On 3rd May we held our first ‘full room’ live event since March 2020, welcoming Marina Wheeler, renowned QC and author of a new memoir, The Lost Homestead: My Mother, Partition, and the Punjab.
The book, Marina explained, is a combination of family story and memoir based on an ‘evolving historical memory’. Two parallel stories about freedom shape the narrative: the personal ‘quest for autonomy’ of Marina’s mother (daughter of a prominent Sikh family of West Punjab) and India’s struggle for independence. The book was inspired by her mother’s recollections of these times and her lyrical descriptions of the ‘lost homestead’ in which she grew up – ‘almost a palace’, in the city of Sargodha in West Punjab, present-day Pakistan.
The Lost Homestead also offers an evocative portrait of Marina’s grandfather, Papaji, and his family’s life in pre-Partition India – an India in which the ‘old order was crumbling fast.’ Papaji, a doctor, and a prominent public health advocate was a widely respected figure in the city of Sargodha, and when Partition came, the family relocated to Delhi. Marina’s mother, Dip, was ‘married off’ aged 17, in an arranged match which didn’t last. ‘Wives in her milieu didn’t generally walk out, ‘Marina pointed out, ‘but she wanted something different from life.’ Supporting herself for some years, Dip left India on her marriage to Marina’s father, Charles Wheeler, and never travelled back. For Marina, ‘trying to understand my mother, and why she felt as she did about India’, was the prime motive for writing the book.
In respect of Partition, however, the personal and the political are inseparable, and our Q&A audience, both in person and on Zoom, were keen to know Marina’s thoughts on this complex and difficult period in India’s history. ‘It isn’t quite as simple as I’d been brought up to think,’ she concluded. Her Sikh family in West Punjab were in a terrible position: ‘They didn’t have a majority in any of the provinces that were going to be divided. Yet there was no lasting sense of bitterness. There was sadness, yes, but the family was focused on rebuilding, and recreating.’