WHO WILL WRITE THIS STORY?
Published: July 6, 2011 - 13:11 Updated: July 11, 2011 - 14:48
What if Partition had never happened?
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose Delhi
A Beautiful Lie is a rare example of historical fiction for young adults. It is set during the Partition of India in 1947. It is about 13-year-old Bilal who tries to protect his dying father from the ‘Partition Plan’. “Partition was like laying flat a piece of coarse material and cutting it as steadily as you could down the middle. The only difference was, once the first cut was made, no amount of sewing and stitching could make the material whole again.” (p17-18) Bilal relies upon his friends, Saleem, Manjeet and Chhota, and slowly, a larger circle of elders like Doctorji, Mr Pondicherry and the teacher, Mr Mukherjee, in the village are also roped in to help maintain the lie.
This brilliant debut by Irfan Master focuses on the different shades of love and friendship between family and friends, but he also depicts the violence, as in the lynching incident. Tension and hostility slowly develops between people who were once friends — simply because they belong to different communities. Bilal notices this in the market, but there were also “stories of mobs all over the country, burning people’s houses, killing women and children, and political parties recruiting young men to fight and further their cause”. (p18)
His brother Rafeeq, who has opted for an extreme position, says, “Sides are being picked as we speak and sooner or later lines will be drawn. We’ll all be forced to pick a side… We are Muslims, they are Hindus and Sikhs. We might share the same space, buy the same food and talk the same language, but… we’re not the same.” (p56)
According to Irfan, the violence was an integral part of the story. He told me in an email interview that he “wasn’t willing to tone it down, because that would be ignoring how it actually was, and therefore an insult to the memory of people who suffered, died and were displaced as a consequence of Partition”.
Bilal’s father is an avid reader and bibliophile. Though their home is a one-room mud tenement, it has an entire wall made of books. Bapuji loved telling stories and as Bilal recalls, “His stories had a special purpose: ‘A story has to settle on you long after the teller has finished. Then, as if a key has been turned in a lock, the door is opened and all that you’ve learnt is before you.’” (p49)
This is exactly what happens with A Beautiful Lie — the story lingers long after you have closed the book.
It made me wonder why the author had chosen to write historical fiction as his first novel. To which Irfan wrote to say: “The literary quirk at the heart of the story was entirely fictitious, as was the name of the town. This was intentional as I didn’t want to offend anyone by getting the details of a particular village wrong in any way. Apart from that, historical fiction, for me, is an attempt to capture the manners and social conditions of the people or time with a good level of detail and an accurate representation of the language, culture and life as it was then. I was very lucky in this regard as I had years of experience and wisdom in the form of my grandfather, grandmother and various uncles and family, I could ask questions about things like the social hierarchy in a typical village, what would be said or worn, even down to the fruit sold in the market at the time. But it’s also more than that…
“As a writer, the trick is to represent history in such a way that the reader is transported within the first few pages into another time and place, so that you can smell the fry cooks, feel Jayesh threading each delicate petal, and feel the weight of the melon in Bilal’s arms. Another aspect of historical fiction that strikes me as definitive is to inform the reader if they are unaware of the period, and to enlighten the reader if they have some knowledge of the time, and finally and perhaps fundamentally, to make the reader feel by the end of the novel, even a little of what was happening to normal Indians at the time, and the sense of a line being drawn across the map of India that changed everything.”
Writing literature for children and young adults (YA) is a huge challenge. Irfan agrees that “YA is a tough genre, but it is also one where there are so many opportunities. By this, I mean, opportunities to express ideas, language and a sense of place… your audience have fertile minds, are on the cusp of understanding that the world is a bigger place than they could ever have imagined, and are asking questions like: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I belong?”
Another author in this genre, Jamila Gavin, began to write for children as “in war and struggle and disasters — it is always the children one worries about and the impact it has. And that is what I wanted to explore.” Her Surya Trilogy is a seminal example of children’s literature set during Partition.
It follows the story of Marvinder and her little brother, Jaspal, who live with their mother in a small village, Deri, Punjab in 1947, while their father is studying in England. With Partition comes the accompanying violence. So, the family sets off for England in search of their father. The three volumes are The Wheel of Surya (1992), The Eye of the Horse (1994) and The Track of the Wind (1997).
It is curious that the South Asian diaspora seems to be tackling Partition in children and YA literature, to address questions about identity. As Irfan says, “I was born in Leicester, but I am now based in London, so the distance does provide a sense of perspective. Not only geographically, but also in cultural and historical terms. Most importantly, it allows a different type of discourse. One is full of questions: What if Partition had never happened? Would some of my family never have migrated to Britain? Would India be more united? Would there have been less communal violence in the preceding years? Would I have been able to write this story if I was born in India? And so many more.”
Irfan’s mother was Pakisani, his father an Indian; “I have always felt like the child of three divergent countries,” he told me. For both Irfan and Jamila (born in Batala, Punjab, India, but based in Gloucestershire), addressing their multicultural identities was important. In fact, Jamila told me in an email interview that she began to write in the 1970s when “Britain was accepting its growing multiculturalism… one day I heard a teacher say that she had asked her young six-year-old children to paint their portraits (something they all do in primary school). She commented that all the white children had painted themselves white, but all the black and brown children had also painted themselves white. This was my trigger to write for children. I knew, from visits to the library getting out books for my children, that there were very few with any black or brown faces. No wonder they had no sense of themselves and their identity in a white world…
“I wrote a 1,500-word short story for six-year-olds in which the protagonist was black and British. It was accepted by Methuen — if I could write another seven more! This led me to trawl through my attitudes, my childhood and the streets of London as I knew them, and I produced a set of stories which were described as being ‘multicultural’ — a fairly new word. I never stopped after that… At this point, my publisher asked if I could write about the Asian diaspora — including those who had gone to Africa.”
The Pakistani writer and critic Muneeza Shamsie says in her introduction to the anthology And the World Changed: Contemporary Stories by Pakistani Women that “Since Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were both perpetrators and victims of the horrors of Partition, this has led to the collective guilt that South Asians find difficult to confront… in South Asian English literature it has largely materialised in a tendency to sidestep ghastly details, which is why, compared to the magnitude of this event, novels about the Partition massacre are relatively few.”
Indeed, whatever the reason or impetus for writing fiction for children and young adults set within Partition and its issues, I am glad that it has begun.
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant based in Delhi