TW: This review and the book mention loss of a parent, suicide, and miscarriage.
There are situations in life in which arbitrary decisions make sense. Whether or not to get ice cream after dinner, for instance. Or choosing a pair of socks to wear to the gym. Drawing boundary lines for a country… Not so much.
Such was the case with the 1947 partition of India. This was the division of British India into what are present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Religion played the decisive factor in spawning a desire for partition in the first place.
However, the final boundary lines were drawn hastily and with ill knowledge. The man given the job had never even visited India. Nor did he know any Indians on a personal level. Pandemonium ensued, leaving a trail of blood, hunger, and tears in its wake.
As many as 20 million people were displaced, and one million lost their lives. Aggressions developed between India and Pakistan, which persist to this day.
Though this horrific event took place less than one hundred years ago, I feel guilty in admitting that I couldn’t feel farther from it. Not just chronologically, but emotionally. My grandparents were only children or teenagers during this time, and one was yet to be born. Plus, my predecessors lived in the western part of India, which wasn’t as directly affected by the partition.
However, when I read stories like Anjali Enjeti’s The Parted Earth, I’m reminded of partition’s significance in what makes South Asia what it is today. With over a billion people living on this side of the globe, and with the world’s largest diaspora, the aftermath, though not as explicit as it once was, is anything but invisible.
Enjeti’s spectacular novel, while fictional, captures the all-too-real challenges brought about by the partition of India. The story oscillates between past and present, taking us to India, Pakistan, London, Amsterdam, and the U.S. The author shows us how far-reaching and interwoven the impacts of partition have left behind, rippling out across generations and country lines.
A forbidden romance blossoms within the wake of increasing hostility in 1947 Delhi. Deepa, a sixteen-year-old Hindu girl, and Amir, a Muslim boy from her school, have been secretly communicating via origami love letters.
When Amir tells Deepa that his family will be relocating to Lahore (in modern Pakistan), where they will be safer, a dilemma develops. How will the pair carry on their relationship? How will they marry? Hit by unforeseen circumstances, Deepa’s world soon turns upside-down. She has no choice but to leave India altogether.
Fast-forward to present-day Atlanta, where Deepa’s granddaughter, Shan, is struggling to overcome a miscarriage and a divorce. At forty-one, Shan has always remained detached from her Indian identity. Her mother was white, and her father, while Indian, passed away when Shan was a little girl.
Shan befriends Chandani, an elderly new neighbor, who is also grieving, having recently lost her husband to suicide. Over traditional food and cups of chai, the women discuss their losses and the nuances of their heritage.
Chandani shares her late husband’s experiences of narrowly escaping persecution in the aftermath of partition, though he carried the emotional wounds with him throughout his life. Hearing Chandani’s stories, Shan is compelled to seek out her grandmother, whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to since childhood.
Shan’s search leads her on a path of uncovering her family’s dark and tumultuous past. She realizes that her own flesh and blood carry secrets that have been buried. Secrets that tear through Shan and leave her spinning.
While the truth pains, it carries with it opportunities to reconnect with those she’d lost and those she thought she’d never find. And she uncovers a newfound bond to her motherland.
Many history classes, at least here in the U.S., don’t discuss major world events such as the India partition. It has left intergenerational trauma and confusion in its wake, as evidenced by Shan’s character in the book.
I could relate to the feeling of separation from my grandparents’ realities of living in pre-independence India, versus the modern westernized society we find ourselves in today. And I can feel the disorientation that comes with grappling to piece together a narrative that perishes with our predecessors.
Enjeti demonstrates how understanding our forebears can help us better understand who we are. When we see ourselves as not independent parts, but connected to a whole that extends centuries — millennia — beyond ourselves, we are better able to step into our humanity.
And our identity, the elusive force, becomes clearer. Such is the power of oral traditions, which we then keep alive through the written word.
Videos and historical books depicting partition can be unsettling to watch. Enjeti employs a calm, even tone in relaying her story, humanizing each of her characters and expressing them with intentional variations. This allows us, as readers, to step into their reality and see partition through the lens of these individuals. I appreciate historical fiction novels in this regard because they can bridge gaps that nonfiction accounts fail to overcome.
Overall, I thought this was a well-articulated and easy to follow story surrounding partition. Of course, it’s by no means all-encompassing but it accomplishes the goal of imparting a concrete understanding. There were times that I felt the pacing and transitions from past and present could have been smoother. But with several characters’ points of view being shared, I suppose there wasn’t a seamless way to go about it.
A Parted Earth reminded me a bit of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, in that it used devastating colonial events to demonstrate how generations could become locked in the struggle for identity and freedom.
Hopefully, stories like these can continue to find their ways into the hands of publishers, and onto our bookshelves.