turns out time is fake... but also, not?
It’s funny: I’m a writer, but I’ve never been much of a journaler. (I wanted to say journalist there but stopped just before fully embarrassing myself in this text editor. Great start to this whole thing). I have kept occasional diaries—a plasticky Rugrats one I got at a birthday party in elementary school (note: I was not allowed to watch Nickelodeon shows) and also a Keep Calm and Carry On journal I bought at Barnes & Noble when I was in high school—but never for more than a few weeks or months. Diaries and journals felt dangerous, somehow. Putting my thoughts? And feelings? On paper? Where anyone could find them? Forever? Couldn’t be me. The Rugrats diary’s little lock was, somehow, not very reassuring on this front.
But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the passage of time and the contours of memory. Broadly, it’s the combination of constant photo app “on this day 6 years ago” notifications, the global pandemic that’s stolen so much from so many of us, not least of all time itself, the way that my friends’ and relatives’ babies get bigger every time I see them, and oh right, the prospect of a lifelong dream coming true and opening up a whole new and existentially terrifying can of worms. And now I find myself wishing I had kept diaries, journals, archives, notebooks. And physically kept them, I should add, without losing them across moves or to basement-banished boxes or to the maw of the area behind my desk. I remember a lot, but without a touchstone, it’s just not the same. And I wish I had trusted myself with what I was feeling more.
All this makes the prospect of writing down my actual thoughts,and not just for myself but also for literally anyone else who clicks or subscribes… mm, let’s call it fraught. Believe me, I know better than to treat a public author newsletter like a diary, but there’s still some degree of reflection about this exercise that I, at least, find personally satisfying. So let me say upfront that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing here, but hopefully this whole thing will be fun for you, if not for me too.
Anyway, there are two other specific reasons I’ve been thinking about time and memory, and why I finally decided to pull the trigger on this experiment. The first is that it was just about this time a year ago that MIDNIGHT STRIKES sold in a preempt.
I remember bursting out into laughter when my agent told me that Delacorte was thinking about a Spring 2023 release. “But that’s so soon!” I squeaked through the panicked giggles. My agent was surprised by this reaction. I’m surprised by it too, looking back; under normal circumstances, I would barely consider dates six months in advance real dates, let alone ones a year and a half in advance. But I think I knew, in the midst of those utterly unreal days, that it would all go by in the blink of an eye. They could have scheduled the release for Winter 2027 and maybe I still would have blurted out “But that’s so soon!”
Now it really is soon. You could plan sevenish months in advance. I can’t, but maybe some people could. So I could wonder where the last year went, and I certainly do sometimes, but: it’s mid-August. People are tweeting about spooky season when it’s still 89 degrees outside. I have mixed-to-negative feelings about fall as a season (allergies?? pumpkin spice?? less daylight?? residual back-to-school sadness??) but it’s going to come whether I want it to or not. Hopefully I’ll be ready for it.
The second reason the passage of time has been on my mind is much less navel-gazey: yesterday and today, the 14th and 15th of August 2022, are Pakistan and India’s respective 75th independence days, which also mark the 75th anniversary of Partition. With such an anniversary, there’s a lot of retrospectives and conversations going on around online and in South Asian and diasporic communities—about the violence of that moment, its antecedents, its reverberations, its place in popular politics and imagination, in lived experience and inherited memory. I have no interest in doing a What Partition Means To Me piece here, I promise, but I am interested in thinking about How We Imagine What Partition Means to Us.
Which brings me to my favorite piece of media in years: Disney+’s Ms. Marvel.
(Pic by NYT and Indie bestselling author Gina Chen
Maybe it’s unsurprising that this show, and the comics (which admittedly I’m not as familiar with), meant a whole lot to me, as a nerdy Pakistani American girl from New Jersey. But the truth is, that was not a given. There were so many ways it could have gone wrong, or simply not aligned with my personal experiences or my preferences in TV storytelling. And while I certainly have opinions on what could have done better,on the whole I was utterly charmed and heartened by what it did on the ~representation~ front, and genuinely awed by its ambition in telling a literal Partition story. Which is pretty goddamn unprecedented in the scope of South Asian media, diasporic or otherwise.
That is in fact the real reason I made this whole Substack in the first place: I drafted a whole Twitter thread about just how unprecedented such a decision was, and then realized that there were better places to post that than a Twitter thread.
So, below is my July 2022 Partition-memory-in-media “essay,” an admittedly incomplete, incredibly high-level recounting of how Partition has been imagined or depicted (some literature and lots of film), and what it means for creating work about The Homeland from The Diaspora. Keep in mind I wrote this before the show wrapped up, before the groundbreaking Partition episode even aired (I didn’t post it then because, well, I forgot) and have edited it very lightly since. But it does still have spoilers, so if you haven’t yet, I highly recommend you go catch up on Ms. Marvel and also dig into Partition history a bit. Fatimah Asghar has a lovely note about Partition on her own Substack as well as a reading list that might be helpful.
I know this is a somewhat niche topic, or at least one that doesn’t necessarily overlap a ton with “my book is coming out in 7 months ahhhhh,” but look, we all contain multitudes, and I suppose this newsletter may bear that out. So whether this is your jam or not, thanks for joining me. Now that we’ve started, there’s no telling what’s next.
If somehow you’ve enjoyed my ramblings so far, remember to subscribe for more.
I’m still buzzing out of my skin about Ms. Marvel doing not just legacy-of-Partition as a theme or backstory, but a literal Partition episode. Because this is something we just don’t see in South Asian media or pop culture.
Truly, I can’t stress enough how incredibly rare and incredibly fraught depictions of Partition are, considering how fundamentally it reshaped life and society it South Asia, considering the terrible scale of it — millions killed (official figures say 500,000 to 2 million, but it’s likely more), millions more displaced. And I don’t know that there really has been a collective imaginative reckoning with Partition in Pakistani or Indian society. It wasn’t even really talked about for several years after it actually happened in 1947. The frictions it built on, the politics it emerged from, the arbitrary way it was carried out… that collective trauma was for some simply too heavy, too immediately as well as existentially upsetting, to understand, tease out, or translate into art. Amrita Pritam’s Pinjar is an early mover here in the early ‘50s, and notable for its focus on women’s experience of violence and Partition. It starts popping up a bit more in the mid-1950s and ‘60s—Saadat Hasan Manto’s famous short story “Toba Tek Singh” is of course maybe the most emblematic of its era. Partition as madness.
Partition also had a huge impact on diffuse Indian film industries — but mainstream cinema (and here I’m thinking mainly of Bombay cinema) didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, touch it as a topic, a setting, an event. It could talk about the (unfulfilled) promises of the new nation-states formed in its wake—but not the event itself.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, Bombay cinema found a way to talk around Partition through metaphor. Think of the youthful romance and lush cosmopolitanism of Yash Chopra’s Waqt, and think about what underlies it: an arbitrary larger-than-life disaster kills people and separates loving families. In the film, it’s an earthquake. Rebecca Brown shows us how this metaphor allows the film to evince greater nostalgia for pre-Partition unified India, and given the enormity of that disaster, to imagine what an independent, modern India could look like instead.
Partition gets a bit more traction in the 1970s and art cinema, where Garm Hawa here is the iconic post-Emergency depiction of a literal Partition-set story. I’ll add that it’s no accident that this film, like a lot of what we think about re: Partition-related art, comes out of the Progressive Writers Association—the people and works of Ismat Chughtai (wrote the novel Garm Hawa is based on), Saadat Hasan Manto (of Toba Tek Singh fame), Sahir Ludhianvi (the famous poet and lyricist who gave iconic voice to the anxieties and aspirations of the modern nation-state), and more.
The 1980s brings a bit more introspection and imagination to Partition and Partition legacy stories— Partition and postcolonial magic for Salman Rushdie, Partition as translated through art cinema instincts for the new medium of state TV in Tamas.
Then we get to the ‘90s and 2000s in India, which is in so many ways a reactionary time. By now, Partition or legacy stories are generally meant to map onto modern fears, security politics, and religious/cultural anxieties (Gadar, for one). The last mainstream Bombay film I can think of that deals directly with Partition is Kalank in 2019, and the less said about that the better.
(Wait, no, I’m still mad about that—about all that radical potential in its central Hindu woman/Muslim man romance getting squandered with the killing of that Muslim love interest [a consummate ‘Good Muslim’ character if ever I’ve seen one] at a train station communal riot started by the ‘bad Muslim’! I should have known better than to expect better in this day and age, and yet,,,)
Now this is an incredibly high level look at the most emblematic works of Partition fiction. I know I have skipped over or excluded a whole lot—but by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just not a lot. And that hesitancy to tackle the Event itself (as if it was one discrete thing, made possible by a single stroke of a pen and heralded by an uncomplicated movement of populations across new and volatile borders) extremely persists today. Which is why it’s so interesting and frankly audacious to see it being tackled in a Disney+ MCU TV series—and driven by Pakistani and South Asian diaspora creators and writers.
In some ways, it is much easier for Western-origin creatives to take that swing—because the distance of geography, memory, politics, and culture in the diaspora opens up those possibilities. The stakes of these stories are different here. Not lower, necessarily, just different. (And, I should say, less likely to impinge on sensitive national narratives). But in other ways—well, not so much. A lot of us diasporic authors and creatives know how hard it is to figure out how to even approach writing ourselves into the world left behind, let alone sort through, again, histories, memories, geographies, cultures that we don’t necessarily embody, that we didn’t grow up imbibing.
That doesn’t mean diasporic creators should be understood to or understand themselves or their work as simply trying to fill some void in their identity, or as meant to Connect Themselves to The Homeland, or as operating from a place of loss. No! Creating from a diaspora positionality or perspective is so much more than that!
That’s what’s so stunning to me about Ms. Marvel: it really does the Representation thing well (so far), and if it pulls off its Partition episode and more broadly the themes of figuring out who you are and what home is, how to reckon with our histories and memories in the present… that would put it in rarified company indeed. I hope it opens up even more possibilities for diaspora creatives. Particularly, in this context, South Asian ones.
Of course, this just raises the option of writing fake thoughts. But I’m a novelist! That’s also what I do! I just can’t win.
If you have not read Gina’s absolutely incredible debut YA fantasy about a morally gray seer and a stupid noble prince, why not!! Go buy NYT and Indie Bestselling Violet Made of Thorns at a retailer near you.
Everything with the Red Daggers was so rushed!! How could you do Farhan Akhtar so dirty!! Najma’s end happened too easily! Stop giving all these shows just 6 episodes to tell far-reaching stories!!
At least this incredibly jumbled, intellectually incoherent and yet also insidious film gave us an all-time banger, picturized on the hottest Hindu-Muslim secret brother pair in decades and also Kriti Sanon.