Independence: A Novel
“The title Independence refers not only to the Indian freedom struggle but to women’s struggle for freedom.”
Fans of Satyajit Ray’s films will be transported to a familiar world in this absorbing novel set in Bengal on the eve of Indian independence and traumatic division. What made the 1947 partition unique was that newly formed Pakistan had two flanks (West and East) that were, bizarrely, separated by a thousand miles of India. This “maimed, mutilated, and moth-eaten travesty,” as the founder of Pakistan put it, led to—inevitably, 24 years later—a second division when East Pakistan, led by the charismatic Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, became Bangladesh. Rahman has a cameo as a young activist and music lover in the novel, perhaps laying the ground for a sequel focusing on the 1971 partition.
The title Independence refers not only to the Indian freedom struggle but to women’s struggle for freedom. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, who teaches creative writing at the University of Houston, has written a powerful novel that will resonate across cultures. Three Sisters, with its Chekhovian echo, would be a good title as well.
Deepa, Jamini, and Priya live with their father, an idealistic doctor, and mother, Bina, in the village of Ranipur, where Somnath, their kindly friend and feudal landlord, has a dashing son, Amit, who’s in love with Priya. Fatefully, Jamini is also attracted to him, setting in motion a chain of events that builds to a crescendo against the backdrop of momentous political change: “Gandhi traverses the land, fueled only by prayer. Jinnah and Nehru search for chinks in each other’s armor. In England Attlee worries about the transfer of power.”
Meanwhile, when Raza enters their lives, beautiful Deepa makes her own fateful attachment. They live in a world where “goodness is not enough,” as Hindu-Muslim riots convulse the subcontinent. If Jamini, with her insecurities and unfulfilled longings, is the most intriguing character, the most compelling is Priya, who vows to follow in her beloved father’s footsteps after a tragic incident during the unrest in Calcutta upends their lives.
The perspective shifts repeatedly, with each sister taking center stage. The staccato style in the present tense works well, heightening the effect, although sometimes nuance would have been more insightful than compression. At times, as in this sentence, the impact is shattering: “Men and women sliced open with swords, citywide looting by thugs from both factions, tenements set on fire, their occupants forced to remain inside until they burn to death.”
Bengal was first divided by the British in 1905, sowing the seeds for subsequent divisions. “Can you cut up a country as though it were a cake?” Priya wonders when she hears about the 1947 partition on the radio. By then, her plans to study medicine in her country having “crumbled like mud walls in a monsoon,” she has decided to go to America. When poet Sarojini Naidu, India’s nightingale, comes on and urges women to pursue education and throw off the shackles of patriarchy, Priya is galvanized. Later, they have an unexpected but crucial encounter.
Priya’s stay at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (now Drexel), which produced the first Indian female graduate of medicine back in 1886, makes for fascinating reading. Feeling like an “exotic animal” when people gawk at her attire and smirk at her accent, Priya is alienated. But there’s kindness and camaraderie, too—and maybe less convincingly, given the era, a male professor takes a shine to her, providing balm for her loneliness.
It’s the doting Somnath, Priya’s chess buddy, who makes her American sojourn possible, though soon, as the partition fervor reaches a fever pitch, another shocking incident forces her to return to India. The Bengal countryside—“dark tamaal trees, thatched huts emerald with pumpkin vines, a cowherd playing a flute, a line of women balancing pots on their heads”—remains lovely, but now strife and grief are also etched into the landscape.
Priya is not the only daring, resourceful sister. So are Deepa and Jamini, in their own ways, as seen in the thrilling final section, which could belong in a spy novel. What roles do Raza, who chooses East Pakistan, and Amit play in bringing the sisters together—or tearing them apart?
While the Nobel laureate Tagore’s stories inspired some of Ray’s movies, in this novel, Divakaruni turns to Tagore’s poetry and songs to leaven the narrative, as when she refers to “Ekla Cholo Re” (“if no one responds to your call, then walk alone”). Freedom fighters adopted it as a mantra. But the mantra that Deepa, Jamini, and Priya embrace is what their father said: “Take care of . . .”