* Wheeler traces the story of her mother’s family from Sargodha in west Punjab, now in Pakistan, to India
* The sudden sundering of ties with the homeland would change each of them forever
* There is a reluctance to call out colonialism for what it was — a means of economic exploitation that left India bleeding
In my always teetering to-read pile, at this moment, nestle at least three books on the Partition. The Sixth River by Fikr Taunsvi was written in Urdu, and is a journal of the months from August to November 1947. I have turned its pages. It is sad, bleak even, as he writes of his first-hand account of the riots and killings in Lahore in those months. Another is Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation, a unique book filled with a certain kind of warmth, where the author has traced memory through objects carried to new homes by those who were witness to the Partition. The third is Pran Neville’s Lahore, an old book, and not really about the Partition, but about the city as it was before the division of the country. A nostalgic biography of a place as it once was.
In the midst of trying to read these books, I ended up reading The Lost Homestead by Marina Wheeler, a book that came with an intriguing subtitle — ‘My Mother, Partition and the Punjab’. Wheeler is a British lawyer, specialising in public law, and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2016. She was married to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Books on the Partition straddle diverse genres — novels, memoirs, history, verses, journals — a quick look at any bookshelf will yield at least some of these, as mine did. Wheeler traces the story of her mother’s family from Sargodha in west Punjab, now in Pakistan, to India. It follows her mother’s life as she marries and moves away from India, finally settling in the UK. Within this canvas, she recounts the politics leading to the Partition, and delves into the story of independence. As the book progresses, her narrative shifts to the early years of independence, of Delhi in the 1950s and ’60s, and eventually finds its way to contemporary India, as she tries to thread her mother’s story, relying on archives and family accounts.
Kuldip, or Dip as she was known, was the daughter of Sardar Harbans Singh, a wealthy landowner and administrator at Sargodha. The family lived in a sprawling home — the homestead referred to in the title — and owned agricultural land as well. Harbans Singh was a respected person of the town, and theirs one of the many Sikh families living in the area. Commended by the British for his contribution in recruiting soldiers into the British Army during World War I, Dip’s father firmly believed in thebenign British Raj. The sentiment, though, was not shared by his family, including his sons and daughters, but he was the kind of person who allowed dissent within the family fold.
Wheeler traces the story of the family, once pre-eminent, suddenly beset by the threat of violence which leads Papa-ji and Bei-ji (Harbans Singh and his wife) to leave Sargodha, but never for once thinking they will not be back ever again. Dip, who was already in India when her parents moved, was never to go back either. And this sudden sundering of ties with the homeland would change each of them forever.
The book is as much a journey through space as time, as the author visits India and Pakistan in search of family and the remnants of home. The accounts of her travels in Delhi, Mumbai, Punjab and Pakistan are interesting, as she meets a varied cast of people ranging from family members to those who knew her grandparents or have chronicled the story of Sargodha during the Partition. Equally interesting is the description of Khushwant Singh’s family and home at Delhi’s Sujan Singh Park, where Dip stayed briefly as a bride.
Where the book falls flat though, and unfortunately this is a considerable part, is when Wheeler gives a potted history of pre- and post-independence India. The accounts she gives of the Congress, Nehru, Gandhi, the rise of Jinnah, the political landscape of the Punjab, are fairly well known, and end up being pages of history without much connection to her story. It is also clearly coloured by her belief that the British Raj was not such a bad thing after all. She tries to take as balanced a stance as possible, but ultimately, there is a reluctance to clearly call out colonialism for what it was — a means of economic exploitation that left India bleeding and dried, and wounds that are yet to heal over 70 years later.
Take for instance, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. The author brings up an earlier argument that asserts General Dyer’s actions, while reprehensible, were born out of a fear of a playback of the events of 1857. And, even worse, she goes on to say that it makes no sense for Britain to apologise for it because of India’s own brutal human rights record in Kashmir! She is honest enough to say that when she shared this thesis with some of her Indian family members they were aghast and advised her against writing it. But even so, it does get said, and she remains apparently unconvinced of the sheer outlandishness of the argument.
Wheeler picks up various aspects of India and Pakistan that are clearly problematic to this day — communalism, religious bigotry, treatment of women, all realities that we in the subcontinent need to introspect on. Unfortunately, her overview remains largely urban and superficial. Despite the amount of time she spends researching in the archives, her conclusions show no sharp or new insight.
What does work in favour, though, is her easy writing style, and the story of Dip; of Partition and the never-ending toll that it extracted on the lives of people. As a document recording the impact of the catastrophe over many decades, it is an important addition to Partition literature. But as a book that seeks to reach beyond, and be a commentary on the Indian subcontinent, it falls sadly short .
Sudeshna Shome Ghosh is a Bengaluru-based editor