‘I remember people marching past our bungalows with green banners chanting Pakistan Zindabad’
Published: July 7, 2011 - 18:42 Updated: July 11, 2011 - 14:51
She saw the Partition in Punjab with a child’s epical memory. Conversation with Jamila Gavin, new genre writer of children and young adult literature
Jaya Bhattacharji Rose Delhi
(While working on the article — Who will write this story? — I pinged Jamila Gavin as well. I wanted to hear why she had written the Surya Trilogy and set the story during Partition. With her permission, I am reproducing excerpts from my email correspondence with her.)
Do you think living in UK and being physically away from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, gave you a sense of perspective on Partition? Did this distance in any way the need to tell the story? In India, we live with the communal fall out of Partition on a daily basis, so it is not always easy for us to write about it. Do you think that being a part of the South Asian diaspora also made it ‘easier’ for you to write about this moment in history?
I was born in 1941 when we were living in Batala, in the Punjab, and I lived there for the first seven years of my life, barring a trip with my English mother to war-torn England in 1944. My father had founded a college of ‘further education’, now known as Baring Christian College, converting an old hunting palace, and building on the school founded there by Francis Baring and Maria Tucker in the 1880s.
My early memories are imbued with, first, the fight for independence: my father was a fervent Gandhian, and visited Gandhi at his ashram — and then Partition. Those childhood years are imbued with my parents’ growing anxiety as the surge for Partition grew and grew — we were right on the proposed border with a future Pakistan. I can
remember people marching past our bungalows with green banners chanting Pakistan Zindabad.
By 1946, my mother was becoming very fearful of the increasing violence, and it was decided that she take me and my brother to England. My father’s college campus — and the palace which we had lived in — was requisitioned by the authorities as a refugee camp which he then ran… My father lived through the horror which took place on that border, and so his stories… or really very few stories as he found it hard to talk about…just a knowledge that he had been profoundly affected by what he saw, and amazed that he survived it… often through the loyalty of students.
When I was writing the book I remember showing him the first draft of the first book, The Wheel of Surya. It was so important to me that it was right. The first draft he almost chucked aside as though to say, “How could you possibly understand.” So I rewrote it and finally showed it to him again, and he said, wonderingly, “How did you know?”
Whatever else happened to the book — that meant more to me
…why did you opt to write about Partition for children? Is it because you are used to writing for this audience or did you feel the need to tell the story to children or to share a part of what you experienced as a child? Why do you think other writers, who too have been influenced by Partition, have not opted to write about it?
The first six-seven years of a child’s life are so utterly crucial and fundamental. So 1941-48 in Batala was a bedrock in my mind. The events of those times were so incredibly powerful — and with two highly intelligent, articulate, argumentative, determined and passionate parents talking about Empire, Independence, Gandhi, Jinnah, Mountabatten — I could hardly fail to be affected by their turmoil. I had also experienced briefly, war-torn England: heard the bombs, sought refuge in the underground shelters, made sea voyages and train journeys.
I just knew, as I was growing up, that there was a story to be told. But I didn’t know how I was going to get it out. Being a writer was not my ambition, but being a musician... But I still enjoyed writing: plays, poetry etc, and I was convinced there was a book inside me.
…I am now in the Britain of the 1950s. We have all moved to London. My father is running the newly formed Government of India Tourist Office. This is a country trying to get over the loss of India, the break-up of the Empire, and the increasing numbers of people from the old Empire coming into Britain looking for work — and indeed, being encouraged to come to a country which had a massive labour shortage.
For the first time, I was hearing tales of racism. Through the 1960s, we got many, many more — and this time from other parts of the old Empire, including, of course, the subcontinent. Racism then was overt and horrible.
By 1971, Britain was accepting its growing multiculturalism and, at last, laws were being passed to stop discrimination in housing and jobs — as much as laws can!
…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. The book called the Magic Orange Tree was published in 1979. So writing was becoming a part of my life — and my inspiration seemed to be to give children confidence in who they were and why they were here…
At this point, my publisher asked if I could write about the Asian diaspora — including those who had gone to Africa. Suddenly — and I remember the jolt of excitement — I realised that this was the opportunity I’d been looking for almost all my life… to put down what my childhood had meant to me… and to express the period which had so dramatically affected all our lives in the family…
People have asked me if the Surya Trilogy is autobiographical. My answer has always been no, but that I could never have written it without having experienced that life in that place in that period. Just as a table or a chair can become a house or a spaceship in the imagination of a child, so the palace in Batala, the events, the people, the experience of Partition — the tragedies, the disruption, the disillusion, all that they had dreamt of — became part of my imagination, and the haracters and story just grew into it.
Why children? I’ve always loved the notion of childhood. My parents were teachers. I heard their ideals and concerns for children — maybe that’s why. In wars and struggles and disasters, it is always the children one worries about and the impact it has on them. And that is what I wanted to explore. I’ve never really wanted to write an adult book. The so called ‘YA’ — Young Adult — is exactly where I want to be… though I still write, and love writing, for younger children.