Marina Wheeler’s first book is a tender portrait of her mother, a woman overshadowed by her famous husband, the BBC correspondent Charles Wheeler – one of the most distinguished of broadcasters. Marina felt it was time for her mother, Dip, to have her days in the sun and to be publicly remembered. A graceful, multi-talented woman, Dip was one of the many whose family lost all they had at Partition. The title, The Lost Homestead, refers to Dip’s childhood home in the united Punjab, her very own paradise lost.
Dip belonged to a generation that underplayed emotion and kept personal pain to themselves. Interviewing her in the last years of her life, Marina broached many subjects with her mother for the first time, and to understand better what she was told, she embarked on her own discovery of India, its history, its politics, her family’s Sikh faith, and the very different ways people today perceive the past.
It has to said that she appears to have inherited her mother’s reticence. Marina was married to Boris Johnson, currently the British prime minister, for 25 years. Her marriage collapsed as she was researching this book, a fact she dismisses in just one sentence. She then goes one to add briefly that this ‘turbulence’ in her life made her mother’s loss unexpectedly immediate to her, and fuelled a determination to carve out another sort of life.
Certainly, with this book Marina has done what is for her something new and challenging. After Dip married Charles Wheeler in 1962 and left India with him for Berlin, she never once returned to India, thereby denying her daughter a chance to get to know the country. Marina was brought up British and her successful legal career – she is a QC specialising amongst other things in human rights – is based in Britain. So at the start of this project, Marina’s knowledge of India was limited to snippets of information, about ten words of Hindi and – alarmingly – she considered films like Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House a possible source of Indian history.
But once turned to India, Marina made use of all her considerable intellect, wisdom, compassion and her mother’s large, warm, extended Punjabi family – a family that never lost touch with Dip, Charles and their children. By marriage this extended family includes that of Sir Sobha Singh, the contractor who built much of New Delhi. Marina’s relatives, many of whom appear in the book, recommended people she should meet, and people she should read. She read widely and quotes from authors and historians such as Ramachandra Guha, Patrick French, James Crabtree, Sheela Reddy, Urvashi Butalia, Ayesha Jalal, Yasmin Khan and Ian Talbot. She grappled with archives and travelled extensively, including several trips to India (one for a big fat family wedding) and to Pakistan. All this was necessary as she pursued her aim to put her mother’s life in the context of her times and her heritage.
The most famous literary figure in her family is of course the late Khushwant Singh. She attended the literary festival with a very Punjabi flavour held in his memory in Kasauli each year (except 2020) and turned to his works to learn about Sikh history. Sadly, though, she was too late to sit beside Khushwant himself in his Sujan Singh Park flat. He would surely have been a mine of information, not just about her mother’s life but even about the lost homestead in Sargodha. He may well have mentioned Punjabi Century by the author Prakash Tandon. Twenty years older than Dip, he too spent his youth in Sargodha, and his description of the town has been the best known in English literature.
Sargodha was founded at the turn of the 20th century as headquarters of the Jhelum Canal Colony. Too often we forget that the canal colonies of Punjab were colossal enterprises of social and economic engineering. The vast tracts of agricultural land surrounding the administrative and market centre of Sargodha were, as in other colonies, divided geometrically into chaks farmed by settlers. The town too, bounded by a new railway line on one side, and a new canal on the other, was set out on a neat grid pattern. To the north of the railway station was the city and to the south was the large rectangle of the civil station. Here, besides the bungalows of officials, were also the residences of big zamindars. One of these residences was Dip’s lost homestead. Tandon remembered the city’s hygienic orderliness, impersonal but with wide streets full of air and light, moulding the population into the pattern the British settlement officers intended.
Dip’s father, Papaji, fitted very well into this mould. A doctor dedicated to public service, in Sargodha he became a big landowner, a businessman and headed the well-run municipality. The British awarded him sanads for raising recruits for the Great War, attending to the sick during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and the OBE for serving as a medic in the 1919 campaign in Afghanistan.
Dip remembers the homestead as little short of a palace, a huge courtyard house ribboned with external verandahs in the British style. Camels came laden with crops, orchards were heavy with fruit, gardens were scented with jasmine and, with her family’s emphasis on education, she enjoyed the privilege of attending Sargodha’s girls’ school.
The family had prestige and prosperity, and Marina follows it through changing times – the years of Unionist rule, the rise of nationalist politics and of the Muslim League, and ultimately of Partition, loss and rebuilding lives. Summarising a history so complex is a very tricky thing to do and this is where she faces her greatest challenges.
There are, for example, some strange omissions. She does not mention that in 1918 it was the troops returning from Europe – some of them perhaps the very ones her grandfather had recruited – who brought with them the deadly flu that he was given a sanad for treating. Dip, in Delhi after independence, tells Marina that she marched for Hindu-Muslim unity towards the end of Mahatma Gandhi’s final fast. But Marina does not mention that a prime purpose of this fast was to put an end the communal killings in Delhi. Instead she treats it merely as a fast to pressurise the government into releasing promised funds to Pakistan. This despite the fact that the Mahatma broke the fast not when funds were released, but when leaders from all parties and communities had committed themselves to peace.
Marina takes responsibility for any historical errors in the text, but given the scale of her book, the people checking her manuscript have not been particularly thorough. There are simple matters of general knowledge which should have been corrected. The naval mutiny in 1946 was in the Royal Indian Navy, not the Royal Navy. Moharram is nothing to do with the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, but the martyrdom of his grandson Husain. The shorthand characterisation of the Uprising of 1857 as a Hindu-Muslim conflict is totally misleading. Also bougainvilleas can be bushes or climbers, but not trees; shisham leaves are small and rounded, not long; white ants and not white beetles eat up our possessions; and jackals are not vegetarian and therefore do not feast on maize and sugarcane.
All such errors could easily have been avoided.
But, after marking them in the margins with exclamation marks, it’s impossible to stop reading this book. There is much of the larger happenings in India, and of modern India, that Marina recounts that do illuminate her mother and her family’s personal stories. Her style is lucid and engaging. Nowhere arrogant, she is inquiring and finds outstanding guides in her journey of discovery.
Throughout, her mother’s courage, dignity and integrity shine forth. When her arranged marriage fails, she quietly walks out of her in-law’s house to start afresh. She lives independently, supporting herself, smoking and socialising with whom she pleases, and goes on to enjoy a second and very happy marriage while raising a family, furthering her education and working for causes she believed in. And yet she always considered herself twice displaced.
Marina does for her mother what she could never do herself. She returns to Pakistan – to Lahore, the capital of the short-lived Sikh kingdom of Ranjit Singh, and then to Sargodha to look for the lost homestead and for what really happened there in 1947. This search is the most demanding of all, as it seems at first as if what she is looking for has been erased from all record and human memory.
Thankfully she did not delay this project, as if she had, Dip would not have been there to help or listen to what she found. As it is, with this book Marina has not only successfully carved out another path in life, she has paid a moving tribute to her mother, and put forever on record the story of another remarkable Punjabi family – a story that will enrich all who read it.
Gillian Wright is a translator and writer based in New Delhi.