In August 1947, British colonizers split the Indian subcontinent into the Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan and the Hindu-majority nation of India, leading to the largest migration in human history. As a result, millions of people experienced violence and loss, death, sexual assault, an uprooting of ancestral homes — but many of those stories were lost over the years.
In her debut novel, The Parted Earth, journalist and activist Anjali Enjeti follows her characters over seven decades as they piece together their family history against the backdrop of Partition.
"When we talk about the fact that 15 million migrated and we think about the number of descendants from that, we're talking about millions and millions of people," Enjeti says of Partition's impact.
In the novel, it is only as the characters learn the truth about their families' experiences of Partition that they understand how the trauma was passed on to them over generations.
On how we can inherit trauma
The novel takes place over 70 years, and the grandmother and granddaughter who are at the center of the novel are actually estranged. And their estrangement is actually rooted in the grandmother's trauma from 1947. It was really important for me to show how trauma is not something that's finite. It's not something that happens to one person. It happens to an entire community and an entire generation. And it is something that gets inherited in some form, whether it's because people simply close themselves off from one another because they're not able to process, or understand, or simply don't want to share their trauma, or it's something that gets passed off as a mystery, where you have later generations simply trying to understand their roots, and their ancestors, and left with a lot of questions that they can't answer because they simply aren't aware of what happened.
On the novel's central character Deepa and the trauma she passes on
She is 16 years old, and she essentially loses the folks closest to her that she loves, and on top of that ... she eventually loses her home that holds all of the memories she has of them. She is transported to the United Kingdom, where she ends up living most of the rest of her life. So she is cut off from everything. She is cut off from family. She is cut off from someone she loves dearly. She is cut off from her homeland, her history and all the memories that she has of her childhood.
Deepa is a character who is not able to process her trauma. So when she raises her own child, she is not really able to talk about her family. She's not able to talk about what happened, to him. She is not even able to share the identity of his father. And so her son, whose name is Vijay, ends up trying to figure out his history, trying to go on his own quest to connect with his family. And it's a quest that he's not able to complete. So Shan Johnson, who is essentially who the novel revolves around — the granddaughter — she is trying to complete what her father started. And it's only after she experiences her own personal tragedies that she decides to go on this quest herself.
On choosing to bring Hindu and Muslim characters together in India during Partition
Despite the fact that there was a lot of violence between Hindus and Muslims, we have to remember that Hindus and Muslims have a history of living together peacefully. And in fact, even during such strife of Partition, there were Muslims who were helping their Hindu and Sikh neighbors. There were Hindus and Sikhs who were helping their Muslim neighbors. They were hiding them. They were holding their possessions for them. There were familial-type relationships among these different faiths. It's not like overnight these religious groups hated one another. They were, in fact, in community with one another fairly peacefully. It was really the Partition that destroyed a lot of these relationships.
On what we can learn from these stories of Partition
One of the most surprising things I learned about when I was doing the research ... was that it wasn't until this century that there was a formal, widespread effort to collect survivors' stories of Partition. It didn't really happen until 60 years later: six-zero. And of course, during those decades when there was not a major effort to collect stories, some of these stories would have been lost.
So if there's one main lesson to draw from writing this book, it is how important it is for us to find places for our family members to share their stories. ... From my understanding, many people are too traumatized to tell their stories, especially if it's to someone they know. But I encourage anyone who has family members who are alive, who survived Partition themselves, or perhaps they are children or grandchildren who know these stories, to find an archivist at [an organization]. One of them is the 1947 Partition Archive. It's on what I loosely based what I call the Partition Project in the novel. Try to get them to tell these stories to these historians, because sometimes it is easier to share trauma when you're sharing it with a stranger, as opposed to somebody you know and love.
This story was edited for radio by Reena Advani and Jeevika Verma and was adapted for the web by Jeevika Verma and Petra Mayer.