The India-Pakistan Partition of 1947 was one of the deadliest religious genocides of modern history. The conflict left upwards of one million people dead and more than 15 million as refugees. Many Partition stories have been passed down through word of mouth, but others have disappeared entirely after more than 60 years. Consequently, despite the decades-long violence, very few people outside of the Indian subcontinent know about the lingering trauma that Partition has left on generations of South Asians.
Author Anjali Enjeti hopes to change that with her upcoming fiction release “The Parted Earth.” The novel, set to be released on May 4, rescues the dying and forgotten stories of Partition.
“What happens when we lose so many stories from a significant world event? We lose so much when we lose our family histories, when we lose our stories, when we don’t know the struggles of our ancestors,” Enjeti said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
The Partition occurred in 1947. India had just won independence from the British Empire, its colonizers of 200 years. Before they retreated, the British Empire drew boundary lines separating Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The subsequent religious genocide was brutal. Muslims fled to West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), while Hindus fled to the Indian states of Punjab and West Bengal. Animosity and tension grew between Hindus and Muslims, leading to widespread riots and targeted violence. This persecution continued for decades.
“The Parted Earth” follows multiple characters who have all felt the effects of Partition: Deepa, a high school girl who leaves her home of New Delhi for London in 1947; Shan, a lawyer with a broken marriage and a deep desire to know her displacement-riddled roots; Chandani, an elderly woman whose husband, also a victim of the Partition, recently committed suicide. The novel is a gripping, multi-generational story of families who must come to terms with their displacement.
“Partition is not just an event that just happened in the subcontinent,” Enjeti said. “These survivors, their children, their grandchildren, migrated to other continents and countries. They set up their lives elsewhere. These stories go with them.”
My family, with generational roots in West Bengal, has its own Partition stories. My grandfather crossed the border from Bangladesh to India in 1957 when he was just 18 years old, to avoid persecution as a Hindu. He arrived at a safe house in Kolkata where he met my grandmother, who had also fled from Bangladesh to India when she was six years old. Her father had been a doctor in Bangladesh, but left with his family in 1950 after hearing rumors that neighborhood mobs were planning to murder his family that night.
My grandparents married and have lived in Kolkata ever since. I consider myself especially lucky to have heard my grandfather’s story before he passed away last November. Yet, what happens to the stories that are hidden and never told?
Enjeti’s fascination with the Partition started in the ’90s. At the time, she was a lawyer and a mother. After encountering Salman Rushdie’s 1981 Booker Prize winner “Midnight’s Children,” Enjeti read anything and everything she could about Partition. “I just started voraciously reading every book I could get my hands on,” Enjeti said.
When the internet became a household commodity in the mid-’90s, some of Enjeti’s first searches were about the Partition. She wasn’t getting far until she discovered the 1947 Partition Archive years later, one of the first widespread initiatives to make Partition stories accessible. Yet, the 1947 Partition Archive was founded in 2011, more than 60 years after the actual event.
“What really got me was that it had been so long, so much time had passed, and so many survivors would have passed away,” Enjeti said. “I wanted to emphasize not just Partition, but the legacy of Partition and how it affects the generations of people that follow.”
Enjeti’s perspective on the Partition is rich and hard-hitting. In choosing a fictional approach, she puts a human face on the turbulence and trauma of Partition while remaining historically accurate. Enjeti doesn’t skirt around the violence of those long decades, but she does handle the devastation with a grace that enhances the plot. Readers are compelled to understand Partition from the eyes of a child and a middle-aged woman. “A river of apprehension flowed between homes not even one meter apart,” Enjeti writes. Even a child can understand that level of hostility.
Enjeti’s novel has a nonlinear timescale, jumping between the past and present, from continent to continent. This model has been echoed by contemporary writers such as Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jess Walter and Tatiana de Rosnay, all of whom influenced Enjeti’s writing. Enjeti, however, stands out in her graceful and digestible writing style. “The Parted Earth” is a much easier read than Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” for example, but still manages to explore themes of death and destruction with comparable depth.
But “The Parted Earth” isn’t just about the Partition. It’s also about family roots, ancestry and reclaiming a lost culture. This theme is personal for Enjeti. She grew up with an Indian father and a half-Puerto Rican, half-Austrian mother. With only half of her family in India, Enjeti felt distant from the Indian subcontinent, especially when she stopped visiting regularly after college. All of her relatives moved out of India when Enjeti was in her 20s, and she returned only years later for her cousin’s wedding.
“We were attending the wedding as tourists,” Enjeti said. “That was a jarring experience for me, to return to India and have virtually no family left there.”
Enjeti felt she’d truly lost her connection with the Indian side of her family when her grandmother passed away. “I didn’t make the effort to know her stories and know her better while she was alive,” Enjeti said. “That regret, that guilt of her not getting to meet her great-grandkids before she passed, just really sat so heavy on me. Part of the book came out of that feeling.”
Reclaiming one’s culture, discovering lost stories, reckoning with generational displacement — these concepts are hard to come to terms with. For anyone looking to delve deeper into their familial roots, Enjeti recommends starting with women in your family. “In most cultures, it is the matriarchs who hold the stories of their communities. They are the keepers of the stories, the archivists,” Enjeti said.
Personally, when I think back to my own grandma, who showers me with Bengali clothes and jewelry when she visits Michigan, I find that Enjeti’s words ring true. Fittingly, nearly all the narrators in “The Parted Earth” are women. Enjeti weaves together her own story with those of powerful female characters who have lost or become estranged from the men in their lives. “The women are our histories. They are the most authentic histories,” Enjeti said.
“The Parted Earth” is a powerful story about the Partition, but it’s also much more than that. Enjeti intertwines themes of displacement, heritage and reclamation to show us the power of family ties in less than 250 pages. The novel makes me want to preserve my own family’s Partition stories: to savor them, write them down or tell my children about them someday.
“The Parted Earth” carries the strength of generations on its shoulders. It isn’t a light read, but it’s an important one.
Daily Arts Writer Trina Pal can be reached at email@example.com.