BackStory: Five Questions with Susmita Bhattacharya
Author of The Partitioning of Dreams
What inspired you to write ‘The Partitioning of Dreams’?
Growing up in India, we always celebrated Independence Day on the 15th of August with such a sense of victory, achievement, joy that we didn’t always make the connection of Partition with the Independence. Moving away from home gave me the perspective to look at the whole picture, and this distance allowed me to explore the consequences of this partitioning of India.
India observed 70 years of Independence from British rule in 2017. There were a lot of programmes, documentaries, interviews with people who had experienced the mass migration, and whose lives had been changed forever by the partition of India. While the independence is celebrated there is also a lot to reflect upon – the violence, loss of life, identity and dignity and the role of the British in manipulating this historical event.
Who are your favourite historical fiction writers and why?
I enjoyed reading Jean Plaidy and Pearl S. Buck, and was totally immersed in Plaidy’s fiction about the English Royalty. I also loved reading Gulbadan: Portrait of a Rose Princess at the Mughal Court by Rumer Godden, as this was a history I knew well and I could relate with the story, the landscape and the history. William Dalrymple’s historical fiction are a treat to read as well. One of my favourites is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusions, a retelling of the Mahabharata from the point of view of Draupadi. I also loved Christina Dalcher’s Flash: Tilda Always Did Love Her Flowers in Flashback Fiction.
How much research did you do while writing and editing this piece? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I listened to interviews of the people who had directly experienced the partition, and also read accounts of the survivors. What surprised me was that this being the biggest mass migration of people across land, and the historical impact it has even today – it is not spoken about or even taught in the curriculum in both the UK and India. I read The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India edited by Urvashi Butalia, which I feel is a must read on this subject.
If you could live for one year in any historical period, when and where would it be, and why?
I would love to be a fly on the wall during the time that the murals were painted on the walls of the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad, India. Between the 2nd century BC and 6th century AD. These caves have paintings depicting the past lives and rebirths of the Buddha. They are exquisite ‘dry’ frescos painted on a dry plaster surface, and to experience walking into the caves and discovering these stunning murals is an experience of a lifetime. I’ve been lucky to have visited these caves twice, and every time I have wondered how did these artists climb up the steep gorge and paint in the darkness of the caves? That’s what I would like to see.
What do you like most about writing flash?
I like the challenge of telling a story in a limited word count. Flash fiction has a different feel. A different balance to create. The form has really come into its own now, with so many publications supporting it – it’s a pleasure to read flash fiction, and also the flash writing community is incredibly supportive of each other, and I love that too!