The more things change, the more they remain the same. All through Independence, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s latest novel, you have a feeling of déjà vu. As she paints bone-chilling scenes of communal violence, the gap between the past and the present becomes frightfully narrow. Beneath the eloquent speeches and patriotic verses, there is a mournful strain that captures the emotional climate of that age: weeping widows, burning cities, dance of death, rivers of blood. Sparks fly at the sight of the Other; the air seems to be coated with gunpowder. The whiff of an interfaith romance turns into a whiplash. Roiling emotions bubble up to the surface. As a story of strife and social disarray, of blind hatred and clear-sighted courage, Independence speaks to the present moment. With its limpid and luminous prose, it effortlessly brings home the lessons of our past.

The best of times and the worst of times

Divakaruni plunges the reader into a country in bloody transition. It is, as she says, the best of times and the worst of times. As India has its tryst with destiny, three sisters – similar in build but different in temperament – are caught in a whirlpool. The winsome Deepa, the studious Priya, and the “virtuous” Jamini are not always on the best of terms. Despite the crackling tension between the sisters, they find it in themselves to risk their lives for one another. As the conflict-torn country stumbles towards freedom, the characters navigate a tear-soaked landscape of loss and longing.

In the midst of the sorrow and suffering, there is a glimmer of hope. Every time Priya comes across Sarojini Naidu, whether it’s her photo in the papers or her voice on the radio, something stirs deep inside her. When she finally meets her idol, her horizons are widened. She holds Naidu’s words close to her heart:

You [Priya] are a daughter of Independence, the country’s future. Women like you are the ones for whom we fought and died, the ones who will transform India. You must carry the flag forward. You may fall from time to time. We all did. What is important is to get up again.

Divakaruni recreates the period (1946-1954) with the same sweep and subtlety that she showed in The Last Queen, a work of historical fiction. That rigour combines with the emotional richness of Sister of My Heart. Like all of Divakaruni’s works, Independence draws the reader irresistibly into its mesmeric world. Divakaruni’s style, poetic as ever, adapts itself to the subject matter. The narrative keeps pace with the madly spinning wheel of change. In places, she dispenses with commas to give the story a breezy, breathless feel.

Shivers run down your spine as communal fires rip through a country trying to find its feet. The painful birth of the nation is foreshadowed by the difficult delivery of a fisherman’s child, who is being suffocated by the umbilical cord coiled around him like a serpent. Divakaruni captures the bittersweet love between sisters. She also reveals the bravery of ordinary humans. To ward off cynicism, she reminds the readers that “[t]he world is full of good people too, living their quiet workaday lives.”

The most shining example of goodness is Nabakumar Ganguly, the father of the three sisters. Nabakumar is a doctor who treats poor patients for free. Through his altruistic work, he supports the fledgling nation and its deprived citizens. When he recalls his participation in Gandhi’s Salt March, his wife, Bina, breaks down in tears. In one of the memorable lines in the book, Divakaruni critiques men’s display of heroism: “When men go off to be heroes, do they even realise what it does to the women they leave behind?”

Freedom and its price

As a shadow looms over the country, the three sisters drift away from one another. While Priya attends a medical college in America, Deepa gets involved with Raza and the functioning of the Muslim League. The ever-faithful Jamini stays with their mother. She is almost raped in a communal conflagration.

Nabakumar dies in the riots on Direct Action Day. It is only towards the end of the book that
his last words – “take care of each other” – are correctly surmised. Uttered in the midst of communal frenzy, they acquire special meaning. Divakaruni slips in a powerful message with characteristic simplicity. Like the embroidered quilts made by Jamini and Bina, the narrative is intricately woven. Interspersed with songs, it throbs with the electrifying music of the times.

A soulful mix of Nazrul Geeti and Rabindra Sangeet charge the narrative with patriotic fervour. Just a little before the midnight of freedom, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Bande Mataram is sung with celebratory cheer. The chorus grows louder as the strains of the song waft into the streets, enveloping everyone in the glow of freedom.

A skilful storyteller, Divakaruni shows freedom and its price, the love and the strife, the sordid and the sublime. By the time Gandhi is shot by Godse, the reader’s eyes are wet with tears. With a few deft strokes, Divakaruni reveals the heartbreak of a bereaved nation. The arc of the narrative, however, bends towards hope. Priya fulfils her dream of becoming a doctor and carrying forward her father’s legacy. Happy and independent, she shrugs off all offers of marriage.

Long after you’ve turned the last page, you remember the novel’s postscript. Here is a river. Here is a wind rising. Here is a village. Here is the year. The river is time, ebbing, flooding. The wind is memory, it can carry flowers, it can carry flames. The village is the world, and you are at its centre. The year is now. What will you do with it? What will you do?

It is a question brimming with significance. Divakaruni rouses the reader to find her own, unique, answer.

Independence, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Harper-Collins India.