History Reviews

‘The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab’ review: The shadow cast by Partition and the trauma of displacement

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” said American novelist and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner in Requiem for a Nun. Marina Wheeler’s memoir of colonial policies that left Punjab (in erstwhile British India) wounded, reminds you of the famous aphorism: when you remember your past you come to terms with it.

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Silence on loss

The Lost Homestead is woven around Marina’s mother Dip Singh’s stories of loss and pain that Partition brought. Her peaceful and protected years till adolescence in their family home in Sargodha, near Lahore (now in Pakistan) were ruined when the subcontinent descended into chaos, riots and bloodshed and like millions of others her family was forced to flee their beautiful dwelling, never to return.

Dip’s father Dr. Harbans Singh told his children to never speak about what they had lost. Marina writes while escaping from Punjab her grandfather left behind valuables and carried only ghee and some farm produce believing that the civil turmoil would be temporary.

The division of the subcontinent displaced many and changed lives forever. For Partition survivors, refugee status in a new land (New Delhi) was an emotional baggage. Their personal sufferings often remained unrecorded because of their silence.

In 2017, Marina saw Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House, commemorating the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, and realised how her mother’s life was a mystery to her and sibling Shirin. To get her mother to reminisce was like understanding her personal and political freedom in a broader perspective.

Dip’s life story is an engaging narration and resonates with the diaspora as the book embraces a much larger story of the shadow cast by Partition and how millions of emigres survived the trauma.

At 18, Dip escaped from her arranged marriage to Daljit Singh, the younger brother of Khushwant Singh, and 12 years later married BBC journalist Charles Wheeler. In between she worked at the Canadian Embassy in Delhi and at Amnesty International in London and moved in diplomatic circles.

With Charles, Dip travelled the world from the then divided city of Berlin to Washington DC to finally Sussex where she lived for 40 years till her death.

Dip rebuilt her life on her terms, blanking out the pre-1947 days. Never did she return to her country of birth or refuge and told Marina she never even read a book from India fearing it might make her homesick.

Unexpected turn

Marina set out to explore her roots in the two Punjabs in Pakistan and India, and piecemealed the lives of her maternal ancestors before and after Partition.

It is a racy, evocative narration packing in details from her research, travels, interviews, anecdotes and unexpected surprises.

The book brings out the catharsis and triumph of not one but two women. She pulls her mother out of the circle of people and events, and the writing process helps to examine her own life, married as she was to a public figure for 25 years. Marina ended her high-profile marriage to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last November (a process that began in 2018).

She believes that her mother never forgot her secure childhood homestead. Memories of undivided Punjab and the Partition-induced massacre remained dormant.

Though Dip Singh finally broke her silence, she died in February 2020, months before the book was published.

The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab; Marina Wheeler, Hodder & Stoughton/ Hachette India, ₹699.

soma.basu@thehindu.co.in

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