Sunday, December 18, 2011

Partitions by Amit Majmudar

"This is the sadhu."
Opening to


by Amit Majmudar

It's very difficult for me to imagine let alone understand the animus that led to the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947 following the withdrawal of British authority from the subcontinent.  The violence that accompanied partition defies understanding.  One can only ask how could this happen without the expectation of an answer.

To his credit, Amit Majmudar does not seek to explain that violence  in his novel Partitions.  Instead, he presents a portrayal of three sets of people, two Hindo brothers trying to find their mother and flee Pakistan, a Muslim doctor driven out of India and a Sikh girl forced to flee her doomed family for the home she hopes to find at the Golden Temple of Armritsar.

What emerges from the novel is a portrait of the chaos that followed partition.  Millions of people forced to leave their homelands, most unable to take anything with them, many facing violent opposition driving them out and trying to stop their escape.

It's hard for someone living in the Bay Area in 2011 to understand what happened.  What could drive someone to light a ten-year-old boy on fire?  How could anyone participate in gang raping a pre-pubescent girl?  Why would anyone drive out the local doctor who brought generations of children into the world?  It's probably just as hard to imagine  for many people living in South Asia today as well.  The past is a foreign country after all.

C.J. is reading Angels of Our Better Nature by Steven Pinker.  Mr. Pinker's thesis is that violence has been on a steady decline throughout human history.   From the details C.J. has passed along to me, Mr. Pinker makes a strong case.  We think of the 20th century as an incredibly violent time period.  Two world wars, the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, all make the partitioning of India look like a relatively minor bad patch.  Mr. Pinker argues that over the scope of human history, the 20th century wasn't really all that bad.  He makes a very good case, too.  I hope he's right.  I hope the violence that occurred in Partition and in events like it will soon be strictly the stuff of novels.

After reading Mr. Majmudar's novel, I cannot boast a better understanding of either why partitioning happened nor why so many people behaved so abominably during it.  I can say  that I have a better understanding of what it was to live through that event.  By presenting four characters who survived events none of them understood, Mr. Majmudar gives his readers what every good novelist does, a bit of insight into the lives of others, a slightly greater sense of community with the human race.  I know I'm venturing into territory even I would label as cheesy, but Partitions moved me much more than I expected.   That's a fitting tribute to those who went through the partitioning of India, and to those who didn't survive.


Teresa said...

This sounds so interesting. I think the sum total of what I know about the partitioning of India comes from what I remember from watching Ghandhi several years ago, which amounts to not much. I like the idea of looking at it through different characters eyes.

I'm also curious about the book CJ is reading. I'm not sure I agree with the thesis, but not having read the book I can't make a case either way. I do wonder if the past might seem more violent because it's stories of war and unrest that tend to last, while stories of people going about their lives peacefully day to day don't make the history books.

Gavin said...

This one is on my TBR list but may have to wait. I just finished two very intense books and need something a bit easier on the psyche.

Trisha said...

Sometimes it is impossible to understand human behavior.

C.B. James said...

Gavin, I hope it stays in your TBR pile. I was impressed with it, though it is hard on the psyche at times, as you say, the ending is not.

Trisha, I'm beginning to think that there are moments in history we shouldn't try to "understand."

Kinna said...

I have been a fan of literature about the Partition since I wrote a paper on the period way back in college. Another good book is What the Body Remembers by Shauna Singh. It's hard to point at one thing that was the cause of the violence. It's more a multiplicity of old simmering issues. It's amazing how violent people can be when they feel that they can give full expression to their hate!

Lisa May said...

I first came across the catacylsm of the Partition in the novels of Paul Scott, and I remember trying to come to understand how it happened and its impact on people's lives. I think this book, with its Indian and Pakistani characters, would be even more intense reading.

C.B. James said...

Teresa, You should read the Steven Pinker book. C.J. gave me a full run-down on it as he read it. I was very skeptical of the main thesis. How could the 20th century have possibly been less violent than those that preceeded it?

But, Mr. Pinker has done his research and he makes a very strong case. He considers both total losses during wartime and percentage based losses, along with the trend away from torture as entertainment, violent public execution, declining rates in violent crime, trends away from slavery, growth in rules of war and the notion of war crimes, increased use of international organization to mediate conflicts. All point towards a decline in violence over time.

I may end up reading the book myself next year after the TBR Double Dare.

Gavin said...

I have the Pinker book on my list of books to read after the TBR Dare. Maybe we could do a read-along?