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‘My vantage point gave me a good balance of distance and affinity’

British barrister Marina Wheeler on documenting her mother’s life in The Lost Homestead, writing about India’s independence and the Partition, and nature of memories

Written by Surbhi Gupta | New Delhi |
January 19, 2021 2:15:34 pm
She specialises in public and human rights law and also teaches mediation and conflict resolution. (Photo credit: Chelin Miller)

In June 1947, as British India descended into chaos, soon to be divided into the two nations, for months the violence and civil unrest escalated and created havoc. With millions of others, British barrister Marina Wheeler’s mother Dip Singh and her Sikh family were also forced to flee their home in Sargodha in Punjab (now in Pakistan) to Delhi, never to return.

Decades later, Wheeler goes back in time through her mother’s memories, accounts from her family in India and her own research in both India and Pakistan. She explores how the people of the new nations struggled to recover and rebuild their lives, and attempts to make sense of her own mother’s experience while weaving her family’s story into the broader, still highly contested, history of the region.

When Dip married Marina’s English father – Charles Wheeler, BBC’s longest-serving foreign correspondent – she left India for Berlin, then a divided city, followed by Washington DC where the fight for civil rights embraced the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi. The Lost Homestead (Rs 699, Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette India) touches on global themes of political change, religious extremism, migration, minorities, nationhood, identity and belonging.

Based in London, Marina was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2016. She specialises in public and human rights law and also teaches mediation and conflict resolution. She has co-authored The Civil Practitioner’s Guide to the Human Rights Act and writes regularly for the UK Human Rights blog as well as national newspapers, usually on legal subjects. This is her first non-legal book. Excerpts from an interview:

What made you go back to your mother’s story and write a book?

On the 70th anniversary of Indian independence and the Partition, there was great interest in these subjects in the UK. Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House (2017) rekindled my own curiosity, not least because it advances what seemed to me a questionable historical thesis. I knew that my mother, also a witness to these events, was not getting younger so after I reviewed Viceroy’s House and a publisher suggested a book, I grabbed the opportunity.

What do you think her life and story represent?

There were many facets to her life, of course. One facet I chose to represent was her discovering she had agency over her future: she bravely chose to leave an unhappy marriage (with Sir Sobha Singh’s youngest son Daljit), which had been arranged for her. She lived well and with integrity but asserting her independence came at a price, in that her relationship with her father never recovered. Her life was about loss and about re-building.

Do you think your position – as British with roots in the Indian subcontinent – gave you a unique vantage point to assess India’s pre-Independence politics?

In The Lost Homestead, I explore pre-Independence politics from one family’s perspective. In itself, that may not be unique but I think my vantage point gave me a good balance of distance and affinity, which meant I didn’t set out to advocate one historical position. I was comfortable investigating different versions of that history, in Britain, India and Pakistan. My ability to travel to Pakistan (not easy for Indian nationals) was certainly an advantage in telling the story.

This is her first non-legal book.

How did your interactions with your mother change the way you viewed her life?

After speaking to her over a period of about 18 months, I realised that India meant much more to her than I had ever appreciated. She always said she was “twice displaced”, but I hadn’t understood how painful leaving India had been – not at the moment of leaving, but later as time went by. I was also delighted by a documentary film I found — Revolution by Consent, in which she appeared, translating for the Canadian film crew. My father was an accomplished television journalist, but seeing the film, I realised she could have been too.

What do you understand about the nature of memories after your conversations with her?

As a lawyer, I understood how memory can be selective, malleable and unreliable. But speaking to her I saw first hand, how difficult memories had been buried and others which she found sustaining, were nurtured. For example, memories of leaving Sargodha (Pakistan) were hazy but walks with her
father, through their grapefruit orchards in the early morning dew, were distinctly recalled, if perhaps idealised.

Which is the memory that you hold the closest to your heart?

I was most touched by my mother’s growing realisation, as we discussed her life, that she had achieved rather a lot. “I suppose it wasn’t bad getting all those degrees” she mused, late on in our discussions. My mother missed my father terribly after he died and didn’t like getting old. Talking about her life allowed her to make sense of it, I feel and appreciate it.

How did the book change your relationship with India and the subcontinent?

I am much better informed, but there is still a great deal to learn, and I intend to keep doing so. The book has also stirred my interest in the diaspora from the Indian sub-continent living here in the UK. Important as it is to remember the injustice of colonial rule, it is also important to recognise how we are bound together by that shared history, for instance, fighting fascist dictatorship during WW2.

How difficult was it to document the family’s history decades later?

It was very difficult. My grandfather (Papa ji in the book) had instructed his family never to speak about Partition or what they had left behind in Sargodha. They didn’t, and so memories of this faded. I also had very little physical evidence as most possessions were left behind or became lost over the years after the family resettled. I had some memorabilia though, including a wonderful photograph of my grandfather with other local dignitaries at the opening of the first “Female Hospital” in Sargodha in 1938. I was able to find the hospital when I visited Sargodha and present them with the picture where it now hangs. That meant a great deal to me.

Having studied India’s past and genesis, do you see glimpses of it in the present?

I am more struck by the change than the continuity. My recent travels to India and my observation of the current political scene, lead me to worry that the liberal democracy founded in 1947, is being sorely tested. I always admired Nehru’s secular vision – it seemed a wise way to ensure social harmony in a country of such diversity – but that seems out of favour these days.

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