Roundabout: The Lost Homestead – from Sargodha to Sussex

Marina Wheeler’s personal journey to come to terms with her mother’s lost childhood in Sargodha is now a book exploring the concepts of nationhood and migration to feel a sense of belonging
Marina Wheeler in Sargodha.(Photos: Sourced from the book, The Homestead.)
Marina Wheeler in Sargodha.(Photos: Sourced from the book, The Homestead.)
Published on Dec 19, 2020 10:24 PM IST
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Hindustan Times, Chandigarh | ByNirupama Dutt

Sargodha born Dip (pronounced Deep) Singh grew up in Delhi and then settled in the UK with her BBC correspondent husband Charles Wheeler. Though she travelled far and wide, yet the memories of a Pakistan town lost to her with Partition remained etched in her mind forever.

Talking to her grandchildren of what seemed to them an imagined town recalled the cold winter evenings of her childhood: “On winter evenings, we would sit around the fireplace in our parents’ bedroom, munching at dried fruits and roasted nuts. Papaji sat too. He enjoyed being by the fire but felt compelled to point out its perils by recounting a story about dacoits. A gang of dacoits robbed a house nearby but delayed their escape to sit by the fire. Its soothing warmth lulled them to sleep and so they were caught”.

The little ones who had heard this story many times nodded their heads each time Dip recounted it and listened with due respect. And their mother and Dip’s daughter would get lost in deeper thought about the calm and order of her mother’s childhood and adolescence and a simple but happy life she led till the age of 15, never handling money or going to a shop or cinema hall.

This and much more prompted Marina Wheeler, a lawyer and former wife of journalist politician and now UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to put it all down in a book.

Not a writer by profession, the memories of her mother’s serene world destroyed forever by the 1947 Partition pushed her to make a journey in recent times to bring back the story of the two Punjabs in India and Pakistan for her mother.

The Lost Homestead. (Credit: The author)
The Lost Homestead. (Credit: The author)

Wheeler’s journeys are encased in a travelogue with a difference: The Lost Homestead, published by Hodder and Stoughton, UK, and brought to us by Hachette India. Essentially a personal journey to Wheeler’s ‘motherland’ it becomes a much larger story of the violence, Partition, displacement and rebuilding of the wounded subcontinent which saw millions of homesteads lost for all times.

What was it that led Wheeler to journey back and forward in time tracing her Anglo-Indian roots? The seeds were sown when she went to see the screening of Gurinder Chadha’s film The Viceroy’s House in 2017 with her youngest child Theo, studying A-Level history. That was the year when the Seventieth anniversary of Indian Independence and Partition, which came hand in hand, was being commemorated. In fact an editor who knew that Wheeler’s mother had borne Partition and migration personally asked her to review the film.

Looking back at what troubled her even as she praised the film and its impact on ordinary families was the question: Why Partition? Wheeler says: “The answer (the film claimed) was that, unbeknown to Lord Mountbatten, the outgoing Viceroy, Britain had a secret plan to partition the country, to secure oil supplies and advance its own geopolitical interests in the brewing cold war with Soviet Russia. Really? This did not tally with what Dip had told me and anything I had read.”

Thus, this question led to a publisher asking her to do a book and one thing led to another and when she put pen to paper it was not just to check Chadha’s facts which did interest her though. The author says: “As I travelled across the plains of the Punjab and into the Himalayan foothills, and as I mulled over the trajectory of my mother’s own life, I discovered I was indeed on a journey. It was a journey about memory and identity, what we have, what we lose and what we rebuild.”

During her travels and writings Wheeler remained in touch with her mother who chose to guide her daughter whenever she could and also suggested that the title of the book could be From Sargodha to Sussex.

The book then became a gift from a daughter to her mother who never forgot her homestead. It is a matter of surprise when Dip told her that she never read a book from India, not even Vikram Seth, because that would make her homesick. This was after a lifetime in Sussex, where she chose to live alone after her husband’s death, yet home remained Sargodha.

Then, in the course of three years, Dip’s health deteriorated and she was buried by her children under the weeping beech. But not after she saw the pictures of her town of Sargodha lost somewhere in the pages of history.

The book, which touches themes that resonate even in these times like political change, religious extremism, migration, minorities, nationhood, identity and belonging, has been hailed in reviews in India and abroad. It has been called a personal sometimes harrowing history of Partition, and a relatable journey for many in the diaspora abroad. Closer home, author Shashi Tharoor, gives it a fine review without using difficult words: “ Marina Wheeler delves deep into the history of her family that is linked inextricably with the history of a nation. This book is more than a family memoir – it is an insightful glimpse into the way small worlds are forever changed by the impersonal currents of history”.

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