Rao’s debut story collection illuminates how the division of India and Pakistan into two countries violently disrupted the lives of the region's citizens for years.
The characters in these 12 stories are connected by the effects of Partition in August 1947, as the Radcliffe Line divides the former British colony into two countries and forces a mass migration of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. With a sophisticated sense of pacing and patience, the stories build on one another by focusing on how the actions of those in power affect vulnerable women and children on both sides of the divide. The stories are paired, an interesting variation on linked stories, as there are six sets in which a character introduced in the first story also appears in the next. In “An Unrestored Woman,” a 13-year-old widow, Neela, faces the continuation of her loveless marriage after her husband, erroneously reported dead, comes back to claim her from a refugee camp. In the next story, “The Merchant’s Mistress,” Neela’s friend from the camp, Renu, becomes the servant and lover to both a diamond merchant and his wife, until an opportunity presents itself for her to escape. Other featured characters include a gay British officer facing the loss of his career after an uprising during Partition kills the Sikh officer he was attracted to; a Hindu cartographer who moves the proposed boundaries of the Radcliffe Line in the hope of personal gain; and a Hindu woman and a young Muslim boy who work to escape from a train under attack in Pakistan. The stories span more than a century, and Rao never idealizes the time of colonial rule prior to Partition or neglects the later difficulty of being an immigrant in the United States and Britain but instead focuses on how the choices the characters make reverberate for years and across generations. Rao’s language is particularly good at reflecting the interior lives of her characters. Her sentences are beautiful but never lapse into sentimentality: “The water was cold, silken, and when she dipped her head under it, it passed over her scalp with the thickness and the strength of a hand”; “that’s what she had thought while traveling on the train: that to journey through such emptiness was to invite it inside.” Though the characters are meticulously developed within each story, the collection as a whole examines how little power a person might have over his or her own destiny when confronted with war and international disputes.
Stunning and relentless.