Voices Unheard
Bedatri D. Choudhury on Sabiha Sumar (Khamosh Pani)

History has a way of generalizing events by giving them finite timelines. When the history books refer to the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947, they write of political causes, a general sense of pain and loss, always in the past tense, as if the Partition is an affair long done and dusted. The particulars, the singular narratives of survivors, prove that the Partition’s trauma and hate continue to operate and reveal themselves. Pakistani filmmaker Sabiha Sumar’s Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters, 2003), which attempts to redraw the borders of history and through its telling of a woman’s tragic life, blurs the lines between the past and the present, the religious and the secular, the “official” and the “unofficial” trajectories of history and most importantly, the personal and the political. It reinstates the voices of women whose suffering and pain often get written out of the grand narrative of Partition.

While most films about Pakistani history are centered around 1947, Sumar chooses to tell her story from a small village, Charki, in 1979, the seminal year of the execution of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the coming to power of the military general Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who put to effect a conservative Islamic and martial rule of law. This was a year of extreme flux as Pakistan’s relative secularism gave way to the beginnings of a conservative Islamist military jihad rule. It is within such a tumultuous time that Sumar’s protagonist Ayesha (Indian actor Kirron Kher) is made to revisit the past traumas of the Partition when her present is turned upside down by her son, Saleem (Amir Mallik), when he participates in pro-Zia-ul-Haq radical Islamic politics. The years 1979 and 1947 form narratives that are referred to over and over again through the proliferation of male political figures—Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Lord Mountbatten and Mahatma Gandhi, respectively. Sumar makes an intervention within this general male-ness of history and establishes Ayesha as the subaltern who counter-writes the canon through her life and the choices she makes. As the elders in Charki are skeptical of Zia-ul-Haq’s politics, Sumar also highlights the resistance with which smaller Pakistani villages and towns stood against the big cities and their feverish descent into intolerance.

As with any political upheaval, the Partition came with rampant sexual savagery; officially, around 75,000 women are believed to have been abducted and raped by men of religions different from their own. Fathers would force their daughters to jump into wells to avoid rape and forced religious conversion, and some would kill their daughters to remain untainted by the dishonor of “impurity.” Ayesha, born into a Sikh family as Veero, is asked to jump into a well by her father before the family is forced to leave Pakistan for India, in 1947, but refuses. After being abandoned by her family, she is abducted by Muslim men, one of whom, Saleem, she later marries after converting to Islam and taking on the new name. After her husband’s natural death, Ayesha lives in Charki with her son—living on a meager pension, teaching the Quran to little girls and always refusing to go to the well to fetch water. She is much loved by neighborhood children, the women sit with her and sew, and happily fetch water for her. Before the pro-Zia radical Muslims begin to wreak havoc, the village is a simple rural haven where religion is practiced with love and devotion, people mind their own business, and everyone lives in harmony—suppressing trauma, hurt and hatred like the Partition never happened.

When Indian Sikhs are allowed to return to Pakistan to visit a shrine, the safety valve is pulled and all the ugliness of the Partition comes bubbling out—Veero/Ayesha’s brother comes calling and her past is laid bare. Saleem demands she proclaim her Muslim identity in the village’s public square and her brother requests she visit their dying father in India. Caught in between, Ayesha lashes out, “He (their father) wanted to kill me for his peace, what will he do if sees me alive and Muslim? How will he go to his Sikh heaven? And what heaven is there for me? A Sikh heaven or a Muslim heaven?” When one of the girls in her Quran class asks her if only Muslims can reach jannat (heaven), she says no, any good person can, that Allah always knows a good person from a bad one. Within the beginnings of Zia’s jihadi Islam and her family’s insistence on religious purity, Ayesha’s secular devotion poses a problem; society finds it hard to categorize her as she inhabits the in-between-ness of being a Good Muslim and a Good Sikh. Her son calls her an infidel and her father believes she is a traitor. Sumar’s decision to show Ayesha as a practicing Muslim is a crucial feminist interjection within the religion; it not only stands against the filmic stereotypes of a sexist, conservative, misogynistic Islam but also establishes Ayesha as a female Muslim scholar—the only one who gets the “essence” of Islam per se—among a group of men who use Allah’s name to feed their own greed.

Sabiha Sumar’s oeuvre is essentially a feminist one, and more importantly, a Muslim feminist one. It is with this perspective that she questions, searches, and resolves. Her documentary, Who Will Cast the First Stone (1988) was about three women in prison in Pakistan under Islamic law, it spoke out against the Hudood Ordinances formulated by Zia-ul-Haq. Her Dinner with the President (2007) is a pan-Pakistani conversation on radical Islam and the dangers of mixing religion with government—between a tribal parliament, truck drivers, elite youngsters, farmers and the common people on the street. In Khamosh Pani, her gaze rests on a balanced political narrative of the life of a woman dictated by religion, politics and familial roles, who is ostracized by her village, and finally finds redemption in death. She casts a critical eye on radicalized Islam and yet does not dismiss the whole religion and country as barbaric and backward. She chooses to speak of Pakistan as it undergoes a philosophical shift—with a military leader at the helm, and as Islamic Law developed a hyper-conservative veneer, the country quickly fell into the folds of widespread bigotry. Within this, she places Ayesha and her generation of women, who lived their lives guarding a fragile secularity, only to watch it be destroyed by the children they raised against all odds.

In her seminal essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes of 16-year-old Bhuvaneswari Bhaduri who in Calcutta in 1926 hanged herself while she was menstruating. Since most suicides of young women were attributed to illegitimate pregnancies, this was an act of what Spivak calls “performing” her subaltern identity within a system of “epistemic violence” that denies her the agency to speak. Likewise, when the social isolation for being born a Sikh becomes unbearable for Ayesha, she chooses to take her own life by jumping into the village well. Before leaving her home, she performs her morning prayer, fajr, with her head covered in the traditional veil. Even within a seemingly disempowered social position that leads to her committing suicide, Ayesha performs her last act of resistance by insisting that she is a good Muslim. With her jump into the well, she leaves the world with her honor untainted.

The acts of reminding and remembering are Sumar’s weapons against Islamist fundamentalism. Towards the end of the film, as Saleem appears on TV as the spokesperson for a radical Islamic outfit, it is clear that he has forgotten everything his mother’s life stood for. His former lover, Zubeida, remembers her Ayesha chachi (aunt) with a smile; “But so what?” she asks, “does remembering her bring down the price of onions?” Remembering women like Ayesha may bring no material gains, but it helps us construct for ourselves a whole alternate history, “counter-memories” as holocaust historian James Young calls them, which strive to constantly undo the perceptions of history that our books feed us. Sumar strives, through the film, through all her films, to memorialize the generations of Ayeshas who stood proud, in their multiplicities, against the uni-dimensional, stifling definitions of everything they held dear—faith, nation, honor and love.