NewnhamWrites … Ghosts of Partition
The partition of India in 1947 was a seismic event that impacted the lives of millions. A year ago, I had had the honour to read a draft of Where the River Parts, by my friend, Radhika Swarup (NC1997). While there have been a plethora of books and films set against the backdrop of Partition, her story impacted me in a profound way. It follows Asha and her family as their lives are torn apart in August 1947. Asha – a Hindu – is forced to leave the man she loves, Firoze – a Muslim. She also harbours a secret that will cast shame on her family. As tensions escalate between the newly formed Pakistan and India, there’s little hope that she and Firoze will meet again. But there’s always fate, the chance of an unexpected meeting, the possibility that their worlds will, one day, touch again.
Radhika spent a nomadic childhood, growing up in India, Italy, Qatar, Pakistan, Romania and England, which gave her a keen sense of place and for the dispossessed. She studied at Newnham College, Cambridge and worked in finance before turning to writing. She has since written opinion pieces for Indian broadsheets and The Huffington Post, as well as short stories for publications, including The Edinburgh Review. Where the River Parts (Sandstone Press) is her first novel and was selected for Sainsbury’s Summer Book Club.
Copyright: Dawn Newspaper
Where the River Parts is partially set during the Partition of India. What made you decide to write a story during that era?
It’s a period in the Indian sub-continent’s history that never fails to move me. For our proudest hour – independence after 200 years of colonial rule – to be so marked by horror is nothing short of tragic. One million people were killed in the violence that was unleashed on both sides of the border. Muslims killed Hindus and Sikhs, and in turn, Hindus and Sikhs butchered Muslims. Neighbours turned on each other. 16 million people were displaced. Where the River Parts touches on only the tiniest portion of those affected by the period.
Like my mother’s family, your family were also impacted by Partition. How did their experiences feed into your story?
My family’s experiences have largely seeped into the atmosphere I’ve tried to portray in Suhanpur, the fictional town where my protagonists live. I’ve had a wealth of details given to me about my family’s life in what became Pakistan, and I’ve tried to imbibe Where the River Parts with a sense of it.
Beyond telling me about their life in Pakistan, though, my family never shared any of the horrors they witnessed. Other ‘children’ in my extended family were similarly protected. It’s only now as we have grown, and now that I’ve delved deeper into my family’s involvement in Partition, that stories have begun to come out: such as the relative who risked life and limb to return to Pakistan to retrieve a family heirloom; or the young boy who travelled on a train to India – and miraculously survived – despite the Hindu symbol, Om, tattooed on his wrist.
My paternal grandparents married shortly before Partition. A week before the worst of the violence was unleashed, they travelled to Karachi, a city that fell the way of Pakistan. What struck me most about that time was that it brought out the best and worst in people. There are countless tales of tragedy, cowardice, opportunism, but they find a ready counterpoint in the remarkable heroism of many.
How did your story evolve from the first draft to the final manuscript?
I spent a year researching the period and allowing the plot to percolate into my consciousness. It was during this time that I felt I struggled most with the story and with the characters and their behaviour. When I sat down to write the novel, I had a firm sense of the story, but the detail was a whole new challenge. The characters were their own people with lives and destinies beyond my control. After I finished the first draft, I took a break to allow myself to gain some distance from the story, and two revisions followed. Scenes were cut; others added; and one character in particular was painted in a more sympathetic light. This chiselling away changed the entire complexion of the book.
Where the River Parts is, I think, original in the way it deals with love across boundaries. How did you avoid writing yet another version of Romeo and Juliet?
Thank you for saying so!
In a sense, all stories of unrequited love deal with love across boundaries: whether they be geographic, societal (religion, caste, family enmities) or economic. What I hope allows Where the River Parts to stand on its own is the fact that the distances that sprang up between the protagonists were so unanticipated and so beyond their control. They also echo the lack of choice so many must feel in these times of war and uncertainty, when neighbours set upon each other, and salvation often feels too far to reach.
My dad inspired me to write. A long-standing memory I have of my childhood is hearing him typing away in his room. Who or what inspired you to become a writer?
My father is a big influence for me too. He would return home from work, spend some time with me and my brother, help us with homework, and then get his writing out. To be honest, I resented his time away from the family then. But now, as I struggle to write around a young family, I finally understand. And I admire him greatly for his determination, his dedication, and his pleasure in his craft. He has always told me to write for the pleasure of the act, and to write without thinking of publication as the end goal, and that advice has stood me in good stead.
Like me, you used to work in investment banking. How did it feel to leave behind the world of finance to work for yourself and enter into a world that is so different from banking?
On the positive side, it was liberating to be able to work on the writing I’ve always been so passionate about. But leaving the world of finance took a bit of getting used to. The structure, the office hours, deadlines, meetings, all suddenly vanished. It took me a while to build up the discipline to write daily and to enjoy the solitude that writing requires.
How do you approach your writing? Is there a particular time of day when you write?
I thrive on structure too, but this is often beyond my control. I work from home with two young children, and am driven by their schedules and their holidays. And then too, my story doesn’t always allow me a regular schedule. Some scenes and chapters take longer to write than I expect, and some end up longer than I originally intended.
In general, though, I’m a morning person. I love working while my mind is free from all the clutter that accumulates over a busy day, and if I’m in the middle of a draft, I can happily wake up at 4am to work for those couple of hours when my home is quiet. This is only when I’m in the middle of a draft though, at other times, I’m much too fond of my sleep to wake up so early!
Blimey – I couldn’t do a 4a.m. start no matter what I’m working on. Do you ever envisage writing something which touches on the career you left?
From Shylock to American Psycho’s Bateman, financiers have long served as the pantomime villains of literature. And yet, financiers like Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus can also be agents for positive social change. But one thing is certain. If a flawed, complicated character chose to walk into my head, it would make for a wonderful challenge.
What motivated you to apply to Newnham?
I knew a few people who had been to Newnham, and applied on their recommendation. What I didn’t know was how close the college was to the Economics faculty, which turned out to be an added bonus!
What defining experience do you have of the place?
The thing that most remains with me is the sense of friendliness. After the anonymity of London, it was bliss to encounter such warmth in Newnham. It was where I learnt who I was – opinionated, egalitarian, and someone who needed to love her work to pursue it – and surrounded as I was by so many like-minded people, it was a sort of coming home.
What word springs to mind when you think of the following:
Career woman: juggling
Where the River Parts is available now from Amazon and most bookstores.