Books

Madhur Anand uses science and poetry to write about her parents' experiences in India

The Canadian scientist and poet is the author of This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart.

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart won the Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart is a book by Madhur Anand. (Karen Whylie, Strange Light)

Madhur Anand is a poet and professor of ecology at the University of Guelph. She is also the author of the 2015 poetry collection A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.

Anand's parents lived through the Partition of India, when British India was divided into the separate regions of India and Pakistan in the late 1940s. Her parents' lives, including how they met and the emotional and physical challenges they faced when coming to Canada, are experiences Anand documents in the memoir This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart.

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart uses both poetry and science to explore how Anand grew up in Canada and how she was influenced by her family's traumas, values and lived experiences. The book weaves all these narratives together to tell a single story about truth, resilience, adaptation and love.

This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart won the 2020 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.

Anand spoke with CBC Books about how she wrote This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart.

Oral histories

"The idea for this book morphed from a desire to simply record the oral histories of stories that my parents have been telling me all their lives. I wanted to get down not just those stories I've heard over and over again, but I was also filling them in with the context of places and what those places were actually like.

I do remember the absurdity of one day of realizing that I didn't know where their original birth places were.

"I wanted to hear more details of their lives. I wanted to understand my parents better. I do remember the absurdity of one day of realizing that I didn't know where their original birth places were.

"I knew where they grew up because I've visited those places. But their original birth places are in what's now Pakistan. Their original birth places are in pre-Partition India. We have no links to those places anymore. I didn't even know where they were. But my parents remember them.

"The book started off with filling in those very empty canvases. Then one thing led to another, because I am a writer, I am a poet and I am also a scientist."

Interviewing my parents

"At first, I was simply interviewing my parents and taking notes. I thought I could do it that way. I soon realized that they were talking too quickly and there was too much information, so I had to record them. At a certain point, I wanted to capture not just the elements of the stories, I wanted to capture their voices as well.

"I captured the way they spoke — they both have Indian accents and my mother's is still very strong. Her speech contains little grammatical errors, which shape and add texture to the stories she tells. At some point in writing the book, I also moved from the third person to the first person. I became my parents in the book in a sense, because everything is written that way. 

At a certain point, I wanted to capture not just the elements of the stories, but I wanted to actually capture their voices.

"In the first part of the book, there are a few grammatical errors, there are different styles of language and there is the use of some Hindi and Punjabi words.

"They are there to give their voices texture and authenticity."

Science and poetry

"I do write with the goal of bringing science and poetry together. It wasn't completely systematic — it wasn't like scientific research in that way — but the challenge that any memoirist faces is that there are things I had to research for factual things. 

"I read history, scientific and sociology books. I also read a lot of fiction and poetry as research. I'm sure all writers do this to some extent. But for me, I was literally looking for my parents' worlds in other pieces of literature. 

"It made me discover writing that I had never even heard of, including writing from Indian writers who aren't very well known in North America. But they were incredibly eye-opening and world opening for me for this project."

A nurse is seen with two child victims of communal violence in Amritsar, Punjab, during the Partition of British India, March 1947. Fighting took place between the city's Muslim population (around 50 percent), anxious for Amritsar to be incorporated into Pakistan, and the other, Sikh and Hindu half of the inhabitants, who supported incorporation with India. (Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Hearts and minds

"My parents didn't talk about Partition at all growing up. They didn't even tell me where their birthplaces were in pre-Partition Pakistan. My mother talks about it in generalities — she talks about her vivid memories of her house, for example. She mentions the fruit trees that were in the garden and stuff like that.

"But she never talked about the day her father came home and told them that they were all going to go on a summer holiday — and they should just pack lightly and just go. But they were leaving because of Partition. 

"A lot of Indian parents don't talk about it, because it was traumatic, and they wanted to start a new life. This is the immigrant experience — leaving something painful behind. They weren't refugees when they came to Canada — they were coming to Canada for more educational purposes — but they didn't think their experience with Partition needed to be told. But I think that sort of silencing eventually comes out.

A lot of Indian parents don't talk about it, because it was traumatic, and they wanted to start a new life.

"So now, when I learn about it, I better understand where they're coming from — and even consequently where I'm coming from. So there is this intergenerational relationship. It's so interesting because the word 'partition' refers to the partitioning of Indians in general, but it also partitioned people's minds and hearts. 

"Those are the aspects that I then try to follow up with in my book, from both poetic and scientific perspectives."

Madhur Anand's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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