The partition of India in 1947 did much more than just divide the country. It uprooted families, revealed a truly demonic side of humanity, and created a new section of Indian population, referred to as the “refugees”. Many of us weren’t born at the time of partition (and this includes the author who was born just one year after the event), but those whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents migrated from the other side have heard the heart-wrenching, fear-inducing stories of distrust, fear, torture, and poverty rampant during that time. And this is where the story central to this book stems from.
The story starts in 1947 from the Village Basal, now in Pakistan, where the family of Mr. Karam Chand lives. A kind and generous man, Mr Karam Chand convinces his son Dr Dayal Chand to stay back in the village and provide free medical advice and treatment to the poor. Their family is respected far and wide and because of the fact that they have helped people of all religions and faith over the years, when the threat of partition looms, their employee Mohamad Ali, sacrifices his life to help them commence their journey towards the parts of the country that were most likely to be included in India. And from here starts the story of loss and, eventually, of survival.
The first part of the story is told largely from the point of view of Dr. Dayal Chand. His eldest son Sunder takes on after the doctor falls seriously ill, and after him the baton is passed on to Narender, Sunder’s younger brother, who carries it till the end. One common thread that weaves through the narrative, from the beginning almost till the end, is Karma Wali, Dr Dayal Chand’s wife. We discover that after the partition, much after the bloodbath is over, tough times are just beginning for the “refugees”. Even as Delhi, and other cities, grudgingly make space for them, they are treated with distrust and disdain. They struggle to find work, to rent a house, and basic necessities like simple food and clothes are difficult to come by. Large families live in a one-room accomodation, without amneties like a kitchen and a toilet. It is only through stubborn perseverance and resilience that these families are able to survive years of poverty and deprivation. But some scars never heal and often members of the same family turn against one another in their race to stay afloat, while at the same time selfless friendships survive misunderstandings and tussles.
While Cart Full of Husk is essentially the story of one family, experiences of other uprooted families are woven into the narrative. What I greatly admire about the story is that it doesn’t deliberately try to maintain a balanced facade to appear secular, neither does it dwell overly on the religious aspect of the event. And simply by not trying too hard, the author is able to keep the focus on how partition impacted humanity as a whole. The story telling is simple and linear and the author doesn’t try anything extraordinary with it, which isn’t necessarily a negative, as this makes it possible for the complicated story that spans across seven decades, to shine through.
The book does need some tight editing though and some parts of it, especially the descriptive pieces about the various monuments of Mehrauli, distract from the narrative and could have been removed altogether. I found myself skipping through these to find out what happens next in the story. That said, this is a thick book and can appear overwhelming, but once I picked it up and started reading, it was very difficult to put it down. Along with the author’s lively storytelling, perhaps it was also the fact that my own family has undergone a very similar experience that I was able to relate to the struggles of the family central to the book.
My biggest complaint with the book is against its cover, which is very unimaginative and text-booky. With partition as the theme and a title as evocative as “Cart Full of Husk” the possibilities were endless, and yet the book ended up with a cover that may cause it to be overlooked when potential readers are rummaging through bookshelves in a store.
But do I recommend this book to others? Yes. The book is a stark reminder of what a considerable number of North Indians had to go through to make a place for themselves in Independent India.