Sunday, 12 June 2016

Where the River parts - Radhika Swarup

A compact read set against the backdrop of Partition.

Talk about partition and what comes to mind is Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan. The book which has all the gore and the violence of the incident is said to be one of THE defining books on partition. I did not enjoy it. Too bloody and disturbing for me. Therefore when this book was introduced with partition as its focal point, I was sceptical.

I was glad to read that this one takes off from partition and traces the impact of its characters through generations. Hmm..sounded interesting. I love sagas.

I read about Radhika Swarup from an interview on The Asian Writer and liked the way she talked about  her book. The premise was interesting and the writer sounded fresh. Besides, I was curious to learn about my literary namesake's story as the author pointed out during a brief interaction!

Thanks to Netgalley, I got the chance to read the copy in return for a review.


Asha is teenager full of life and love. She loves sharing with her best friend, Nargis a Muslim and is in love with the friend's brother Firoze. However, her life goes haywire after the country is divided and she has to make her own way in the world. She carries the scars of the  incident but moves on with life. However, decades later, that buried past comes back in the most unexpected manner. Past love and present prejudices clash. Asha is caught between confronting hatred and accepting love. Will she make the  right choice?

What works:
  • The period feel. I liked the way the pre-partition era atmosphere was described. Full of vivid descriptions and smells. The film song, the marriage song add to the beauty of a bygone era.
  • The characters. The characters are well etched, they sound authentic and are distinct. My favourite character was Om. The way he was described was very different to the way he acted. I loved the way his character was played out.
  • The scenes. There are some really good scenes in the book. My favourite (without giving away the story) is the scene in the second half where prejudices and ideologies clash. The other one was the restaurant scene between Asha and Om.
  • I also liked the way Swarup shows how partition instills a cascading effect of hatred in the next generation. People who experienced it firsthand are much more forgiving than the ones who have grown up hearing the horror stories.
  • Structure: The story flows very well, and the scenes are carefully placed aiding and not hindering the flow. The characters and scenes are positioned very well and the narrative does not deviate from the path. 
  • There were some evocative lines that instantly ignite an image. 
"Punjabi smells infiltrated the air".

It sums up Delhi post partition so well. Besides, there are lines that sum up the identity of Delhi city as refugees poured in.

 "It was a city as much of plenty as it was of gnawing want and one where fortunes were made, pasts re imagined and spirits irretrievably broken."
  • Very poignant and shows an intrinsic love for the city. 
The writing is excellent and captures the era and the changing nature of the refugee city so well.

What doesn't:
  • The characters could have been more complex and perhaps could have been given more shades of grey but then this is a debut novel and I can see the attempt to keep it taut and effective. 
  • The story at one point seems to rush through decades. But then, I realised, it was making way for another important point in the story. 
Reading it reminded me of Buniyaad (a throwback to my DD days) with a similar theme and Punjabi characters. But then that is were the  similarity ends, for this story is clearly designed for the contemporary reader with its taut structure and action-oriented plot.

I would have preferred a print version instead of scrolling down pages on the tablet, but hey that is just the "dated" me complaining!

Overall, the voice is new and the writing style, terse yet evocative. Will be watching out for more from this author.

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