I "discovered" this author (a radiologist by profession) earlier this year, after meeting him at a writer's conference and reading his excellent second volume of poetry, "Heaven and Earth." So I was looking forward to his first novel, though with a little trepidation - not every writer can make a seamless transition between genres or styles. But Amit Majmudar succeeds here with one of the most affecting novels I have read in quite some time.
The setting is the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947, after India won its independence from the British Empire. As part of this act, the land was partitioned into two nations, India and Pakistan, the former designated for Hindus or Sikhs, and the latter for Muslims. Over twelve million people were displaced and migrated to new homes. The mass two-way exodus resulted in a flare-up of religious and cultural animosity, and up to a million died as a result of massacres and border conflicts.
Like "The Lovely Bones", this story is told from the point of view of a ghost, Hindu doctor Roshan Jaitly, who left behind his young wife Sonia, and young twin sons, Shankar and Kashev. He can only observe, mostly helplessly, as his family is caught up in the maelstrom of the partition, and mother is separated from children in the mob at a train station. Meanwhile, he also follows the travails of Dr. Masud, a kindly Muslim physician, and Simran, a Sikh girl who has escaped from her father's murder of his family to prevent the perceived horror of capture by the "Musselmaans". It's certain that these characters will eventually meet, but that does not lessen the power of the story's development, which is told earnestly and (as I might expect from a fellow poet) poetically. Majmudar paints the details of this dangerous time with an unflinching eye, yet stopping just short of gratuitous or graphic violence. Though as a reader I was initially uncomfortable with the omnipresent-narrator-as-character conceit of the story, I became accustomed to it, and the strength of the narrative and depth of the characters carried me through to a satisfying and (dare I say it again) poetic end. As an emotionally moving story set against such a cultural backdrop, I would compare this novel favorably to "The Kite Runner". The fact that I wished the book was longer is, almost in itself, enough to call it a triumphant first novel. Bravo, Dr. Majmudar.