An award-winning poet, Amit Majmudar made his full-length novel debut this year with Partitions, a beautifully written and confrontational portrayal of the 1947 partition of India.

Read more of 2011's best debut novels.

Majmudar’s narrator is unique—he died five years ago and has fully embraced the invisible but conscious presence he still holds in the natural world. As he follows his sons on their grueling crossing from Pakistan into India, he occupies the perspective of multiple characters from different backgrounds, killers and victims alike, fighting to uphold not-so-different beliefs. Here, he tells us about constructing his first novel.

What made you want to write your first novel on the partition?

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The simplest answer is that I imagined this, so I wrote this. The imagination has its own imperatives. As a writer, you follow your instincts, your emotions, and I was strongly drawn to this time period and place. During partition, my grandparents didn’t lose their loved ones or their homes—they weren’t located in one of the directly divided parts of India, like Punjab or Bengal. So there weren’t any stories in the family I could “use.”

From a purely artistic standpoint, considering light and shade, I think the lawlessness and violence of that time serves as a black backdrop. Against that background, human kindness and love show up very intensely. We can see them by their own light, as luminous things.

Why did you choose the narrative perspective of a dead person?

In a sense the narrator is on a border himself, the border of the living and the dead. So that’s a metaphorical way that borders and partitions come into play. He is a father of twins, too. I myself have twin sons. Thankfully, my family has never been in such an extreme situation, but I do worry about my boys, like any father. So the relationship in the book mirrors, on a smaller emotional scale, this relationship I have in my personal life. That way I could imagine the events more vividly and, I hope, more truly.

You’re also a published poet. Did poetry influence your writing?

I’ve written prose and verse at the same time over the past decades, often snatches of both on the same day. Writing verse makes you focus on every individual word. Writing prose, you focus on sentences. They are complementary skills. When I write one, I run all the calculations for the other now by reflex. Ideally, the experience in prose gives flow to the poetry, the experience in poetry tightens the prose. 

The partition was violent, and you don’t shy away from the details in the book. How did you approach the violence as you wrote?

That’s a good question. There are a hundred and one ways to do this wrong, I think. You can overdo it—and then the violence feels overdone. But you can also get too squeamish and reticent about it. You can err on either side. In the end, I went on my own instincts as a writer and a reader. I judged for myself what was too much and what was not enough.

How imperative was it for you to maintain a neutral perspective?

That’s a key question because that’s a huge issue when it comes to writing about partition. In India and Pakistan, it’s still a charged issue. It’s important to be neutral and honest about it—there was violence on all sides. It’s also important to show that the guilt is not necessarily some sort of collective guilt—“the Muslims” did this and “the Hindus” did that. I made everyone, victims and victimizers alike, as human as I could. No character is demonized; to demonize an individual would risk demonizing the group. I get inside everyone, even my cruel characters.