Where The River Parts by Radhika Swarup

27216723RK Narayan is one of my most favourite Indian writers. I have read a few more Indian authors, but nobody’s work reminded me of RK Narayan, or Ruskin Bond. Not that the others were not good — I love quite a few Indian authors — but the warm feelings that RK Narayan’s, and Ruskin Bond’s books evoke in me are special. When I was reading Radhika Swarup’s Where The River Parts, I couldn’t dismiss the thought that her writing was reminiscent of the gentlemen I adore. Of course, minus the violence that Swarup had to explore.

Quite incidentally, as my father was relishing the India-Pakistan cricket match yesterday, I read Where the River Parts, which offers a distressing, yet poetic account of the shadow that the partition of India and Pakistan cast.

With his gaze fixed on the TV, my father went, “Ouch. Another wicket. Bad India. Bad!” and muttered fervent prayers under his breath for India to win. Having been born and brought up in a family that passionately discussed the cricket match, and nuclear weapons test, all pertaining to India and Pakistan, I could relate to Where the River Parts effortlessly.

I loved the way the book begins. The school-goers, best friends, neighbours, Asha (the Hindu girl), and Nargis (the Muslim one) exchange delicacies, spend all their days in each others’s houses, and Asha fasts for Ramzan, while Nargis observes Karva Chauth. Asha falls in love with her best friend’s brother — Firoze, who advocates for a separate country for Muslims. The young lovers meet by the river Ravi (which plays a significant role in the book), steal memorable moments, and because of their overwhelming love, Asha is made to bear a secret that she chooses not to share with anybody.

It’s 1947; India and Pakistan would become free. Suhanpur, their hometown, would become a part of Pakistan, jeopardising the security of Asha’s family. And that’s when Nargis’s wedding is also about to take place. Asha, after being almost abused by her domestic help, spends her last few hours with Nargis and her family, before fleeing their beloved Suhanpur. Firoze himself drops them off at a bus station for the family to reach Delhi. Those parts are heartbreaking.

Swarup doesn’t falter there. Her descriptions of the summer romance between Firoze and Asha, the extraordinary friendship between the Hindu-Muslim families, the savagery that makes Asha an orphan and a refugee, and the myriad ironies (of a Muslim rescuing a Hindu, as she runs to save her life from Muslims themselves), are charged with powerful emotions.

It was too quiet for hope, and then too loud for safety.

She thought of the people she had lost, of the affection, the smiles, the belonging she could never again take for granted. It was the end of a life, and as she stood there, shivering in the brief night-time chill, it dawned on her that it was the end of her childhood.

Life could have been unkind to Asha during the partition, but her marital life gives her the much needed solace. After marrying Om (a man from Suhanpur, whom she used to detest), she leads a happy life; however the harrowing memories visit her like uninvited guests. How can one eliminate those demons, despite choosing to live like a river! Perhaps, going with the flow is the only way out, and that’s how Asha lives.

Where the River Parts features women, who take everything in their stride, whose spirits are indomitable, and men, who are remarkably progressive and considerate.

50 years after the partition, life brings Firoze back to Asha. I squirmed a bit, when I read that part. The coincidence made me incredulous, for it seemed way bigger than life. However, in a while, I wanted Firoze, and Asha to rekindle their love. I wanted them to live like Fermina, and Florentino from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Swarup didn’t let me revel in my hope. She carefully negotiates another sharp turn there. It made me sad; however it’s a fitting end all the same.

Many thanks to Sandstone Press, and NetGalley for sending me a copy.

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30 thoughts on “Where The River Parts by Radhika Swarup

  1. This has been on my radar too Deepika and especially after having loved Nayomi Munaweera’s What Lies Between Us and seeing her endorse this novel. I only hesitated because it’s so easy to get overcommitted to so many great new shiny books, but after hearing from the author and already being so tempted, I’m going to read it too.

    Thanks for a great review and sharing the coincidence of the cricket match playing at the same time!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh that’s been on my radar for quite a while too Deepika, but I’m not sure I’m ready to write about the feelings it would likely awaken – having spent 2 months living in a refugee camp in Bethlehem with my now ex-husbands parents and wider family, and having had long exposure to the issues and repercussions of life in this region.

        It’s perhaps cowardly, but sometimes its easier to immerse in the pain of something more distant, than that which is close at hand. I don’t have your bravery!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s not cowardly at all, Claire. I understand how painful it must be to revisit a haunting memory, even if it is through a book, even if it is through someone else’s words. Please take all the time in the world. Books can always wait. 🙂 And, you inspire me in so many ways.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well written review D.

    But somehow I am not drawn to this book; I am not able to say precisely why. It (the story) appeared formulaic with the author choosing the safe and socially acceptable path eg. Asha living with Om (happily), whom she used to detest, and again in the end, the author seems to have chosen a fitting end, rather than explore possibilities. I don’t think that I will read this book.
    Disclosure: I have not read this book, but am going entirely by what you’ve said about the book.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I like strong woman characters, who’d NOT go with the the flow, even to save themselves. Maybe an ideal plot for the 20th century (woman), considering that it was set in the 20th century, but write about it now? Unless you want to make a point that giving up was the strong thing to do in those circumstances. Perhaps I will read it to find out. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have wanted to read RK Narayan for a while.

    I do not usually shy away from sad book. But this one sounds terribly so.

    Nevertheless I do want to read this.

    The events here make me think that how cruel humans can be to one another.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I like the sound of this book but the meeting between the two 50 years later is making me scratch my head. I guess it bothers me to see something like that in books but sounds like the author didn’t honor a reunion for life. Love that this book reminded you of R.K. Narayan though.

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  5. I don’t think I’ve heard of this one, but it sounds pretty great. I’d love to hear about some of your favorite Indian authors! I think most of what I’ve read has been written by 2nd generation Americans – I’ve read very little by Indian authors still living in India.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. R.K. Narayan was a favorite of mine from my teens and 20s, but haven’t revisited his books since then (a long time!). My husband read several of this books, too. I like the sound of this novel, although I do not understand the game of cricket, or many other sports, for that matter!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds like a wonderful book–beautiful writing and a touching story. I have read a little about the partition, and it continues to interest me. There’s just something about history that always draws me in. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. After your beautiful review I feel like I must read this book! It will definitely go on my want to read list.

    An Indian authors reading month sounds intriguing. I would have to join in!

    Thank you for all of your efforts in making a review to share with everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, Heidi. I will write to him. 🙂 Maybe, we can do a Ruskin Bond, and RK Narayan month alone. It sounds great. I will check with him about when we can plan for it, and if he would have enough time. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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