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Broken Threads by Mishal Husain review – a spectacular family chronicle of partition

Broken Threads by Mishal Husain review – a spectacular family chronicle of partition

I have to pay a debt of honour and write something for him,” Tahirah Butt says in a cassette recording made shortly after the death of her husband, Shahid Hamid, in 1993. “I keep thinking to myself, what can I do to make him come to life again?” The couple had occupied a front row seat for the partition that remade the Indian subcontinent, spectators to history. “I can hear him say … ‘You owe it to your children, you owe it to your country, to write.’”

Tahirah never finished her memoir, but 30 years later, her granddaughter, BBC journalist Mishal Husain, has written something much broader in scope – a sweeping history of partition through the lens of her grandparents, all four of whom relocated to the new state of Pakistan: wise Tahirah; selfless, fiery Mary Quinn, the daughter of an Irishman and his much younger Hindu wife; Shahid, who trained at Sandhurst in the 30s and went on to set up Pakistan’s intelligence service; and Mumtaz Husain, a doctor and eyewitness to the brutalities of 1947.

Having spent years reporting on the region, Husain’s investigation into her own family’s story was sparked by a gift, a piece of a sari from Shahid and Tahirah’s 1940 wedding. Indeed, she began the project with a wealth of raw material: Tahirah and Mumtaz had left unfinished memoirs, while her mother’s father, Shahid, had published his own “procession of memories”, which was also an account of the fortunes of Muslims since the uprising of 1857. Mary’s story was preserved in the “undimmed” memory of a sister, Anne.

To add to this, Husain unearthed a mountain of supporting evidence, from interviews to archival papers to private gems such as the detailed letters from a British military wife, Barbara Swinburn, to her mother.

The book weaves national and personal history into fine cloth. Mumtaz is by far the most poetic voice in the book and his love story with Mary is particularly moving. He calls her “the anchor and focus of my life”. When Mumtaz’s parents discover he has secretly married a Catholic, they’re furious, having already promised him to his cousin Rahima. They shun Mary for years, walking past her to greet her children, vetoing all Rahima’s other suitors, and telling the community that she was indeed Mumtaz’s wife, “sacrificing the life of an innocent girl on the altar of a promise”. Despite such pressures, Mumtaz protects Mary’s faith in Muslim Pakistan. He placates her teachers, the nuns, saying he will convert, “if the light comes”. He describes her letters to him while he’s doing military service as like “having the contents of an entire river poured into your cup”.

These personal narratives are seductively written, chock-full of precious contemporary snapshots: Mary’s sister Anne got “spanked with a brush if I did anything wrong”, at the convent, whereas saintly Mary was spared. Staff at the base where Mumtaz was a doctor raided the condom supply to make Christmas balloons, and found that, once deflated, “there was no mistaking what they were”. Hungry medical students crossed to the Muslim canteen for meat and the Hindu one for halva puri. Indian candidates for Sandhurst were tested on their handwriting and ability to draw. In one moving scene, soldiers of the 3rd Cavalry wept as their horses were replaced by tanks, kissing them and throwing their arms around the animals’ necks.

The book also covers more well-documented history. Given that the primary sources are two Pakistani families, a certain reverence for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League and founder of Pakistan, is unsurprising. An able diplomatic peer to Jawaharlal Nehru, Jinnah’s challenges were far greater, given the politicking of “Britishers” who sided with the Congress party leader. It was fascinating to understand, also, that the man who is often held responsible for partition fought for a united post-independence India, supporting a 1946 plan that “allowed for provinces to group together on particular issues”, thus protecting Muslim-majority areas from the rule of the national majority. This was rejected by Nehru, who was vehemently secular and preferred the idea of partition to sharing power.

Then, after the agreements were made, “Nehru’s approach was that Pakistan was seceding, while Jinnah wanted the two countries treated as equals emerging out of the old India.” This led to a disparity in resources, with much of what was promised to Pakistan (from military assets to government property) failing to materialise. Here Husain imagines what would have happened if Gandhi, not the younger Nehru, had been at the helm. “What if this 1946 path towards an independent, united India had remained? … [Gandhi] and Jinnah might have been able to produce a different outcome.” Husain’s grandmother Tahirah takes a stronger view: partition, Tahirah says, “need not have happened, had the majority in India accepted ordinary demands from a minority”.

Husain reminds us of history’s intimate personal inner workings, the grudges, egos and rivalries that may alter millions of ordinary lives. “Nehru doesn’t like to ask the Britishers for anything in case he loses face,” writes Barbara Swinburn in a letter. “He and the Viceroy are great buddies and Dickie [Mountbatten] almost eats out of his hand.” This character building gives Broken Threads a propulsive, almost cinematic drive.

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Overall, Broken Threads is a spectacular achievement, and Husain combines the narrative gifts of a storyteller with the far-reaching perspective of a historian to bring the past to life. It is an incisive and carefully researched historical account, and as moving and true a personal narrative as the one Tahirah wished to write for her husband. Though its literary merit is not entirely Husain’s: Mumtaz wondered if his grandchildren would have time even to glance at the pages he wrote after Mary’s early death. And yet, passages from his unpublished memoir give Broken Threads its most tender and distinctive voice, its most beautiful prose. “Our homeland speaks to our most intimate memories, moves our deepest emotions,” he writes. “Everything that is a part of it belongs to us in some measure. And in a way we belong to it too, as a leaf belongs to a tree.”

Source: theguardian.com