In Manreet Sodhi Someshwar’s latest novel, Lahore, the first part of a projected trilogy chronicling the human costs of the partition of the subcontinent, there is an electric charge from the very first page. Two friends, Beli Ram and Mehmood, who have grown up together in “Laur” (Lahore), are caught in the crossfire between a rally by the Muslim League demanding independent Pakistan and one where civilians are opposing Partition. It’s February 1947, and the scuffle is a premonition of the bloody days and weeks to follow.
Although shaken by the violence, Beli and Mehmood hold on to the belief that this is only temporary mischief stirred by hired goons. But in the months leading up to the independence and partition of India, including one of the biggest mass migrations in recorded history, their trust proves misplaced. People who have lived in harmony all their lives, through generations, lose all sense of right and wrong. Rivers of blood wash away the peace and goodwill built over centuries. The end of colonial rule is forever tainted by the poison of communal conflict.
All this is familiar knowledge and can be gleaned even from basic school textbooks. But Someshwar makes the tragedy of 1947 come alive by putting a human face to historical facts. Like Beli and Mehmood, the pioneers of the freedom movement—Jawaharlal Nehru, V.P. Menon, Sardar Patel—also grapple with the consequences of the British exit plan in her novel. So do Lord Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, his wife Edwina and daughter Pamela, as they watch millions scampering to cross the newly drawn borders.
By bringing the lesser mortals and the grand architects of destinies into the same frame, Someshwar draws our attention to the vulnerabilities common to all—be it a lowly coolie like Beli or a young mother like Indira Gandhi tending to her baby boys, Rajiv and Sanjay, or Edwina and Dickie Mountbatten indulging their daughter’s love for pet mongoose.
Someshwar speaks to Lounge about the making of her trilogy, the contours of the future volumes, and her take on M.A. Jinnah as being the villain of the piece. Edited excerpts from an email interview:
Partition and the 1984 pogrom have appeared in your fiction earlier. You have also done oral history research into these. How did you become interested in these historical landmarks?
Lahore is the land of my elders. In the riverine border town where I grew up, Lahore had been left behind on the other side of the Sutlej in 1947. Whereas Muslim-majority Ferozepur, that should have gone to Pakistan, stayed behind in India, courtesy (Cyril) Radcliffe’s (joint chairman of the two boundary commissions) squiggle. But like any true love, Lahore never left us. Its fragrance was in my father’s language, my uncle’s stories, my mother’s Pak dramas, in the ghazals floating every evening in our house, transmitted by PTV. It was present in my town’s countless tales with the same denouement: Partition.
When Sikh separatists in the 1980s allegedly fled to Pakistan for safe havens, the media started calling Ferozepur a “terrorist hotbed”. Our town’s consensus? It was ’47 all over again. Eventually, Ferozepur made me a writer in the Faulknerian sense: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
A fictional revisiting of 1947 presents a tall order for contemporary writers. From Bhisham Sahni to Qurratulain Hyder, the corpus of Partition literature is dappled with great writers. Who were your major influences?
Partition was a monumental event which resulted in the largest human migration in modern history. Yet it has been pushed to the margins of our collective history. There have been some fine chronicles of the time period but not nearly enough. Fictional recounting is even more scarce. This dearth of storytelling was evident to me in the border town I grew up in, where every household had a story to tell, and yet my books had none to show. Besides the names you mention, Krishna Sobti, Amrita Pritam, Khushwant Singh, Gulzar have influenced me. I write in the tradition of Sufi poets, where one proponent builds upon the legacy of the previous.
Why does Partition warrant literary reiterations after seven decades? Why did you opt for fiction as a vehicle to explore it?
Partition is not our past, it is resonating loudly in our present. It asks us not to sentimentalise but to interrogate it so that we may reconcile and heal. Writer Hilary Mantel argues that “facts are not the truth but the record of what’s left on the record. It is up to the living to interpret those accounts”. All my writing has been an attempt to bring to paper stories I grew up with, that spoke of an undivided land and time, that are now being erased.
Whilst researching and writing The Partition Trilogy, a two-decade-long engagement, I had two specific goals. One was to put faces on the ones who loved and lived and lost in that cataclysm, especially women, who suffered the worst and were obscured in the interstices of history. Second was to faithfully, with great historical accuracy, render the multiple dilemmas faced by our leaders as the charger of time galloped to 15 August.
What is the broad outline of your projected trilogy and are there any unconventional sources you have relied on to bring the story to life?
The Partition Trilogy is an exploration of the events, exigencies and decisions that led to the independence of India, its concomitant partition, and the accession of princely states alongside. Lahore, Book 1 is set in the months leading up to independence; Hyderabad and Kashmir, Books 2 and 3 respectively, are set in the 15 months thereafter. Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Dickie Mountbatten share space in the trilogy with the ordinary people from the places that were affected by the partition and the reorganisation of the states. I owe an immense debt to the libraries that have supported my long quest to research this period: the Singapore National Library, Hong Kong Public Library and New York Public Library. Growing up in a border town and being able to engage with survivors of ’47 and ’84 has been my best education.
Did it feel formidably challenging to imagine long-dead politicians into life, especially those with hallowed auras around them?
Absolutely. But I knew I had something unique to offer, hailing as I do from my Janus-faced border town. And I believe in entrepreneur Lee Iacocca’s dictum: When you get into a room, make sure you know more than anybody else. I use a style of creative semi-non-fiction—“Critical fabulation”, coined by American writer Saidiya Hartman—to bring the suppressed voices of the past to the surface by means of hard research. My prolonged quest to research my political protagonists—Nehru, Patel and Mountbatten—had my daughter convinced I was holding seances with dead men!
Jinnah appears squarely as the villain, with M.K. Gandhi sharing some of the blame, in your telling. While this is faithful to historical accounts of the endgame, do you personally feel it could have been different?
The narrative is set in the months leading up to Partition, by which time the foundational factors for division were already in play, engineered by the British over the period of the Raj. I decided not to have Jinnah and Gandhi as protagonists because they would suck up too much of the oxygen. Instead, I focused on the two men, Nehru and Patel, who were actively engaged in negotiations with the viceroy.
Whether Partition could have been averted is too large a question to be debated in a few words. However, we can conclusively implicate the Raj. As Patel says in the novel: “The British have disguised their politics as concern for the minority, abetting Jinnah and the League in its demands for Pakistan. Now, if that is a solution, I could apply it to Great Britain. And within one week, I would bring such disagreements to the fore that England, Wales, and Scotland would squabble like rabid dogs.”