Independence: A psychologically adroit successor to Little Women
The lives of three Bengali sisters are changed irrevocably by the events of 1946 and 1947 in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's latest novel.
Aditya Mani Jha Last Updated:November 17, 2022 10:39:06 IST
One of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s greatest strengths as a novelist is the sheer strength of her characterisation. The psychological acuity with which she presents her characters’ motivations and their leaps of faith is remarkable. This aspect was absolutely crucial to the success of her last two novels, The Forest of Enchantments (2019) and The Last Queen (2021). And it has once again paid rich dividends with Independence, her latest novel (out on November 30 from HarperCollins India) and arguably her finest yet. Independence is the story of three sisters—Deepa, Priya and Jamini Ganguly—whose father, the idealistic Dr Nabakumar Ganguly, is killed on Direct Action Day (August 16, 1946) forcing the sisters to grow up very quickly indeed.
As the outline suggests, this is Divakaruni’s response to the classic novel Little Women. Indeed, the way the three sisters have been characterised and the way their choices pan out is reminiscent of Louisa M Alcott’s magnum opus. But Independence is so much more than a culture-swapped analogue; it is a formidable novel in its own right, a book that has big ambitions but an even bigger heart.
One of the recurring themes of the novel is personal desire/ambition vs familial/national interest. Dr Nabakumar sees his pro bono work as his small way of ‘giving back to the nation’ or ‘fulfilling his duty’. His daughter Priya, who wants to be a doctor just like him, wants to become a doctor because so many women around her (living in Ranipur, their village, or even living in Calcutta) refuse to be treated by a male doctor.
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Priya’s younger sister Jamini is perhaps the epitome of this dilemma; she has a bit of a martyr complex and withdraws into a sullen shell every time her sacrifices for the family aren’t immediately acknowledged and lionised. Her older sister Deepa loves Raza, a Muslim doctor who’s also a Muslim League organizer; she knows the consequences of this forbidden love but is powerless to stop herself. At every step of their journeys, the sisters are forever choosing between their innermost desires and the ‘greater good’, because of which the stakes are never low in Independence. When Dr Nabakumar’s wife Bina hears his friends lauding him for his self-sacrifice (he was imprisoned for his role in the Quit India Movement), Bina quietly retorts:
“Abdullah-ji, it was fine for you to take those risks, you had no family. But your friend had three little girls. Priya was just a toddler when he quit his job without consulting me. I begged him not to go, but it was like water poured over a rock. Can you imagine how terrified I was, left alone with the children? Every day I was sure I would receive the news of his death. When I found out he was imprisoned, I went crazy. But for the kindness of our neighbours, we would not have survived.”
Another beautiful thing about the book is that it finds increasingly artful ways to remind readers of India’s composite culture, where Hindu and Muslim creators and artists mingle freely and learn from each other. Two passages at different points in the novel underline this point; in the first passage, Deepa is asked by the young Mujibur Rahman (yes, the same one) to sing Rabindra Sangeet.
“Raza is hosting an important dinner. In addition to regular guests, he is excited to include a young student leader, Mujibur Rahman, who is studying at Dacca University. Raza likes Mujib because they are both passionate about improving the lives of the poor. He feels Mujib has a bright future, already he is organizing a Muslim Student League. Raza has a request for Deepa. Mujib moved recently from Calcutta and loves the songs of Tagore, but the radio stations here rarely play them. Mujib has asked if Deepa would kindly sing a Rabindra Sangeet or two that evening. Deepa is reluctant, but finally Raza persuades her. Just one song, from behind a curtain.”
And in the second passage, Deepa, now living in East Bengal since a long time, decides to learn and sing Nazrul Geeti, educating herself about the life of the great man in the process.
“Once she gets over her nervousness, Deepa begins to enjoy the thrill. She imagines her voice inspiring listeners, bringing solace. When she needs to expand her repertoire, Raza finds her a teacher proficient in Nazrul Geeti, an old man with a quavery voice but a strict ear. She is amazed to discover that Nazrul wrote almost four thousand songs, also poems and plays; he was an intrepid freedom fighter, jailed in Alipore for his inflammatory writings. She is sad to learn of his illness, both mental and physical. She widens her range, learns folk songs and ghazals; she is asked to come in twice a week, then three times; fan letters begin to pile up at the station.”
I loved the way these two analogous passages mirror each other and also reflect the artistic and spiritual growth of Deepa. Manoeuvres like these are why I feel Independence is a great novel, as opposed to a merely good one.
The Partition canon
Independence, then, joins what I call ‘the Partition canon’.
The great French writer Marcel Proust is generally credited for the concept of ‘involuntary memory’ through his novel Remembrance of Things Past. These memories can be triggered through the smallest of occurrences, or even small, everyday objects. If one looks at the great Partition novels to come out of the Indian subcontinent over the last 75 years, you see several intersecting perspectives on how human memory functions, especially in the context of trauma or repression.
Published in 1956, less than a decade after Partition, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan was perhaps the first great Partition novel of them all. That it’s still considered a classic nearly seven decades after its release speaks volumes about the raw power of Singh’s writing. This is a novel that forced its readers to confront some unpalatable truths about the violence of 1947. The same blunt truth-telling that would later become a hallmark of Khushwant Singh the columnist is seen here as well.
“Muslims said the Hindus had planned and started the killing. According to the Hindus, the Muslims were to blame. The fact is, both sides killed. Both shot and stabbed and speared and clubbed. Both tortured. Both raped.”
Anita Desai’s novel Clear Light of Day (1980) is an atypical choice for this list but in my view, it’s an important text because it describes the material and psychological impact Partition has on a Delhi-based family in the 1970s. Over 20 years after the incident, there are wounds that re-open and cause havoc in the family’s lives. Attia Hossain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961) is set just before and during Partition and it describes a young woman’s slow and grudging acceptance of Indian nationalist politics and the role of the ‘secular Muslim’ within this setup. Amrita Pritam’s 1950 Punjabi novel Pinjar (translated into English as The Skeleton by Khushwant Singh) sticks to a deeply personal story throughout—the kidnapping of a Hindu girl Puro by Rashid, a Muslim man—and yet somehow has more to say about communal politics than most outwardly ‘political’ books.
All of these books use compelling metaphors for the state of relations between India and Pakistan. About two-thirds of the way into Tomb of Sand (which won the International Booker Prize earlier this year), there’s a dream sequence of sorts where Geetanjali Shree describes a conclave of Partition writers sitting together, “every person with a name card at their place like a formal banquet”. Here, then, are some essential Partition texts recommended by this passage.
Zindaginama (1979) by Krishna Sobti (published in English under the same name, translated by Neer Kanwal Mani): The magnum opus of one of the all-time great Hindi writers, this novel eschews traditional plot structures and character development to deliver a stunning, wide-angle view of both Partition and Indian society in general.
Basti (1979) by Intizar Hussain (published in English under the same name, translated by Frances W. Pritchett): Intizar Hussain is one of the most important Pakistani writers of all time and Basti was the work that brought him onto the world map (it’s now in a New York Review of Books edition).
Toba Tek Singh by Saadat Hasan Manto (several translations available) The definitive Partition short story by Manto, the plot follows a deranged man at the border who cannot remember which country he belongs to. If Kafka underwent the Partition, he’d have written something a lot like Toba Tek Singh.
Tamas by Bhisham Sahni: No list of Partition fiction is complete without Tamas, the harrowing story of a group of Sikh and Hindu families in Pakistan, forced to migrate to India overnight thanks to the events of the Partition. The Govind Nihalani film of the same name is every bit as devastating as the novel.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.