A half British, half Indian cross-national perspective with author Marina Wheeler

A half British, half Indian cross-national perspective with author Marina Wheeler

Marina Wheeler is a UK-based constitutional and human rights lawyer who has turned author with her new book ‘The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition and the Punjab’, which released this month.

The ex-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. Years of research and intimate conversations with her late mother, Dip Singh, resulted in a book that ended up as a healing experience for the 56-year-old lawyer-author whose father was the famous British journalist Charles Wheeler.

In this interview, she shares some glimpses into the writing process and setting off on a journey to re-discover her past.

How would you hope this book connects with global readers?

I'm hoping that they will find it interesting that I've got this sort of cross-national perspective as someone who is half British and half Indian.

Judging by what my cousins say, even the early historical part that might seem on the surface retracing a story that's often told and well understood, that isn't entirely the case. The younger generation, a lot of them, don't know the detail of the events leading up to India’s Independence and Partition.

I am very interested in that whole debate and I do feel that it is time for a more nuanced, balanced discussion about Empire, which people must embark upon without preconceptions.

The Empire for a period of time, although no one would advocate it now, was the standard form of government. It would help if everyone just took a step back and we could have a sensible discussion about it. It's very important to have that, particularly as the diaspora in this country from the Indian subcontinent is huge and from all over the Empire. That's something, as I see it, to celebrate. And, I think the Black Lives Matter movement is part of moving that forward.

Did you worry that reliving memories of Partition might prove too painful for your mother?

I was very aware when I started out that there was more than one sensitive topic. As I sketch in the book, Partition itself, losing her home and then talking about her unhappy first marriage. Both of these were things that she had really not talked about before.

But I was quite careful not to push too much. In a sense I let her dictate the pace. She was very good at drawing the line in a way. I think it was painful, but I think I was respectful of that.

Ultimately, I think she derived quite a lot of joy out of it too. As an older person she had sort of forgotten about this part of herself – vibrant and bright and intelligent. The whole Delhi years in the late 1950s and early 1960s when she met my father and she was on the diplomatic circuit. There was a kind of euphoria of India as a new country.

A lot of that she had forgotten. So that was definitely an enriching aspect.

Did you find that different generations deal with trauma very differently?

I'm very interested in that as a subject. It was quite interesting with my mother, because she studied psychology but when it became obvious that she would need to undergo analysis herself and talk about things she had chosen to keep at bay, she decided not to pursue that and changed tack and decided to join Amnesty International.

I talked to her about these mechanisms for coping – ‘was it a good thing for your father to say we will never talk about what we lost?’

Probably, we have gone too far in the opposite direction now. They did get on with their lives and rebuild but did this create trauma that was just suppressed? It's hard to know.

In the end, something in the middle. One of her great phrases was all things in moderation or happy medium.

Do you think we ever learn the right lessons from history?

We seem to just bluster on making the same sorts of mistakes. I found so much in this story of Partition and Independence that has relevance today and, in a sense, I hope people are interested in the story but also the current themes that keep cropping up.

I have no doubt that what was happening in the run up to Independence was a very, very difficult period. I look at it and I just think, there were so many people there trying to do their very best and it's just too easy to look with hindsight and think how simple it is.

What I want people to take away from this is to make more of an effort of understanding the different perspectives.

Did you find the writing process cathartic in some ways?

It was a healing experience. Doing the book and being able to reach back into my past and my family was very grounding.

Also, the whole experience of my trips was so fascinating and eye opening and enriching. A great boost and sense of optimism and interest; being able to understand the world better is a very enlivening experience.

It has given me a writing bug. I certainly would like to write another book at some stage but probably not for another couple of years.

Looking at my father's journalism, his kind of style and ability to take a complex subject and make it quite easy to digest, is something that I would like to try and develop.

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