CultureBooks Book Review: A Leaf In The Storm By Lalithambika Antharjanam

Book Review: A Leaf In The Storm By Lalithambika Antharjanam

A Leaf in the Storm, a short story by Lalithambika Antharjanam, is a layered narrative that brings together the themes of violence, gender, and partition.

The independence of India and the history of the partition of 1947 has been recorded as the most gruesome division on the basis of religion. The demarcation of the arbitrary borders was accompanied with horrifying violence that included mass rape and murder, displacement and trauma that proceeded. The communal violence was at a rise, people committed crimes to protect the honour of their own, violating humanity and legitimising revenge on the grounds of religion and ethnicity. Though there are recorded histories of the partition, the trauma, and the sense of loss, yet there are rarely any narrative from the women’s perspective. The atrocities committed against women and their bodies have not been unknown but excluded. Their bodies became sites of violence, they were not only the witnesses but also treated as objects of exchange. 

The urge to document these narratives was brought forwards by writers like Kamla Bhasin, Ritu Menon, Urvashi Butalia and a few more. Ritu Menon in Borders and Boundaries says “… the anticipation of just such a rejection by the very family and community that were to provide them support was one reason why many women resisted being recovered. Pregnant women were obviously more vulnerable than others and the decision whether to abort or carry their pregnancies to full term was an agonising one for all women, especially young ones who were going to be first time mothers. Those who were in an advanced state did not even have this choice; for them the question of whether or not to abandon their babies must have been even more painful.”

Also read: The Partition Of Punjab: A Tale Of Violation Of Women’s Rights

Lalithambika Antharjanam writes a similar account of a pregnant rape survivor in her short story A Leaf in the Storm—the story describes abuse, survival and recovery. Jyoti, the central character has been abducted and raped while crossing the newly laid borders, “from one jail to another?”, and has found herself in the refugee camps. Her condition puts her in contrary thoughts to keep the baby. However, after the delivery, there is a sudden change of mind, motherhood overwhelms her, deciding against throwing the baby. 

In the societal construct, rape has always been articulated to be the mistake of the woman, and has been an event that produced unprecedented shame for the woman. The politics of rape has been murky. 

The ritualised violation of another sexed body has seldom left women to be outcasts of the society, a figure of disgust that brings shame to the family. Jyoti too is sickened by the act, unwilling to birth a bastard, “The source of that blood is hate, not love … would it not run amok, driven by the intense desire of vengeance?” The violated female body the becomes a burden.

The narratives of 1947 are posed to be a successful accomplishment of independence, yet there lie many gendered narratives of displacement and dispossession, and a large-scale and extensive communal sexual violence underneath. Urvashi Bhutalia in her book The Other Side of Silence records “…there was widespread sexual savagery: about 75,000 women are thought to have been abducted and raped by men of religions different from their own.”

A Leaf in the Storm is also such a narrative—of abuse and emotional turmoil that is situated on the land and time when blood flew in the rivers. It tells tales of how women were kidnapped and deported onto the other side, forced to be accepted as mothers, sisters or wives, it was up to the men to decide their destiny. Antharjanam avoids the analysis of the actions taken by the governments of India and Pakistan but focuses on the socio-political construction of a woman’s body. We also know how the violence of the female body diminishes the idealism associated with it, reinventing it as symbol of fallen, undignified and impure nation. 

Also read: Urvashi Butalia: The Historian Who Revived The Forgotten Voices of Partition

The story is a layered narrative of nation, gender and violence. The nation is forcefully imposed on the new arrivals into the alien land. The impermissible is accepted. The doctor in the story deploys the forced sense of nation to evoke the patriotism. He validates the act of rape in the name of “our beloved country”, how the new born will be—”The first citizens of a free India…” There is a sense of hope that blinds the people of the country’s realities, “We will overcome this storm that rages over the east and west of our land. Bharat will endure; are you not a woman of India?” The sense of greatness of the country is levied, and ironically the power that a woman holds is critiqued. This nationalistic approach to the myth-making is used to manipulate the female sexual purity, to sustain the Hindu Nationalism and tradition. The same projected the nation as a motherland, dubiously invested in the ideas of honour, pride and dignity. Women were imposed with a renewed social responsibility.

Throughout the story, there is a subtle reminder of the unending violence, the tactics of the government to build the sense of nation and the gendered narrative of a pregnant, raped survivor. However, Jyoti’s gender takes charge of the story towards the end, again. The leaf refers to the baby born and the storm to the turmoil that the subcontinents of India and Pakistan underwent. Jyoti who once called the baby “the seed of damnation” is won over by its innocence of the ‘leaf in the storm’. Her delivery is described gloriously. She is referred to as a mother, with “her blood flowing freely as fresh milk.” The stars beamed as she walked towards the camp with the baby in her arms. The writer seems to have forgotten about the violence, the narrative has shifted, the compassion of the mother has diluted the hatred. 

This is a story of violence, survival and recovery, through displacement, multiple rapes, refugee camp, and impregnation, the protagonist is not unaware of her surrounding—manages to survive the trauma. I believe there is no forgiveness in Jyoti’s narrative, merely a sense of sympathy for the helpless life that might be a further victim of violence. The end of the story is controlled by the nature, letting the natural motherly instincts take over. As Alok Bhalla in his paper Memory, History and Fictional Representations of the Partition puts it, “The best of fiction writers about the partition are not concerned with merely telling stories of violence, but with making a profound troubled enquiry about the survival of our moral being in the midst of horror.” The story leaves the reader in the dilemma of Jyoti’s instinctive decision—the sense of belongingness, the baby being her sole possession in this alien land or perhaps a constant reminder of her violation, the baby a result of hatred and revenge. 

Shilpi Seth is currently pursuing Masters in Mass Communication from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC), Jamia Millia Islamia. She is interested in literature and cinema, and often writes about the same. Follow her on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Featured Image Source: Biswajit Das/flickr

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