There is a growing interest – scholarly and otherwise – in oral histories of Partition that foreground voices and narratives of common and unsung people, what made you write a book revolving around two larger-than-life men – MK Gandhi and MA Jinnah?

In Partitions (2011), I wrote a novel that dealt with everyday people caught up in the horror of Partition and communal violence. In The Map and the Scissors (2021), to keep things new for myself creatively and enter untrodden (for me) territory, I pursued portraits of these two already-famous figures. I did not want to rewrite Partitions.

Ben Kingsley, Naseeruddin Shah, and Rajit Kapur have played Gandhi in films while Christopher Lee, Alyque Padamsee and Denzil Smith have played Jinnah. To what extent has your imagination of “Bapu” and “Quaid-e-Azam” been shaped by cinema?

Not very much, I would say. I saw Gandhi as a boy, but I generally do not watch movies about these subjects, preferring to read original sources, non-fiction books, and consult newsreels and photographs.

344pp, ₹499; HarperCollins
344pp, ₹499; HarperCollins

The blurb calls your book “a novel about the epic origin story of modern South Asia, brought to life by two London-educated lawyers, mirror-image rivals who dreamt the same dream of freedom – in catastrophically incompatible ways”. Why not Ambedkar?

Certainly, great novels and non-fiction books will be written about Ambedkar in the years to come—and he had his disagreements with both Jinnah and Gandhi. This novel about “scissoring the map” required me to focus on a different rivalry — Jinnah versus Gandhi — because British India was divided in 1947 along religious lines, not caste lines.

Why does the Partition of 1947 continue to be a preoccupation in your writing? Has your view of it evolved because of your reading or critical feedback on your writing?

My view of Partition has evolved a lot since 2011, and I go into how it does in the author’s note at the end of The Map and the Scissors. I would like to quote from pages 327-8 of the book: “My opinions on the Partition have changed since I began this book six years ago, and they continue to change. Overall, though, I do not think a phenomenon this complex deserves a value judgement, ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ That is the main difference between the debut novelist of Partitions and the novel you’re holding right now. For that author, Partition was purely negative, tearful and bloody. The author in his present iteration would need more information before he might judge the Partition as positive or negative, in that specific situation. What part of the subcontinent? What religious identity? Rich or poor? Are you asking about the short term, medium term, long term? And the final agnosticism: Relative to what, exactly? That same group or person’s life, had Gandhi’s vision won out and Partition never taken place? Or if the British never left at all? Because those are experiments we cannot run. We have no way to compare the possible with the actual. What is — is.”  

After winning the Tata Literature Live! Book of the Year Award (Fiction) for The Map and the Scissors, you tweeted that it “was a risky, potentially controversial book”. Tell us about the risks and controversies you were anticipating. How did you mitigate these?

I feel that the personalities I portrayed in the novel are still very much “alive” in people’s hearts and minds, and that they remain polarizing figures. Both are central to certain narratives of national identity on either side of the border. In the modern information environment, which favours zealots and social-media partisanship, I was concerned that passages might be taken out of context, or the book misrepresented to people who had not read it.

I mitigated these risks on the creative end by striving to be even-handed and honouring duelling perspectives equally. And indeed, numerous reviewers have noted how non-partisan the novel is. The publisher mitigated these risks at their end, too, sending the book to a legal team that went through the book, page by page, and required me to provide sources in every chapter. It was vetted in the manner of a non-fiction book, even though it is a novel.

Refugees crowd atop a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan in 1947. (HT Photo)
Refugees crowd atop a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan in 1947. (HT Photo)

You also tweeted Krishna’s take on “worldly accolades” from the Bhagavad Gita, a text you have translated and published with your commentary. Does the description “alike when praised or censured, silent/ Content with anything at all” apply to you or not?

I wish it did. But I am not quite the steady mystic that the Gita praises. Though I’m certainly more even-keeled, when it comes to both positive and negative reactions to me or my work, than I was 10 years ago. So I’m working on it….

Previous recipients of this award include Irwin Allan Sealy, Annie Zaidi, Raj Kamal Jha, Anuradha Roy, Easterine Kire, Aravind Adiga, Karthika Nair and Damon Galgut. What does it feel like to be in such company? Whose work do you tend to follow?

Certainly, that is illustrious company! I am very honoured to join it, and very grateful to the Tata Literature Live! Festival and the jurors for the award. When it comes to my own reading, I tend to read a lot of poetry, history, and ancient literature. To give you an idea, I just finished an Irish fairy tale and a canto of Dante’s Paradiso, and am moving on to a non-fiction book about the Conquistadors and Rameau’s Nephew by the 18th century French writer Diderot. So, I am all over the place, but usually all over the past.

Could you recall your thought process while writing the women characters in this book? Did you feel the need to re-examine or challenge how they have been depicted earlier?

I tried to inhabit the mindset of the era as much as possible — that is, I tried not to transplant modern ideas anachronistically into the characters. In some cases, such as Ruttie Jinnah and Fatima Jinnah, there haven’t been that many portrayals of them in fiction, at least that I know of, so I wasn’t pushing back against, or trying to correct, any specific prior portrayal.

How does your skill set as a nuclear radiologist show up in your writing? Have you been asked by patients to autograph books or asked for medical advice at a literary festival?

A radiologist is involved, on every case, in observation and concise verbal description — which is a barebones summary of the art of fiction writing, too. Mostly, my two lives are separate. My radiology colleagues are aware I do a lot of writing, but radiologists in general are not the type to read fiction and poetry, in my experience. As a radiologist, I’m focused on reading CT scans and plain films and nuclear medicine studies; I’m probably not the best person to ask for medical advice on things like managing diabetes or hypertension — ours is a hyper-specialised branch; we focus on analysing images of diseases, not their treatment.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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