Author Nisid Hajari traces violence that accompanied the partition of Pakistan and India to its roots, notably the conflict between political leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Hajari reads July 1 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
‘Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition’
by Nisid Hajari
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 336 pp., $28
It has often been said that this is the golden age of nonfiction books. As if to prove the validity of that statement, Nisid Hajari, Asia editor for Bloomberg View, has offered us “Midnight’s Furies,” a compelling read, both dramatic and suspenseful, in the category of political nonfiction. It deals with the 1947 partition of British India.
Called a “divider of hearts” and even India’s “holocaust,” the event carved up the British colony along religious lines into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.
Although an orderly transfer of population had been expected, the violence that ensued resulted in the deaths of millions on both sides. And the forced migration of millions more caused the largest mass displacement in human history. The tragic event has cast an ominous shadow over South Asia ever since.
The author of “Midnight’s Furies” will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 1, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. Free (206-624-6600; elliottbaybook.com).
“The story features no easy villains — and few heroes,” Hajari says.
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Unlike most partition narratives, which deal with human tragedies and try to pinpoint the parties that should be blamed, Hajari poses a different question: How did the process create such animosity between peoples with such a rich, shared history?
For the answer Hajari delves into the deep-seated political and ideological rivalry that existed between the pre-eminent leaders of the Hindu and Muslim factions: Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress (INC), and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who headed the Muslim League.
“Whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking” Jinnah was “the most polarizing figure in the partition drama.” Early on, as one of the few Muslim delegates to the Indian National Congress, Jinnah was fearful of being overshadowed by Nehru, who had a similar background in law and was younger than Jinnah by two decades.
Jinnah also realized that in a democratic India, the Muslim minority would inevitably be ruled by the Hindus. Eventually, at the encouragement of the British, Jinnah formed the rival Muslim League to advocate for partition.
Cambridge-educated Nehru, suave, sensitive, handsome, who would “burst into tirades at the slightest provocation, particularly at any reminder of Britain’s overlordship,” was, on the other hand, a proponent of a united India. His attitude toward Jinnah was one of condescending dismissal and he eschewed any working relationship with the Muslim League.
“Yet they were only men,” Hajari says, “and, ultimately, it would be their all-too-human failings that helped to set their nations at odds.”
This well-articulated, heavily researched, and insightful book will help readers understand the issues surrounding the subcontinental schism and why the two nations have since been in a state of perpetual hostility, one that has erupted into full-scale war on several occasions.
With the sensibilities of a novelist, Hajari artfully draws portraits of the various historical personalities involved, making the book thoroughly engaging. A word of warning: There are many scenes in which horrific brutality is graphically described.
In the Epilogue, Hajari brings us to the present day. He discusses the rise of the Pakistani Taliban, a religious extremist group that opposes the Pakistani military and wishes to establish a theocracy. He also examines the difficulty India faces in having a thus weakened state as a neighbor.
In conclusion, he poses a stark question: Given the bloody past, contested borders, and nuclear capabilities of each nation, will it ever be possible to lay “1947’s furies to rest?”