'The Sweetness of Water' and 'Moth' book reviews: A war has no victors

Two recent debut novels are powerful family dramas about war. Though set in two diverse parts 
of the world, both have one overarching message—that war, ultimately, has no winners.

Published: 17th October 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th October 2021 12:18 AM   |  A+A-

Partition of India

After the Independence was announced, a mass migrants exodus was witnessed. (File Photo | EPS)

Express News Service

Longlisted for this year's Booker Prize and an Oprah's Book Club Pick for Summer 2021, Nathan Harris' The Sweetness of Water is set during America’s Civil War. It is a poignant story about two hardworking newly freed Black brothers, Landry and Prentiss, who begin working on George Walker's farm.

Walker and his wife, Isabelle, who believe that their son, Caleb, was killed in the war, begin to form a bond of trust with the brothers. Subsequently, the couple begins to face a lot of opposition and hostility from the townsfolk - residents from the nearby town of Old Ox.

Through various incidents, the book brings out instances of the stark racial discrimination that was rampant during this era. When Landry is brutally murdered, the perpetrator denies all allegations.

"And perhaps that was the great ill of the world, that those prone to evil were left untouched by guilt to a degree so vast that they might sleep through a storm, while better men, conscience-stained men, lay awake as though that very storm persisted unyieldingly in the furthest reaches of their soul," he says.

Prentiss is sent to a county jail, from where Caleb rescues him, and together the two flee to an unnamed Northern city. "The present thunders on while the past is a wound untended, unstitched, felt but never healed."

Closer home - old Delhi - is the setting for Melody Razak's recent book Moth, a touching story about a family living through India's Independence and the horrors of its resulting Partition. Tanisi and her husband are liberal Brahmin intellectuals - professors at a local university.

They have two young daughters - the 14-year-old soon-to-be-married Alma and her beloved younger sister Roop. It is early 1947, and India is on the threshold of its much-awaited freedom from the British rule. 

Simultaneously, however, visible divisions are also forming in society every passing day. Jobs are being advertised according to religion rather than skill. The atmosphere of tension is palpable, as minorities are being blatantly targeted and attacked.

Hindu-Muslim animosity is at its peak, and stories of terror, torture, rape, abductions and riots abound on both sides. In vengeful acts of violence, cows and pigs are being routinely slaughtered. Tanisi, who privately tutors Urdu poetry to two Muslim boys, is suspended from the university.

Moreover, the position of Muslim teachers at a predominantly Hindu faculty is on the edge, and it is unsafe to even keep Muslim servants. Though at the brink of independence, India is far from free of its many social evils - sati, child marriage, caste system and untouchability are prevalent, and widows are not allowed to remarry or have children.

Young unmarried girls are most vulnerable, and being used as easy targets on either side. Even during such a volatile time, purity and family name is all that matters, and women's lives seem to have little value.

Ninety-three Sikh women in the district of Rawalpindi die in a well - in the name of honour and morality - when their homes are raided by a Muslim mob from the surrounding Pathan areas. In retaliation, a group of hijab-wearing women are stripped naked and paraded through the streets of Amritsar; thereafter, they are gang-raped and their bodies set on fire.

When Alma's wedding is called off, it is decided that she will visit her aunt in Bombay along with a chaperone via a first-class train ticket the day after Independence Day. When she doesn't reach Bombay, it is found that her train was gutted, and all the people on it are either missing or killed.

The streets are full of dead bodies and beggars, and refugee camps sprout everywhere. "India was many complexities of tribe and dialect and ritual woven together, an inextricable fabric of pulsating life. How could anyone put borders on that?"

Rated as the Observer's 'Ten Debut Novelists' of 2021, the book spans about the course of a tumultuous year - from just before Independence to the year after - and the drastic changes that occur in the lives of ordinary citizens as the country’s political unrest takes new turns every day.

As part of the book's research, Razak pored through several history books, partition fiction, newspapers and compendiums of Indian folktales and myths. Most of all, this heartbreaking tale about resilience examines war through the innocent perspective of a child.

India Matters


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