In his magnificent first novel, poet Majmudar (O°, O°, 2009) embodies the terrible days following the partition of India and Pakistan in the stories of four refugees from sectarian violence.
Keshav and Shankar are 6-year-old twins, separated from their mother in a crush of Hindus trying to get on the last train for Delhi from what is now Pakistan. On the same day in India, Dr. Ibrahim Masud arrives at his looted clinic, where the terrified gatekeeper tells him, “The city isn’t safe for any Mussulman.” Simran and her family are Sikhs; she flees as her father prepares to kill his wife and daughters rather than have them soiled by their Muslim neighbors. Observing them all is the spirit of the twins’ dead father; his initially startling narration gives the novel the distance it needs to chronicle horrifyingly brutal events. Muslims stop a train full of Hindus and murder everyone on board. Men burning down a Muslim lawyer’s house turn to douse a boy with kerosene, not caring that the child they’re about to incinerate is also Hindu. The breakdown of civil order is epitomized by a young thug who snares the twins and sells them to a childless widow, then joins a roving gang looking for stranded girls to force into prostitution. They pick up Simran, but she escapes and finds refuge with Masud, as do Keshav and Shankar. The doctor stands at the story’s moral center, treating the sick and injured of all ethnicities in the vast caravans of refugees streaming toward the India/Pakistan border from both directions. He’s not the only one: A Sikh bus driver, a farmer and a prostitute all risk their lives to help others, “reminded…of a lost, golden past, before the invention of borders, when [kindness was] possible.” Each character must grapple with the choice between kindness and cruelty, and the otherworldly narrator understands that either choice is equally likely in a world gone mad.
Written with piercing beauty, alive with moral passion and sorrowful insight—a rueful masterpiece.