By Nilova Roy Chaudhury
Title: Where the River Parts; Author: Radhika Swarup; Publishers: Rupa; 307 pages; Price: Rs 295/-
It is difficult to believe that ‘Where the River Parts’ is Radhika Swarup’s first novel. The poise with which she handles relationships and situations during an era of intense turmoil, characterised by conflict and conflagration, is remarkable. It is also immensely enjoyable reading.
An aching sense of love, loss and yearning permeate this work of fiction which, however, reads like a personal narrative set in an intensely disruptive period of Indian history, and adds to the genre of partition literature.
Where the River Parts is the story of Asha, a Hindu woman born into a prominent family in a small town in northwest India. The narrative begins before Partition, when Asha falls in love with Firoze, her Muslim neighbour and best friend Nargis’s brother. Firoze and Asha plan to marry, despite the difference in their religions, but their land is cleaved into Pakistan and India before they wed. Asha’s family is forced to flee the safety of Suhanpur as violence engulfs the town and their home is attacked.
Tragedy strikes even before they reach the border, and Asha sees her father, mother and brother murdered. She also loses Firoze’s baby, which she is secretly carrying in her womb, before ending up in the congested refugee camps of the Indian capital, teeming with disease and distress. She finds a familiar face and former suitor from home in Om and settles down after marrying him.
Sanam, a Muslim refugee girl hired to serve Asha as her maid, narrates a chapter, which separates the two eras, Partition and the 1940s, and nuclear tensions of the 1970s. Her chapter provides a break in the narrative and gives the book a distinct style, as comparisons between the two women are lyrically etched out.
Half a century after the story begins, Asha, now a widow, travels to New York for the wedding of her adoptive daughter Priya’s daughter Lana, who is set to marry a Pakistani Muslim called Hussain. It is 1998, and India and Pakistan are set to become nuclear weapons states. Asha discovers that Hussain’s grand-uncle is Firoze. What can she do? What should she do is the difficult choice she faces.
In its tenor, ‘Where the River Parts’ is an epic tale of love and loss and longing. In its scope, it spans continents and generations. In conclusion, it offers a paean to friendship and the human spirit.
The novel is a testament to how the spoken word gets deeply ingrained in the psyche through story-telling. The author did not live through the trauma surrounding the Independence and partition of India. She heard myriad accounts of the upheaval that followed the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan, from extended family members. She internalised these and has woven together an intensely moving account of the way events consumed the lives of ordinary people and families like hers.
The daughter of an Indian diplomat, who spent a nomadic childhood in India, Pakistan, Italy, Qatar, Romania and England, Swarup’s nostalgia for her roots does, at one level, guide her choice of subject.
Speaking when the book was published, Swarup talked of what motivated her to place her story in that period.
“It’s a period in the Indian sub-continent’s history that never fails to move me. For our proudest hour – independence after 200 years of colonial rule – to be so marked by horror is nothing short of tragic. 1 million people were killed in the violence that was unleashed on both sides of the border. Muslims killed Hindus and Sikhs, and in turn, Hindus and Sikhs butchered Muslims. Neighbours turned on each other. 16 million people were displaced. Where the River Parts touches on only the tiniest portion of those affected by the period,” said Swarup.
Where the River Parts finds greater resonance now when relations between India and Pakistan find themselves strained again, at centre-stage.
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