Despite some initial anti-“woke” review-bombing and lower ratings compared with similar shows, Ms. Marvel has become one of Disney’s most acclaimed and exciting releases in years, as well as the first major Western screen depiction of a female South Asian Muslim superhero. As part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with movie tie-in plans for next year, Ms. Marvel is not going away anytime soon, to the delight of its gratified fan base. Viewers of all ages have praised the show, based on a popular comic book series that debuted in 2014, for its detailed, nuanced, unabashedly positive depiction of Muslim American communities: the family dynamics, the clothing, the music, the weddings, the mosques (and their unfortunate law enforcement surveillance). It’s a meaningful transition from decades of villainous depictions of Muslims, many of which were promulgated by the MCU itself. What’s more, the show has also struck viewers and critics for the way it delves into a historical topic little-known to typical American audiences: the trauma of the 1947 India-Pakistan Partition, and its still-potent impact.
Outside of South Asian literature and cinema, it’s rare to see significant depictions of this moment—in part, because it’s so difficult and stomach-churning, and also because it isn’t as emphasized in broader Western historical studies, overshadowed in the timeline by the end of World War II and the separation of Germany. Which is to say that Ms. Marvel, in setting the bulk of its fifth episode within the Pakistani city of Karachi during Partition, represents an important breakthrough in American culture’s perception of that era. Before this episode, which aired last week, the most notable “Western” pop culture stories of Partition were few and far between: fictional works by Jhumpa Lahiri and Salman Rushdie, the Oscar-winning 1982 biopic Gandhi, a 2018 Doctor Who episode. Even these representations were mostly focused on postwar India and modern-day Indians, with Pakistan as an afterthought. But now, Marvel fans get to see an essential piece of world history for themselves, and from a perspective they would not have gotten elsewhere.
Beginning on Aug. 15, 1947, the date the British Empire formally granted its former Indian colonies full independence, Partition was the careless solution to a problem of the Crown’s own making: the sectarian, territorial violence between the region’s Hindus and Muslims that British officers had stoked themselves for decades, in order to prevent colonial subjects from uniting in cross-religious solidarity and rebellion. While the anti-revolt plan was obviously unsuccessful, the “divide-and-rule” strategy nonetheless left deep scars on the broader population. India’s Hindus and Muslims did have their own historical tensions outside of Western influence, but the Empire undoubtedly helped to worsen those wounds. Today’s bloody iterations of Hindu nationalism have their roots in the British Raj, as does the idea of a Muslim-centric state established as a protective counter to Hindu nationalist visions of India. By the 1940s, as India’s independence movement gained international support and the United Kingdom was weakened by the battles of World War II, arrangements were made for the Empire to relinquish its hold over India—and, as disputes between Hindu and Muslim activists flared into fatal violence, for two separate nations to be created. Hindus were to find a home in India, while Muslims would settle into separated land masses together recognized as Pakistan.
This did not go smoothly: The task of drawing up the new nations’ borders was granted to a British officer who’d never even been to India, and the actual maps weren’t released to the public until two days after official independence. The confusion over the appropriateness of the independent regions, the arbitrary and controversial border lines, and the explicit religious demarcations led to a gory, painful migration and resettlement process. About 15 million people are estimated to have been displaced, with both Hindus and Muslims leaving lifelong homes to cross into either India or Pakistan, while religious territorialism fueled shocking violence, leading to an estimated 2 million deaths. The thronging and hostile crowds, the overwhelmed transportation routes, the separations of families and friends, and the cross-route clashes that led to carnage—for survivors of that moment, of which there are still many, it’s still difficult to tell those stories, and even harder to stomach their implications. Chronicles of that moment tell, over and over again, of the ubiquitous pools of blood, the untreatable human trauma, and the devastating loss of place, community, and family. The postwar history of India and Pakistan reflects this, from the multiple wars between the two countries to the arguments over the Jammu and Kashmir region to the often state-supported bursts of violence against religious minorities in both nations. It remains an indelible part of my own family history: My paternal grandmother had to flee with her family from their home city of Lahore after it was enveloped into Pakistan, and her life was never the same.
Ms. Marvel’s “Time and Again” examines this fraught history head-on, opening with footage from early-’40s India that displays some of the country’s freedom fighters and briefly explains, in voice-over narration, the colonial circumstances that led to the Partition. The episode then flashes back to the year 1942, and we see protagonist Kamala Khan’s great-grandmother Aisha meeting her future husband, Hasan, in his longtime family home. Both Muslims, they begin to consider leaving the area as the prospect of independence approaches, and Islamophobic hostility subsequently increases. As they prepare to move, Aisha is visited by Najma, whom she’d known from their time as superpowered residents of the Noor Dimension—a part of the Multiverse from which their people, the Clandestines, have been exiled to a life of powerlessness. Najma wants Aisha to help her and other Clandestines—whom the residents of our dimension have been known to refer to as “djinn”—return to the Noor Dimension, but Aisha wishes to stay with her family. So she sneaks off to join her husband and daughter, Sana, at the train station from where they plan on moving to Karachi. However, Najma finds Aisha there and fatally stabs her, while Sana gets separated from both her parents in the chaotic station. In her dying moments, Aisha manages to find her old powers and brings her great-granddaughter Kamala Khan from the current day to the 1947 Karachi station, in order to find Sana and reunite her with Hasan. Kamala manages to complete this task as Aisha perishes, thus securing her family’s future. Afterward, during this week’s season finale, a relevant twist comes to light: Kamala learns that her genetic makeup reveals her to be a mutant, which is why she has superpowers even though her immediate family members don’t—and which connects her directly to the legacy of her great-grandmother, who’d regained her powers on Earth by sacrificing herself to save her new family.
What’s so remarkable about this sequence is the pointed way it displays the pain of the Partition: the factors that force a settled family to leave their preferred home, the chaos of making one’s way through a mass exodus, and the ease by which brutality proliferated, lives were lost, and families were torn apart. The piercing cries of tiny Sana, standing alone in the station and yelling for her parents, echo those of so many children who never saw some of their family members again after the Partition. The location of Karachi is also an important choice: It was not only Pakistan’s biggest city then (as it is now), but it was also one of the most important migration posts for the new country, with Indian Muslims fleeing in large numbers to join longtime Karachi residents who, despite shared religious affiliations, were not always so welcoming of their new neighbors. And what Ms. Marvel also does well, throughout the rest of the show, is portray how this hurt still affects Kamala Khan’s family in the present day: her mother’s resentment of Aisha, thought to have abandoned the family; the constant, decadeslong search for “home,” in the U.S. or Pakistan or elsewhere; the importance attached to simple-seeming objects associated with eras of turmoil; the suspicion that greets anyone thought to be living outside a region where they’re supposed to “belong”; and how all this sense of loss can still manifest in ugly, brutal violence.
It all makes for a complex, layered, and often hurtful subject that’s difficult to appropriately lay out and dissect. Yet Ms. Marvel’s first season is American culture’s strongest attempt at it yet. Should the show lead to better Muslim cultural representation in the future, as its fans hope, may it also lead to a broader international reckoning with one of world history’s most awful yet still relevant stories.