Amit Majmudar Partitions: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9780805093957

Partitions: A Novel

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9780805093957: Partitions: A Novel

A stunning first novel, set during the violent 1947 partition of India, about uprooted children and their journeys to safety

As India is rent into two nations, communal violence breaks out on both sides of the new border and streaming hordes of refugees flee from blood and chaos.

At an overrun train station, Shankar and Keshav, twin Hindu boys, lose sight of their mother and join the human mass to go in search of her. A young Sikh girl, Simran Kaur, has run away from her father, who would rather poison his daughter than see her defiled. And Ibrahim Masud, an elderly Muslim doctor driven from the town of his birth, limps toward the new Muslim state of Pakistan, rediscovering on the way his role as a healer. As the displaced face a variety of horrors, this unlikely quartet comes together, defying every rule of self-preservation to forge a future of hope.

A dramatic, luminous story of families and nations broken and formed, Partitions introduces an extraordinary novelist who writes with the force and lyricism of poetry.

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About the Author:

Amit Majmudar is a diagnostic nuclear radiologist who lives in Columbus, Ohio, with his wife and twin sons. 2012 will see his poems in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Granta, The New York Review of Books, The Best American Poetry anthology, and Poetry Magazine. His first novel, Partitions, was published by Holt/Metropolitan to wide acclaim, with featured reviews in The Wall Street Journal and NPR's All Things Considered. His first poetry collection, 0', 0', was released by Northwestern in 2009. His second poetry collection, Heaven and Earth, was awarded the Donald Justice Prize for 2011. His second novel, The Abundance, is forthcoming in early 2013.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:


I know only three people in this infinitude. Two boys: one in a dark blue kurta with tiny golden beads embroidered around the collar, the other in a bright green one with silver beads, matching. Keshav is wearing the blue, Shankar the green. These are their favorite colors and these their best, most precious clothes, worn only twice, both times to weddings in Lahore.

I know these boys and the woman whose hands they are holding. A few hours ago, when the stray dogs took up a brittle, pulse-steady barking throughout the city, she gave the boys the choice, the trunk thrown open on the cot. The clothes they wore were the only clothes they could take. They didn't hesitate, and she didn't protest, simply tugged off their shirts and dropped the silk over their still-raised arms. It didn't occur to her that they might attract attention, that people might think she carries more than just a little barrel of hundred-rupee notes stuffed in her bodice. It doesn't matter. The dust of the journey will make sure the clothes don't attract attention for long. Besides, she wanted to give them this choice, this exercise of will. A small defiance to tide them over during the coming helplessness.

I know that cot, too, where the trunk still lies open. Its canvas rectangle. Two shawls and three blankets, and still I shivered on it.

There is no way she can manage even a small trunk. What with both boys to hold, she will need her hands free. All she carries are the rupees. Not even the lingam from the temple in the bedroom corner. They have to leave. This is Pakistan now. The land meant to be pak, pure. Pure of them. She knows the train is going to Delhi, and Delhi is better than where they are, but she has no one in Delhi or anywhere else. That is part of why I love her, that quality of being found, of having no origin. Portuguese missionaries had discovered her sleeping naked in a furrow, her body strangely scarred, no language on her tongue. Neither Muslim nor Hindu nor Sikh: some fourth natural creature sprung from the soil. All she had was me. So young, and still their teachings never really took. She swept the church and prayed where she was pointed. She was fifteen years old when I strolled past her and stopped and, trembling, put on my spectacles. The immense church bell was swinging over our heads. I found her, she found me. I had been alone eleven years by then, a widower, on good terms with my family and my late wife's, prosperous in my father's practice (I hadn't even gotten a new nameplate; his name was still over the office door). All until my second, shameful marriage to a girl without family, without caste.

That woman is my wife, and those boys are my twins. Was my wife; were my twins. I am no longer with them. They lost me when the boys were a year and a half. But if I had a throat, and breath to push through that throat, and vocal cords to pinch close and shirr, I know what I would say.

I am here.

I am here because I am everywhere. I say I know only three people on the platform and in the trains, but in a sense I know all of them. In a passenger compartment, a woman is peeling an orange into a handkerchief. All this desperation around her, but she and hers are safely aboard, and tiny drops of juice spray as the rind rips off white, tenaciously fibrous. Through the smell of urine and smoke and stale metal and sweat comes this wayward note of orange. In this suffocation of bodies, it smells like an open field and wind. All the faces turn to the glow in her lap. Mine does too.

I dwell in that woman's eyes for a while. I rest there and use her calm to collect myself, though I cannot taste the orange with her. A sandal interrupts my meditation, braced on the bars across the open window. The foot is dusty, its big toenail black and still throbbing from something dropped during the frantic move. The sandal pauses and angles slightly as the man's weight is placed on it. A crust of dried mud flakes off into the train. It's an unexpected sight to see a foot like that, at face level, but the usual relationships among bodies do not hold anymore, underwater as we are. I slide through the window, outside again. All down the train, people are clambering from the platform directly onto the train roof. Sandals open off their feet and close again, soles worn thin, dark, smooth at the heel. Like the dark sinkholes of shadow around their eyes. When they look down, I can't see their eyes at all. All I see are holes in a skull.

A man on the roof waves for a clearing. No one moves. Once his brother forces his way up, though, accommodation is made. Bodies squeezed tight squeeze tighter, fine adjustments of the buttocks and tugs of bundles, half-inch shuffles and scoots. Space forms where no space was. Below, two more brothers have lifted a makeshift carriage, a wooden plank round which the corners of a torn green saree have been knotted. A figure entirely swallowed in it swings gently. You see only the small curve of the back. The brothers grab the plank ends and lift this delicate human cargo safely onto the roof. The plank is set down and the knots picked free.

The people around them expect a pregnant girl or crippled child. It turns out to be their grandfather, toothless, three days unshaven, staring at the sky through sky-colored cataracts. No movement, and for a while no blink. The others stare. They are looking for life. Still no blink. Finally the mouth closes. The throat rises and falls. The mouth opens. The people are satisfied; to have made room for the dying is tolerable. Just not for the dead.

I turn. A child is crying atop luggage stacked six high, set there as if to mark these goods claimed. He cannot get down. So many people, but he is on an island. I am the only one who hears the siren of his loneliness. I cannot comfort him. I may be everywhere, but I, too, don't know where his family is. In places such as these, I am almost blind. Shapes of bodies smear through time and overlap. I can trace glowing, individual strands only outside the station. An occasional pensive still life delineates itself, like a figure posing for a daguerrotype against a moving train—the place where a body has paused long enough to despair or sleep or hold a wound.

Only a fraction of my attention roams among the strangers at the station. I stay close to my wife and boys because I know what is going to happen here. This far ahead, at least, I can see. Not all the way to the end, because the end is never promised. But I can sense the danger a few minutes in advance, the way animals sense earthquakes, and I need to be here for it. Not that I can keep those tiny hands in hers or elbow apart this crowd before it panics. I cannot make space for them because I occupy none myself. Already the undertow exerts itself, invisible in these human waters but strong: rumor.

This will be the last train out. The tracks have been ripped up west of here. There are no more trains.

I cannot pinpoint where it starts. The idea springs up all around me at once, a hundred staccato thoughts and impressions. Rage at the sight of someone's back. This is the last chance. Move. Let us on. A bony hand clutches a rail. Elbows dig along a shoulder blade or spine. This is the last one. Shoulders brace low and slam a stranger's side or back. A woman's scream. The Mussulmaans are going to find us and hack us apart. A turban slapped onto the tracks. It unrolls under the train, an unbearable outrage. You know what they did in Rawalpindi. It's going to happen here.

Steam hisses. Shouts everywhere. Inside the compartments, on the train car roofs. Loudest of all on the platform, where a tidal surge of bodies flattens chests against the steel, and more bodies drive themselves up the clogged steps.

Get on. Get out of the way. Move.

They are only a few steps from boarding when the panic and crush begin. The boys feel her yank them forward. The force of surrounding bodies as much as her embrace holds them flush, their faces almost in her neck. Shankar and Keshav cling with both arms and legs. They are older now, boys, and her body is almost hidden under them. She is slight but she is strong. Her head is low. She uses the pushing behind her to weave through and up. She gets a foot on a step, loses it, gets it again and turns. A smaller child is handed bodily over their heads into the compartment, floating above the panic. He looks around curiously from his elevation. Relatives receive him inside. My boys deserve that, she thinks. They do. They deserve to float above this into familiar hands. She cannot get through the entry with the boys at her sides, so she slides them forward and releases them. They want to help. Shankar pushes off the rail beside the entry, his hand feeling someone else's knuckles. Keshav pulls on the nearest shoulder for leverage, as if it were something inanimate. Another hiss. The train inches to the left. She has both feet on the steps. For a moment they are out of her arms, for a moment she has a feeling of liberation and future. She will hang here the whole journey if she has to, her boys on her neck.

This is when a hand I cannot slap down, whose fingers I cannot break, grabs her braid and pulls. Her head jerks back, and her body lifts.

Keshav shouts. The crowd closes over. The boys are submerged. They swim up again and see that the narrow rectangle of platform has shifted. A new and unfamiliar crowd fights to board the quickening train. They are the only ones trying to get off. This is just as hard as trying to get on, maybe harder. They clamber on shifting shoulders. The people are packed that thick. The platform moves more quickly. Soon there will be dust and bare tracks. They do not have to speak to communicate what to do. The men who are hit or accidentally kicked by my boys shout and twist their faces as if this were the unacceptable outrage of the day. Finally, my boys approach the open air.

What happens next happens clumsily. They force themselves downward, pushing off the ceiling, and a few of the outriders shout and squeeze aside to let them through—to resist would be to risk being pushed off. The boys are small but wiry, full of frantic energy and hard boy bones. If the platform had been three feet longer, both might have landed with a few deep scrapes, but the platform vanishes just as they make it out. Keshav just makes it: forearms, stomach, and right cheek scraped, and a cut on his scalp. Shankar, though, falls just a second later. He clips the platform on his way down, and it flips him bodily. He hits the tracks, tumbles and skids a few feet, and comes to a stop in the train's monstrous shadow. The sun flashes between the cars.

The instant they fall, I sense another fall, this one gentler, on the other side of the new border. Dr. Ibrahim Masud. He is tall and thin, his chest, in his slept-in white undershirt, no broader than a boy's. Half his face is covered in shaving cream. The other half is freshly shaven, the razor drawn down the cheek, swished in the basin, tapped, brought up again.

I go back and see the way his fingers flared off the razor as it approached his skin. Thumb and forefinger took over for the delicate work. His earlobes dripped, and still drip, from the wake-up splashes that preceded the shave. Half his face finished, he sniffed the air, called the name Dara ji twice, and, hearing no answer from his servant, investigated. The rooms were hazy. (For Masud to notice smoke, it would have to fill the house; he tends not to sense his environment, his attention a flashlight, not a lamp.) Something, he thought, must be burning in the street. Trash was usually burned at dusk to disperse mosquitoes, or at dawn to warm hands. This hour, eight in the morning, was wrong. Two milk bottles, on the steps beside his shoes, had not been taken in. He wandered onto the stones barefoot, bewildered.

Hot wind, as though a furnace had swung open. Ash flecks flitted onto his raised wrist. He heard a crack and looked up.

Now, backing away from his house through its cast-iron front gate, he trips on his own feet. He hits the ground at the same instant my twins, hundreds of miles west of him, land on the tracks.

Get up, boys. Get up.

Car after car sways past Shankar, brisk now. Facelike masks see him and assume he is dead—a feature of the landscape, indifferent, plantlike. Keshav, bleeding, pushes himself off the platform to retrieve his brother. To many, the sight of the boys brings up a surge of relief and gratitude—this is the kind of horror they are escaping. Then the train is gone, its rocking soft in the distance. Daylight again, and the uproar on the platform.

I feel Shankar's three broken ribs and the cut on Keshav's head. I marvel that Shankar's collarbone hasn't broken where he hit the edge of the platform. They cannot feel my hands. How will they travel? I have foreseen their courses, but I never saw these details, never knew they would be in pain, Shankar stabbed by every breath, Keshav's skin grated raw, no gauze, no plaster.

With Keshav's help, Shankar gets up holding the side where he has broken his ribs. The pain is the worst he has felt since the time he sprained his ankle last year, but he is not crying. If he saw his mother, he would start; there would be someone to cry to. Right now he and Keshav are too scared. They hold each other, saying nothing as they look for a way back onto the platform. Keshav blinks and tastes his own blood. Shankar, seeing the cut on Keshav's scalp and the hair wet over it, daubs his brother's face with his sleeve. The pain doesn't stop him. It is an older brother's gesture, though he is actually only a minute older. An older brother's gesture, or a father's. The silk soaks dark.

Their faces are identical, but their bodies aren't. Shankar grows into Keshav's hand-me-downs. Other kids tease Keshav about stealing his brother's food, even though Shankar has the bigger appetite.

It wasn't always so. I remember when Shankar was too weak to suck. It was a cycle that started from his first hour. Weakness kept him from sucking, which made him weaker, which kept him from sucking. When his arm worked loose from the swaddling, it hung down. The skin of it slid loosely under the thumb, no baby fat to swell it taut. I could not bear to see the arm dangle like that. I would tuck it up like a broken part and fix the cloth. His palms, his lips, the skin around his lips, and the soles of his feet deepened in color as he cried. Blue, bluish purple, purple. His color returned to gray only after his mewl slackened into sleep.

I carried him a lot those first few weeks. The kohl Sonia used to rim his eyes made him look sicker. His brother slept, pink and blissful, after the breast or a bath and rubdown with coconut oil. Shankar was a minute older, but everything gave him a look of age. He had a full head of silken womb hair, while Keshav was baby bald, just fuzz. What little milk Shankar could get down, he didn't keep down. His oval face hungered from the hour he was born and drew no succor from breath or breast. The shape of his face was another thing that made him look older, especially next to his brother's, a perfect circle broken only by the bulges of his cheeks. I shook my head...

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