Partition Voices: Untold British Stories by Kavita Puri - review by John Keay

John Keay

From Lahore to Lancashire

Partition Voices: Untold British Stories


Bloomsbury 294pp £20 order from our bookshop

A Britain without the South Asian British is now almost unthinkable. With a few exceptions – farming, fishing and the armed forces spring to mind – there are few sectors of UK life where the descendants of South Asian immigrants are not prominent. Kavita Puri, for example, author of the harrowing Partition Voices, is a distinguished broadcaster whose father, Ravi, relocated from Delhi to Middlesbrough in 1959. The Puri family had lived originally in Lahore. But while the Puris were Hindu, the majority of Lahoris were Muslim. Under the terms of the 1947 partition plan, Lahore became part of Pakistan. The Puri family, in order to survive the carnage that ensued, had to flee across the border to the new Indian state, ending up in Delhi.

For Ravi, partition meant not one but multiple displacements, of which the move to Middlesbrough was just the last. To his daughter, it’s self-evident that ‘there is a link between partition and migration to Britain’, since it was those areas of India and Pakistan most affected by partition that became the major contributors to the flow of emigrants. But the chain of causation was not always so obvious. Of all the various South Asian communities in Britain today, the largest is that of Pakistanis from Punjab, who found work in the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire in the 1960s. Two-thirds of these were originally from Mirpur in Kashmir and had been relocated to Punjab because, twenty years after partition, many of the villages of Mirpur were evacuated and submerged to create the Mangla Dam reservoir. Only in so far as Pakistan needed water for agriculture and electricity could it be claimed that they were dispossessed by partition. They were not refugees since their lives were not in danger and their stories find no place in Partition Voices.

In this book, and in the 2017 BBC Radio 4 documentary series that preceded it, Puri’s focus is narrower. In a number of often moving interviews with some twenty Britons of South Asian origin (and a handful of white Britons), she probes their fading memories of what actually happened when the British went home and India was divided. Seventy years on, the time we have left to gather such first-hand testimony is running out. The Holocaust has its museums, its archives and monuments, but partition, with a death toll of up to a million and a displacement count of perhaps fifteen million, has no memorial anywhere, whether in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or the UK. Independence is joyously commemorated, but partition is discreetly disregarded. Shrouded in what Puri calls ‘institutional silence’, the massacres, rapes, mutilations and kidnappings that went on during and after partition remain publicly unrepented by the perpetrators and rarely acknowledged, even by the survivors. ‘For all the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust,’ says Anindya Raychaudhuri of St Andrews University, ‘in most cases it was easy to distinguish between bad from good. In partition it just isn’t.’

There were, of course, individual examples of cross-community solidarity and heart-stopping acts of heroism. Puri rightly draws attention to these as being just as integral to the partition story as the atrocities. But of the main religious groupings – Sikh, Muslim and Hindu – none was innocent. All sides were to blame. ‘People living all their life like brothers and sisters, they attack one another,’ recalls one witness. A Hindu teacher celebrated partition by raping one of his Muslim pupils; a villager who one morning visited a house-bound grandmother to deliver her medicine returned the same evening to torch the house in which she was trapped. Incitement, fear and fanaticism can scarcely account for such savagery. Old enmities were revived and the heightened religious awareness occasioned by partition combined with the usual toxic mix of social ills – gender oppression, marital abuse, property expropriations and interminable land disputes.

‘We need to understand this past,’ writes Puri. Shame is no longer a sufficient reason for silence. The children and grandchildren of post-partition immigrants to Britain need to know who they are and how they got here. Their neighbours need to understand Britain’s role in condoning the events that led to their displacement and exodus. And all might perhaps reflect on how such extreme violence could eventually result in the peaceful and mostly uncontested settlement of so many immigrants in Britain.

Partition Voices is probably the closest thing to a partition memorial currently on offer. Puri supports an interfaith initiative to have the history of partition included in the UK’s national curriculum. She hopes that her own children will thereby lose the ‘feeling of impermanence’ felt by many immigrant families. If it spares them thoughts of the ‘imaginary suitcase above the wardrobe’ awaiting another enforced departure, this heartfelt and beautifully judged book will have served its purpose.

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