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'The Parted Earth' Traces The Impact Of India's Partition Across Generations

The Parted Earth, by Anjali Enjeti

In August 1947, British colonizers split the Indian subcontinent into the Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan and the Hindu-majority nation of India, leading to the largest migration in human history. As a result, millions of people experienced violence and loss, death, sexual assault, an uprooting of ancestral homes — but many of those stories were lost over the years.

In her debut novel, The Parted Earth, journalist and activist Anjali Enjeti follows her characters over seven decades as they piece together their family history against the backdrop of Partition.

"When we talk about the fact that 15 million migrated and we think about the number of descendants from that, we're talking about millions and millions of people," Enjeti says of Partition's impact.

In the novel, it is only as the characters learn the truth about their families' experiences of Partition that they understand how the trauma was passed on to them over generations.

Interview Highlights

On how we can inherit trauma

The novel takes place over 70 years, and the grandmother and granddaughter who are at the center of the novel are actually estranged. And their estrangement is actually rooted in the grandmother's trauma from 1947. It was really important for me to show how trauma is not something that's finite. It's not something that happens to one person. It happens to an entire community and an entire generation. And it is something that gets inherited in some form, whether it's because people simply close themselves off from one another because they're not able to process, or understand, or simply don't want to share their trauma, or it's something that gets passed off as a mystery, where you have later generations simply trying to understand their roots, and their ancestors, and left with a lot of questions that they can't answer because they simply aren't aware of what happened.

On the novel's central character Deepa and the trauma she passes on

She is 16 years old, and she essentially loses the folks closest to her that she loves, and on top of that ... she eventually loses her home that holds all of the memories she has of them. She is transported to the United Kingdom, where she ends up living most of the rest of her life. So she is cut off from everything. She is cut off from family. She is cut off from someone she loves dearly. She is cut off from her homeland, her history and all the memories that she has of her childhood.

Deepa is a character who is not able to process her trauma. So when she raises her own child, she is not really able to talk about her family. She's not able to talk about what happened, to him. She is not even able to share the identity of his father. And so her son, whose name is Vijay, ends up trying to figure out his history, trying to go on his own quest to connect with his family. And it's a quest that he's not able to complete. So Shan Johnson, who is essentially who the novel revolves around — the granddaughter — she is trying to complete what her father started. And it's only after she experiences her own personal tragedies that she decides to go on this quest herself.

On choosing to bring Hindu and Muslim characters together in India during Partition

Despite the fact that there was a lot of violence between Hindus and Muslims, we have to remember that Hindus and Muslims have a history of living together peacefully. And in fact, even during such strife of Partition, there were Muslims who were helping their Hindu and Sikh neighbors. There were Hindus and Sikhs who were helping their Muslim neighbors. They were hiding them. They were holding their possessions for them. There were familial-type relationships among these different faiths. It's not like overnight these religious groups hated one another. They were, in fact, in community with one another fairly peacefully. It was really the Partition that destroyed a lot of these relationships.

On what we can learn from these stories of Partition

One of the most surprising things I learned about when I was doing the research ... was that it wasn't until this century that there was a formal, widespread effort to collect survivors' stories of Partition. It didn't really happen until 60 years later: six-zero. And of course, during those decades when there was not a major effort to collect stories, some of these stories would have been lost.

So if there's one main lesson to draw from writing this book, it is how important it is for us to find places for our family members to share their stories. ... From my understanding, many people are too traumatized to tell their stories, especially if it's to someone they know. But I encourage anyone who has family members who are alive, who survived Partition themselves, or perhaps they are children or grandchildren who know these stories, to find an archivist at [an organization]. One of them is the 1947 Partition Archive. It's on what I loosely based what I call the Partition Project in the novel. Try to get them to tell these stories to these historians, because sometimes it is easier to share trauma when you're sharing it with a stranger, as opposed to somebody you know and love.

This story was edited for radio by Reena Advani and Jeevika Verma and was adapted for the web by Jeevika Verma and Petra Mayer. Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript:

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In August 1947, British colonizers split the Indian subcontinent into the Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan and the Hindu-majority nation of India, leading to the largest migration in human history. Many of the stories of that time were lost over the years. Now the writer Anjali Enjeti has captured some of that history in a new novel. Partition is not something her own ancestors experienced since they were safe in South India. But she spent years reading fiction and nonfiction about what transpired almost 75 years ago when lives were changed forever. Her book is called "The Parted Earth," and she talked to Steve Inskeep.

ANJALI ENJETI: So when Pakistan was formed, it was East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh, and West Pakistan, which is on the northwest part of the subcontinent. So people who have roots in those areas do have these stories. Of course, not everybody is wanting to talk about those stories, right? There was significant amounts of trauma in the form of deaths, in the form of sexual violence, particularly against women, in the form of simply families having to uproot their entire lives and leave behind all of their belongings and their ancestral homes and move to a part of the subcontinent that was unfamiliar with them. So this is something that affects millions of people. I mean, when we talk about the fact that 15 million migrated and we think about the number of descendants, we're talking about millions and millions of people.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: You said trauma. I want to introduce the phrase generational trauma because, it seems to me here, you write not only about 1947 but about a woman in America in much closer to the present time who is somehow affected by that Partition story, even though she doesn't quite know it.

ENJETI: Absolutely. So the novel does take place over 70 years. And the grandmother and granddaughter who are at the center of the novel are actually estranged. And their estrangement is actually rooted in the grandmother's trauma from 1947. And it was really important for me to show how trauma is not something that's finite. It's not something that happens to one person. It happens to an entire community. It happens to an entire generation. And it is something that gets inherited in some form.

INSKEEP: So what is the trauma suffered then by Deepa, who is one of your main characters, a very young woman in 1947 in India?

ENJETI: She is 16 years old. And she essentially loses the folks closest to her that she loves. On top of that, she eventually loses her home that holds all of the memories she has of them. She is transported to the United Kingdom, where she ends up living most of the rest of her life. And so she is cut off from everything. She is cut off from family. She is cut off from someone she loves dearly. She is cut off from her homeland, her history, all the memories, essentially, that she has of her childhood.

INSKEEP: And how does that affect her descendants, whether they know the story or not?

ENJETI: Deepa is a character who is not able to process her trauma. So when she raises her own child, she is not really able to talk about her family. She is not even able to share the identity of his father. And so her son, whose name is Vijay, ends up trying to figure out his history, trying to go on his own quest to connect with his family. And it's a quest that he's not able to complete. So Shan Johnson, the granddaughter, who is essentially who the novel revolves around, she is trying to complete what her father started. And it's only after she experiences her own personal tragedies that she decides to go on this quest herself.

INSKEEP: Why does that past matter, do you think, to people living today?

ENJETI: Our ancestrals' pasts really shape our identities. They shape our views of the world. They shape our understanding of ourselves. And we are lost without them. They are our foundation. And if we don't have this knowledge of our histories, of our ancestors, of what they endured, it's really hard to understand our own self-concept.

INSKEEP: When we peel back the layers of this story to get back to 1947, we find that Deepa, we should note, was Hindu, a Hindu girl, 16 years old, who is in love with a Muslim boy. Why, as a novelist, was it important to you to put a Hindu together with a Muslim in 1947?

ENJETI: So, you know, despite the fact that there was a lot of violence between Hindus and Muslims, we have to remember that Hindus and Muslims have a history of living together peacefully. And in fact, even during such strife of Partition, there were Muslims who were helping their Hindu and Sikh neighbors. There were Hindus and Sikhs who were helping their Muslim neighbors. They were hiding them. They were holding their possessions for them. They were familial-type relationships among these different faiths.

It's not like overnight suddenly these religious groups hated one another. They were, in fact, in community with one another fairly peacefully. It was really Partition that destroyed a lot of these relationships. But all along, they were also helping one another.

INSKEEP: Did you find in Partition some concrete lesson for now, looking back at that tragedy?

ENJETI: One of the most surprising things I learned about when I was doing the research about Partition and just reading was that it wasn't until this century that there was a formal, widespread effort to collect survivors' stories of Partition. It didn't really happen until 60 years later - six-zero. And of course, during those decades when there was not a major effort to collect stories, some of these stories would have been lost.

So if there is one main lesson to draw from writing this book, it is how important it is for us to find places for our family members to share their stories. They might not want to share them with us - but to find a way to encourage them to write down what happened to them or to record on their voice recorder, on their iPhone, what happened to them, to ask them what was your childhood like? We will all find out stories that we had no idea existed from our older family members if we simply just ask them.

INSKEEP: Anjali Enjeti is the author of the novel "The Parted Earth." Thanks so much.

ENJETI: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMJAD ALI KHAN AND SCOTTISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA'S "MALKAUNS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.