Response to “Khamosh Pani”

The film is based on the aftermath of the Partition of India- focused on Charkhi, a village in the Punjabi Province of Pakistan in 1979. It deals with the human aspect of the Partition; the fleeing, the terror, the atrocities committed, and the gradual change of a village youth from a carefree, innocent boy, into an angry and hostile young man, well on the path of becoming an extremist. His mother, Ayesha, is a widow, and her record in the village is unblemished; except that she never fetches water for herself from the well, instead recruits others to do so for her.

Khamosh Pani is a play on memories; the story is told through a series of flashbacks centred on a well. Charkhi has been through a lot since the Partition and is still struggling to come to terms with what happened. The people seem to be content with their lives and have settled into a sort of routine; Ayesha’s life is consumed by her son, and she earns income by teaching young girls the Koran. The afternoons she spends with her friend, and they perhaps go to the market. The men also have their own daily business and find time to rest by the tea shop. I was a bit taken aback at how unaffected everyone seemed to appear and the mundane things they indulged in. One can be fooled into thinking that the people have long forgotten what has happened but for the flashbacks, which, although, devoid of blood and scimitars, are still horribly vicious, and prove otherwise.

One of the themes that the film is exploring is, obviously, the viciousness of the Partition. Through the flashbacks- of running feet, the well, and general pandemonium- I got the impression that no one knew what was really happening; of course, a bill was passed for the creation of two separate states, but the franticness of the people and the terror suggested that it hit them out of the blue. In fact, the boundaries of the two new states were not known until two days after they had become formally independent, and it seems that no one could have foreseen the bloodbath that would accompany this division of territories1. In Charkhi especially, it seems that Muslim men descended on what was a Sikh village and proceeded to rape, murder and kill. The women- some chose to, and others were coerced into it- to commit suicide by jumping into the well, as a favourable option than to what awaited them at the hands of the men; the modern day Jauhar, or “honour killing”.

It made me think about how women are always the ones who are affected by turbulences in the world; in fact, after the Partition, both India and Pakistan sought to reclaim Hindu and Sikh, and Muslim women respectively. The Hindu and Sikh women who were reclaimed were comparatively less than Muslim women –for lack of a better word- salvaged, and so, some people (of India) were of the opinion to subject the Muslim women to the same perceived atrocities that the Hindu and Sikh women were going through. 2 Of course there were voices raised against this, but it reaffirmed my thought that women, especially in war, are considered objects; some prized possessions that have an owner’s name stamped on them. That is also why I use the word salvaged, because it is an object that is generally salvaged from a scene of crime. A scene in the film in which this is evident is when the Sikhs are discussing the plight of any women that could have been left behind, and one elder raises his voice and snaps that that was not possible, as they killed all of them before anyone could have laid hands on them.

There are also themes of inconstancy and impermanence as well; the land and possessions being left behind; a scene in the beginning of the film where Saleem is trying to clean a room that contains, through objects, a lifetime of earnings, and he deciding what to keep and remove. At a deeper level, it is also the need for permanence, the need to belong and to have roots. Charkhi wasn’t always a Muslim village; it was the ancestral home of Sikhs who fled the time of the bloody riots. Following an agreement between India and Pakistan, some of the Sikhs returned to Charkhi; and a snippet of dialogue from a conversation between a Muslim and a Sikh rings in my mind. The Muslim man says that he came to Charkhi in 1947, to which the Sikh replies that he lived in Charkhi till 1947. Thus, 1947 is not just a year, it is a living breathing persona that turned their lives upside down without any warning; a dormant volcano.

It is this need for belongingness and roots that propel Saleem’s transformation. He is old enough to earn, yet doesn’t know what he wants to do with life; he wants it to have more meaning than it would as an ordinary farmer. He is drawn in by the extremists and becomes one of them. It is possible that people lost a sense of their identity when India was split into two; they didn’t know where they belonged. Extending this train of thought, memories do play a role in forming a sense of self; a much asked and clichéd question is- “How can we know who we are if we don’t know where we’re from?” It goes back to the need for roots. People changed identities, Sikhs cut off their hair, and women like Ayesha (who were raped and married their rapists because the man felt remorse) changed their names, their identities, and their religion.
Ayesha seems to have made peace with this fact, until her Sikh brother from another life comes knocking at her door, with a pendant of her as Veero. She experiences a sense of cognitive dissonance, and it is revealed why she never goes to the well to fetch water; because nearly thirty years ago, her life fell to pieces there. Her mother and sister jumped into the well on the urging of her father, but she couldn’t do it. She ran, and in the process, the pendant she wore around her neck was wrenched from her throat, which is symbolic of her having lost that identity. She was caught by a Muslim man and given a new identity. Every time she looks into the waters of the well, she sees a reflection of her past. Therefore, she doesn’t go to the well, because she wants to; chooses to forget. The memory of rape, the experience of abduction is perceived as shameful for the victim, not the perpetrators, and is therefore to be relegated to the realm of amnesia.3 Thus Ayesha is also a symbol of how difficult it can be to recover women’s voices; their stories are somehow muted in history. 4

Since the Islam propagated by General Zia requires one to be a purest of the pure Muslim, Saleem’s comrades, and he himself, become doubtful of where he belongs. He is unable to come to terms with his mixed heritage. It is this rejection, and Ayesha, or “Veero’s” ostracism from the village that compels her to commit suicide by jumping into the well; thus bringing the film full circle. We see Saleem casting off Ayesha’s box into a river, and along with her belonging is a picture of Saleem when he was younger. It is symbolic of him having become a new person and as he is choosing to forget about his mother, he is also choosing to forget about his Sikh blood. Therefore, the film delves into memory in context of how what we remember, and more importantly, what we choose to remember shapes us as people. When Ayesha/Veero chooses to remember her two lives, she realises that in these times, she will not be accepted, and hence finally finishes what was started thirty years ago, however, this time, it is her choice. Years later, in 2002, Zubeida, Saleem’s ex- lflame sees him on television, in Rawalpindi, preaching pure Islam.

It brought me back to what had puzzled me at the beginning of the film. The people of the village seem content with their lives. They go about their everyday routine. But their smile is like the Mona Lisa smile. They smile, but are they really happy? There are some things you don’t talk about, some memories you choose to bury deep inside you, some things too horrific to remember except in fleeting moments of weakness. People may appear placid, they may have a calm exterior, but they can actually be hiding powerful emotions under that mask. After all, still waters run deep.


1 Page 2, Pandey, Gyanendra. 2001. Remembering Partition: Violence, Nationalism and History in India. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
2Pandit Thakur Das Bhargava, Page 3, Butalia, Urvashi. 2000. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
3 Page 28, Butalia, Urvashi. 2000. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
4 Page 27, Butalia, Urvashi. 2000. The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press