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Partitions by Amit Majmudar
I was given this book by a fellow reviewer as I had commented on her review that is sounded a very interesting read. I had also read two previous reviews about the book by other fellow reviewers whose reading taste and opinions I value and this third review really was the icing on the cake. I was thrilled when this arrived in the post when I returned from our latest holiday and wasted little time in getting around to reading it.
Amit Majmudar is a radiologist before turning his hand to writing and this is his first book. There is a lot in the book which can be traced back to the author's own experience. One of the main charcters is a doctor and so we get a lot of very accurate medical knowledge coming through. The author has twin sons as does the narrator of the novel although that is where the similarities end as neither the author nor his parents were born at this time in history. Amit Majmudar explains that he got all his information about this period of time in India through books he read both fact and fiction in order to create his own fictional story.
A BIT OF HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The story is set just around the time of Indian Independence which was In 1947 . Many wonderful stories and films have told rather romantic stories about this time in history in India however the reality is slightly at odds with the fictional interpretation.
At the time of Independence two main factions continued to battle against each other, these were the Muslims and the Hindus, Sikhs and the rest of India. Awful violence and vicious attacks continued for some time until the British, rather like an angry parent sending two squabbling children into two separate bedrooms to cool off decided to separate the two factions. The Muslims were to live in the northern area, which became Pakistan and the Sikhs and Hindus were to remain or move to the southern parts of the country which was to become India as we now know it.
This sounds like a perfect solution until you realise quite how many families were to become caught up in this movement. People who had jobs and houses just had t o leave these and move to somewhere they knew nothing about, carrying very little with them. As well as this total chaos of millions of people moving in either direction to somewhere totally unknown, thug elements and those who were either anti Muslim or anti Sikh also took advantage of the chaos and attacked anyone ,man , women and children who they felt were of the religion that they were not. Well over a million innocent people died in this violence and even today there still seems to be animosity between these different religious groups.
This is a very over simplified portrayal but does give a bit of background to the story in this novel.
We follow various people who are moving from the southern area up to the new Pakistan and others who are moving southwards to Delhi or towards Amritsar., places which are little more than names to them.
One little family we meet are twin boys aged six, Shankar and Keshev who are dressed in their good clothes to go on the last train to Delhi with their mother. Sadly they become separated as they are boarding the train and their story is of their experiences trying to find their mother again.
The narrator of the book is their deceased father who watches over them as a sort of guardian angel trying to help keep them out of danger. To make matters worse one of the twins has a major injury to his lungs and he is already not a healthy child so this is an increased burden on his twin. Along the way they come into contact with some horrendous violence which is hard to imagine how any adults could be that cruel to any two little boys, they also meet people who are kind to them, they are sold to a motherless lady who wants to keep them but they escape and all this at the young age of six.
As the father, Roshan Jaity looks over the twins during their ordeal we also learn about their life before and how he was a doctor but became very ill, then bedbound until finally dying leaving his rather naive and inexperienced wife coping with the twin boys.
Another person we follow in this upheaval seen through the eyes of Roshan Jaity, is Masud a Muslim who is going towards Pakistan with his doctor's bag and dressed in his proper shoes and suit. He is connected as he once treated the twins when they were babies but he is now a fairly elderly man.
Finally we follow Simran, a young Sikh girl whose family all took poison together rather than go through the upset of losing everything. Simran didn't drink the poisoned warm milk and so is left to make her journey alone.
This story therefore picks a Muslim, a Sikh and a couple of Hindu boys to represent this mass movement of people at this time and through their experiences we learn a little of what this decision to partition the country caused to the ordinary folk caught up in the chaos.
The author really does an excellent job of developing sympathetic and very real characters. Our heart goes out to the little boys looking out for each other trying to find their mother, how brave they are and I got very concerned each time they encountered another unsavoury character in the story rather like their anxious but incapable of any physical assistance, father watching over them.
Simran is rather naive and sets off on her journey armed with knives from their kitchen and little else. She is quickly caught by some men who were trying to gather girls to sell and the knives removed before she could make any use of them.
Masud is the most charming gentlemanly person you could ever hope to meet and during his journey he uses his doctoring skills and his black bags contents to help so many people of all sects and religions without even thinking about whether he should or not. He is one of life's heroes in the real sense of the word. He pays little heed to his own pains and injuries and travels on his journey with a growing group of devoted young followers whom he has helped and these include the twins and Simran too eventually.
THE WRITING STYLE
The author wrote this rather dramatic and very moving story in the most beautiful and almost poetic way. In no way is this airy fairy but somehow the story develops rather like a painting and we get a pretty detailed picture of what a few people might have gone through during this time of turmoil. Some of the descriptions are quite vividly unpleasant and at times I was moved to tears as I read what was happening to the characters we were following. India has never been an easy country for the average poor person to survive in but this journey added a whole new series of hardships and complications to their lives.
I really admired the way the author brought the story to life through describing small details such as the way the twins had chosen their best clothes to wear, The humiliation Masud felt as he had to squat beside the road to relieve himself and then use pages from his medical book as toilet paper, the horror of the inept capture of the two sisters by the rather sleazy men attempting to sell girls into prostitution and Masud's humble manner and amazing bravery which Simran respected when she cleaned his injured feet.
Although this is not a light easy read because of the subject matter there was never a time when I found it easy to put down. I was willing our group of people to survive and get to their respective destinations safely. I felt their pain and willed them to make the right decisions to avoid trouble and found myself reading well beyond tiredness on the nights I was reading this.
It isn't a very long book and took me a couple of nights to read as I found it hard to put down. I really felt I knew the characters and cared about what happened to them. I thought the use of a dead narrator was unusual and initially wasn't sure about this but t it worked really well as we were able to 'see' all those involved as though from above looking down.
This is a beautifully written story. It is moving and upsetting yet compelling at the same time. I would thoroughly recommend this book if you like stories set in India or like to learn a little as you read for pleasure. Thank you so much to my fellow reviewer who sent this to me and I hope I have done this book justice as the other three reviews on the book are all excellent.
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As I get older I am increasingly drawn to novels that teach me something; that give me an insight into another world or period in history. With this in mind, I eagerly started 'Partitions'; a novel about the partition of India in 1947 and the violence that followed.
Although I was aware of the partition of India in the most abstract sense, I had never really taken the time to understand the turmoil that such an event created. In 1947 India had just gained independence from the British Raj - a time that is popularly immortalised in England through the many films and books that have been created. After years of struggle, it was finally decided to divide India into two separate states; the Muslim majority to live in Pakistan and the Hindu majority to live in India. The reality of this division was that it created the largest mass migration in history, with some ten million people having to abandon their homes and relocate as the Muslims moved to the north of Pakistan and the Hindus moved to the southern area of India. Violence seemed to be a natural part of this schism, and over a million civilians died in the riots and fighting that ensued.
This book is a powerful dramatisation of that time, telling the story of partition by tracing the lives of four very different people as they make their lonely way across India to their new homes. Initially we meet two Hindu children; six year old twins Shankar and Keshev are trying to board the last train to Delhi when lose their mother in the tussling crowd. Injured and lost, they wind their way through India to Delhi, trying to find their mother as they go and encountering terrifying violence, weird obsession and great sadness.
Following them in spirit and guarding them from afar is their deceased father; a compassionate and wise doctor, he tells the reader their story piece by piece as he follows them, revealing the background of his own life as he does so. The tension and worry of the twins survival is mixed with a fascination as the reader gradually discovers the background to their parents marriage and the life they used to live.
Their late father, Roshan Jaity, sees more than his own boys' journey as he flies around over the revolting crowds. He chooses two other people to follow; Masud, the elderly doctor who once treated the twins when they were babies; and Simran, the innocent and modest Sikh girl who has every reason to fear the men who threaten her during her journey.
I found Masud one of the most empathic characters in the book; his dedication to his profession and his profound sadness at the terrible sights he sees around him ring absolutely true. Using the limited medical supplies in his black doctor's bag, Masud walks the dusty roads of India towards Pakistan and helps every wounded person he meets, regardless of their religion. Like a modern day martyr, he limps on with a wounded foot, followed by a gaggle of orphans and a pack of loyal but starving dogs. This little group of followers are devoted and protect him from the dangers of the road, but he marches on oblivious, healing, stitching wounds, offering advice.
The fourth character in this convoluted tale is Simran, the girl who has seen more trauma in her short life than anybody deserves. Through quick thinking she manages to escape dying at the hands of her father. The men of the family considered it preferable to murder all of the females to stop them being violated by the "Musselmaans" and they methodically carried out their gruesome task. Waking up soaked in the blood of her mother and sisters, she starts to walk towards a safe place, but there are male predators looking out for young girls like Simran, and the horrors ahead are everything that her father had feared.
This is obviously not a 'nice' story or one that is in any way easy to read. There is love and kindness, but it is matched by horror and cruelty. The story develops slowly as the four characters wind their way through the country and in and around each others' lives. The ending is ultimately satisfying for the reader, providing the emotional satisfaction of a story well told and an ending which is not exactly happy, but definitely not sad.
For me, it was the small details that brought the history to life; through the narrative device of using a dead man to tell the tale, the reader has access to the innermost thoughts of every character as well as being able to swoop quickly from one side of the country to another to follow the divergent stories.
Looking into the minds of the violent young thugs who kill and maim for pleasure; understanding the shame of Simran as her body is roughly revealed to a strange man; the humiliation of Masud as he finds himself squatting by the side of the road to defecate and having to use the pages of his medical journal to clean himself. All of this is a result of talented writing which connects the reader with the story in a very intense way.
Amit Majmudar is a radiologist who is primarily a poet rather than a novelist. This is his first book, and a certain element of autobiographical authenticity can be seen in it - Majmudar is a medical man with twin sons, although his parents were not yet born during the time of partition and he was not personally affected. A note at the back of the book tells the reader that Majmudar created his novel through reading stories about the partition, both fictitious and real.
His poetry can be seen in the nature of his writing, which is beautiful and evocative. "Late afternoon. My boys' vigil is broken by the sound of screaming. The crowd on the platform panics. This is different from the nervous, shoving aggression that took over in the morning. This is the kind of stampede that has seen fire. Or a predator. The crowd pours over the platform. It's as if a glassed-off sea has shattered through."
I really enjoyed this book, both for the background and insight it gave me into Indian history and the pleasure of a well-structured story that was beautifully written. As a male author Majmudar describes the plight of the untouchable women with great sensitivity, weaving his story around the prejudice towards them alongside stories of prostitutes and virgins. I felt that the descriptions of women in India were one of the strengths of the novel. 'Partitions' is a book which will stay with me for a long time and which I have recommended to many other people.
(With thanks to Koshkha who recommended it to me in the first place!)
Partitions was published in 2011 and became available in paperback in 2012. It is also available as a Kindle edition.
It is published by Oneworld and my hardback copy has 215 pages.
Two young boys are left standing on the platform of a railway station, torn from their mother's grasp by a crowd of people pushing to get onto the train. An elderly doctor arrives at work to find his surgery smashed up beyond use. A teen-aged girl runs away when her male relatives kill her mother, aunts, sisters, and all the other women in the family to preserve their 'honour'. Welcome to 'Partitions' by Amit Majmudar, a book you'll remember long after the final page is turned.
I have an interest, bordering on obsession, with 20th Century Indian history with a particular focus on the Independence Movement and the horrors of the 1947 Partition. For those who don't share my interest, I'll offer the very brief outline of what happened. When the British left India they drew lines across the map creating a majority Muslim state called Pakistan (which covered Pakistan and what we now call Bangladesh) and a majority Hindu state called India. Speak to any Sikh and they'll tell you that they got utterly screwed over and didn't get their expected homeland, instead they saw their traditional territory of the Punjab sliced in half by the border. As a result of the way that India was carved up, something like fifteen million people found themselves on the wrong side of the lines, forced to leave their homes and possessions to escape violence and murder. Between half a million and a million people were killed in the bloodbath that followed Independence.
If there's a novel set at that time, it'll be on my shelf or on my wish list. It should therefore be no surprise that when my Amazon 'suggestions' kicked up a book called 'Partitions' by Amit Majmudar, I bought it straight away.
'Partitions' follows the twins, the doctor and the virgin, interweaving three different story-lines set during the human exodus brought about by the formation of the new countries. The book is set in August 1947 in the days following Independence and offers perspectives from all three key religions. The boys are Hindu, the doctor a Muslim and the girl is a Sikh. Each is in a different place, and each in the 'wrong' place. They are victims of personal loss and their own 'partition' from all they know and hold dear. Without the familiarity of family, work and their surroundings, they are challenged to survive and to eventually fix their torn lives.
Unlikely as it might sound, the book is narrated by a dead man called Dr Roshan Jaitly. He uses his ghostly form to flit between the three stories in a way that possibly sounds a bit daft and probably shouldn't work. Oddly and unexpectedly it does work - beautifully, seamlessly and in a very smooth and moving way. Jaitly's ghost gives his closest attention to his young twin sons, Keshav and Shankar, who we meet at the beginning of the book, preparing to fleeing the new Pakistan and head to Delhi with their mother Sonia. In his lifetime, Jaitly was a Brahmin, the highest Hindu caste and a doctor. Marrying Sonia, a girl with no family, no past and no identifiable religion, led to his 'partition' from his high-born family who ostracised him and refused to have anything to do with her.
The second storyline follows Jaitly's old friend, an elderly Muslim doctor called Ibrahim Massud. Massud is a shy man with a bad stammer but an excellent way with children who finds himself stranded on the wrong side of the line in the divided state of Punjab. He has no particular wish to leave after a career treating patients of all religions but he is forced to head to Pakistan after his surgery is destroyed by thugs. Massud is already linked to the twins - he was the paediatrician who treated Shankar's faulty heart and saved his life when he was only a baby.
The third story is not initially linked to the other two and it takes a long time before we realise how the teen-aged Sikh girl called Simran will come into the orbit of the other characters. When the men of her family realised that the enemy were headed their way, they decided to protect their women from the risk of falling into he hands of the Muslim gang, taking very drastic action to preserve their honour. Simran escapes to take her chances outside the family.
In just over 200 pages, Majmudar moves his four characters like chess pieces on a board, dancing them step by step towards each other then sending them away again. Jaitly's ghost watches over them and comments on their progress. The boys fall into the hands of a man who sells them to a well-meaning widow before they escape to continue their quest for their mother. With his black bag and meagre supplies, Dr Massud follows the human crocodile of Muslims heading to their new homeland, gathering young orphans and stray dogs as he goes along his way. He tends to the sick and dying until he reaches the refugee camp over the Pakistan border. Simran wants to get to Amritsar and dedicate her life to serving at the Golden Temple but along the way falls into the hands of men who are abducting young women to sell into prostitution. As the book plays out, the three threads of story tangle and eventually knit together.
It's not just the focal characters that make the book so memorable; the supporting cast are richly painted and fascinating too. There's a widow so desperate to give her life meaning that she's willing to buy a son. There's a young girl living on the rooftops of the city, leaping from building to building like a cat, navigating the city about the heads of those who could hurt her. Massud has a gang of young helpers, running ahead to gather the medical histories of those the doctor will later meet. There's a girl hired to calm the abducted girls, a so-called Scheherazade, paid to spin a story and get the girls to accept their fate. A young woman steps off a roof to her death. An English medic treats refugees despite being scared of the locals. It's the little details that make these people come alive on the page.
I loved this book and whilst I knew that the four people must surely find each other sooner or later, I didn't know how or under what conditions it could happen. The ending could have been tragic, or could have been happy - there was no way to know (and I'm not telling). I got to know each of the very different characters more deeply than I'd expect in such a short book and to care deeply about each.
Many shocking things happen in 'Partitions' but unless you know quite a lot about the events of that time you can very easily miss the worst of them. A lot of the most horrifying things are hinted at but not said and I suspect that if you aren't familiar with the history of this time you could find yourself confused and sometimes needing to reread the odd page, wondering what just happened. I've done my homework so I can read the hints and clues, filling in the gaps on what's not said, almost inevitably the nastiest things are the bits you need to extrapolate yourself. As an illustration of this point, rather than talk about the train carriages swimming in the blood of slaughtered passengers, Majmudar instead talks about the boys seeing a train and thinking there is oil dripping from the doorways. A woman climbs into a well - sadly a very common way of killing yourself to preserve your honour, but some may miss that the well means death, that the other women inside are already drowned and dead.
This is not the most horrible book I've read about 'Partition' - that accolade must surely go to Kushwant Singh's 'The Train to Pakistan' - but it is one of the most moving and ultimately optimistic books about this horrific time. What is remarkable is that this is Majmudar's first novel and he is not a writer by profession - in fact he's a diagnostic radiologist, working in the USA. His previous published work has been poetry and there is a very poetic style about his writing. 'Partitions' is currently on offer on Amazon with great prices on both the hardback and the Kindle format. Buy it - it really is an exceptional book.