N.H. Senzai, an Indian-Pakistani American writer, was inspired by her husband’s family history to write two children’s novels, Shooting Kabul and Kabul Corner. The acclaimed writer now gives us Ticket to India, a novel sparked by her own family’s story.
When India was partitioned, Senzai’s maternal grandparents chose to immigrate to Pakistan, while her widowed paternal grandmother decided to remain in her Indian estate. The story of the Great Partition is linked to the protagonist’s tale in Ticket to India.
Readers, in particular, her namesakes, will relish the meanings of her name that the protagonist provides: “princess” in old Arabic, “eternal spring” in Hebrew, and “love” in Nepali. Additionally, it is one of goddess Durga’s names, and the mothers of Buddha and the Greek god Hermes were also called Maya.
The novel unfolds a year after the Mumbai bombings, when Maya travels with her mother and her older sister Zara from San Francisco to India after the death of her maternal grandfather, Nanabba. Thirty thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, Maya begins working on her assignment—a journal about her Pakistani trip for her teacher. The journal functions as a literary device to convey information and also to provide a window into her mind.
Once in Pakistan, Maya overhears her grandmother, Naniamma, making plans to sneak away on a flight to India. She learns the startling truth that her grandmother was actually born in India. Her grandparents had been trying for forty years to go to India. They’d had a hard time obtaining a visa because Nanabba had been a military pilot. Maya and her sister confront Naniamma about her scheme and agree to keep quiet about it if they are allowed to accompany her to India.
During the Great Partition, a seven-year-old Naniamma and her parents had fled their hometown of Aminpur. Her father had been a well-respected doctor there and her family had lived there for generations. Before they left, Naniamma’s mother had buried a chest containing objects of sentimental value, like rings for the future husbands of her daughters. It had been Naniamma’s ardent wish to give the ring to Nanabba when he’d been alive. Now, as a widow, she wanted to recover it so he could be buried with it. It was the reason she’d secretly planned to return to Aminpur.
During the clandestine trip, the familial past and colonial history are evoked through Naniamma’s reminisces of architectural landmarks and the characters Maya encounters.
The granddaughters learn that their grandmother and her family got on a train full of passengers from Delhi. Unfortunately, there were only three survivors when the train pulled into Lahore. None of Naniamma’s relatives made it alive and her memory about what had happened was erased.
Readers will learn much from her simple, yet profound, comparisons that show a country can be divided into two, but the two parts can still resemble each other in myriad ways. “…Maya stared out the window, looking for something, anything, that proclaimed that they were now in a foreign land—India. But the reverse was true.
A sense of familiarity settled over her as their taxi overtook a rickshaw, then sped past an elegant European sedan and a donkey cart. The faces that swam past her on the expressway ranged from pale cream to mahogany, and the people wearing familiar shalwar kameezes or jeans or suits could have easily been back in Karachi.”
In one severe setback, Naniamma, as a consequence of having forgotten her blood pressure medication, gets a mild stroke and is hospitalized. Zara is still motivated to make her grandmother’s dream come true. She and Maya sneak off to find the treasure chest. They rely on Naniamma’s hand-drawn map, but so much goes wrong. They take a taxi to the train station, where a thief snatches Maya’s backpack and she becomes separated from her sister. A series of mishaps leads to her being kidnapped. (This section has a Dickensian touch.) The kidnappers run a business racket of forced child labor: deformed children who beg for money and other children to sort plastic that can be sold. Fortunately, Maya and the pickpocket who snatched her satchel escape together and overcome many obstacles to locate the treasure. Her adventures are enriched with a cast of characters, shady and good, but none as memorable as Sir Arthur Cecil Labant, whom she meets in the cemetery where his wife, after a marriage that lasted barely a year, was buried in 1946.
Senzai shows us that religion may have caused the Great Partition but that friendship can transcend faith, as Naniamma’s best friend was a Hindu girl whose family was entrusted with the care of their house.
Senzai’s present day Muslim characters in India are portrayed as disgruntled. As she is concerned with providing the right balance, it would have been ideal to have at least one character happy to have remained in India to reflect the experience of proud and happy Indian Muslims. It would have taught children that people from different backgrounds can live together contentedly in modern times.
Still, Ticket to India is on the whole fair to the issues that resonate within its pages and Senzai succeeds admirably in her intent to teach children about the Great Partition and the cultural and historical heritage of Pakistan and Indian.
Countries can be reinvented or dissolved or partitioned or born. Similarly one’s identity can be fluid. Maya writes in her journal: “But these people, who I never knew existed, were my family too. And they were Indian, so I guess that makes me a quarter Indian. I feel like I’ve discovered a part of myself that was hidden.”
She is fascinated by the thought, “I’m part Indian, but before August 14, 1947, everyone was Indian.” Boundaries and borders exist on the map and in our hearts, but sometimes it is the link between nations that is unforgettable as Senzai so beautifully brings out.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.