Lamenting a Lost Cultural Imaginary: Lahore and Amritsar in Manju Kapur's Difficult Daughters

Rajender Kaur


By locating its characters within the very specific Hindu Punjabi milieu of Arya Samajist trading families whose identity is defined by the twin Punjabi cities of Amritsar and Lahore, Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters (1999) recreates in rich detail a very particular culture and class while gesturing at the same time to the larger palimpsestic history of Lahore, the erstwhile capital of the Sikh Kingdom under Ranjit Singh, which was annexed by the British in 1849, and then suffered massively during Partition violence. Situated thirty miles apart, the twin cities of Lahore and Amritsar, have fared dramatically different fates since they were traumatically severed apart by the Partition of India in 1947. Long an imperial city, the capital of successive empires from the Ghaznavids, the Mughals, and then the Sikhs, Lahore was refashioned as a modern colonial city by the British and flourished as a “mecca for Punjabis” in a symbiotic relationship with Amritsar in colonial India. While Lahore has continued to flourish as the provincial capital of Punjab in Pakistan, Amritsar has dwindled into a second tier city, its importance overshadowed by the declaration of Chandigarh as capital city of a now much truncated Punjab. The storming of the Golden Temple, the spiritual heart of the city, in operation Bluestar in 1984, marked the nadir of its slow decline. In this context, the striking nostalgia for Lahore in the narrative comes to function as a compensatory mechanism , becoming a lament for a composite Punjabi culture that was ruptured irreparably by Partition. Repeatedly referred to as the “fabled city” in the text, Lahore with its bustling bazaars, many institutions of higher learning, its imposing monuments and architecture, and its famed gardens, is presented as a cosmopolitan literary city, the cultural heart of Punjab, in contrast to Amritsar, cloistered with the weight of custom and tradition. Lahore comes to acquire a metonymic position within the narrative, as much as it is celebrated as a mecca for Punjabis, and its loss lamented, what is also being lamented is the historical accident that ruptured the once thriving province of Punjab. The violence and heartbreak that accompanied the division of a nation is figured not just in the partition of families, and more tellingly, in the fissures within a female subjectivity fractured by the contradictions of gender and modernity, but also the in border city status given to cities that were once the heart of the Indian subcontinent.


Partition;Cultural Imaginary; Punjab; Manju Kapur; Difficult Daughters

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