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Tearing apart and building new families
Partitions - Amit Majmudar
Member Name: koshkha
Partitions - Amit Majmudar
Advantages: Fascinating characters, compelling storylines
Disadvantages: The shocking bits are handled SO delicately that some readers will miss them entirely
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.
Summary: Twin boys, an elderly doctor and a teen-aged girl find themselves on the wrong side of the 'line',