Friday, 13 May 2016

Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Where the River Parts takes us inside a conflict that most of us know only from newspaper headlines and historical reports. And like Kamila Shamshie’s Burnt Shadows, it spans half a century and two continents.

The novel opens in the days before Indian Independence in 1947, when the country is about to be divided into Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Mistrust is in the air and a season of madness is about to sweep across the country.

Asha and Nargis have grown up next door to each other in what will soon be the Pakistani part of Punjab. They are best friends, even sharing each other’s fast days – but Asha is Hindu and Nargis is Muslim. Neither can believe that anything will ever come between them. Even when the violence reaches to Suhanpur and Asha’s family are forced to flee to Delhi, everyone believes the separation is only temporary.

In fact, it will be half a century and half a world away before Asha sees Nargis’s brother, Firoze, – the man she was once secretly in love with - in New York. The wounds of Partition still run deep. Pakistan and India are now implacable enemies, and even away from the sub-continent mistrust between Hindus and Muslims is an ever-present shadow. Can old love and friendship build a bridge between the two communities, or will it be up to a new generation?

Swarup paints a picture of what life was like for two middle-class, educated young women in the Punjab between the end of WWII and Independence. Asha and Nargis bubble with mischief and fun, like any teenagers. Their lives are circumscribed by tradition, but not stifled. And there is a sense that they are the verge of new freedoms. All of which makes the senseless violence that erupts all the more shocking.

Where the River Parts is a tender tale that never takes sides. Kindness and generosity is found on both sides of the Partition, as is prejudice and cruelty. Swarup does not try to explain what triggers people who have lived side by side as neighbours to turn on each other – a pattern repeated in India, Nigeria, Bosnia, Rwanda... As, no doubt, it could almost anywhere. Wisely, she understands that the heart of the story lies not in the why or the how – but in the impact the brutal events have on families and communities, and how they continue to resound through succeeding generations.

Towards the end of the book, Asha meets a Muslim woman her own age who fled the other way, leaving Delhi for Pakistan. The woman asks her what Delhi is like now.

“It’s still a village at heart,” Asha tells her, “noisy and intrusive. There are still narrow lanes that cross the magnificent boulevards, still the shanties beyond the grand circuses. It’s still impossible to keep things secret.”

“In that case,” says the woman, “all is well.”

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, Finding Takri by Palo Stickland

Avoid If You Dislike: Narratives stretching over several generations

Perfect Accompaniment: Potato parathas and a glass of home-made lemonade, flavoured with roast cumin.

Genre: Historical Fiction, South Asian Literature

Available from Amazon

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