x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Partitions: India and Pakistan in the shadow of Britain

Set in India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the disastrous British partition, Amit Majmudar’s episodic novel hangs on moments of violence, yet somehow pulls its final punch.

Amit Majmudar
Metropolitan Books
Dh44

Like some other North American writers of his generation - Chris Adrian and Rivka Galchen come to mind - Amit Majmudar is a trained physician, working as a diagnostic nuclear radiologist in Ohio. (Galchen no longer practises medicine.) He is also an accomplished poet, having been published in The New Yorker and a swathe of US literary journals, and honoured with inclusion in Best American Poetry 2007. It's the tendency of a critic to try to divine details of an author's sensibility from even a sparse biography, but in this case, Majmudar's background offers some insight into the nature of his body of work.

A keen observer, Majmudar writes poems heavy with sensory detail; it drips off stanzas, like rich fat off a fresh roast. His scientific background emerges in poems like Matter and Antimatter, which compares the meeting of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to the titular concepts. Sometimes his technical grounding serves as a kind of hedge against sentimentality, as in The Miscarriage, which begins with florid descriptions of the stubborn vitality of animal reproduction ("some species / lay a purple froth of eggs and leave it there / to sprinkle tidepools with tadpole confetti"), only to later end in a hushed confessional, as the narrator apologises for his inadequacy in comforting his lover, who has lost a pregnancy.

When he turns his attentions to nature, his observations tend to filter a sense of wonder through a scientific or mathematical lens. In The Top, whose pattern of enjambment makes the text look like a top, he marvels at "my first magic trick, Newtonian hocus-pocus"; in To Sibyl, we see "Lusty, tangle / Maned mustangs shifting speeds and angles".

Some of this style appears in Partitions, Majmudar's first novel. It contains the sumptuous compactness of his poetry, as well as a physician's attunement to the human body - how the body's instinctive urges spur (often violent) behaviour, and how it responds to trauma. Pointedly vivid but often arriving from oblique angles, his descriptions can surprise, causing one to step back and then to acknowledge their utter suitability. A decrepit building's paint is "eczematous"; "policewallahs are bald, elderly men, their paunches administrative"; a suddenly stampeding crowd appears "as if a glassed-off sea has shattered through".

Partitions is - if it wasn't already clear - set in India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the disastrous British partition, which rent the Indian Subcontinent in two and provoked a chaotic exodus of populations from both sides of the nascent border. Narrated by the ghost of Roshan Jaitly, a doctor who died several years earlier but still wanders the world, Partitions follows Jaitly's twin Hindu sons, Keshav and Shankar, who, caught in the scrum of a crowd trying to board an India-bound train, become separated from their mother, Sonia; Masud, a quietly decorous Muslim doctor; and Simran, a Sikh girl in flight from her family who, believing that they would soon be raped and killed by a mob, tried to kill their children to preserve some honour.

This is an episodic novel, a series of linked fragments in which violence is a currency. It earns characters food, women to sell or vengeance upon a neighbour whom they hate for his religion, his success or for no apparent reason at all. Violence is also a force unto itself, striking without warning and leaving wounds that fester and promise future scars, if not a slow, painful death. As a doctor who treats almost any refugee he encounters, Masud is the principal spectator of this violence - his role seems to be that of the witness-bearer - but he is also rather numb, only speaking enough to diagnose and treat a patient.

It falls to Jaitly to observe of Masud's own town that "every Muslim storefront [is] a blown-in cavity of ash". (The use of "cavity" is clever, communicating something bodily.) Explaining Masud's myopia, Jaitly says, in reference to a scene where bereaved Muslims are trying to round up a gang to exact revenge, "Masud can bear to see the suffering, but he cannot bear to see it presented." It's a subtle distinction, and it goes to the heart of what distinguishes these two men.

Jaitly is the clear-eyed seer amid the Indo-Pakistani charnel house. A gentle person in his previous life, he now spies into the hearts of men and women committing heinous acts. About one thug, he comments, perceptively: "He has seen delicate things up close only after they have been broken."

An educated man, Masud still is never quite sure where he is going, nor does he understand the changes convulsing the region. He wonders if he should go to Pakistan, but then asks himself: "Whom did he know in this conjured country, Pakistan?"

When some BBC radio hosts are discussing the new nations, Masud "cannot hear the radio's static for what it is - the border's cupful of acid, flung hissing into the soil".

Partitions' story pivots on moments of barbarity (youths turning against their former teacher, a house set aflame by an ecstatic mob) and the four principals dodging calamity at every turn. But Majmudar can also slip into an elegiac tone about pre-partition India, a supposedly kinder time "before the invention of borders". "Prehistory just last year," a farmer reflects, as if the pre-independence state had none of the ethnic strife or conflict that would qualify as "history". But then, just a few pages later, the author will redeem himself with something like this description of Masud's wandering: "He never knows when he crosses the border. It is too early in the border's life cycle: It hasn't budded checkpoints and manned booths yet, hasn't sprouted its barbed wire thorns."

This flight of metaphor is like a brief time-lapse movie, offering the reader a vision of the coming militarisation. It is not only a remarkably conceived image; it also provides a blueprint for what lies ahead: the reader fills in the rest.

But Majmudar's use of a ghost for a narrator is problematic. Jaitly is a sort of camera through which we observe the three strands of narrative - Keshav and Shankar, Masud, and Simran - before they inevitably converge. He flits between them, often reading the thoughts of a scene's participants or reflecting on his own history. It's not clear why this is necessary; given Partitions kaleidoscopic construction, one would think that Majmudar could simply rely on a third-person omniscient narrator, one that is not "embodied". Instead, the presence of this self-aware narrator can be irksome and doesn't add much to the story. Jaitly's own story is compelling - a Brahmin physician, he was disowned by his family for marrying the low-caste Sonia; several years later, a heart condition left him bedbound, eventually killing him - but there's no reason that he has to tell it himself, as a spectre whose role remains undefined.

The most serious problem with Jaitly occurs at the novel's climax, when a light magical realism curdles into magical thinking. Majmudar has expertly built up a scene in which one of his protagonists is about to be killed; it's the sort of painfully visceral moment where one wants to shake a character and shout, "Run!" Majmudar even ends a section on this note of impending disaster, making the death a greater blow. All of this would be great - a wrenchingly emotional section in which Partitions' violence strikes most directly at the novel's heroes - except that suddenly, Jaitly manages to make himself semi-corporeal (though still invisible) and save the day. It's a frustrating twist that feels unnecessarily manipulative.

The good dead doctor's last-minute intervention says something about Majmudar as a writer. In assembling a diverse cross-section of Indo-Pakistani life - Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, young and old (with apologies to Jains, Buddhists and other minorities) - Majmudar may be accused of trying too hard to offer a sufficiently representative selection of the region's peoples. The phase-shifting Jaitly's nick-of-time rescue manoeuvre also feels like a crowd-pleasing move.

Poet, novelist, scientist, Majmudar is clearly a person of immense talents. Flaws aside, he has produced a fine sketch of the maelstrom amid Partition; but a more experienced writer, perhaps, would have had the will to follow through on showing us a death that, however painful, seemed all but assured. Such endings do not make us happy, but they do make for more affecting works of art.

Jacob Silverman is a contributing online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The New Republic.