#DesiBooksReview 4: Editor’s Note

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and creative writing instructor. She is the founder of Desi Books. Her latest book is a literary translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu. Website.

Introducing #DesiBooksReview Issue 4: The Partition on its 75th Anniversary

Dear Reader,

Welcome to the fourth issue of #DesiBooksReview.

In August, when I put out a call for reviews for a Partition-themed issue in this seventy-fifth anniversary year, I expected a decent response. But I was not ready for the 200+ pitches that streamed in steadily within a three-month period. We had to push this issue out by another three months just to allow time to read through all the pitches and commission the ones we could support for now.

This highlights, yet again, how much the Partition is still a part of our communal memory and contemporary imagination. We continue to see the growth of Partition literature as a sub-genre of its own. Many works have become classics in their own time—from Saadat Hasan Manto’s short stories like ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and ‘Khol Do’ to Salman Rushdie’s Booker-winning Midnight’s Children, from Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan to Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice-candy Man, from Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines to Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, from Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence to Aanchal Malhotra’s In the Language of Remembering. The 2022 Booker International went to Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand (translated by Daisy Rockwell), which also sits comfortably within this genre.

In 2022 alone, there have been several new works focused on the Partition both in India and across the diaspora. We’ve included many in our monthly #DesiBooksReco roundups and other channel features. Particularly, there has been a growth in recent years of works translated from other South Asian languages, adding new narratives, layers, and textures. Some of these translations are firsts in several respects. For example, the PEN/Heim Translation Grant, where I was a jury member this year, awarded its first Tamil work: a fictionalized account of, arguably, the first Dalit uprising against the British.

Of course, these books are still published mostly in the Indian subcontinent. Earlier this year, I had two separate conversations with important folks from the American publishing industry. The first was about historical fiction in general—because I teach workshops in this genre and am writing a novel set in medieval India. I asked them if they saw any specific important trends and got the expected response: World War II continues to dominate, and both western readers and publishers cannot get enough of this topic. This reminded me of the ongoing whitewashing of those world war narratives, which I wrote about briefly in 2017 at Scroll.in after the movie Dunkirk caused so much controversy. The second conversation was about an Independence-related Gujarati novel that I’m currently translating, Crossroad. We had an insightful discussion about why I see the book as a literary milestone but, in the end, I was told that the Partition was just not a “hot topic on their radar.” The whys and wherefores of this widespread apathy in the publishing world for a violent, world-changing, and still-reverberating event would take an entire essay or book of its own. For now, let us agree that we are all held hostage by our own cognitive biases and blind spots, and the western publishing industry, for all its smart people, is no exception.

Let us also agree that the Partition is so weighted in the South Asian imagination that, even when we’re not talking about it explicitly, it informs our mindsets, actions, and behaviors. Despite all the novels, oral histories, academic studies, and archives, so much remains unsaid or unsayable by both earlier generations and our own because we don’t have the linguistic vocabulary for it even if the physical and emotional languages still permeate our daily lives.

Given all of the above, I wanted this issue to achieve at least some of the following to some degree:
—showcase the range and diversity of Partition literature by Anglophone and bhasha writers;
—examine works that have approached the subject and themes in ways that are not already mainstream or given much attention;
—explore what, beyond allowing us to diagnose and name our inherited wounds, such books are asking of us;
—generate more insightful conversations about the Partition beyond how it is an unhealed, still-festering wound;
—transform our experience of reading this ever-growing archive of memories, experiences, and narratives.

This brings us to the featured books in this issue.

Our cover is graced by Aanchal Malhotra, an oral historian and now a novelist too. Malhotra has two books out this year, and we’ve featured an excerpt from the earlier nonfiction, In the Language of Remembering, in our Literary Lineage essay series. I encourage you all to also get her debut novel, The Book of Everlasting Things, which I wrote about at NPR recently. In the excerpt, Malhotra is talking with her father about how and why he documented his own father’s Partition story. Malhotra’s parents own the famous Delhi bookstore, Bahrisons. Her father also started a publishing house in 2002 and commissioned several works on the Partition. We see, in this conversational account, how both daughter and father are still grasping for reason and rationale and trying to come to terms with what they’ve both inherited with their Partition legacy.

Such historic legacy or inheritance stretches far and wide across our diaspora too as we see in two of Fatimah Asghar’s works, If They Come for Us and When We Were Sisters, In his review, Talib Jabbar writes about how the Partition’s aftermath ripples through Asghar’s works decades later, how the Partition is the wound that, well, wounds all wounds. And he meditates on this crucial question: But what does it mean to chronicle how Partition lives on, past its demarcated historical date, past the repressed atrocities, and into our contemporary lives?

That same question is echoed several times over by Ranbir Sidhu’s protagonist in his latest novel, Dark Star. In her review, Nidhi Shrivastava Farfaglia highlights at least one possible response from this dying older woman: that silences will continue to cause suffering and personal testimonials can only help the ongoing healing process. Farfaglia is also a scholar and researcher on gendered violence depiction in popular media, and she discusses why Sidhu’s choice of protagonist here problematizes the usual stereotypes we see in South Asian films and television.

Anjali Gera Roy’s nonfiction, Memories and Postmemories of the Partition of India, also veers away from the usual tropes and stereotypes. Farfaglia notes in her review that “Punjabi or North Indian experiences have become a common and dominant trope for remembering the Partition. Instead, Roy engages with the narratives of refugees resettled in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and South India. Moving away from the familiar and universal trope to excavate new testimonies is one of the strengths of this book, which is inclusive in its effort to memorialize, preserve, and understand survivor testimonies.”

Staying with nonfiction and the idea of postmemory, Madhur Anand gives us both personal and communal stories in her award-winning memoir, This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart. Or as Anand’s mother says, both aap beeti and jag beeti. Sangamithra Iyer raises a key question in this review about those who were silenced the most: What would happen if women told the story of their world splitting open? And she highlights why stories like these cannot be contained in any neat, orderly way but must be narrated in many uniquely hybridized genres of their own.

Speaking of uniquely hybridized genres brings us to one of the greatest virtuoso literary artists of our time, Gulzar. In 1947, as a thirteen-year-old boy, he escaped from his hometown, Dina, Pakistan, to India with his family. A collection of his Partition-related stories and poems from the last several decades is now available in English translation from Rakhshanda Jalil as Footprints on Zero Line. In reviewing the book, Suswati Basu tracks Gulzar’s own psychical and emotional journey as he revisits old terrain both physical and metaphorical. She reminds us of the direct line between the past and the present and invites us to look to such works to open up alternative modes of conversation.

Let’s revisit Nidhi Shrivastava Farfaglia’s point about the dominant Partition narratives being from northern parts of India. It was certainly not easy to find such books from other parts of India—in English or in English translation. Lalithambika Antharjanam’s novel, Agnisakshi, is set in Kerala around the time of Independence. As Veena Narayan points out in her review, it does not deal directly with the Partition, but it does give us the story of more intimate partitions that happened because of times being what they were. Translated by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan, the story also gives us something that was rarely discussed at the time: an enduring female friendship.

Another aspect of dominant Partition narratives is how often they focus on India and Pakistan. Bengal does not get as much literary attention although that is changing slowly. Samim Ahmed’s Seven Heavens, translated by Arunava Sinha, is one of the few such works. Saurabh Sharma tells us exactly why this matters in his review. Here’s just one of Sharma’s several other reasons why this debut novel is special: “. . . a textured work that invokes Islamic teachings, celebrates Sufism, toys with the murkiness between the wakeful and the dream states of mind, and questions the way we perceive reality.”


I think a lot about how to order the reviews in each issue so that we may connect the points and questions raised by all the books and their reviewers meaningfully. So we close this issue with Manju Kapur’s award-winning novel, Difficult Daughters. Though written almost twenty-five years ago, it brings all the threads of the other reviews together as Suhasini Patnis review shows. We see how a daughter reconstructs the memories and stories of her mother’s life from that period. We see that un-stereotypical mother veering from the traditions she was raised with to become more agent and less victim. We also see that mother being “deeply affected by the Calcutta ravages.” And, finally, we see how this quiet novel about women’s lives in the Partition resonates more deeply than ever today. While much has changed, so much remains the same.

I am reminded of something I read from one of the writers here. In 2018, Gulzar’s first novel, Two, was released. Yes, another Partition novel and one that he translated himself after his regular translator friends, Sukrita Paul, and Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, had already worked on it. In an interview about the book with Chinki Sinha at The Daily O, Gulzar expressed his frustration with censorship in India: “We were not allowed to make a film on it except in a limited number of languages. You kept it within in a society where you keep hurting the other. Our partition is still hurting.”

Between Indian censorship and western publishing gatekeeping, it’s a feat, for sure, to get these Partition stories out there in whichever medium, form, or genre may work best. I am grateful to all of these writers for their books and to the reviewers who engaged so meaningfully with them. So I invite you all to read the works and these reviews and share them within your social circles to create more conversations around them. Thank you.

Do share your thoughts about this fourth issue. If this kind of review aesthetic is your thing, you can pitch reviews here. We’ll also put out a themed call in January 2023 for the next issue.

And, finally, if you’d like to get regular updates about more such reviews and other literary matters, please sign up here.

Stay healthy, keep reading, and write well.

Jenny Bhatt
Editor-in-Chief, Desi Books

Back to #DesiBooksReview Issue 4

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, book critic, and creative writing instructor. She is the founder of Desi Books. Her latest book is a literary translation, The Shehnai Virtuoso and Other Stories by Dhumketu. Website.

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