The Tattoo on my Breast: Partition stories never pale

Book: The Tattoo on my Breast

Author: Ravi Rai

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Pages: 472;

Price: Rs 599

Those of us born on the cusp of Independence grew up familiar with a rather strange phenomenon. This was being brought face to face with a whole lot of very young people who acted far older than their ages and were a real puzzlement to us.

It took us awhile to realise that, as victims of Partititon, these children and adolescents had absorbed a whole body of malign experience that we would, in all probability, never experience

ourselves.

Today, not many are living to recall first-hand that long trek to new lives. Sindhis, as a community have evolved into one of the most successful, sophisticated, cosmopolitan and visible and integrated among the Indian diaspora. They know what it is like to become both homeless and stateless and the older generation has passed on this determination never to be in the same position ever again.

There is still a second-hand nostalgia, however, and if for nothing else but a hugely successful recreation of what life must have been for the seven lakh people of Sindh Province in undivided India, read this book. It is big, it is sprawling, it is vivid and it brings back the trauma of Partition vividly. Yet it is not just a book about Partition.

Overall, this is a story and a rippingly good one. Spanning seven years, from Quit India in 1942, it begins in the almost idyllic Sukkur, a sort of village town in the northern part of the province. In a palatial marble mansion, three generations of a family of a wealthy Sindhi merchant wait for the return of the son of the patriarch from Jail where he has been for seven years.

It ends in the refugee camps in Ulhasnagar in 1947, where most of the family has managed to reach, not without suffering dreadful loss and deprivation.

In between there is the story of two communities, Hindu and Muslim, who lived literally cheek by jowl with one another for hundreds of years, sharing lives and plans and weddings, joys, sorrows and fears, in a richly embroidered crazy quilt of relationships that seem almost unbelievable in these sadly divided times.

Mainly, it is the story of Gobind, the jailbird, whose return home reveals that few of the fault lines that caused his actions in the first place have been truly mended but merely papered over. Along with Sadhana, his rebellious daughter, who falls in love with her poor Muslim neighbour Rehman, his is the best delineated character, and the pivot for the plot. But this is not to say that the other characters are paper cutouts. That is what makes it a good read .

If there is one thing that A Tattoo on my Breast suffers from, it is verbiage and a sometimes disconcerting turn to language and phraseology, leading to stilted and turgid expressions that jar. Sadhana has “dimples that ornated her smile”. Another character whom we meet fleetingly in the prologue, is a foreign implant who is told by a fortune teller in England that she will meet her soulmate “on the east of the English country, in the coastal regions of India”. Ordinarily, this would be enough to put me off completely, but somehow, the discerning reader is drawn back in again. It’s fine to skip swathes of conversation (another weakness), the story is the thing. That and a little more editing. As a tribute to Sindh which will never return again, it’s worth it.