Kavita Puri’s book is the most humane account of Partition I’ve read (it started life as a series of programmes on Radio 4). Crucially, it distances itself from the politics of independence, from celebrating the British empire and the benefits it gave those under its rule. Instead, it gives a voice to those affected by Partition... Partition Voices is important because Puri does not flinch as she dissects the tumultuous event, never shying away from the trauma. If the British empire is to be studied honestly, if colonialism and immigration are to be properly understood, we need schools and universities to embrace such oral histories or we will never know the truth about Partition and how it destroyed the lives of millions. We need a candid conversation about our past and this is an essential starting point.
At times this rootlessness leaves Partition Voices too in an odd limbo. I noted a collection of small errors and linguistic oddities. Bihar is once described as a town (it is a state); the town of Dehradun is said in one testimonial to be in Uttarakhand in India – a state that only came into being in 2000; the patriotic ghazal “Saare Jahaan se Accha” (“better than the whole world”) by Muhammed Iqbal is rendered twice, ungrammatically and incorrectly, as “Sare Jahan Acha”; and Puri writes of immersing her father’s ashes in “Ma Ganges”, an artificial conjunction of mother and the Latinized name of the river Ganga that loses all the affect it might otherwise evoke. In a sense this book is not really very interested in India or Pakistan, but it opens a fascinating and necessary conversation about contemporary Britain and its people – where they have come from, what they have done, or seen, and who they may now want to be.
Partition Voices is probably the closest thing to a partition memorial currently on offer. Puri supports an interfaith initiative to have the history of partition included in the UK’s national curriculum. She hopes that her own children will thereby lose the ‘feeling of impermanence’ felt by many immigrant families. If it spares them thoughts of the ‘imaginary suitcase above the wardrobe’ awaiting another enforced departure, this heartfelt and beautifully judged book will have served its purpose.