This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir in Halves. Strange Light
In India, August 15 is a day of celebration. By commemorating the nation’s acquisition of “life and freedom” after two centuries of British colonization, this national holiday exudes a spirit of achievement attained through the tireless resilience of the nation. Yet, what lies masked beneath the euphoric images of public celebration is the pain, the loss of life, and the continued suffering of thousands of individuals whose lives were forever altered on the same day by the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. Referred to as one of the worst peace-time upheavals in world history, the 1947 Partition continues to live within the collective memory of the three nations affected by it (Menon 2). As Antoinette Burton poignantly remarks, “Partition will never be over. It is destined to return again and again not just as memory, but as history, politics and aesthetics as well” (xvi).
The continued representation of the Partition through literature, film, and other fictional works plays a huge role in memorializing this tragedy. In their unique ways, these works are instrumental in holding space for the deceased whilst helping survivors to live in relation to their past (Simon et al. 4). While most celebrated works of fiction represent this tragedy by displaying a longing for an erstwhile united nation, it is reasonable to wonder whether this feeling of nostalgia accurately captures the emotions and everyday realities of Partition survivors.
By piecing together scientific theories and autobiographical anecdotes, Madhur Anand’s award-winning memoir This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart paints a vivid image of how this tragedy subliminally influences the everyday realities of her parents and herself. The memoir reveals how the trauma caused by the Partition should not be relegated to a specific historical time, but instead should be assessed in terms of its ongoingness.
One of the book’s major strengths is its deliberate usage of disruptions—the most apparent of which is how it organizes its contents. Anand separates the book into two inverted sections, marked as Y and X. This separation compels readers to reverse the book as they move from one section to another. Like the X and Y axes of a graph sheet, these two sections complement each other, thereby providing us with a comprehensive narrative on pain, loss, and resilience. We are conditioned to place X before Y, but Anand disrupts the reading process by compelling us to read the section marked Y first. Also titled “The First Partition,” this section contains fourteen separate stories told with the alternating voices of the author’s two parents. These individual anecdotes reveal how Anand’s parents individually coped with Partition as young children, before adapting to different conditions of everyday life, as first-generation immigrants, in Canada. We learn more about the authors parents as we move on to the section marked X, also titled “The Second Partition,” which is narrated in the voice of the author, who describes her experiences of growing up and living in Canada.
The effectiveness of Anand’s memoir lies in the fact that it enables women’s voices to be heard within the larger historic context of Partition. Scholars like Ritu Menon and Urvashi Butalia have remarked upon how the voices of women have largely been kept outside history (Menon 3). Interspersing her own understanding of the Indian Partition with her mother’s constant connection with this tragedy, Anand’s work re-frames this difficult history by capturing it from a feminist perspective. However, by not centring her narrative solely on the Partition, her work demonstrates how memories of the Partition ebb and flow through the everyday lives of its survivors. This is revealed through anecdotes wherein we see her mother confusing parturition for partition (74) or when her mother looks at the single tea set given to her and realizes that it is impossible to separate its contents: “No partition possible” (72). Moreover, in the chapter “April Dreams from April Notepads,” the author briefly mentions the 2019 bombing of Pakistan by India and quickly follows this with a description of her mother’s first cancer diagnosis. This brief description demonstrates how the seismic ruptures caused by Partition continue to impact the political relations of the two countries, while also showing that these ruptures play a role in the recollection of familial history.
The work’s strength also lies in its clear demonstration of the sense of placelessness that exists within the psyche of many women. In many ways, Anand’s memoir testifies to Ritu Menon’s remark that women “have no country and so they make no claims on it, not even the normal fundamental claims of citizenship” (7). By showing how female figures, like her mother, are subjected to abuse in both India and Canada, Anand’s work demonstrates how patriarchal violence can cut across borders and citizenship. For example, in the chapter “The Game Is the Same,” the mother describes how she gave birth to her third child: “My father-in-law has died. No warning. My husband takes me to the hospital that night and asks the doctors to induce labour. He wants the baby to be born before he goes to deal with the death of this father” (105).
What also makes this account notable is how it differs from the father’s account, which completely omits the information on inducing his wife’s labour, focusing solely on his father’s death. This deliberate omission highlights how women’s bodies are expected to perform according to patriarchal mandates. This issue also appears in the chapter “A Correlated Transition Not Unlike the Direct Unfolding (or Five Aunties).” Narrated from the author’s perspective, this chapter describes the experiences of five South Asian women in Canada, who despite their class privilege and financial independence, are subdued by patriarchal violence in one way or another. The power of patriarchal hegemony is especially evident in the last sentence of the chapter:
Though I had been calling her by her first name now for months, suddenly all of Aunty’s many talents and skills—even her scientific discovery that while unfolding is initiated by partial polymer collapse, the reversible re-unfolding of compact non-native structures proceeds as a correlated transition not unlike the direct unfolding— paled, by the laws of culture, in the face of her husband, who remained seated in his black leather armchair in the living room reading the newspaper, hardly uttering a word, but silencing us with his presence. (17)
While much Partition literature written by male authors also reveals the violence meted out to women’s bodies, Anand’s memoir makes us aware of the ongoingness of this violence. She demonstrates how this violence is not exclusive to a particular historical moment but instead continues at the level of everyday experience, so naturalized that we often fail to recognize it.
It is difficult to delve into every aspect of this well-crafted book. The ease with which Anand introduces scientific theories into her narrative prose demonstrates her skills as both a researcher and a writer. One can only feel enriched after reading this book, as it makes us realize that there is more than one way to access and interpret the histories that shape us.
Anand, Madhur. This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir in Halves. Strange Light, 2020.
Burton, Antoinette. Foreword. The Indian Partition in Literature and Films: History, Politics, and Aesthetics, edited by Rini Bhattacharya and Debali Mookerjea-Leonard, Routledge, 2015, pp. vi-viii.
Menon, Ritu. “No Woman’s Land.” No Woman’s Land: Women from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh Write on the Partition of India. Edited by Menon, Women Unlimited, 2004, pp.1-11.
Simon, Roger I., Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert. “Between Hope and Despair: The Pedagogical Encounter of Historical Remembrance.” Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Remembrance of Historical Trauma, edited by Simon, Rosenberg, and Eppert, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, pp. 1-8.
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