"Partitions" by Amit Majmudar

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British India was divided into India and the two Pakistans upon gaining its independence in 1947. Systemic violence accompanied Partition, as the division was called, as groups perpetrated all manner of crime against each other. “Partitions,” the debut novel of Amit Majmudar, contains for us a close-up view of the horror, and adds a layer to our understanding (or to mine, at least): it wasn’t only Muslim vs. Hindu – there was a third substantial group fighting for its independence and identity, the Sikhs.

Each of these groups is represented by Mr. Majmudar’s fateful quartet: the riots force Dr. Ibrahim Masud, a Muslim physician in the Punjab city of Amritsar, into the flood of refugees heading for the new Pakistan. Simram Kaur is a fifteen-year-old Sikh girl whose family tries to drug and then kill her rather than let her be defiled by a non-believer. And the heart-breaking little Hindu twins, Shankar and Keshav, get separated from their mother in a crowded railway station. Mr. Majmudar uses an elegant device to bring the four together and keep them that way: the spirit of the boys’ dead father watches over the four and tries in his nearly helpless way to keep them safe, because he knows they need each other.

It takes the four nearly the entire book to meet up; each endures numerous close scrapes where any one of them could have wound up dead or worse. Dr. Jaitly, the twins’ deceased father, urges the quartet onward in his if-wishes-were-horses way, and we suffer and hope along with him. Dr. Masud is the saintly, stuttering, indefatigable center of this inchoate family: he suffers injury and dehydration without complaint, treats every case of sickness and injury that comes his way and there are many in the swelling tide of Muslim refugees. He attracts a battalion of orphan boys and stray dogs to help him on his way and keep him safe. Of all the partitions implicitly or explicitly built up in the narrative – ethnic, religious, social, moral – it’s clear Mr. Majmudar is an equal-opportunity admirer of courage and generosity. By completely ignoring the partitions everyone else seems to require, these final four are a microcosm of the possibility of love and hope.

Mr. Majmudar has crafted a touching, suspenseful, uplifting, gratifying story. This is another reason I love reading debut novels so much. We meet another highly capable practitioner, with a wise heart and a real gift for unfolding a beautiful story.

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