Interview by Zoë Brigley
“The short story form of prose, I feel, attempts to bridge the chasm between [poetry and prose], and can provide intense insight into a moment.”
I. On the evening of the 3rd of June, the air crackled. The air was still, the voices hushed, and yet, all were counting on victory. It was the same in houses up and down the country. In later years, those who were there would struggle to explain the atmosphere. The closest comparison would be the tone during an India-Pakistan cricket match – that air of bravado prior to the event, the claims made, the hopes expressed; and while the match was taking place, the absolute silence, the rapt, worshipful, unblinking attention. India stood on the brink of life and death that evening, on the cusp of promise and despair, and the hammering heart of the nation beat as one. No one remembered details afterwards, no one could remember any particular sentence, the tone of any voice, but all in the inspector’s room – Hindu friends, Muslim relatives – all remembered the minutiae surrounding the event. Pappaji remembered the condensation on his iced glass of sharbat; remembered focusing intently on a teardrop of water pool slowly down to the inspector’s side table as Mountbatten spoke. ‘The decision of the Indian people,’ the new viceroy said, and Pappaji put his hands around the glass, lifted it to his mouth for a deep draught. It was hot, he was thirsty, and he remembered being surprised at the connection. Next, it was Nehru’s turn to speak, and Pappaji found himself mesmerised by the mother-of-pearl detailing on old Khalique’s walking stick. It was this, the colour around the edges of the broadcast that stayed with him, and afterwards, as everyone embraced in celebration, they found they had more questions. When would they be independent – in less than a year, in 1947 itself? Had the date been set? And the question that was starting increasingly to occupy them – what about the Partition? II. Suddenly those who read, those who had access to news, learnt to differentiate. People spoke of ‘those Muslims’ and ‘those Hindus’, of separatists and patriots, of a Hindustan for Hindus and a Pakistan for Muslims. They spoke of two nations, they mourned the martyred, the shaheed. Reports came in from elsewhere – always from elsewhere – of violence. Throats were slit, men were shot, houses were torched, innocents from the wrong religion ambushed, and revenge was paid in kind. Those who could move – those without elderly parents, those with assets they could monetise, those with friends in Delhi or Ambala or Amritsar – moved. Mataji cried the day Chotu left. A strong- willed matriarch, she took Chotu’s weathered hands in her own: “You were here when I came to this house as a bride,” she said. “How am I going to manage without you? And who’ll handle the children? You know Pappaji lets them run wild. He’ll send the girl to college … Now who’s to talk to Pappaji? Who’s to make him see sense?” They parted – the two erstwhile kitchen adversaries – with an ostentation of grief. They cried for each other, and a little for themselves too.
The above is a recreation of the original poem After Partition replicated as best as possible within the confines of our website formatting. Click below to download the poem with the original formatting.
This is such a moving piece about the Partition of India and Pakistan. What moved you to write it in the first place?
The Partition of India and Pakistan remains a traumatic experience for both countries more than 75 years after it took place. Somewhere between fourteen and sixteen million people were displaced and up to two million were butchered. It remains the single largest instance of forced human migration, far larger in scale than any of the atrocities such as the wars in Syria or Ukraine we’ve witnessed recently.
The canvas was enormous in its scope, but I had a personal interest in Partition too; my family on my father’s side was among the millions being forced to flee from what was to become Pakistan to India. But the funny thing was that instead of bitterness or rancor, whenever my family gathered – and in particular those in my grandparents’ generation who had made the move – all I heard from them was nostalgia and a palpable affection for the home and the town they had grown up in. I’ve tried to imbue this in [my book] Where the River Parts, and I hope I’ve managed to express not just the horrors of the time, but the cohesion and community that had existed too.
In our special issue 58.2 which marked 75 years since Partition, many of the writers talked about the difficulty of writing about traumatic historical events like Partition, but the need to witness them and remember them too. Is that something you have thought about too?
As we’re seeing across too much of the world, history is open to interpretation. What the UK has historically regarded as the Indian Mutiny of 1857 is regarded in India as the First Battle of Independence. Even within countries, as warring narratives assert themselves, versions of the past are questioned. Migrants can be vilified, the villains of the past resurrected, and national psyches change. In the midst of all this, it is imperative for the artist – the writer, the poet, the film maker – to hold a mirror to ourselves, and to chronicle history and the present with as much empathy and balance as possible. As I researched the Partition for Where the River Parts, I found myself uncovering horrific instances of depravity and violence, but also heartwarming examples of valour and generosity, and I thought it important to paint both.
I often think of David Lodge who talked about the difference between poetry and prose – prose being the captured experience of living another person’s life, and poetry being more intense moments – of laughter, pain, beauty, disgust. You cross over between poetry and prose, and I wonder what your thoughts on it are.
David Lodge’s characterisation is beautiful, and I’ve always enjoyed both forms of writing, particularly enjoying poetry for its ability to convey impact with focus. The short story form of prose, I feel, attempts to bridge the chasm between the two forms, and can provide intense insight into a moment. It is a form I am turning to increasingly, and of late I have enjoyed collections of inter-linked short stories that provide that unique spotlight alongside a more in-depth look at a larger canvas – whether that be a community, a family or a physical location.
Radhika Swarup (she/her) is a lapsed banker and a writer. Her work explores the themes of identity and exile, and often examines events from a feminist lens. Her latest work is The New New Delhi Book Club, a collection of interlinked short stories set during New Delhi’s 2020 Covid lockdown. It will be published by Westland Tranquebar in October 2023.
You can follow her on Twitter @rdswarup and visit her website www.radhikaswarup.com
Product on salePoetry Wales One Year Print Subscription | RecurringFrom: £20.00 / year
Poetry Wales Student/Low Income SubscriptionFrom: £2.00 / month and a £5.00 sign-up fee
Product on salePoetry Wales Print Subscription | Non-Recurring (One or Two Years)£21.60 – £102.00
Product on salePoetry Wales Supporter SubscriptionFrom: £7.00 / month and a £11.00 sign-up fee
Product on salePoetry Wales Two Year Print Subscription | RecurringFrom: £38.40 every 2 years
Poetry Wales Digital Subscription£5.99