Stand-out debut novel about the heartbreak of partition in India

Review: Beryl Eichenberger

Under the Tamarind Tree, by Nigar Alam (Bedford Square)

Nigar Alam’s debut novel Under the Tamarind Tree is a rich, graceful narrative spanning more than 50 years, highlighting the tragedies of partition, patriarchy and personal loss. I did not know much about the partition of India and how it came about so this was an entrée into a new culture – one that I enjoyed immensely.

It is 1947 and nine-year-old Rozeena is fleeing with her family to Pakistan. The creation of this country from British India was, for the Muslim community, their chance to have a homeland and a say in government.

The transition was not peaceful, the religious tensions fuelled by the ruling British, and the announcement of the Radcliffe Line, drawn by a man who had never set foot in India, was considered “cruelly negligent”.

When the line was announced on August 17, 1947, “people woke up to  discover a new international border cut through their villages, neighbourhoods and even houses. Violence erupted”. Rozeena’s family were running for their lives and as they ran, her brother Faysal was caught in the chaos and never seen again.

In 2019 an unexpected phone call from the US comes for the now 81-year-old Rozeena in Karachi. It takes her back to1964, her friends, and the night that changed their lives.

It is 54 years since she has spoken to Haaris. Hearing his voice stirs emotions she has suppressed but the connection is still there, and when he explains that he lost his grandson recently and his granddaughter Zara wants to come to Karachi,  he suggests Zara be her temporary maali – gardener.  If “Rozee” watches over her, having also lost a brother, he knows Zara will be in safe hands.

But for Rozee …”She has always taken care of people. It’s who she is, even before she was a trained doctor, and even now, years after her retirement. But the risk is too high.”

Alam draws the outline of the story in the prologue, dropping subtle clues that slowly, gently unwind into this rich and beautifully constructed novel. She misses nothing and we are intrigued by the revealing of this history of four friends. She takes us from 2019 back to 1964 as she unfolds a story that connects culture, family, friendship, tragedy and expectations that must be met.

As children Rozeena, Haaris, Aalya and Zohair found themselves on the same short street, Prince Road. Established over seven generations, Haaris’ family had wealth and an established hierarchy, while the others were refugees who had landed there after partition 17 years before. But they forged a close-knit friendship in a fairly carefree childhood with class not an issue.

Now, as young adults on the brink of their lives, Haaris is about to return from England, Rozeena is a doctor specialising in paediatrics, Zohair has visionary ideas and Aalya, the beauty, is the “little sister” protected by Rozee. Their plans are still teetering, but are soon to be changed irrevocably.

Alam shows us that, in that time, tradition still rises above all else. Patriarchy reigns supreme, arranged marriages are still the norm, using connections can secure the job – with the accompanying expectations curtailing any other activity, and doing the right thing by your family can mean not following your heart or your talents.

Rozee, whose late father was liberal, has followed her dream, but when circumstances erupt, it will see her sacrificing everything that is dear to her to protect her family and the man she loves.

It is a well-constructed narrative, holding the reader close as the hints from the prologue grow into the well-tended plants of Zohair’s beautiful garden. The importance of gardening – the caste of gardener in the past and Zara’s gardening in the present – I saw as symbolic of change.

The tamarind tree of the title is where the children hid, where secrets were revealed and where desires were played out – we all know of a tree that has been the best hiding place and keeper of secrets – and so it is here. Alam has written a memorable story that reaches into history, giving us a window on the high cost of personal secrets.

An author to watch.


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