Radhika Swarup is a full time writer and commentator on feminist and Indian issues. She lives in London, and her work has appeared in Indian broadsheets and British literary journals. Her debut novel Where the River Parts, which follows the lives of a couple caught up in the India-Pakistan Partition, was published in February 2016. It has now been published in India by Rupa Publications. I was lucky to read the book via NetGalley. It is a beautiful story of love and the book is an excellent read. Read the spoiler-free review on the blog.
Here is a short Q&A with the author.
Tell us about your book ‘Where the River Parts’.
Where the River Parts follows a Hindu-Muslim couple caught up in the traumatic Partition of India and Pakistan. They are separated during the process, and don’t see each other for the next fifty years. It is only half a century later, as both India and Pakistan are testing their nuclear weapons, that the two meet again in New York and face an impossible choice. Where the River Parts straddles half a century and three countries, and has been described as a timeless tale of love, loss and longing.
At its heart, this is a love story. What did you set out to tell readers when you started writing?
Where the River Parts speaks of the distances that grow between us, reflected physically in Asha and Firoze’s separation, but also in the schism that grew between India and Pakistan. So while the novel follows the love and loss experienced by its protagonists, it also follows the same emotions experienced by millions across both sides of the geographical border as once co-existing communities are torn apart and taught a hate-filled narrative.. That we are all – Indians and Pakistanis, and others beyond these borders – continuing to experience these emotions made writing Where the River Parts particularly resonant for me.
I know that you have used first hand information provided by your family who were part of the partition. Was it difficult to use this knowledge? What other research did you do? Did you face any challenges?
My family on my father’s side were affected by the Partition. They had to leave Lyallpur in West Punjab to make a new life in Delhi. Their experiences have largely seeped into the atmosphere I’ve tried to portray in Suhanpur, the fictional town my protagonists live in. I’ve had a wealth of details given to me about my family’s life in what became Pakistan, though as I was growing up, my family never shared any of the horrors they witnessed with me. These stories have begun to come out as I’ve grown, and as I’ve delved deeper into my family’s involvement in the Partition.
Stories about the relative who risked life and limb to return to Pakistan to retrieve a family heirloom. About the young boy who travelled on a train to India – and miraculously survived – despite the Hindu symbol Om tattooed on his wrist. About my parental grandparents, who travelled to Karachi, a city that fell the way of Pakistan, just before the worst of the violence was unleashed. About intimidation, about neighbours on both sides of the border turning against each other, about tragedies, about cowardice, about opportunism and about remarkable heroism. Some of these stories were hard for my family to tell, but there also was a palpable sense of gratitude for their – and their children’s – survival.
I also researched the Partition beyond its impact on my own family. The sheer scale of the displacement was new to me. 1 million people were murdered, and up to 18 million left homeless, largely in the three month period that followed Independence. I had to research these aspects of the past – the extent of the tragedy, the interactions between members of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh communities in united India, the clothes worn during the period, how the flames of hatred were fanned – through books and media, and through movies and music. I was both shocked and strangely unsurprised by what my research uncovered. For our proudest hour – independence after 200 years of colonial rule – to be so marked by horror is nothing short of tragic. It brought out the best and worst in humanity.
I love Asha for her passion, her unpredictability, and for her will to survive. And I had a soft spot for Lana too, who I see as a modern-day Asha. If Asha had Lana’s education and modern-day values, she may have had more options open to her.
What kind of stories do you love to tell? Any work in progress?
I find myself focusing on stories about exile. People separated from loved ones or their physical homelands, or those prevented from living the lives they imagined themselves living. People set apart by gender or religion or appearance. Or community. Or a generation. Or those who just find themselves utterly alone in the middle of a crowd. In our ever globalising world where the computer is the greatest medium of communication, isolation is an increasingly significant phenomenon, and one that I’m acutely aware of.
There is a work in progress, and it looks at a woman at the top of the career whose life comes to a crashing halt. It’s an internal exile, if you will, and I can’t wait to explore her world.
Tell us about your journey as a writer. Do you have suggestions for any other aspiring writers?
I didn’t ‘train’ as a writer. I always wrote as a child, but stopped when I went to university. My degree was in Economics, and after I graduated I began to work in investment banking. For a while it seemed as if my days of writing – or indeed reading for pleasure – were at an end.
And then one day, at a Private Equity conference in Frankfurt, I realised I hated finance. It was my 26th birthday, and a moment I remember with absolute clarity. I wrote that night, feeling happier than I had for years. I started with short stories, some forgettable poems
For aspiring writers, my main suggestion is to find a support group. You’ll know that books are the tools of your trade – you have to keep reading, and you have to keep writing – but it is also important to get impartial feedback. This can be through friends, or through physical or online writing groups, but do put yourself out there, and do be receptive to comments.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I love to read. I also love to travel, and to spend time with my children. As they grow, I find myself spending an increasing amount of time carting them between activities, and if you include the waiting time I spend reading, this appears on paper to satisfy most of my passions – reading, travelling, and spending time with my children.
Who is your favourite author or genre?
Of the very many authors I admire, I have to single out Hemingway, EM Forster, Tolstoy and Toni Morrison.
I enjoy most genres, apart from supernatural or horror. I am scared far too easily to enjoy the experience!
Tell us three interesting facts about yourself.
I’ve lived in Pakistan as well as India.
I love the smell of old books. I’m a reluctant adopter of Kindle.
I feel restless if I live in one place for too long. I’ve lived in London now for two decades, and though it’s the most cosmopolitan and diverse place I’ve been to, I would love to try a change!