Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, author, The Partition Trilogy - “We are all villains” - Hindustan Times
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Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, author, The Partition Trilogy - “We are all villains”

BySimar Bhasin
Mar 24, 2023 04:05 PM IST

On her fictional recounting of the great migration of 1947 whose aftershocks still haunt the Indian subcontinent

How did the idea for a Partition trilogy come about? How did you go about zeroing in on Lahore, Hyderabad and Kashmir as focal points?

Author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar (Courtesy the subject)
Author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar (Courtesy the subject)

I grew up in Ferozepur, which is smack on the border between India and Pakistan. That’s where my father’s family is from. I go back every year; my brother, my husband, my daughter, we all visit. I think it’s my home town that made me a writer. The peculiar thing about the town is that it was a Muslim majority town. So by the laws of India’s Partition, it should have gone to Pakistan, but it didn’t. And therein lies the story of, we use the term, “transfer of population”, which is a very neutral term... But that’s not how it happened. Certainly not in Punjab. There was a very violent exodus of people. There was killing on both sides. And I grew up with stories of my dadaji, my father’s father, who was a landowner. The landowners used to be Sikhs and Hindus but the people who worked for them, the farmhands were Muslim. I grew up with stories about how literally overnight, they had to first find a truck, move those farmhands into a truck, and then try and escort them over the border to what was now a safe zone because it belonged to Muslims. As a child, you don’t pay attention. Then, my adolescence coincided with the Sikh militancy period and Ferozepur became a militant hotbed. My father was a lawyer, so I saw it very closely. Anyway, I went on to become an engineer, went to IIM Calcutta, and had a corporate career. Then, my father passed away and I just felt that I wanted to write a story. I was hyper aware that there were things I was carrying within myself, which needed an outlet. So I tried to write but I had no training as a writer. I’m not even a literature student. So I took a sabbatical from work and began writing and researching. The story initially was on 1984 and I went to the library to understand why it happened. That took me to the Green Revolution to 1947 and before that to the Ghadar movement. The more I read, the more I could begin to see the filter through which I could process what I had seen growing up. None of that was in my history textbooks. I didn’t find any mention of it. Whereas in my home town, every house had a story to tell. Where were those stories? That’s what started me off on my long journey.

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352pp, ₹399; HarperCollins (The first part of the Partition Trilogy)
352pp, ₹399; HarperCollins (The first part of the Partition Trilogy)

My first book, The Long Walk Home, which is historical fiction, looked at the turbulent 20th century history of Punjab through the life of a family. So suffice to say, I have been working on collecting Partition stories, my own oral archives, because I realized very quickly that when I started speaking to my parents, my extended family, to neighbours, that these were all people who were elderly, where memories are declining and at some point I will lose the story. So I started my own sort of oral history project, and finally, The Partition Trilogy.

The first book came out in 2021, so you could say it took me 20 years. With the trilogy, I was trying something very ambitious, which is putting political leaders and the aam aadmi and aurat on the same stage. I want to show how decisions taken in Delhi affect common people. So, in Lahore, in Hyderabad, in Kashmir, and in Delhi, I have Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Lord Mountbatten as my protagonists. I’m writing from inside their heads – it’s Jawahar speaking, Vallabh speaking, and it is Dickie speaking. To do that, you need to be very intimate with them – breakfast mein kya khaate hain? What is his favourite food? Does he smoke? Does he drink? What does he drink? What does he wear? What is their relationship with each other? How do they address each other? In each of these books, every single thing that is attributed in quotes to each of these characters is verified. Anybody who picks up the book should learn about the history of India without feeling that they are actually learning history. That’s my attempt.

What prompted you to do a fictional recounting of Partition? As I said, in my home town, every house had a story to tell. But I didn’t find those stories in my textbooks. I came to Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan very late; I think I was 21. That’s when I was like, “This is the history that I’ve seen around me!” I also feel that Partition is not one story. It’s not narrative non-fiction. Of course, you can write that. And you can tell the stories there. But I think each story is different. And each story needs to be privileged, and I don’t believe that narrative non-fiction does a better job than fiction. As long as fiction is rooted in authenticity, I want to tell those stories. Also, in my stories, I want to showcase how there is love even while there is hate and riots and violence. There were star-crossed lovers, there were parents who lost children. And I want to talk about that love too which is at the heart of all my stories. I feel that if I have to pay homage to Partition, I can only do it by bringing alive all those stories, and also the stories of our political leaders who had a terrible, terrible job, because history was literally running ahead of them; things had been decided. All they could do was just scramble to stay in place and take decisions which would do the least damage. When I was tussling with how to tell these stories in the best way, I was in New York City, and came across Saidiya Hartman, who is a professor now at Columbia University, who has developed a technique called “critical fabulation”. In that, you do a scaffolding or a skeleton of hard research. On top of that, you do the padding or the flesh through creative imagination. That is what I’m attempting to do.

347pp, ₹399; HarperCollins (The second part of the Partition Trilogy)
347pp, ₹399; HarperCollins (The second part of the Partition Trilogy)

What kind of research did you do to lend authenticity to the political manoeuvres done behind closed doors? There are two threads here. One is the Delhi thread, and then there is the aam aadmi thread. When I started off initially people would be like, “Oh, Jawaharlal Nehru used to drink.” No, he didn’t drink. But to get that information, I had to trawl through so many millions of pages because the information I’m looking for is not readily available. We’re not great archivists in India; it’s not easy to access information. In a sense, it was a blessing in disguise that I was living outside of India, because the New York Public Library network is connected to all the Ivy League colleges and libraries. So if I wanted a book, which they didn’t have, they would get it for me. Seeing the ambition of my project, they took me on as a Fellow at the New York Public Library, which means I have access to resources, I can get those books home, and even during the pandemic, they sent me books.

The idea of women’s bodies as battlefields and also these women historical figures, that you tried to highlight, was that a central focus when you began the book?It was very much my central focus. We hear of Edwina Mountbatten, Maniben, Indu (which is what Indira Gandhi was called when she was her father’s assistant and taking care of his house)... What role were they playing? I wanted to bring them alive. My attempt, both, in the common thread and in the political thread is to rescue these women from the interstices of history and bring them front and forward. I’m just giving them their proper place.

READ MORE: Review - Hyderabad; Book 2 of The Partition Trilogy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

You talk about the Jewish diaspora in the US bringing out literary works from the third generation on the Holocaust. However, there’s a lack when it comes to the Partition. Could you elaborate?

I can say this because I live in New York City and teach at City College as well. There are several books which come out, wonderful marvellous works, heavily researched, which talk about what happened during the Jewish Holocaust. Now the thing is in that story, there is a very clear villain. We know the Nazis are the villain and the Jews were the survivors, the victims. And third generation on, obviously, the Jewish population feels that they need to still wrestle with it. It’s a lesson which should not be forgotten. It was too high a cost to pay. By reading those stories, it’s not just the Jewish diaspora, or Jewish people who are being enriched. All of us are being enriched because we’re all learning that these things can lead to this and therefore, hopefully, have more empathy for those around us. I don’t believe that you have to compare traumas, but just for the purpose of analysis, shift your gaze to Partition. About two million people died and around 15 million people moved borders. Now, it is considered the largest modern migration in human history. Just by the sheer number, we need to have at least 15 million stories. If we can’t have that many, can we have even 1/100th of that? We don’t. We can literally count on our fingers, the excellent Partition literature we have. It is from my father’s generation. Where is the literature after that? Urvashi Butalia did great work. But why are we not repeatedly getting those stories up front and centre and talking about them? During my research, I figured that it’s because of guilt and shame. Because we don’t have clear villains; we are all villains. As a Punjabi gentleman told me, “Nobody’s hands are clean”. And we told our women to seal their mouths, they’re not to talk about it. I feel that has led to where we are today with the sort of us versus them, this absolutely useless path that we are on. If we understand the violence that has brought us to this point, maybe we’ll have more empathy for each other. I do believe stories are at the heart of human existence.

The book was written during the pandemic. Did any of the uncertainty of that time make it into the narrative? Yes. Some people have complained that when you read Lahore, “closure nahi hai”. Do you think people who lived through Partition had closure? Do you think we as Indians have closure? There is no closure. That’s why I’m putting the stories out there because we need to talk, we need to air and maybe, hopefully, get some kind of understanding. There is no closure when we have such brutality. Uncertainty pervades the entire narrative of the Partition Trilogy. It’s an integral part of it.

Could you tell us more about the third part of the trilogy, Kashmir?In Kashmir, I’m doing the same thing. The Delhi thread again has Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Dickie Mountbatten, who is now the first Governor-General of India. He’s been asked by the leadership to stay on, so he’s there for a 12-month assignment. The second thread is not just the common Kashmiris, but also Maharaja Karan Singh of Jammu and Kashmir state. In a sense, Hyderabad and Kashmir are yin and yang. In Hyderabad, it is a Hindu majority state; in Kashmir, it is the opposite. With Hyderabad, we have forgotten the story. In Kashmir, we think we know what happened, but I feel like we don’t know. There are many misconceptions. When we think of Kashmir, we think of the valley. The state is much bigger than the valley. The valley was, of course, Muslim majority. But by the same token, Jammu was Hindu majority. Gilgit Baltistan had a very large population of Shia Muslims, who are, you know, very different from Sunni Muslims. It could be two different religions; the practices are so different. Then, we had Ladakh, which is Buddhist. We never bring these things into the conversation, but they are important. Kashmir is also the state where we go to war. The first Indo-Pak war happens within two months of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. In my novel, I also have protagonists who are Pakistani. I think we need to understand Jinnah’s fears and what was being done on the ground. Maharajah Hari Singh’s soldiers, what they were doing, what was the violence perpetrated on ordinary Kashmiris? How are they responding? Once again, women are front and centre. There were women soldiers, Kashmiri women, an army, a unit was raised. We never talk about it. These women were ordinary Kashmiri girls, 18-20 years old, who were trained in self defence. I wanted to bring those stories; they are part of Kashmir.

Simar Bhasin is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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