Today I am delighted to have a guest post by author Radhika Swarup. Radhika is the author of Where The River Parts which is out now to buy.
Radhika Dogra Swarup spent a nomadic childhood, growing up in India, Italy, Qatar, Pakistan, Romania and England, which gave her a keen sense of place and for the dispossessed. She studied at Cambridge University and worked in finance before turning to writing. Radhika lives in London with her husband and two young children.
Where the River Parts:
Blood had begun to trickle down Asha’s starched cotton salwar, and once more she tried to will herself to stay calm. It was nothing. These things happened.
But these things haven’t happened before. It’s August 1947, the night before India’s independence. It is also the night before Pakistan’s creation and the brutal Partition of the two countries. Asha, a Hindu in a newly Muslim land, must flee to safety. She carries with her a secret she has kept even from Firoze, her Muslim lover, but Firoze must remain in Pakistan, and increasing tensions between the two countries mean the couple can never reunite. Fifty years later in New York, Asha’s Indian granddaughter falls in love with a Pakistani, and Asha and Firoze, meeting again at last, are faced with one more – final – choice.
Making Sense of Partition
I’d known for some time that I would write a book on the Partition of India and Pakistan. It was a brutal time in the history of the two nations, and a period I was endlessly interested in. Just to provide some context, the Independence of India on August 15 1947 was accompanied by the creation of Pakistan. Large parts of undivided India were splintered in two, with some falling the way of Pakistan, and others remaining in India.
It was a time of unprecedented panic. People who had coexisted for centuries suddenly turned against each other. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs living on wrong sides of the divide were suddenly aliens in a hostile land. An epic exodus followed – between 14 and 18 million people were displaced over the course of the Partition, most making the journey to new and unfamiliar homes over the three months that followed Independence. It remains the single largest human displacement in history.
1 million people were murdered, and countless women were abducted, raped and forced to convert. Villages were razed, entire families wiped out. Cities have been reshaped by incoming refugees, and still remain unrecognisable when compared to their pre-Independence ethnic make-up. Partition is an event that continues to scar the psyche of the subcontinent and to impact the delicate relations between India and Pakistan.
I knew then, long before I came to know my characters, that I would write a novel on the Partition. The scale of the event was tremendous, and I couldn’t get over the fact that people who had been living side by side for generations could so suddenly be consumed by hate.
My family, of course, had been touched by Partition too. We come, on my paternal grandmother’s side, from a town in West Punjab called Lyallpur. It fell the way of Pakistan, and my family made the journey, as so many others did, to safety in India. Lyallpur is now vastly changed from the town of my grandmother’s childhood, and for one goes by the name of Faisalabad, but the streets of that pre-Partition town are familiar to all in the family. All in the generations that followed have learnt about the eight radial streets leading to the town’s clock tower. We know about Lyallpur’s famous shops, its infamous characters and the quirks of the town. We are all familiar in its now defunct vernacular.
But as I explored the history of the Partition for the purposes of Where the River Parts, I began to realise that there was a huge gap in my personal understanding of Partition. Not the numbers or the statistics; I was familiar with these. Nor with the literature or movies that explored the period. No, what was missing was detail on my own family’s experience of Partition.
We hadn’t grown up hearing about the horrors my grandmother’s generation must have experienced. The slow resentment building between the communities, the misunderstandings, and inevitably, the unveiled ill-will.
I wasn’t sure if this lack of communication was to protect the family’s elders from traumatic memories, and I was initially unwilling to explore the topic. But as it became known that Where the River Parts was set during the Partition, family members began to talk. There were the endless anecdotes about Lyallpur life, of course, but also, slowly, details emerged about the intimidation they faced as a minority religion. The opportunism they saw so many of their erstwhile friends engaging in. I heard of fear, violence, cowardice; some of the basest emotions in our canon. I also heard endless stories of generosity, goodwill and friendship that my family continues to hold dear to its heart. The story of the Muslim neighbour with a radio, then a prized possession, who heard on the news that relief was on its way and helped my family prepare. And thrillingly, I heard details of my grandmother’s wedding a short while before Partition to a handsome man from further east in Punjab.
Much of this colour is woven into Where the River Parts, but the fact that gives me the greatest hope today, as much of Europe struggles with a new, seemingly endless influx of refugees, is the knowledge that the best instincts of humanity can survive the greatest trials.