Review: Partition Voices

16 May 2020

Bari is the Bengali word for one’s ancestral home; it is your desh, the place that always holds an important key to understanding who you are. For those uprooted – and often traumatised, as the people in this series of true stories often are – the idea of bari is a confusing one; they lived in British India, lived through the carnage of Partition, and subsequently relocated to mainland Britain as citizens. Who are they? What are they?

Kavita Puri asks these questions in her book, Partition Voices, as gently as she is given answers. Despite her own father’s story being told last, I had the feeling Puri was personally present at each storyteller’s home, personally present on each journey across northern India. 

Puri’s strength came in translating what had previously been untranslatable; what the general world only knew as the mass migration of millions and the violence of thousands, Puri repaints the portrait of Partition as a unique human experience. She doesn’t fall into the easy but reductionist trap of labelling one group as monsters and another as feeble victims; for each interviewee’s explanation of violence there is a matching act of kindness – Hindus harbouring Muslims in their homes to wait out massacres and riots, Muslims distributing blankets to Hindus before their trek to Pakistan.

For such an intense – and in my own experience, largely unknown – topic, I admired the gentle push Puri gives us into the realities of South Asian generational trauma. It felt as though she was set on honouring the protective nature of the memory of partition itself; the fathers who saw men bleeding to death on the side of the road to Lahore, or the mothers who had to be smuggled out of hostile areas between train seats – they never wanted the trauma to be passed down. In fact, most of the storytellers had never mentioned their experiences to their children – that is, until Puri put out a call for stories of Partition on its 70th anniversary. These stories are relics: Puri sees this, understands, and treats these memories with the care and respect they deserve.

Every story in this book is bolstered by an explanation – or often a discussion with the reader – as to why that particular story was included. With hundreds upon thousands of untold stories sitting in living rooms across Britain, I can only imagine the pressure Puri felt when choosing who to interview, and which stories to use. Especially as a remembrance of the 70th anniversary of Partition, Puri must have been almost hyper-aware of the stories that will be lost within the next few years. 

Despite a slightly sloppily-edited final essay and subsequent epilogue, this piece is a triumph of non-fiction history. Derived from a radio program, I hope this series continues in all forms; seeing these interviews live would be breath-taking. Overall, this is a collection of experiences from before, during and after Partition that glide over the politics only for contextualisation; this is a human collection.

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