‘It is not until we bring together the many accounts […] that we can move closer to a whole truth’
Midnight between the 14th and 15th of August this year marks the 70th Anniversary of the Independence of Pakistan and India from Britain and the Partition of the two countries. It brought an end to what was arguably the most significant – and ruinous – enterprise of the British Empire and triggered the largest human migration in the world’s history, with over 14 million people displaced and at least 1 million killed. It’s no surprise that ever since writers and film-makers from the sub-continent and beyond have continued to record the events, struggling to capture the scale and truth of what happened, whether in non-fiction and documentary, or in story. What is a surprise, however, is how unevenly this history is registered in the British consciousness. While some more internationally aware individuals will have a good grasp of what happened, and perhaps why, the great majority remain largely ignorant of all but the crudest facts. This is a great indictment on our education system and historical preoccupations, as the activity and legacy of the British Empire, particularly in India, are key to what we have become and how we relate internationally.
So when I decided to write my own story about India, A House Called Askival, with a trajectory from pre-Independence to the new millennium, I faced a multitude of dilemmas. Having spent most of my school days there, I drew from personal experience, but that only covered the 70s and 80s. Of course I read many books on the events, but we know all accounts of history are subjective, whether the magical realism of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or the extensively researched Freedom at Midnight by Collins & Lapierre. And of course, the accounts are constantly revised and the history re-written as new interpretations come to light, as in Shashi Tharoor’s damning Inglorious Empire.
Along with reading, I was privileged to interview a number of people who had witnessed the events of 1947, though, unsurprisingly, this created further dilemmas as even the testimonies from one night in one sleepy hill-station did not tally! Of even more value were the letters and diaries from the time, as these were immediate and not filtered through 60 years of memory and personal re-writing (though inevitably filtered through the individual’s perspective).
Along with the challenge of trying to get the history ‘right’, though, was the bigger problem of how much to include in the novel, and how to tell it. Ultimately, I was writing a story not a textbook. Personally, I love learning my history through fiction (of the more reliable kind), but I know how easy it is to kill a tale by bogging it down with facts and figures and how wooden a character becomes when pressed into service as a history lecturer. ‘Everyone knows what happened at Partition’, my Scottish Book Trust mentor growled at me. ‘You don’t need to tell any of that – just tell the story!’ But he was wrong. Being well-travelled and well-read, he knew the history, but most people do not. I have discovered this time and again as readers have told me how much they learned through the book.
But my mentor was also right. Above all, I needed to tell the story at the heart of the novel, which was a father and daughter needing reconciliation before he dies. Everything else spins out from there. As characters they are, in one sense, peripheral to the larger events rocking the nation; they are American missionaries with protections and escape routes unavailable to most of the Indians around them. But they do not escape. Both, as teenagers, get caught up in tragic events arising from the religious conflicts of the time that leave them burdened with guilt and estranged. Ultimately, in order to make their peace with each other and their past, they need to learn the other’s story, a process of truth-telling that is mediated by the most unexpected of characters: the charismatic, ghazal-singing son of their Muslim cook.
And perhaps that is what history is really for, or should be, in my view: a way of learning the other’s story. There are many stories about the one time and set of events, and although there will be error and bias, it is not until we bring together the many accounts, in the many ways they might be told, that we can move closer to a whole truth. A House Called Askival in no way attempts to tell a definitive history of Independence and Partition, but it does seek to tell a new and truthful story about people, events and forces that still shape not just the Indian sub-continent, but the rest of the world as we face conflicts deeply rooted in religious and cultural identity. I hope its story – and its history – will speak to you.