Growing up in Delhi, my friends would all go to their hometowns or native villages during summer vacations, and I would often get asked the question, “Where are you from?”
And I always replied, “Delhi”.
“Yes, but where are you from from? Like, originally.”
I never knew how to answer this question, or indeed what it even meant.
So I did the thing all children do when they don’t know the answer to a question – I asked my parents. Turned out, my grandparents – my father’s parents – migrated from Lahore after Partition. So, patriarch-ally speaking, I am from from Pakistan. Like, originally.
As a kid, I found this fascinating. I had always heard everyone around me speak of Pakistan as “the enemy”. I was not sure why exactly, but I knew we all hated Pakistan, and that was that.
But now that I knew my roots, it begged the question: “So, if I am from Pakistan, how come I am also supposed to hate it?”
Over the years, I heard stories from my grandparents, especially Biji, my grandmother, about the pain of the Partition. I listened with rapt attention as she told me incredible stories of her experiences. Her family hid from the rioters in a godown, eating wheat grains stored there to survive for days, hearing rumours about the gruesome events unfolding outside. As her large family started leaving for India in small batches, she recalled separating from siblings, not knowing if she would ever see them again. Even though she made it safely across the border herself, she recalled trains coming for days afterwards, loaded with dead and maimed bodies. Coming from what used to be her home, but was now, overnight, the enemy.
Cut to 2020.
The nation is up in arms and divided among pro-CAA and anti-CAA camps. Hatred is in the air. Hindu-Muslim riots break out in Delhi. There is carnage in the streets. I am mortified that with real challenges like climate change and pandemics breathing down humanity’s neck, we are still spending all this energy and emotion on our man-made differences.
A family elder remarks to me, “You think like this because your generation never saw the pain of the Partition. We heard horrific stories from our elders and so the pain is still fresh in our hearts. You have forgotten and that is your generation’s problem.”
I argued that those who are repeating the mistakes of the past are the ones who have truly forgotten it.
My argument was, in this age of extreme political opinions, naturally wasted. Eager to avoid a Radcliffe Line being drawn in the middle of my own family, I dropped it.
Which brings me to “Across The Line” by Nayanika Mahtani.
Across The Line is based in Rawalpindi, Delhi and London. It is also based in 1947 and 2008. Most importantly, however, it is rooted in love and hatred and what happens when the two collide.
The book, incidentally, begins with Cyril Radcliffe, sitting in his office, pouring over the maps of Undivided India and contemplating the consequences of the task assigned to him by Mountbatten. Once he does his job, the British leave the land in bloodshed, and millions face the terrible aftermath of the line Radcliffe draws.
We have all read the stories of the mass violence that ensued but the author of Across The Line tells a particularly moving account. This is because she chooses to tell it through the eyes of children. Suffice to say, the pages of my copy of her book are stained with the tears that fell copiously over these chapters.
Fast forward to 2008, and these children of Partition are grandparents now. Once again, the story is told through the eyes of children, their grandchildren. If the first part was heart-breaking, the second is heart-warming. Inaya and Jai live wrapped up in their own little world of dreams, and strategies to overcome obstacles on the road to said dreams. Inaya’s biggest challenge is to get her father’s approval for her playing cricket. Jai aims to overcome school bullies and eat something nice for lunch. They live a life blissfully unburdened by dark memories and grisly nightmares.
On the surface, it would seem that the cricket-loving Inaya in Pakistan and culinary-enthusiast Jai in India have little in common. But fate makes their paths cross and they discover that that may not be the case after all.
I cannot reveal more about the story without getting into spoiler zone, but what I can definitely say is that this is a blockbuster entertainer of a book. It is smart, funny, touching, and deep. But my favourite thing about the book is that it is a book that makes you think.
It makes you think about belonging:
“Where am I from from?”
Was my Biji truly from Lahore – where she was born, and where her parents had built a home, and where she played with her brothers and sisters, and where she grew up into a young woman? Or was she from Delhi – where she made a life with her husband (who was also from across the line) and had her children and grandchildren? How come am I supposed hate the land my Biji called home as a child, and must have loved with the kind of pure love only children are capable of feeling for the home they grew up in?
In fact, if you go back far enough in time and generations, am I am even from Pakistan? Or am I from the Indus Valley? Or Africa?
And while we are talking about the minefield of imaginary lines drawn across maps by humans, how about man-made constructs of religion, caste, creed and country? How do you reconcile the fact that the smartest species on the planet is spending all its time and energy and resources on fighting for these artificial fiefdoms even as it turns a blind eye to very real threats it is facing?
In the age of coronavirus, where we seem to have finally pressed the pause button on our petty battles as we face a threat as a species, maybe it is time to also pause and think about the question this book asks: Where are we from?
Maybe we are all just living beings blessed to be alive on a planet that sustains us and lucky to call it home. And maybe, if we truly remembered the past and learned from it – the Partition, the Holocaust, the plastic waste island in the ocean – we would learn to be more grateful for and mindful of this home of ours.
Because this is where we are from from.