RK 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.