited with his family. Toba Tek Singh’s story suggests that the madman’s nonsense has become common sense in a world gone mad.4 With subtle and destabilising shifts between past and present, here and there, Hindustan (India) and Pakistan, the asylum and the border, Manto’s language brings the reader to occupy common ground with Toba Tek Singh, to accept confusion and uncertainty as everyday conditions, to understand Partition as an enduring and intimate violence.

Friese observes how “borders do strange things to bodies” as he traverses various sites, past and present, in South Asia and elsewhere: Sikkim, Tibet, Delhi, Berlin, Dachau,
and Ranchi (29). He discovers two Chinese prisoners-of-war, Jiang Chen and M.A. Siblong, who have been held since the Sino-Indian war of 1962 in the Kraepelin ward (so named
after the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin) of the Central Institute of Psychiatry in Bihar, “Asia’s oldest mental asylum,” once the European Mental Asylum (19-20). According to the director of the asylum, the two Chinese prisoners are “chronic schizophrenics” and “burn-outs” (22). According to the Chinese embassy official in New Delhi with whom Friese speaks, they came to India of their “free will,” which is to say, they were asylum seekers (25). As Friese walks through the women’s wards of the asylum, he notes: “I saw a sign painted in English and it made me wince. ‘A Patient Who Works Recovers Fast.’ The old Dachau slogan: ‘Arbeit Macht Frei.’ Ranchi was no concentration camp, but the madness
of institutions is universal. And so is the fragility of their victims.” (24-25). The mix of logic and illogic, tragedy and farce, violence and madness in Friese’s ostensibly factual account of contemporary South Asia echoes Manto’s fictional narrative set a few years after Partition.

Friese shows how the legacy of Partition extends to sites and struggles other than those of Punjab and Bengal, the two regions of British India divided in 1947 into India and Pakistan. Partition is foundational to the conception of citizenship and nationhood in South Asia and to practices of everyday life. It is materialized in the state’s relationship to minorities, territory, cartography, security, nuclear science, and “sensitive spaces” such as Kashmir and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.5 It is experienced in mundane and routine contexts: farming and trading, soap operas and cricket matches, language politics and anti-terrorism policies, censorship practices and sedition laws. It is inhabited in analogues to Manto’s Lahore asylum and Friese’s Ranchi asylum such as Pagaltari (literally, Crazytown), a settlement of Bhatiyas (literally, outsiders) in Dahagram at the Bangladesh-India border.6 It is embodied in what Friese calls “borderline psychotics,” “the men who will kill you –or lock you up forever—because you live on the other side” (29).

South Asian artists have shown how high and low cultures produce vision and regimes of visibility that in turn create exclusion, violence, partitions, and space.

Friese’s psychotics suffer from an acute version of the border disease that afflicts residents of the subcontinent and is related to his “marginalia,” a compulsive disorder and critical preoccupation with borders, nations, and partitions (8). Being “fidgety at the edges,” as Friese puts it, is a normal condition in contemporary South Asia where Toba Tek Singh’s nonsensical commonsense would not be out of place: 

“Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di dal of the Pakistan and Hindustan of the get out, loudmouth!”7 This condition was the subject of the exhibitions My East is Your West (Palazzo Benzon, Venice, 2015) and This Night-Bitten Dawn (24 Jor Bagh, New Delhi, 2016), which adopted a stance akin to Friese’s marginalia. These exhibitions presented a critique of contemporary nationalism and globalisation through the trope of partition, and imagined a region across shifting sites and scales that was at odds with dominant visions of the market and nation-state. The South Asia on view in My East is Your West and This Night-Bitten Dawn was neither a region unified by tastes, values, and consumer behaviours as envisioned by the South Asia and Middle East sales and marketing division of a multinational corporation, nor a region with a shared cultural heritage, preservation challenges, and tourism potential as envisioned by a group of government ministers at a SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) meeting. My East is Your West and This Night-Bitten Dawn unsettled conventional notions of region and claimed belonging to partition, that is, to division and dislocation as the basis of identity, territory, community, and society in South Asia.

South Asia as Art World

In the exhibition catalogue Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space (Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY, 2012), Iftikhar Dadi notes “the resurgence of artistic engagement” with the Partition of 1947 after its striking absence from the field of the visual arts for most of the twentieth century.8 Since the late 1990s, the problem of borders, nations, and partitions has figured prominently in projects by Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistani visual artists who cite the historical and cultural legacies of Partition to reflect on the present. Many of these projects such as Nalini Malani’s Remembering Toba Tek Singh (1998), Bani Abidi’s The News (2001), Amar Kanwar’s The Lightning Testimonies (2007), and Tayeba Begum Lipi’s 1.7 million mi2 to 55,598 mi2 (2013) examine the multiple afterlives or shadow lines to use Amitav Ghosh’s language, of Partition in South Asia rather than focusing on a singular historical event.9 In so doing, they take a longue durée view of Partition, what Vazira Zamindar has aptly termed the “long Partition” in her study of the distribution of persons, property, permits, and passports in India and Pakistan during the late 1940s and 1950s.10 Even more significantly, these artistic projects take up the idea of everyday partitions, to adapt Kamala Visweswaran’s notion of “everyday occupations.”11 Rejecting an event-based or episodic account of violence, Visweswaran focuses on the intersection between politics and culture under occupation, a condition of “violent peace” that is socially generative and foundational to democracy in South Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.12 By her account, occupation offers a “distinct analytic” and “ethnographic object” that revises conventional histories and temporalities of domination, resistance, violence, peace, life, death, exception, and the everyday.13

What binds us, regionally, is … a common goal
to reshape dialogic cultural constituency in a postcolonial context, one that neither eludes difference nor renders it an impossible hurdle.

Although Visweswaran and her collaborators examine “poetry, song, and story” as “genres expressive of political ambiguity, hegemony, and subversion,” visual culture has also been a crucial site of power-knowledge and its critique in contemporary South Asia.14 Indeed Bhaskar Sarkar argues that the photographic image, and thereby cinema, possesses . a privileged relationship to time, memory, and death, and is especially well suited to the work of mourning.15 For Sarkar, cinema represents a set of “mass cultural practices” capable of providing a “history from below,” and illuminates “the materiality of vernacular lifeworlds” that have been obscured by a focus on elite actors and grand narratives in official histories of Partition.16 Highlighting the role of popular and vernacular cultural forms in recasting history and the everyday, Visweswaran and Sarkar elide visual art which circulates in elite gallery and museum settings. However, visual art engages the body, memory, and space in ways that are closely related to the affective, performative, and embodied address of cinema, conveying that which is unsayable or unspeakable in the aftermath of trauma, even as its materiality and language are distinct from that of cinema. South Asian artists have shown how high and low cultures produce vision and regimes of visibility that in turn create exclusion, violence, partitions, and space. Their work operates between elite and popular registers, negotiating what David Gilmartin has called the “high politics” of nationalism and the “everyday politics of local life.”17 It addresses Partition as it unfolds in homes and bazaars, on streets and sidewalks, in television shows and newspapers, on billboards and electronic discussion boards, in video games and sports competitions.

The phrase “everyday partitions” encapsulates the way in which contemporary art from South Asia decenters Partition from a fixed historical and geographical location in the past and recasts it as an incomplete process with resonances and reverberations in the present exemplified by extraordinary events such as the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992 and the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 and the ordinary workings of the state and the comings and goings of citizens and non-citizens in maps and checkpoints, classrooms and museums, border crossings and bureaucratic forms.18 The everyday in this instance not only refers to the nature of partition violence in contemporary South Asia, but also to the aesthetic means and political arguments mobilized by artists in response to that violence. It speaks to the tactics, in Michel de Certeau’s sense, of contemporary artists who seek a new relationship between art and life; who understand themselves as activists, ethnographers, and investigators; and who engage social and political issues more directly and interactively than their modernist predecessors.19 It points to transformations of de Certeau’s theory of everyday life, based in a Western tradition of critique and place and society. South Asian artists walk cities different from mid-twentieth-century Paris and craft itineraries that deserve particular attention.20 The notion of everyday partitions enables critical comparisons across sites in South Asia that are often viewed in isolation or as exceptions, illuminating links between Kochi and Jaffna, Kashmir and Assam, Dhaka and Guwahati, Delhi and Lahore, Mumbai and Bastar.

Shilpa Gupta, 1:998.9, 3360 Kms Of Fenced Border, East, Sunderbans To Teen Math, Data Update: March 31, 2014, 2012–2015, performance-based installation with 3364 meters of cloth handwoven in Phulia, an India-Bangladesh border town, collection of the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, photo: Sonal Khullar

The aesthetics and politics of everyday partitions were evident in My East is Your West and This Night-Bitten Dawn, which represented collaborations between artists, curators, and patrons in South Asia, and examined the region’s relation to the past and future. Both exhibitions took up partition as “event, metaphor, memory,” to cite Shahid Amin’s study of Chauri Chaura, which is to say, a violence that links local and national histories, everyday life and organized politics, marginal and elite actors.21 Like Amin, these exhibitions focused on quotidian rituals and lived experiences to reveal the intersection of these rituals and experiences with “the mainstream story,”22 that is, with nations, borders,
and partitions. They were critical of official and unofficial nationalisms and posited South Asia as an oppositional framework, a cultural zone, and a space for action. They departed from the national art survey model that has dominated museum and international exhibition venues such as the Venice Biennale since the early 2000s.23 This model has been rightly critiqued for colluding with the market and nation-state, and presenting an image of South Asia “meant to win Western hearts.”24

My East is Your West and This Night-Bitten Dawn instantiated a South Asian art world that has come into being since the 1990s through new networks forged by artists’ organizations, art institutions, art exhibitions, and private philanthropy including the Vasl Artist’s Collective, Britto Arts Trust, Khoj International Artists’ Association, the Theertha Artists’ Collective, Sri Lanka Archive of Contemporary Art, Architecture & Design, the Samdani Foundation, the Gujral Foundation, the Devi Art Foundation, the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and the Dhaka Art Summit. In the past two decades, South Asian artists have participated in workshops, residencies, performances, exhibitions, and other events in the region and elsewhere (such as Dubai, Sharjah, Hong Kong, and Singapore, to name but a few prominent centers of display and critical discourse outside South Asia). They have come to regard each other’s work as resources, and recognize themselves as members of a transnational community unified not only by history, language, religion, custom, popular culture, and the unfinished business of Partition, but also by structural conditions of artistic production.

Artists face unique challenges in South Asia, a region populated by million-man armies and haunted by the specter of nuclear war. Cultural exchange, not to mention travel, is difficult within and across nation-states. Nevertheless South Asian artists find ways to make meaningful connections with each other. Naiza H. Khan, a founding member of the Vasl Artists’ Collective in Karachi, characterises the South Asian art world in the twenty-first century by “a significant number of artist exchanges and a shared resistance to the difficulties that are common to people and institutions within the region: political conflicts, lack of government support and funding, and problems of mobility and international networking and communication.”25 She claims: “What binds us, regionally, is…a common goal to reshape dialogic cultural constituency in a postcolonial context, one that neither eludes difference nor renders it an impossible hurdle.”26

My East is Your West and This Night-Bitten Dawn participate in the project that Khan outlines. In their effort to create dialogue in and through difference, they articulate new forms of postcolonial and global citizenship possible in and through art.

Excerpted from “Everyday Partitions: My East is Your West (2015) and This-Night Bitten Dawn (2016).” Third Text 31, nos. 2-3 (Autumn 2017): 359-386.

Sonal Khullar is an Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Risham Syed, Vaila K’vaila (Time Un-Timed), 2016, installation, collection of the artist, photo: Sonal Khullar

Iftikhar Dadi and Elizabeth Dadi, Magic Carpet 2, 2005–2016, aluminum, digital print, bulbs, collection of the artists, photo: Iftikhar Dadi

Rashid Rana, War Within II, 2013–2014, from the series Transpositions, 2013–2015, C Print + DIASEC, collection of the artist, photo: Mark Blower

Unum Babar, Thin Cities, 2015–2016, plaster of Paris, Hydrocal, and paper, collection of the artist, photo: Sonal Khullar

Firoz Mahmud, Flights of the desire for castles in the air, a figment is not far that will be very near, 2016, from Soaked Dreams of Future Families series (2008-present), photograph, lightbox, mixed media sculpture, collection of the Lahore Biennale Foundation, courtesy: Durjoy Rahman/Durjoy 05 06 Bangladesh Foundation, additional support: Bengal Foundation


1. Saadat Hasan Manto, “Toba Tek Singh” (1955), translated by Frances Pritchett,
Last viewed 09/03/2016. Pritchett’s literal translation is useful for my purposes as it accurately captures shifts in Manto’s language, tone, and affect. Other translations of the story are available in Saadat Hasan Manto, “Toba Tek Singh,” Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition, Tr. Khalid Hasan (New Delhi: Penguin, 1997), 1-10, and Saadat Hasan Manto, “Toba Tek Singh,” tr. Robert P. Haldane, Mahfil, vol. 6, no. 2/3 (1970): 19-23.

2. Kai Friese, “Marginalia,” Transition no. 90 (2001): 4-29.

3. Manto, “Toba Tek Singh” as in n.i.

4. There is an autobiographical subtext to this story as Manto was admitted to the Lahore mental asylum to treat his alcoholism in 1954. He died in Lahore in 1955, the same year as “Toba Tek Singh” was published. Ayesha Jalal, The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Life, Times, and Work Across the India-Pakistan Divide (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 184.

5. Jason Cons proposes the term “sensitive space” to denote special enclaves, border areas, and conflict zones and their cognates, including refugee camps, detention centers, and urban slums, and uses it as “a framework for understanding the confusions of land, community, and belonging at the fragmented edges of national imagination.” Jason Cons, Sensitive Space: Fragmented Territory at the India-Bangladesh Border (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 154.

6. Ibid., 95-98.

7. Friese, “Marginalia,” 8; and Manto, “Toba Tek Singh.”

8. Iftikhar Dadi, “Partition and Contemporary Art,” in Iftikhar Dadi and Hammad Nasr, eds., Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space (Ithaca: Johnson Museum of Art, 2012), 19. Lines of Control examined the effects of various partitions (India, Korea, Palestine, and Ireland) in the work of over thirty contemporary artists from across the globe. The exhibition took its name from the Line of Control, which refers to the highly militarized, de facto boundary between India and Pakistan in Kashmir designated by the 1972 Simla Agreement following the Bangladesh War of 1971. Although the Line of Control is a geographic place and proper noun, the only one of its kind in the world, the notion of lines of control applies to other lines such as the Line of Actual Control, the Radcliffe Line, and the MacMahon Line, to name but a few contemporary and historical boundaries separating India, Pakistan, China, and Tibet. It also suggests exceptional spaces such as the Korean demilitarized zone, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Berlin Wall, exceptions that have become common in a modern world bursting with refugees, migrants, and detainees. The lack of visual representations of Partition is a subject that deserves further study. Scholars have suggested that the experience of trauma has been unsayable, unspeakable, and impossible to represent. Others have suggested that the visual representation of Partition has been subject to nationalist codes of silence, repression, and willful forgetting, and that it has been represented in ways that are illegible, sublimated, displaced, and deferred. See Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition (Durham, NC Duke University Press, 2009), 27-30, and Emilia Terraciano, “Fugitive Lines: Nasreen Mohamedi, 1960-1975,” Art Journal 73.1 (Spring 2014): 44-59, pp. 58-59. 

9. Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 1989).

10. Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar, The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries, Histories (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Emilia Terraciano deploys “the long partition” as a critical framework for analyzing the art and life of Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990). Terraciano, “Fugitive Lines,” 57.

11. Kamala Visweswaran, Everyday Occupations: Experiencing Militarism in South Asia and the Middle East (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013).

12. Ibid., 12, 6. Visvewaran’s notion of “violent peace” relates to theories of war and peace such as those of Carl von Clausewitz and Carl Schmitt. Such theories have particular resonance for histories of partition. As David Lloyd writes: “Partition is a settlement imposed under the threat of continuing violence; the border it establishes represents, in consequence, the suspension rather than the end of violence. The border in partition remains shadowed by the expectation of violence, violence that perpetually maintains the borderline as a fissure rather than a suture, sustaining antagonism rather than hybridity.” “Ruination: Partition and the Expectation of Violence (on Allan deSouza’s Irish Photography),” Social Identities, 9:4 (2003): 475-509, 481. Visweswaran’s account of occupation as socially generative resonates with other accounts of war and violence as generative of new forms of life, personhood, and sociality and not merely dispossessing, destructive, and deathly. See, for example, Sharika Thiranagama, In My Mother’s House: Civil War in Sri Lanka (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 11. The generativity of partition was a key theme of Lines of Control, which sought to examine partition as “a productive act: generating new lines and maps; creating borders and regimes of control; fashioning new identities, reconfiguring memories and rewriting histories.” Hammad Nasr, “Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space,” in Iftikhar Dadi and Hammad Nasr, eds., Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space (Ithaca: Johnson Museum of Art, 2012), 10.

13. Ibid., 19.

14. Visweswaran, Everyday Occupations, 16.

15. Bhaskar Sarkar, Mourning the Nation: Indian Cinema in the Wake of Partition (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 20.

16. Ibid., 17, 19.

17. David Gilmartin, “Partition, Pakistan, and South Asian History,” Journal of Asian Studies, 57.4 (1998): 1068-1095, 1069. Critiquing the narrative of Partition “as a product of a deal between the Congress, the British, and the Muslim League,” David Gilmartin proposes that Partition is “a key moment in a much longer and ongoing history linking the state and the arenas of everyday conflict” (1092).

18. Various scholars have addressed the notion of partition as recursion and repetition. See, for example, Suvir Kaul, ed., Partitions of Memory: The Afterlife of the Division of India (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001), 2-3.

19. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, tr. Steven Rendell (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 47-55.

20. Ravi Sundaram argues that the spatial theories of early twentieth-century European avant-gardes as well as those of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, developed during the 1960s, are inadequate to understanding the media urbanisms and pirate modernity that emerged in Delhi in the 1990s. For Sundaram, this period was marked by a rapid transformation of “the urban sensorium” and produced “a series of shock experiences,” sense of crisis and set of exceptions in India and South Asia more broadly (148, 152). Lefebvre’s and de Certeau’s notions of ordinariness, repetition, and banality (and theories of power such as colonization and resistance), formulated in the context of post-war Paris, do not apply in a twenty-first-century South Asian context characterized by blur and flux between property and the commons, real and virtual realms, and commodity and immateriality, and by “network and service breakdowns, infrastructure crisis, and rising demands about ‘rights to the city’ exerted through proliferation of non-legal claims on the city” (151). Ravi Sundaram, “Re-visiting Everyday Life,” in Comparing Cities: The Middle East and South Asia, eds. Kamran Ali and Martina Rieker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 130-158.  

21. Shahid Amin, Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura, 1922-1992, rev. ed. (New Delhi: Penguin, 2006), xx.

22. Ibid., Event, Metaphor, Memory, 234. The exhibition Part Narratives (2017), curated by Gayatri Sinha and held in Bikaner House, New Delhi, took up the subject of partition and explored similar themes –historiography, archives, and fragments– as My East is Your West and This Night-Bitten Dawn, but it did so from a national point of view, emphasizing mythical, historical, and recent migrations in India. Part Narratives underscored the singularity of the Partition of 1947, which inaugurated “an aesthetic of toxicity and trauma,” rather than focusing on its afterlives and everyday impact or recursive character as in My East is Your West and This Night-Bitten Dawn. Gayatri Sinha, ed., Part Narratives (New Delhi: Critical Collective, 2017), np. In so doing, this exhibition presented Partition as exception and event.

23. This model was exemplified by a series of exhibitions of contemporary Indian art outside India, including Kapital and Karma (Vienna, 2002), Edge of Desire (Perth, New York City, Berkeley, Mexico City, Monterrey, New Delhi, and Mumbai, 2004–2007), Indian Summer (Paris, 2005), Indian Highway (London, 2008, with restagings in Oslo, Lyons, Rome, and Beijing), Horn Please: Narratives in Contemporary Indian Art (Bern, 2007), New Narratives: Contemporary Art from India (Chicago, 2008), Chalo! [Let’s Go!] India (Tokyo and Seoul, 2008–2009), and Paris-Delhi-Bombay (Paris, 2011).

24. Holland Cotter, “Activist Energy With A Light Touch,” New York Times, October 1, 2009. Last viewed 09/19/2016.

25. Naiza H. Khan, “Mobility and Exchange: Creative Discourses Across Borders,” Art Spaces Directory, eds. Eungie Joo and Ethan Swan (New York and Hong Kong: New Museum and ArtAsiaPacific, 2012), 20.

26. Ibid., 21.