• Our Book of the Month for June 2024 is Broken Threads by Mishal Husain

  • This gripping and compassionate memoir describes the tumultuous and painful history Partition through the experiences of the author's grandparents

The lives of acclaimed broadcaster Mishal Husain's four grandparents changed forever in 1947, when India was divided and the nation of Pakistan was born. Decades later, a fragment of an old sari from her maternal grandparents' 1940 wedding, sent to her as a gift, prompted her to explore her family's history in more detail. 

Using letters, diaries, unpublished memoirs, tapes, photographs, masses of archival research, and time with her grandmother's sister Anne, who at the age of 99 still has vivid memories to share, Husain weaves a tender tapestry of a time marked by massive political upheaval, all the while keeping the very personal stories of her grandparents front and centre. 

Husain's grandparents' lives, so vividly brought to life, seem remarkable. When Mumtaz, a Muslim, and Mary, a Catholic of Anglo-Indian heritage, marry they embark on a relationship marked by deep mutual respect and teamwork, despite the social and familial challenges they face from having an inter-faith marriage. Husain's grandfather Shahid was a Sandhurst-trained officer, who worked as the private secretary to British-born commander-in-chief of the Indian army, Claude Auchinlek, and worked closely with Jinnah and Mountbatten. His wife Tahira is the one who started her own memoir, thus inspiring Husain to continue what she had started.  

All four of Husain's grandparents relocated to Pakistan. Their powerful connections helped them do so safely. Around 14 million people were displaced and 1 million refugees are thought to have died on their journeys between India and Pakistan. Mary and Mumtaz and their four children were due to take a train through violence-torn Punjab; at the last minute a British RAF officer insisted they took a flight instead. When their scheduled train arrived in Lahore, it was found to be one of those that – horrifyingly – became known as a 'ghost train'. Everyone on board had been murdered. Auchinlek went to significant lengths to ensure that Shahid's wife Tahira and their children were safely reunited in Pakistan. 

I realised, ashamed, I had been somewhat ignorant of this period of history. I knew about its enormous significance, of course, but not in as much detail, or with as much feeling, as I do now. It's a story of Britain, as well as India and Pakistan, and is a worthwhile read from a huge number of perspectives. Husain's memoir stretches from the 1800s through the World Wars, and juggles massive political themes alongside the deeply personal and idiosyncratic, and yet it remains a totally accessible read. It examines the dangers of huge amounts of power being held in a small number of hands, whilst maintaining a position that illuminates the complexities of this painful period of history. These are some of the reasons we've chosen this important book as our Book of the Month. 

Mishal Husain told us: "Broken Threads: My Family From Empire to Independence is the story I feel has been in the back of my mind all my life and part of my upbringing. My grandparents were born in the time of the Raj, in pre-partition India, and the choices they made in 1947, the year that freedom came, shaped not only the rest of their lives but those of descendants like me. 

"A huge 20th century shift, of empires dissolving into nation-states, was the backdrop of their lives, and for them it meant personal loss as well as new beginnings. That’s what I have sought to bring together – the personal and political – because history is made up of individual stories as well as the big picture of seismic events."

Broken Threads: My Family, from Empire to Independence by Mishal Husain is our June 2024 Book of the Month

Further reading

See our previous Book of the Month winners