‘They didn’t dwell on it – they felt so many had suffered more’: Mishal Husain on her family history and the partition of India

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If you person ever listened to Mishal Husain connected BBC Radio 4’s Today and wondered astatine her preternatural early greeting calm – a serenity, I would say, that is calved of utmost preparedness arsenic good arsenic of her basal characteristic – past each I tin show you is that extracurricular nan workplace she’s nary different. Our gathering takes spot nan greeting aft nan nighttime before, erstwhile Rishi Sunak truthful rudely informed nan federation location was to beryllium a July election, and almost until nan infinitesimal she opens her beforehand door, I’m half expecting her to cancel: only a fewer hours ago, aft all, she was quizzing a damp Chris Mason successful Downing Street, nan announcement having coincided pinch her regular displacement arsenic a presenter of nan BBC’s News astatine Ten. But if I’m nan past personification she feels for illustration talking to, you’d ne'er know. Here she is successful her bare feet, each smiles, welcoming maine for illustration a friend. She has moreover baked biscuits for nan occasion: small, delightfully short biscuits that sensation lightly of cumin.

Made to a accepted Pakistani recipe, they are a hospitable motion to Broken Threads, nan book she has written astir her family and nan partition of India, nan awesome tapestry of which she someway stitched together moreover arsenic she did her occupation astatine nan BBC. On this relationship alone, it feels somewhat miraculous. The 3am starts for Today. The unrelenting unit of nan news cycle. How connected world did she do it?

But nan greater triumph is that she has managed to make specified a analyzable communicative truthful accessible. The vexed history Broken Threads traces goes backmost to 1837, and past guardant again to nan 1980s, on nan measurement taking successful not only nan melodramatic events of 1947, erstwhile India achieved independency from nan British and Pakistan was calved amid precocious hostility and sectarian violence, but besides of nan 2nd world war, when, arsenic she puts it, “the empire was perfectly shaken to its core, nan Japanese moving done a immense swathe of eastbound Asia, correct up to nan Indian border” (her relationship of what happened successful Burma is gripping).

Mishal Husain’s book Broken Threads.
Mishal Husain’s book Broken Threads.

Huge humanities figures look successful its pages, astir notably Muhammed Ali Jinnah, 1 of nan founders of Pakistan and its first governor-general, and Louis Mountbatten, King George VI’s 2nd relative and nan past viceroy of India. But alongside them are 4 of those whose lives will beryllium changed for ever by nan drafting up of nan caller map, successful nan shape of Husain’s grandparents: Mary and Mumtaz, and Tahira and Shahid. Their stories are singular and surprising, but successful nan discourse of her book, they’re besides everyman figures. Their acquisition successful 1947 was not unique. What happened to them, happened to truthful many.

It took her 3 years to write, but she’d been reasoning astir it for acold longer, galvanised by nan decease of her begetter successful 2016.

“For a while, I thought it would only beryllium astir my grandmothers,” she says. “I was conscious that, done them, I could show nan communicative of women’s lives successful nan 20th century, and really that played retired successful southbound Asia. But arsenic is often nan way, their husbands near down acold much that was written down – and I knew I’d person to usage it.”

In nan end, though, it was thing her maternal grandmother, Tahira, had erstwhile written that stuck successful her mind. “She said: ‘My procreation were not complete for a agelong clip aft independence.’ I began to spot that this was a generational story. This displacement from empire to federation authorities is 1 of nan ascendant themes and realities of nan 20th century. But I besides recovered myself reasoning of Northern Ireland, and of cross-community consent. How do you find forms of governance wherever communities consciousness that their authorities are not going to beryllium trampled; that they’re recognised, and heard, and their connection protected?”

As personification whose “daily breadstuff and butter” is British politics, Husain was fascinated by nan decision-making progressive successful partition, “though I’m ever conscious I’m looking astatine it pinch nan use of hindsight, and done a 21st-century lens. It’s easy to ask: why weren’t they reasoning successful position of unity? But they were a merchandise of their times.”

As ever, it is salutary to realise what an “immense amount” of powerfulness rested successful nan hands of a very fewer (male) individuals. Jinnah and Mountbatten had a notoriously bad relationship: “Jinnah was not a man Mountbatten thought of highly, and he was representing millions – possibly tens of millions – of Indian Muslims.” If nan instauration of Pakistan felt to a grade arbitrary to nan group of India – it often did to maine arsenic I publication Broken Threads – we mightiness property that consciousness to these two, and to nan Labour premier minister, Clement Attlee, who backmost successful Britain was engaged egging connected nan eager but out-of-his-depth viceroy.

Mishal Husain stands down her seated mother extracurricular nan blue-domed mausoleum
Mishal Husain pinch her mother, Shama, extracurricular Amir Kulal Mausoleum successful Bukhara, Uzbekistan, March 2024. Photograph: Yam G-Jun/The Guardian

I was chastened to observe really small I knew astir partition. But Husain – kindly, possibly – tells maine specified haziness isn’t constricted only to ignoramuses for illustration me. Her grandparents, who near India for Pakistan arsenic soon arsenic nan authorities was founded, didn’t talk astir it overmuch themselves. Their connections helped them to recreation location from India safely, avoiding nan bloodshed that followed independency connected 15 August, erstwhile millions of group recovered themselves connected nan incorrect broadside of nan caller separator (up to 1 cardinal refugees were killed connected some sides of nan belief disagreement arsenic Muslims travelled to Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs made their measurement to India).

Mary and Mumtaz, her paternal grandparents, and their 4 mini children were booked connected a train from Delhi to Lahore nan time aft independency – a way that would return them done nan Punjab, wherever immoderate of nan worst unit was happening. But astatine nan past infinitesimal a British RAF serviceman offered them a spot connected a flight, and they changed their minds. What a decision. When nan train arrived successful Lahore, each past personification connected it had been murdered. Meanwhile, connected her mother’s side, Shahid was already successful Rawalpindi. However, Tahira and their children only sewage retired of Shimla, wherever they were summering, acknowledgment to Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, nan commander-in-chief of nan Indian service (Shahid was his backstage caput and nan 2 men were adjacent friends). On Auchinleck’s orders, a Hindu serviceman brought them down safely from nan hills – they were advised to usage family nicknames successful conversation, a intends of disguising their Muslim personality – aft which they were flown to Pakistan connected his backstage plane.

In different words, they were fortunate – and it was this, Husain believes, that made them reticent. “I deliberation it reduced their capacity to dwell connected it because they felt that truthful galore different group had suffered overmuch more. I besides deliberation that successful Pakistan, to harken backmost to really things were successful India was not a bully look. A benignant of communicative developed: of nan existent Pakistanis, who were calved connected its land, and of those who, for illustration my grandparents, had travel from elsewhere. You mightiness look unpatriotic [if you expressed regrets].”

But successful nan end, she puzzled little complete nan “how” of her grandparents’ business than nan “why”. In immoderate ways, nan determination to time off India was unfathomable: they put down them everything that they knew and loved; nan continuing enmity and suspicion betwixt nan 2 nations meant that Shahid, for instance, was capable to spell backmost only erstwhile – he wanted to sojourn his father’s sedate – and only past because he’d go friends pinch an Indian precocious commissioner successful Islamabad who helped him get a visa: “In Shahid’s diary, there’s an introduction that made maine wonderment if nan determination was made astatine nan past minute: Auchinleck wanted to put him guardant for nan Indian service [Shahid was a Sandhurst-trained officer], truthful he could person stayed. What I would opportunity now is that I don’t deliberation they thought it was a large determination astatine nan time. They wouldn’t person imagined really relations [between nan 2 countries] would deteriorate; they mightiness moreover person imagined a early federation. Shahid’s location city, Lucknow, was truthful important to him… and yet he made only that 1 sojourn successful nan 1970s.”


Her grandparents’ lives are fascinating: Shahid’s subject profession intends that he meets Jinnah and Mountbatten; his narration pinch Auchinleck, a superb wide and an unexpectedly modern fig (he was not racist arsenic others were) is improbable and very interesting. Meanwhile, connected nan different side, there’s Mumtaz, a young expert from Multan who falls successful emotion pinch a caregiver called Mary, whose inheritance is Anglo-Indian (she is from confederate India, but her begetter was an Irishman), and erstwhile they marry, he does not inquire her to springiness up her faith, frankincense risking rejection by his family. Her sister, Husain’s aunt Anne, is still live and kicking astatine nan property of 99, and surviving not successful India aliases moreover Pakistan, but successful Oldham, Greater Manchester (there are, I should say, an remarkably precocious number of nuns successful nan book, which isn’t what I was expecting, and a adjuvant reminder that personality is ne'er straightforward).

Husain’s father, Imtiaz, a urologist, and her mother, Shama, a TV shaper turned teacher, met erstwhile their parents (her grandparents) recovered themselves surviving adjacent doorway to each different successful Rawalpindi. By nan clip Husain was calved – successful Northampton successful 1973 – they had moved to Britain, though her puerility was itinerant: nan family went to unrecorded successful nan UAE erstwhile she was a toddler, and past successful Saudi Arabia, astatine which constituent she was sent to boarding schoolhouse successful Kent. But nan family’s relationship pinch Pakistan remained strong: Husain thinks they visited much often than they would person done had they been surviving successful Britain. She spent nan summertime holidays successful Rawalpindi, and erstwhile I inquire really her grandparents seemed to her arsenic a girl, she talks of their faith, ever lightly worn (“no proselytising”), their integrity and fastidiousness, their anti-materialism.

“I’m struck by this each clip I spell to Pakistan. My consciousness of aforesaid erstwhile I’m location is not arsenic individualistic. Someone will say: ‘So-and-so’s comparative has died, we must spell and visit.’ That’s really I was brought up, pinch this very existent consciousness you should beryllium location for different people. It’s embedded successful me.” (Right connected cue, she now mildly reminds maine to effort her baking.)

After Cambridge, wherever she studied law, her first occupation successful publicity was astatine Bloomberg. She joined nan BBC news transmission successful 1998 arsenic a inferior producer. “I deliberation my determination to beryllium a journalist was decidedly influenced by nan truth that my parents were portion of a diaspora,” she says. “Diaspora communities thin to beryllium large news consumers. I grew up pinch nan World Service, and CNN.” She was ever listening successful to her parents’ talk: of nan famine successful Cambodia (“that was why I had to eat my food”), of nan assassination of Anwar Sadat successful Egypt, and Indira Gandhi successful India. “This hush [would fall] erstwhile they first heard nan news astir something.” Was TV publicity sexist erstwhile she began? She shakes her head. “I didn’t really acquisition nan dinosaur era. I joined astatine a clip erstwhile location was a overmuch bigger effort astatine representation.” Such practice is vital, she thinks, “in position of nan stories you cover, and nan lens done which you look astatine them”.

She joined Today successful 2013 – a large woody each round. “It took maine astir 3 years to consciousness settled,” she says. “It’s specified an exacting spot to be, though it’s besides incredibly rewarding. It has taught maine that nan jobs which request a batch of you, astatine slightest successful my experience, are besides nan ones wherever you get a batch back. There is an strength astir it, and a consciousness of responsibility. People are listening. The guidance an question and reply takes tin really power a story.”

Is it addictive?

“I don’t cognize astir that, but it’s difficult to locomotion distant from for that reason. You get to talk to unthinkable people.”

Mishal Husain and 4 young men opinionated successful nan courtyard of a expansive tiled and domed building
Husain pinch friends successful Samarkand during a erstwhile sojourn to Uzbekistan successful 1992. Photograph: Sarah Rainsford

Is it harder than it utilized to beryllium to get politicians to reply questions? Perhaps. “And attraction spans person besides sewage shorter.” She is exacting pinch herself, often coming disconnected aerial and wondering what she mightiness person done differently. What astir chemistry? When she started, John Humphrys was still around; now nan squad is getting younger. Amol Rajan arrived first, and now she and Nick Robinson and Justin Webb person besides been joined by Emma Barnett, precocious of Woman’s Hour. Who does she astir for illustration to coming with? She laughs. Am I deliberately trying to make her life much difficult? “It’s very collegiate,” she insists. “I’ve learned truthful much, because you spot really different group usage their time. You know, I’ll spot really accelerated they constitute their cues, and I’m, like: ‘Oh my God, I’m truthful slow successful comparison.’”

Often, she doesn’t cognize who her interviewees will beryllium until 4am connected nan time itself. I shudder astatine this – nan deathly hr – but by now, she’s blase erstwhile it comes to siren clocks. “You do person to beryllium disciplined,” she says. “I’m successful furniture astatine 8 to get up astatine three. But it’s a privilege to activity astatine that clip successful nan morning. Who do I see? Mostly, I spot information guards, Uber drivers, transportation men and cleaners. I’m going to activity to do a occupation of specified privilege, and I don’t ever return it for granted.”

Her sons are much aliases little grownup now (one is astatine university, nan different 2 – twins – person A-levels coming up). “I’m connected nan brink of moving into a shape successful life wherever possibly I’ll beryllium capable to person immoderate weekends distant pinch my husband,” she says, sounding almost amazed astatine nan thought. But yes, location was a batch of wrangling erstwhile they were small.

The hubby successful mobility is Meekal, who useful for an finance firm. “I don’t really for illustration reducing it to: I’ve sewage a supportive husband, because that’s not each it is. I deliberation I’ve been fortunate. Obviously, you take nan personification you are going to marry, but you don’t really cognize past what life is going to propulsion out; what it’s going to beryllium for illustration to person children pinch someone, aliases erstwhile your parents are ill, aliases frankly erstwhile you’re conscionable faced pinch nan regular grind. I deliberation we’ve squabbled complete things for illustration housework complete nan years, and those issues tin extremity up being very big. But he is nan personification I stock my activity dilemmas with… there’s nary measurement I could person had my profession without emotion that it was a existent partnership, immoderate days 1 of america level retired and nan different picking up nan slack.” She pauses. When they marked their 20th wedding day past year, she put a image of nan time connected Instagram. “I was hesitant astir it, but past I thought: I’ve truthful overmuch to beryllium grateful for. People successful my wider web person had very different experiences, and I conscionable want to recognise that I person been blessed. That’s really I spot nan world.”

  • Broken Threads: My Family from Empire to Independence is published by Fourth Estate (£18.99). To support nan Guardian and Observer bid your transcript astatine guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges whitethorn apply

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