I came across Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup not long after reading the Sri Lankan author Nayomi Munaweera’s excellent second novel, What Lies Between Us which was published earlier this year and when I read her comment below on the novel, I was even more interested. Coincidentally, I’d been following Radhika Swarup on twitter and soon after seeing her book around, she contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in reading it.
‘A heartbreaking story … on a chapter of South Asian history that has often been deemed too painful to be explored fully.’
Nayomi Munaweera, Author of Island of a Thousand Mirrors
It is 1947, in the province of Punjab, which sits between India and Pakistan, an area where Hindu, Sikh, Muslim and others live side by side. Tension is mounting as political events cause rifts between friends and neighbours as many of the Muslim population support the area becoming part of Pakistan and many Hindu fear for their lives, while the same tensions exist among Muslims living in the predominantly Hindu parts of India.
They are all living on the cusp of Pakistan’s creation and the brutal partition of the two countries, which will split Punjab in two, the west becoming Pakistan, the east India, triggering the largest mass migration of humanity in history, affecting 10 million people.
Asha and Nargis are neighbours and best friends, they go to school together and spend time in each others homes, sharing their excitement at the future, especially as they are close to marriageable age and they know it’s something their parents are considering on their behalf. After he walks her to school for a week, Asha slowly becomes close to Nargis brother Firoze, a relationship that was unlikely to be accepted by their families even without the changes that Partition is threatening to bring.
‘Punjab has been set alight,’ he said at length. ‘It’s burning with a call for freedom, with a call for Partition.’
‘A call you favour.’
‘There’s no room for Muslims in a free India.’
‘That’s not true.’
‘It is,’ he said firmly.
The thing they all fear most, that some desire most happens and Asha’s family leave their past behind and head for Delhi. Firoze helps them to escape and Asha leaves with a secret she has kept from everyone, the future unknown.
‘Suddenly those who read, those who had access to news, learned to differentiate. People spoke of ‘those Muslims’ and ‘those Hindus’, of separatist and patriots, of a Hindustan for Hindus and a Pakistan for Muslims. They spoke of two nations, they mourned the martyred, the shaheed.’
We follow the life of Asha and all that happens to her, the sacrifices she makes, the effect of the secrets she holds and watches as the family she raises and lives among move far from the childhood and attitudes she has known. She makes peace with what has happened and accepts her new life, until 50 years later, when old memories resurface as she visits her daughter and grand-daughter in New York, who are in conflict as Asha’s Indian grand-daughter has fallen in love with Hussain, a young Muslim originally from Pakistan.
One of the most touching scenes in the novel, one that must have encapsulated the thought processes of so many, was when a grandmother from Pakistan asks Asha about Delhi because she too had been severed from her roots. That and the frequent, evocative references to the way she would make tea or other subtle habits that retained within them, the essence of where she had come from – representing those seemingly insignificant things people miss, that when they encounter again, provide immense nostalgic pleasure. Radhik Swarup evokes these memory inducing touches without sentimentalising, we sense it at a primal level, as those who have ever left home for an extended period will recognise.
‘But I want you to tell me about India. I want you to tell me what changed in Delhi after I left.’
‘It’s changed. There are new shops, new roads, new names.’ She saw the woman’s face fall, and she leaned forward, taking her hands in her own. ‘But in spirit it remains the same. It’s still a village at heart; noisy and intrusive. There are still the narrow lanes that cross the magnificent boulevards, still the shanties beyond the grand circuses. It’s still impossible to keep things secret.’ The woman closed her eyes, considered Asha’s words, and a slow smile spread on her face. ‘In that case’, she said, ‘all is well.’
An often heart-breaking story of the impossibilities of love to survive political and religious differences and events, the way it changes lives, how people cope and the deep compassion required if it is ever to be overcome.
Radhika Swarup is an Indian author based in London, whose family was displaced by the Partition, having had to leave Pakistan and move to India, so the events and their repercussions are ‘engraved on our psyche’ .
Where The River Parts is her debut novel.
via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)