This novel, written by the recipient of the Fulbright Award and the Malahat Review Novella Prize, captures an important aspect of the post-Partition history by resurrecting the story of a defiant Hindu family that stays behind in Lahore and intertwining it with that of a Muslim family which comes to live as the Hindu family’s tenant.
In 1947, the Partition of India led to the creation of two separate counties – India and Pakistan. It is said that between 12 and 14 million people were displaced to take up residence across the border. Between 500,000 and 1.5 million people died and apparently 83,000 women were abducted. It is against this background, that a family which is Hindu, continues to live in Pakistan. Dina Lal, the head of the family decides to buy an Englishman’s house at Five Queen’s Road, much to the horror of his wife Janoo. She knows the house is too grand for its own good and it is in a city that is being ‘ravished’ due to the riots. Despite this, Dina Lal, a true Lahori, refuses to leave and cross the border. He prefers to stay put in Five Queen’s Road despite his wife’s serious misgivings. Both his sons decide to leave Lahore and cross the border but Dina Lal prefers to stay behind in the house that he has purchased from an Englishman, who had parted very reluctantly with it.
The Muslim family of Amir Shah comes and sets up home at the same Five Queen’s Road as Dina Lal decides to let out the front portion of the house. Dina Lal even converts to Islam. This is done to insulate himself from the mayhem on the streets.
Amir Shah and his son Javid do up their house and buy new tiles for the floor as Javid’s foreign wife is coming to live at Five Queen’s Road. One day Javid sees four men coming and abducting Dina Lal’s wife, but he stays rooted to the spot where he is standing, despite his sister Rubina scolding him for not doing anything to save her. She is so angry with him that she admonishes him, “You’ll tell him [Dina Lal] we watched his wife being abducted and we did nothing?” She stomps away in utter disgust.
Dina Lal returns home and on learning about his wife’s misfortune from Amir Shah, he questions him as to what he was doing when his wife was being abducted. Janoo’s disappearance wrenches at his gut. He suddenly feels as if life—a cable upon which everything meaningful was affixed—was slipping past him, moving too fast for him to hold on, humming steadily like the traffic on Queen’s Road. The truth is that he finds that he has been left behind and it had been out of his own accord.
Meanwhile while Dina Lal and Amir Shah cross swords with each other at every given opportunity—though unexpectedly and in spite of themselves reaching to the other’s defence in moments of crises, a furtive friendship blossoms between Dina Lal and Javid. Javid’s European wife, Irene, still struggling with her World War II memories, finds a companion in Amir Shah with whom she can talk easily. She learns to enjoy the atmosphere in the house.
A decade later, inexplicably the lines of the Five Queen’s Road are redrawn and the new border is no less arbitrary and contentious than the one that sundered the sub-continent. While the house is steadily encroached upon by a car shop settlement and a sweepers’ colony, the occupants’ long-sanding feud reaches new heights. However, the family sees an unexpected alliance develop and loyalties to person and nation are scrutinised.
In this moving and multi-layered novel, the complex relationship between the characters reflects that of two nations of the subcontinent. The final scene shows demolition of Five Queeen’s Road as it has been declared unsafe and the city is determined to act on the judgement. As “Dina Lal’s roof caved in with a boom,” Amir Shah’s son absolves the skeleton of a house, window and door frames torn apart from it. It strikes him that the house, “forever bolted and so long partitioned, was neither any more. Without regard for borders and boundaries, it was torn wide open, naked for all who cared to see.” What is more Five Queen’s Road “was being devoured. Piece by pierce, the angrez’s house vanished.”
This is a novel in which a family saga is intricately interwoven into the national history.
(Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)