Since 1947, writers – including several from the Booker Library – have used their work to explore the ongoing effects of the partition of India and to make sense of one of the 20th century’s most turbulent and bloody periods
Partition literature across the Booker Library has a subtle, but indelible touch. The immediate consequences of the dissolution of crown rule in India, other than the creation of India and Pakistan as independent nations, read no less harshly than when they occurred 75 years ago, with over a million dead, 15 million resultant migrants, and more than 75,000 brutalised women.
But for Booker authors, the violence of the event seldom stops at 1947. Profound nostalgia, loss, displacement, and destabilised identity, present as common threads which sow their roots in recurring depictions of subsequent Naxalite uprisings in 60s India, 1971’s Bangladesh Liberation War, and generational emigration to Britain and America during the late-20th century.
Certain narrative methods and concerns likewise repeat: non-linear narratives in which memories of safety and home make clear the scale of estrangement wreaked on post-partition families and migrants are common, as are characters whose lives are communicated as oral histories or psycho-geographic passage.
Still, there is a deftness to be found in each of these novels, which are not averse to humour, surrealism, and beauty. The reading list below presents seven Booker novels which chart partition and its many-pronged effects: from gender politics in a domestic sphere, to linguistic shifts, to dissections of nationalist ideology.
‘When writers discuss the partition, they tend to focus on the birth of a nation, on the beginning of a new era,’ says Desai. ‘But partition was actually the most traumatic and devastating forced migration in India’s history. For the people involved, it represented the end of their world. I think the sense of endings was a lot stronger than a sense of beginnings.’
It follows, then, that Clear Light of Day portrays the effects of national history through the domestic lives of the Das family, whose decaying Old Delhi home makes the aftermath of partition a spectre which haunts their emotional decisions, rather than a catalyst to immediate physical violence. Nevertheless, with each character’s relationship altered by the threat of violence which hangs over them, Desai’s novel re-enacts the division of a nation on an intimate scale, where ideas of loss are just as likely to be played out through familial separation and the difficulty of finding a new sense of identity, as they are through physical migration and religious allegiances.
In a sense, Geentanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand is anything but a partition novel. Though part of its progress describes its central character, Ma’s, pilgrimage back to a Pakistan she was forced to leave (and in so doing, meditates on the disruption the great migration wreaked on her hopes and dreams), the novel delights in border crossing as liberating act, not just in a historical sense, but also in an interpersonal one, what with its potential to create new, vibrant ideals around gender, language, family, and death. ‘Do you know what a border is?’ Ma, asks — and answers: ‘A border does not enclose, it opens out. It creates a shape - it adorns an edge. This side of the edging blossoms, as does that. Embroider the border with a shimmering vine. Stud it with precious stones. What is a border? It enhances a personality. It gives strength. It doesn’t tear apart. A border increases recognition. Where two sides meet and both flourish. A border ornaments their meeting.’
Midnight’s Children is not only Rushdie’s most acclaimed novel to date — it is among the most recognisable titles of the Booker pantheon. Born in the hour of India’s independence, the book’s protagonist is Saleem Sinai, one of a 1,000 telepathically connected ‘midnight’s children’ whose differences in class, religion, and language, destabilise his ability to form a cogent self. If Saleem’s journey is an allegory for India’s ability to define itself in the aftermath of partition, then Rushdie’s novel is a testament to the dangers of nationalism as an ideological tool, to the myths by which partitioned India defined the nation in the first place. For those for whom Midnight’s Children is already well-trodden ground, we suggest Rushdie’s 1983 shortlisted Shame instead.
Brothers Udayan and Subhash’s upbringing in post-partition Calcutta is marked by the presence of refugee camps and firmly delineated restrictive class lines, a formative detail, which defines both characters’ childhoods, and their coming of age arcs through the 60s and beyond. Thanks to its late 40s beginning, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowlands is as adept at reasoning out Subhash’s eventual desire to migrate to the United States in pursuit of personal development, as it is Udayan’s gravitation towards India’s Naxalite uprising in pursuit of social collectivism, tracing the ripples of partition-induced violence and poverty over a family saga which spans continents and decades.
Though Intizar Husain would have protested the grouping of his novels Habitation, The Sea Lies Ahead, and The New House as a trilogy, they can be thought of as cyclical, with each picking up where the other left off in terms of theme and socio-political consciousness. Taken as a whole, the three reflect partition not as an isolated event, but as one which burdens each character’s ability to create a home across almost five decades of upheaval in Pakistan. Basti begins in pre-partition India before shifting to an unnamed ‘City’, more or less identifiable as Lahore. Its protagonist, Zakir, reflects on the turmoil caused by the political migration and violence of the 60s and 70s through a non-linear plot in which a permanent sense of displacement can only produce nostalgia, and an increasing sense of alienation. With Basti ending on the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, Husain moves his reader to 1980s and 1990s Karachi, where Jawad, the central character of Aagey Samandar Hai, experiences flashbacks to pre-partition India which likewise explain the sense of loss caused by migrating to a land which promised home, and brought only ethno-religious violence. Naya Ghar closes on its protagonist’s relationship with his house in wake of the consolidation of the Pakistani state and the ten year dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq.