The Trauma of Partition: A Conversation with Anjali Enjeti

May 21, 2021   •   By Kavita Das

SOUTH ASIAN–AMERICAN WRITER Anjali Enjeti is no stranger to writing about social conflict. Most recently she covered the divisive 2020 election and issues of voting rights in a column for ZORA magazine. In The Parted Earth, Enjeti’s debut novel (published in May by Hub City Press), she takes on the traumatic impact of the partition of India and Pakistan at the end of British rule in 1947. The Partition unleashed widespread and brutal religious and communal violence, leaving an estimated 15 million people displaced and between 500,000 and two million dead. The Parted Earth explores the trauma carried by the Partition’s survivors and their descendants, as well as the lasting legacy of colonialism and the imprint it leaves on the lives of multiple generations, spanning time and oceans.

¤

KAVITA DAS: Many South Asian authors, from Salman Rushdie to Bapsi Sidhwa, have written novels centered upon the turbulence and tragedy of the Partition. What inspired you to address the topic in your novel? Like countless families, did yours experience the trauma of loss or displacement?

ANJALI ENJETI: In The Parted Earth, I wanted to explore the long-term, generational impact of Partition, and how the trauma and separation from loved ones is carried over the decades. Partition may have happened over 70 years ago, but the impact and legacy of British colonialism and the division of the subcontinent remains a significant force in the present day. What’s more, it has shaped the lives of the survivors, their children, and their grandchildren, who dispersed all over the world. This is what I wanted to highlight in particular in the novel — how major historical events such as the Partition stay with us, and ultimately shape the lives of those who descend from it.

At the time of Partition, my family resided in the southeastern part of India, in Chennai, where there was a deluge of refugees from the other side of the new border. They did not personally experience trauma, loss, or displacement related to Partition.

Those who witnessed and survived the violence of the Partition carried grief and guilt with them through the years, even as they migrated to other lands. This grief that flows across generations is a recurring theme of The Parted Earth, impacting all the major characters, from Deepa, to her son Vijay, to her granddaughter Shan. Can you talk about how you view these themes in your narrative?

Grief and guilt can be such all-consuming forces. Understandably, they cause people to be silent about their experiences, to move on from their pasts. This silence, then, becomes the legacy. The actual stories vanish from the family line.

This is exactly what happens in The Parted Earth. Deepa is consumed by grief and guilt, so much so that she doesn’t talk about her experiences during Partition. She eventually becomes estranged from her only grandchild, Shan, long before Shan knows what Deepa has endured. And because Shan’s only Indian parent, her father Vijay, essentially abandons her when she’s only five years old, in two generations Shan not only loses her family’s stories of Partition, she also loses her connection to her Indian heritage. And it all stems from the trauma, the grief, and the guilt that originated in 1947.

As you note, secrets and silence play their roles in reinforcing grief and guilt. Shanti, like many other younger South Asians, seeks answers to the mysteries of her ancestors, yet those ancestors sometimes can’t bring themselves to share their stories. As a South Asian–American woman author, how do you view the relationship between secrets and silence in narratives about South Asian migrant communities?

Gender factors in very heavily. South Asian women are supposed to be the keepers of the secrets, the holders of everyone else’s pain. And if there is a tragedy or a failure or some horrific accident in the community, the women are shamed and blamed for it. How did you let this happen? Why didn’t you stop it? If you’d only been a better daughter, sister, wife, mother … this never would have happened. It’s an enormous burden for the women in our community. We carry it with us everywhere we go. It breaks some of us into pieces.

Those who are not familiar with the violence and trauma of the Partition might not understand the lasting intergenerational impact of that era. Your book chronicles the experiences of three families — Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim — across three continents and three generations. Can you talk about how you wove this complex story together?

One of the most challenging aspects of writing this book was trying to figure out how to tell a story over 70 years, three continents, and three generations without turning it into some 600-page tome. Dividing The Parted Earth into three distinct sections helped me focus on smaller units of time and geography. In Part I, we see 16-year-old Deepa in 1947 in Delhi. Part II is primarily told in Atlanta in 2016 and features Deepa’s granddaughter, Shan.

Part III is where the novel jumps around. We’re in seven cities around the world in four different decades. To write this section, I had to figure out which scenes in particular were crucial to the revelations that would eventually come to light. I had to identify junctures in the characters’ lives where they gradually became more self-aware, and in a better emotional place to uncover the truths behind their trauma and their histories. And it’s here, in Part III, where we see the possibilities of healing and making peace with the legacy of trauma.

A fictional organization called “The Partition Project” plays a crucial role in helping your characters learn about what their elders experienced during Partition. In real life, organizations like the 1947 Partition Archive help people gather and share vital accounts of the Partition, which are crucial to history but also to those of us descendants who are living outside of India. How did you come to learn of the 1947 Partition Archive and how did you decide to incorporate their work to preserve Partition stories into the narrative of The Parted Earth?

In the mid-’90s, I began reading, voraciously, every book I could find about the Partition. I was never taught about the Partition in high school or college, so I was shocked by what I uncovered. This was long before I was a writer, long before I ever envisioned myself writing a book.

After exhausting my local library, I turned to the internet. I found several articles but had great difficulty finding firsthand testimonies from survivors. This remained true in my online searches over the next decade. I later learned that, up until 2007, 60 years after Partition, there was virtually no wide-scale effort to document survivors’ experiences. When I think about it, my heart breaks. Over 60 years, so many stories would have been lost.

I eventually came across the 1947 Partition Archive soon after it launched in 2010. The idea of The Parted Earth didn’t come to me until two years later. But I knew by then that an archive would be the key to unlocking the mysteries at the heart of my novel.

You’ve written a great deal of nonfiction, and in fact have a collection of essays, Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change, coming out later this year from the University of Georgia Press. How does writing fiction compare to writing nonfiction for you? How does your writing process differ for each?

I’m not sure my process is different between writing creative nonfiction and fiction. It’s very easy for me to do reporting or more journalistic types of writing, but I have to be in a certain mindset to do any kind of creative writing, no matter the genre. I sometimes spend months, even years, thinking about an essay or a short story before a single word gets written. When I get ready to write a first draft, though, I try to push through it as quickly as possible to the end. I feel more confident when I have words in a document, even if those words will all eventually be deleted.

¤

Kavita Das’s first book, Poignant Song: The Life and Music of Lakshmi Shankar,a biography of the Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer, was published by Harper Collins India in June 2019. She is at work on her next book, Sparking Change on the Page: Lessons and Reflections on Writing About Social Issues (forthcoming from Beacon Press in fall 2022).