Thursday, 24 May 2012

Partitions: Amit Majmundar (Pakistan)

As India is rent overnight into two nations, sectarian violence explodes on both sides of the new border, with tidal waves of refugees fleeing the blood and chaos. Fighting to board the last train to Delhi, Shankar and Keshav, six-year-old Hindu twins, lose sight of their mother and plunge into the whirling human mass to find her. A young Sikh woman, Simran Kaur, flees her father, who would rather poison his daughter than see her defiled. And Ibrahim Masud, an elderly Muslim doctor driven from the town of his birth, limps towards the new Muslim state of Pakistan. As the displaced face a variety of horrors, this unlikely quartet come together, defying every rule of self-preservation to forge a future of hope. A luminous story of families and nations broken and formed, Partitions introduces an extraordinary novelist who writes with the power and lyricism of poetry.

Author Amit Majmudar is the winner of the 2011 Donald Justice Poetry Prize. His first poetry collection, 0, 0: Poems, was published in 2009, and a novella, Azazel, was serialized in The Kenyon Review. Partitions is his first full-length novel. He lives in the United States with his wife and twin sons.

I came across this book, as with many others, as the Kindle Book of the Day and eager as always for a bargain, snapped it up, as it sounded right up my street. I wasn't wrong.

This is an interesting tale of the partitioning of what was once part of India into the state of Pakistan and what happened to four, or maybe five, of her former inhabitants as they attempt to start a new life. Two of these are six year old Hindu twins, who as the blurb says, lose sight of their mother as the three of them fight to board the last train to Delhi. It is not until almost the end of the book, which is narrated by the boys dead father, that we discover what happened to their mother, that she was pulled from the moving train by her former lover, hoping to also start anew now that she was a widow. She does exactly that, but not in the way that her former lover would have hoped, for she makes her own attempt (and succeeds) in joining her former husband. That part of the story though, I will leave you to read for yourselves.

The other two characters are a teenage Sikh girl, whose father would rather poison her than see her defiled, only she cannot bring herself to drink that poison and escapes. Fleeing from her home and everything that she knows, she is picked up by those who would seek to abuse her by selling into her effective slavery or prostitution. However, she manages to escape, and fleeing across some sugar cane fields, stumbles into the arms of Muslim Doctor Masud, who also comes across the smallest of the two twins, who suffering from a heart condition has collapsed due to the strain, while his stronger twin goes to seek help. The four eventually board a bus to Sikh capital Amritsar, posing as one big happy family. 

This was and is a relatively short read given the subject matter, that took me around six days to complete (slowly at first). But as the story speeded up, so did my reading, until I read the final third in just one day. I know little of the formation of Pakistan and the events that led up to it, but the author paints a vivid picture of the aftermath, and in particular the effect that it had on the female population, who found themselves vulnerable and open to exploitation.

The author plays with the four lead characters, like a dance in slow motion, moving them towards each other and then further away before bringing them together almost at the end. The ghost of the twins father is ever watchful, guiding them on their journey without (for the most part) attempting to interfere, but observing gently from a distance. This for me at least, is part of what makes this such a memorable read, for it the supporting cast who in many ways take centre stage, just as in life. I also liked the way that he brought these four characters, each from a different religion together.

Others have described this as a harrowing read, although to be honest, I have read worse. It is though as always, the message behind the words that counts, and for me that message was about unity, for in the end we are all the same, regardless of belief and it is the recognition of this that leads to the unity and ultimate acceptance, that we all crave.

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