Partition 1947 remains a seminal and defining moment in the history of this region.
It is no surprise, then, that partition has, and shall always continue to serve as a muse for the writers and historians of the subcontinent. Naturally, there's a wealth and treasure of writing on Partition, both under 'non-fiction' (mostly historical and political accounts) as well as 'fiction'. (Here one may ask: What's the need of Fiction in gaining a thorough understanding of an event such as the Partition? The answer to that is..because History/non-fiction can only present to us the "facts" of an event. Such as, 'Partition forced about 15 million people to leave their homes and left no less than a million dead'. But what TOLL such a cataclysmic event took on the individual and collective psyche of those that lived through it - is a question no historical/non-fiction account can answer. Similarly, no historical/non-fiction account can tell you that the one demographic that bore the worst brunt of this tragedy was Women. Or, for that matter, the myriad ways through which they tried to cope with this trauma. For that, you need Fiction, for only fiction can "humanize" such a tragedy as the Partition)
But while there's no dearth of writing on partition which can be bracketed under "non-fiction", as also under "Fiction" in Hindi and other native Indian languages like Urdu and Punjabi (the works of the great S'aadat Hassan Manto, Bhisham Sahni and Amrita Pritam to name but a few); surprisingly, the same cannot be said when it comes to Fiction on the subject of Partition *in English*. The two that do come to mind are the Booker prize winning 'Midnight's Children' by Salman Rushdie and 'Train to Pakistan' by our very own, the late great Khushwant Singh. But even those are 'novels' ie huge tomes which could be tedious for some readers. There's hardly any 'short fiction' of note which explores the subject of partition in English.
Hiraeth by Dr. Shivani Salil steps in to fill this void.
Hiraeth is an anthology of 24 short stories in English set against the backdrop of partition, spread over a breadth of 145 pages of AS brilliant, poignant and moving prose as any you could ever hope to come across on the subject of partition!
Right from the very aesthetic title itself - 'Hiraeth' which means a longing for a place which one can no longer return to, to the befitting Cover, to the titles of the individual stories, everything about Hiraeth just screams "thoughtfulness"
As the writer takes you by the hand and transports you back in that era, a few things that stand out about the writing are the meticulous research that must've gone in crafting each one of these touching tales, the attention to detail and the use of the native vernacular. Giving the meaning of these colloquial terms in the footnotes on the same page itself was another really nice touch and ensures the flow of the story doesn't break.
Now, when you have as many as 24 stories, all set against the same backdrop, there is always a danger of stories coming across as too similar or repetitive. The challenge for the writer, then, is to keep the stories and characters rooted in the same theme yet different in treatment.To her immense credit, Dr Shivani has managed to pull this off with amazing skill; in the process giving us readers some unforgettable stories and equally memorable characters. Personally, 'Chinh', 'Hiraeth', 'Kulfat', 'Musawwir', 'Pairahan','Ummi' and 'Waghaar' among the stories and 'Rashida/Shano', 'Fauzia', 'Shakuntala', 'Omar' and 'Amrit' among the characters are going to stay with me for a very long time, if not forever.
In fact I'd say that most of the stories and characters lend themselves really well to adaptation for screen as a television or a webseries. 14-16 episodes of 1hr each. Something along the lines of Tamas (1988). I sincerely hope, wish and pray Universe conspires to make this happen someday.
In closing, I'll just say that Dr Shivani Salil, in her debut book itself, has managed to establish herself as a storyteller of immense potential. Eagerly looking forward to what she has in store for us in the coming years.
For now though, I cannot recommend Hiraeth highly enough! Above and beyond the aforementioned reasons, Hiraeth is a #MustRead simply because it is very relevant even to the present times, given today's communally charged atmosphere. As the famous saying goes..
"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it"