Asha’s first memory was of trying to scale the wall that separated her house from Nargis’…Nargis’ earliest recollection was of knocking on Asha’s heavy wooden door with a bowl full of fat, cool, milk-sodden rasmalai disks in her hand…
Asha, a Hindu, and Nargis, a Muslim, grow up in the village of Suhanpur, in the north west of India. As the novel begins, Indian independence is imminent and calls for the Partition of India from the newly created Pakistan, where Suhanpur sits, are gaining traction.
In the girls’ personal lives, it is marriage which appears to be imminent. Nargis’ parents are arranging her attachment to a man in the police whom she’s met once but can’t remember much about. Asha’s father, meanwhile, is twice asked for Asha’s hand, firstly by Om and then by Firoze, Nargis’ brother and the boy Asha is in love with. Asha’s father tells Firoze he must wait until Partition is complete to see whether their Hindu family can continue to live there.
Violence fanned across the land like a flame. Trouble seeped into dry, parched plains from the arid north, and the Punjabis – excitable at the best of times – found that any spur – a look, a word, a shove – was like kindling to the fire.
Suddenly, those who read, those who had access to news, learned 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.
When one of the servants becomes intent on attacking Asha, the family concede it’s time to leave. Unbeknownst to anyone, Asha is pregnant with Firoze’s child. She leaves him with no idea when they might see each other again.
The blurb on the back of the book reveals that Asha and Firoze meet again in fifty years’ time. However, there’s a whole life to be lived before then and Asha’s contains some particularly significant events and choices.
It would be easy to call Where the River Parts a romantic novel – it is, in one sense – but it’s so much more than that. It’s an examination of the choices a woman might make to survive in a world that’s hostile towards her. While the men fight, organise and do business, Asha has to work out how to make it to tomorrow. The book also considers how the choices made – by society as well as parents – affect the beliefs and actions of future generations.
Swarup’s prose is clear and precise, describing moments of romance and friendship with the same clarity as violence and fear. There were a couple of occasions where the plot veered towards coincidences that threatened to reveal the writer’s hand at work but Swarup avoided contrivance, especially at the end of the novel.
Where the River Parts is an interesting look at a woman’s life torn apart by violence and reconstructed through huge personal sacrifice. It’s violent, bloody and often shocking but a current of love runs through it, adding humanity where it seems to have been taken away. I look forward to seeing what Radhika Swarup writes next.
Thanks to Sandstone Press for the review copy.