Here is a country teetering on the brink of independence. Here is a man in a tearing hurry, rushing that country into emancipation without preparation. Here is a stranger hacking the land to pieces. Here is a leader in a gold silk jacket and a rose in his lapel, claiming his tryst with destiny. Here is celebration, tricolour flags being hoisted for the first time. Here are people fleeing. Here are people slaughtered. Here are families scattered and lost. Here are women with their breasts cut off. Here are babies roasted on a spit. Here are death numbers to shake even the most stoic heart. Here is the man hiding the most malignant secret of all.
The country is India. The man in a rush to return to England to further his naval career is Viceroy Mountbatten; he pushes India’s independence ahead by ten unsteady months. The hacker is Cyril Radcliffe, barrister; he has never before set foot on this continent. In five weeks he will carve up 175,000 square miles into three pieces. The leader who trysts eloquently with destiny is Nehru; he will be helpless to stop the blood-trains rolling in terrible silence to their destinations. The flags raised in jubilation are saffron–white–green; at their centre is the Ashok Chakra, eternal wheel of law. The man with the secret is Jinnah; he has tuberculosis and cancer; the doctors predict he has a year to live. If he had divulged this, one million lives might have been saved.
The year is 1947. It is the best of times; it is the worst of times.
In the narrow bed in the flat above the clinic that was once her father’s, she resists the temptation to relax into Raza’s sleeping breath, his dreaming arms. She has an important task, she must complete it before he wakes. Tomorrow will be too late, tomorrow they are leaving for Dacca. From there she may not be able to write to her sisters.
Candle ink paper pen. Deepa takes out a packet hidden behind a stack of books – her sisters’ letters. She will read them one last time. Tomorrow when she cooks she will burn them. She cannot receive letters from them again because why would the wife of a Muslim government official in East Bengal be corresponding with Hindu girls from other countries? Even now it is risky.
She rereads Priya’s letters first. They hurt less.
The first one describes the voyage to America. What a flair the girl has for description. Deepa is transported to the Mauritania with her: a storybook room, cozy curtained bunkbed, towels hanging from little silver hooks, the dinner menu tucked artfully under a plump pillow. Is it a ship or a carnival? Books movies dances musical performances even a trip to the towering pyramids at Giza when they stop in Suez. That such things can exist in the world! Deepa wishes she too could visit an unknown land. Then she thinks, I am doing that tomorrow.
Three women shared the cabin with Priya. Two of them kept to themselves, but the third, Marianne, was friendly. That turned out to be fortunate because when they disembarked in New York, Priya discovered that Munshiji’s contact, who was to meet her at the docks, was not there. Deepa would have been sick with fear; even the thought of travelling to East Bengal tomorrow, though she will be with Raza every moment, makes her want to throw up.
Marianne’s parents drove Priya to Grand Central Station, its huge bustling confusion, and put her on the right train. They even showed her the tallest building in the world, its spire like a giant’s needle. A lucky one, Priya, except when she ruins things with her stubbornness. If I had been home, Deepa thinks, I would have guided her better regarding Amit. But then, haven’t I also made a mess of my own relationships?
Priya wrote that she found the Woman’s Medical College with its tall brick buildings and stately pillars exciting and nerve-racking. She loved the classes, the procedures were fascinating, she was learning so much. But she was lonely. Sometimes she felt like an exotic animal. Fellow-students goggled at her outdated clothes and smirked at her accent. The few who tried to converse soon ran out of things to say. She suspected they only made an attempt out of Christian duty.
Excerpted with permission from Independence, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Harper-Collins India.