In 2005, Jennifer Bradbury participated in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program and traveled to Chandigarh, India. She “fell in love with Punjabi culture and food.” This she had expected, but she had not anticipated a story until a friend drove her to Wagah for the border closing ceremony. In spite of tensions between the Indian and Pakistani governments and their citizens, the ceremonial lowering of the flags at the gates marking the boundaries of both countries was a splendid display. According to Bradbury, the soldiers performed a series of drills, and participants from both sides cheered, sang and danced, like rival fans rooting for their favorite sports team. Even in this joyful environment, images of what the author had heard of partition, relocation, death and devastation, stayed in her mind and the seeds for her novel were planted.
South Asian Americans celebrate Independence Day of Pakistan on August 14 and of India on August 15. However, not many young South Asians are aware of the events before the partition and the resulting carnage. Some Muslims had started to move from the Indian, Hindu-majority side to the proposed Islamic country, Pakistan. Hindus and Sikhs had also started their journey from the future Pakistan to the secular India. Most of migration happened after the borders were established by the British cartographer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe.
There is no exact account but between 10 to 14 million people died as riots broke out during the “largest population exchange in history.”
In her young adult historical novel, A Moment Comes, Bradbury has described this turbulent time. The story is set in 1947, when the British Raj carved Pakistan out of India, thus creating a new country. It unfolds from the perspective of Tariq, a young Muslim, Anupreet, a Sikh girl, and Margaret, a British cartographer’s teenage daughter.
Tariq takes a job as a translator for the cartographer, in hopes of fulfilling his goal of going to Oxford. He is soon attracted to Anupreet, who is hired by the British family as household help. Tariq realizes that he can’t get close to Anupreet in the face of the conflict. Although Muslims and Sikhs were friendly in the past and even married each other, now they are killing one another.
Margaret, a typical British teenager, hates being in India, dislikes its smell, heat and dirt, but likes wearing saris and playing the harmonium. She tries to get Tariq’s attention, which he gives at times, hoping Margaret’s father might help him get to Oxford. Against the backdrop of the impending partition, snobbish British executives, hatred between Muslims and Sikhs (and Hindus), the three teenagers help each other.
The characters grow as they struggle to survive. The biggest change is in Margaret. The self-centered girl gains new insights and takes risks to save others. “I sit on my father’s desk and place my fingers across the keys of the Corona … I play a new kind of song on this typewriter. A song I know I’ll never repeat, never even hear again, but I’m dead sure I’ll never forget.”
The reader, too, would echo these sentiments, as this powerful story lingers after the book ends.
This novel is Bradbury’s third book. Her first two novels, Shift, and Wrapped, were well received by librarians and educators. Shift was picked as an American Library Association’s “Best Book for Young Adults.” Her novel, A Moment Comes, is named by the South Asia National Outreach Consortium as the winner of the South Asian Book Award for 2014.
The author is a former school teacher and a Jeopardy champion. I asked her about her research of Indian history, the writing process, and the events that inspired her to write this historical novel.
According to the Author’s Note in your book, the images of the boundary closing ceremony in contrast to the present tensions between India and Pakistan, and the turbulent time during the partition, stayed with you and led to this story. What made you decide on Muslim and Sikh characters?
A great deal of it had to do with the fact that I was writing across cultures, and writing as a way to build my own understanding of the history, the stakes and the events. So writing from three points of view seemed like the best way to do that. There are always many sides to any story, and I wanted to give equal voice to all the sides with this story.
How were you able to vividly describe the city of Jalandhar, the refugee camps, and the emotions and reactions of Muslims, Sikhs, and British residents in 1947?
Thank you for saying I did! A lot of those scenes and descriptions drew heavily on my own impressions of India while we lived there in 2005. There’s a scene with Margaret shopping in the markets that was really fun and really easy to write because I was reliving my own first wide-eyed experiences. I also did a lot of reading about the period and the partition itself (some of the books I relied on are listed in the author’s note at the back of the book). One of the sources that led me a long way to digging into the emotions and reactions were Margaret Bourke-White’s photos from Life magazine. But above all, I’m writing first about people—male, female, young, old—and as such I try to tap into those feelings we all share about justice, loss, hope and friendship.
In A Moment Comes, you have described the emotional conflicts of a Muslim young man, a Sikh girl and a British teenager extremely well. How did you get voices of these characters?
The voices were really difficult to get right. I’d written two or three drafts of the book and had sold it to my publisher before we got down to the work of fine-tuning those voices. And it was less about getting them to represent their cultures and backgrounds at that point as it was about making them unique, compelling characters. So the real answer to your question is revision. Lots of it. And lots of prodding from my editor. I also was lucky enough to have some friends who still live in India vet some of the language and references for me, which was extremely helpful.
All three of your novels have young adult characters. Do you have a special understanding of the likes and dislikes of young adults because of your association with students?
I do think having worked as a teacher and having read so much young adult fiction put me on the path to writing. And I know from time spent with students how discerning they are. But I don’t think I have any special understanding of what they like and don’t like beyond what’s universal: everyone, of every age, loves a good story and loves it well told. I try to hold on to that and forget about the rest.
Do you decide on a plot first and then imagine your characters or do you weave the plot to suit your characters?
I actually always begin with setting. The story began with the time and place and my need to know more about both. Then the characters showed up, and then I figured out the plot. My first two books followed the same pattern. I began with setting, then moved to character and finally plot. I find that works well for me.
Is another book in the offing?
Yes! And the setting is a beauty! The book is set in a tuberculosis sanitarium inside Mammoth Cave in 1842. It’s my first book set in my home state of Kentucky, and Mammoth Cave has long been a place that’s fascinated me. I’m very excited about this book and look forward to sharing it with readers in 2015. I’ll also have a picture book out that year, and I’m working on some other projects as well, including another novel set in India.
The setting of Mammoth Cave has already captured my attention. We look forward to reading that as well as the picture book and your next novel set in India. Thank you, Jennifer.
Hemlata Vasavada is the author of a novel: The Cascade Winners. Her articles and humor pieces have appeared in magazines and newspapers.