Author Marina Wheeler reflects on being at ease with multiple identities

Author Marina Wheeler reflects on being at ease with multiple identities

Reena Ranger, Chair of Women Empowered, is In Conversation with Marina Wheeler as part of her regular series for ‘iGlobal’ to explore some inspirational facets from the life and achievements of prominent Global Indians.

Marina Wheeler is a UK-based constitutional and human rights lawyer who turned author with her new book ‘The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab’. The former wife of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson covers the complex subject of India’s partition in August 1947 at the end of nearly 200 years of British colonial rule as a very personal memoir of her Sikh mother’s journey from the village of Sargodha, in modern-day Pakistan, to India and then to the UK.

Here are some excerpts from a lively exchange, as Reena takes her “In Conversation” interactions onto Facebook Live.

Your mother, we get to know through you, is a brave and wise women, and a lifelong learner in so many senses of the words. When reading your drafts, it feels like she was re-learning about herself through your words and observations. Did she enjoy the experience?

I'm mulling over this word 'enjoy'. She was certainly enriched by the experience. I mention in the book she dealt with trauma by suppressing it. That was definitely the way she found herself being able to cope. There were two really difficult episodes of her life; the partition and an unhappy first marriage. Both of those were things she didn't want to talk about. She was willing to talk to me about parts of the partition as she saw that it was an important topic, but she made it clear how far she could comfortably go. I took the view that I wasn't going to press that, and I hope that I was respectful enough and let her decide how much she was willing to share.

While some parts were uncomfortable, the positive side was that there are some things she felt a yearning for; when she describes Delhi in the late 50s after she left her unhappy marriage and worked with the Canadian embassy as Social Secretary. That was the time she thrived. There was a euphoria of being a new independent country. It was outward-looking. She met interesting people from all around the globe, including my father who was then posted there as a BBC correspondent. She spoke about that with great yearning and nostalgia.

Then, I think, what was really interesting is that, through our conversation, her remembering some of her achievements, which she had probably almost forgotten because as an older person she had become preoccupied with everyday life and physical ailments etc. Talking about partition in hindsight made her reflect on things in a new light, almost as if some parts weren't so bad after all. She recalled her studying for her degree in Russian and her degree in Psychology. She remembered working at Amnesty International for years.

I feel that it was a very enriching thing for her to be able to reflect at what turned out to be the last period of her life.

You went looking for your ancestral home, the ‘Lost Homestead’. In the end, it almost feels like you found something else, yourself; do you know how to answer the question ‘where are you from’ with a little more ease now?

I think I can. That may have something to do with age and confidence as well. One thing I've understood through this journey is that people will always want a simple answer. There isn't always a simple answer and I feel more confident about not having to grasp that stock answer and just say "I'm from all over". I've had a while to think about being comfortable with multiple identities.

What has surprised or maybe even shocked you about how the book has been received?

I was wary of starting this book as it is a very sensitive subject. Partition was such a calamity on the occasion of Indian independence. While Britain framed it as a peaceful transfer of power, which it was in many ways compared to other countries which move from colonialism to democracy, it also was the occasion of absolute carnage with 10,000 being displaced. We now have two successor states, India and Pakistan, who view this event, as nations, very differently.

One does not talk about ‘the partition’ in Pakistan, certainly not in official circles. It is considered the creation of a Muslim homeland. Here, too, of course, Empire is not much discussed. It is avoided on the curriculum because it is such a difficult subject.

What surprised me was how I have been met by people really interested in the subject matter. I've not so far been met by outrage or anger, but I suppose that’s because showing that is more difficult over Zoom. It's been well-received. I wrote the book predominantly for a British readership because I thought that this history was so well-understood in India. It really surprised me that it's not. Many of my Indian relatives, who are educated people of different generations, have said that there's so much that they've learnt.

What I think has happened in each country is that we have a lot of emotion about these events, but the facts have been lost. I'm pleasantly surprised about the appetite that there is to understand what happened, and I think that's valuable.

Reena Ranger is the Chair and Co-Founder of Women Empowered. In this exclusive “In Conversation” series for ‘iGlobal’, the dynamic entrepreneur-philanthropist will be catching up with high-achieving Global Indians across different fields to spotlight some insightful life lessons. (The views expressed in the answers are of the interviewees.)

*Catch the interview in action, here

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