Reading the Partition of India
From Midnight's Children to In Freedom's Shade , Anjali Enjeti Discovers a Harrowing History
The public library across the street from my job in the late 1990s was a grand, Corinthian-columned structure resembling something out of Athens, not downtown Wilmington, Delaware. I visited it for the first time on a hot, humid afternoon, and as soon as I entered, the rush of air-conditioning cooled my skin. For a while, I wandered up and down the aisles in search of a novel that would hold my attention for my long train-ride home. A hefty hardback with black, sprawling script and a faded cover the color of dried blood caught my eye. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie, A Novel.
I knew of Rushdie. The fatwa on his life, which had been issued for the publication of The Satanic Verses, had recently been lifted. At the time, though, I hadn’t read any of his books.
When I turned to the first page of Midnight’s Children, the scent of mildew wafted in the air. Its pages barely clung to the binding. Some were dog-eared, warped from water damage, defaced with the light brown circular stains of a coffee mug. The smudged fingerprints of previous readers bordered the outer margins. The book was well past the expiration date for circulation, and I wondered why its disheveled state hadn’t caught the eye of a discerning librarian. I scanned the shelf for another more sturdy copy, came up empty handed, and decided a book this well-loved warranted my consideration.
At the front desk, I slid my laminated library card across the counter, tucked the book into my shoulder bag.
Before reading Rushdie’s epic novel, I knew very little about the Partition of India. My formal American education fed me facts about the atrocities of British rule, but only from the perspective of white male colonists. When my studies expanded beyond North America, they landed in Europe. Asia consisted solely of Russia.
What I did know about Partition was this: in mid-August 1947, when the British finally ended their colonial occupation and “quit India,” the Subcontinent was split into two–the nation of India, and the new Muslim country of Pakistan. Hindus and Sikhs who lived in Pakistan were forced out of their homes and fled to India. Muslims who’d resided for generations in India, escaped to Pakistan. The upheaval led to communal violence and unimaginable bloodshed. Over one million people died and some 15 million became homeless.
Rushdie’s masterpiece chronicles the coming of age of 1,001 children born in the first hour of India’s independence, and specifically, two boys, Saleem and Shiva. (Rushdie just missed of being one of the midnight’s children himself. He was born on June 19, 1947, two months shy of Independence.)
The infants, switched at birth, are now living lives of undeserving wealth (Saleem) or poverty (Shiva). 30-year-old Saleem serves as a narrator of the novel with the gift of telepathy, all the while enduring the burden of a troubling prophesy: “He will have sons without having sons! He will be old before he is old. And he will die before he is dead.”
What wasn’t to love? I devoured Midnight’s Children, and after I’d soaked in the last, melodic syllable, a literary hangover settled over me for months. I felt bereft, as if I’d been forcibly shoved back through a portal to the present day, when all I’d wanted was to dwell in the hearts and minds of South Asians in the mid-20th century.
What stayed with me long after I finished Midnight’s Children was the conflict and compassion, the plight of two new countries born and raised alongside a generation trying to make its way in the world, as well as Rushdie’s probing analysis of the tension between self-determination and fate.
I thought about my childhood trips to India–the landmarks I’d photographed, the temples in Hyderabad, Delhi, and Bangalore where I’d bowed my head in prayer, the animated markets filled with fresh, colorful produce and fragrant flowers, the bucolic countryside. I could not reconcile the vibrant, breathtaking, peaceful country I’d known as a child, with the one I’d read about in Midnight’s Children. The schism between my contemporary understanding of the country and Rushdie’s fictional India in 1947 was wide and deep, a fault in the earth. Rushdie’s novel bestowed upon me a much deeper, almost spiritual connection to a more complicated country.
“I am the bomb in Bombay,” Rushdie writes, “watch me explode, bones splitting breaking beneath the awful pressure of the crowd, bag of bones, falling down down down … I have been so-many too-many persons, life unlike syntax allows one more than three, and at last somewhere the striking of a clock, twelve chimes, release.”
I read and re-read the library volume with ferocity, returned it, purchased my own copy. But Midnight’s Children could no longer satiate my now voracious appetite for Partition fiction. I spent the next decade ingesting every novel I could find that explored some aspect of this turbulent period of history.
I started with Khushwant Singh’s classic, the inimitable Train to Pakistan, Bapsi Sidhwa’s riveting Cracking India, Prem Sharma’s haunting Mandalay’s Child, and Shauna Singh Baldwin’s devastatingly poetic, What the Body Remembers. I proceeded through Kamila Shamsie’s perceptive Salt and Saffron, Vikram Seth’s sweeping saga, A Suitable Boy, Anuradha Roy’s intriguing An Atlas of Impossible Longing and more recently, Amit Majmudar’s stunning page-turner, Partitions.
I poured over them during long car rides, in airports, waiting rooms, my tears soaking the margins, blurring the ink. The narratives layered in my mind, affixed themselves to the synapses of my brain.
When I neared the completion of the genre, I finally cracked open the nonfiction, the real stories of the subcontinent’s split: Yasmin Khan’s The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan, Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India, Ayesha Jalal’s The Pity of Partition: Manto’s Work, Life and Times Across the India-Pakistan Divide; Nisid Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition; and Anis Kidwai’s haunting, singular memoir, In Freedom’s Shade, among many others.
It was Midnight’s Children and Partition fiction that first humanized the history for me. It breathed life into the grainy, black and white images I perused online, conveyed the dry, dusty landscape, the heat of a scorching sun, the anxiety and fear of being separated from loved ones, of being lost and never found. It’s a backward education, I suppose, for fantasy and fable to illuminate reality and authenticity. But the novels awakened something visceral within me, nurtured a bottomless well of compassion, granted me the ability to examine the truths of this era free from politics or judgment, with a softened, soulful, humbled heart.
Inside my paperback edition of Midnight’s Children, published nearly a quarter century after its debut in 1981, is an introduction by Rushdie himself about the impact of his ground-breaking novel. “Like all novels, Midnight’s Children is a product of its moment in history, touched and shaped by its time in ways that its author cannot wholly know.”
Which is, I suppose, another way of saying that sometimes the most harrowing, heartbreaking events in history make sense only in one’s imagination.