Image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič



Updated: Nov 17, 2020

This talk was held in August, 2018, as part of the 4th annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Culture, in Calcutta.

Aanchal Malhotra. I work with oral history and material culture of the Partition of India. Earlier, on the first day of this conference, Sudeshna Guha talked about the division of objects between independent India and Pakistan—how the country divided public objects. I look at personal, mundane objects that people carried to India or Pakistan at the time of this momentous creation of two nations. I hope that the nuances of material culture and the methodology will come out in our conversation. But I want to go over, very quickly, the kinds of objects that people carried because my work is also visual. Since it deals with artefacts, with objects, it is very important for us to look at things. So I am going to talk about the varieties of objects that people carried over the last five years, what the different categories are. And of course, please remember that each object has a story. Why someone carried something, how they carried it, why they chose that particular thing—tells a lot about the class that someone came from, the knowledge they had about Partition and how they dealt with these things.

So these two images are where the project begins. I encountered, in 2013, two very mundane objects that had been carried from Lahore to Amritsar: a ghada in which lassi is made; and a guzz, a yardstick used to measure fabric. Despite the ordinary nature of these objects, when the person whose father and mother had carried them across began talking about them and caressing them and touching them, the Lahore of his childhood seemed to come alive. It is as if objects can be used almost as ‘transportive beings’—to not only go back into time but also cross a border that is now, for most people, uncrossable. That began an exercise in the excavation of memory for me: can we understand belonging through belongings? Can we understand a home rendered inaccessible by national borders through the things that remain of that home? Utensils are something that many people carried, and I have a variety of photographs of the different kinds, ranging from the mundane to the highly decorative to objects of cultural value, like this khasdaan or silver soap dish. People also carried weapons, of course, for safety. So daggers, small pocket knives—this is my grandmother’s—and swords.(This is a sword from Mirpur whose story I will share a little later.) People carried objects of religious value—small idols. They were fleeing for their lives. So often they carried small things. Some managed to carry large objects, but most often they were small. Most often they were thinking: ‘Nikal rahein hai, kya le?’ (We are leaving, what should we take?)

Think about it: if you are leaving home, what is the first thing you take with you? Is it something precious? Something you need, like utensils to cook in, if you are going to be in a camp? Something valuable, like this murti? Would it be your copy of the scriptures? This particular Guru Granth Sahib was retrieved one month after Partition, when someone went back across the border to their home to get it. The Guru Granth Sahib was just 2 x 2 inches and it was stuck in someone’s turban—that’s how they carried it across the border to India. Many people thought the Partition wasn’t going to be a permanent thing, so they carried their keys. Because they were so certain they would return. They carried documents of identification, like passports (this is the inside of the same passport), degrees that verified education and, of course,aided as identification, employment certificates. They often carried government certificates too because they thought they would get government jobs on the other side similar to what they had on this side. They carried some curious things too, like this Karachi Club membership card—the woman who owns it swears she can still get into the Karachi Club if she goes back and shows this card. They carried refugee certificates. Not surprisingly, they also carried jewellery and valuables, so that they could sell them or use them as collateral. Various kinds of jewellery, often in styles that are no longer made, or no jeweller will touch anymore—like Basra pearls that are hardly found now. Tolas and tolas of gold, coins and currency. They carried things to be used, like different kinds of trunks—this belongs to Anjum’s mother (she’s sitting right here), from the Geological Survey of India. They were often ordinary trunks, meant to transport things from one place to another. They also carried books and notebooks. This belongs to the Punjabi poet, Prabhjot Kaur, who continued to write nationalist poetry through the Partition. See the date on this notebook—it is 21 August 1947. They carried photographs—some had the luxury of having photographs taken and then being able to carry them along. Photographs of houses, of grandparents, portraits made in India. This man was born and raised in India and moved back to England after Partition—his family carried these with them. Photographs of friends, photographs of parents. They also carried objects of cultural value: things like phulkari, a very community-driven activity in Punjab; nalas—old fashioned nalas for the salwars, again very coveted souvenirs for Punjabi women; nameplates—lots of interesting nameplates, carried as markers of identification; furniture—some people managed to carry furniture.

 Sometimes people carried along their animals as well. There is a story I recorded, that I wrote down in my book, of a family that carried their parrots. They were a very wealthy family, and they moved from Delhi to Karachi on a plane, and they took along their parrots. The Sardarji pilot said, ‘Oh, you are carrying your birds—I couldn’t even carry my sisters!’ After that, the buying and keeping of pets was banned in that family forever, because they became a reminder of all those people who couldn’t make it across. This crocodile has a far more comical story. It’s a 15.5-foot-long crocodile that is now up in a home in Lahore. It was the prized possession of a man in Bharowal village on the River Beas. During Partition, because it was such a prized possession, he picked up the head, he rolled up the skin and he carried it to Lahore. All these give you a sense of the very different kinds of objects that people could carry despite the fact that we always hear ‘Kuch nahi laye the’ (we didn’t bring anything)—‘there was no time’. People did carry things and these things continued to exist in their private lives, within their homes, due to their extremely mundane nature.

Anam Zakaria. My interest here is also oral history like Aanchal’s, but I have been documenting that through a different technique and medium which I will be talking about through the course of this conversation. I am also very interested in identity politics. I have been documenting oral narratives of Partition and I have been particularly interested in the inter-generational memories: the ways in which our perception, our understanding of Partition continues to shift over the generations. Partition is not a static event for me but, rather, an ongoing journey. I have been looking at the way narratives, particularly textbooks, have an impact on the younger generations in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Apart from Partition, I have also been working in Kashmir to understand the ways in which conflict is impacting the people of this region. I am also working on Bangladesh, looking at the ways in which conflict,1971 in particular, is remembered or forgotten in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Tina. To start with, I thought that we could have a discussion on how, very often, we think of oral history as an inferior method of history—it’s often not recognized as an equally valid form. So, could you touch upon the methodology of oral history? Something else that struck me was that you’re collecting objects and stories and archiving them, but these then have to be interpreted. So what is the process, what is the difference, and do you need time and/or distance between the processes of collecting and interpreting?

Anam. That is a very interesting question. When you sit with someone and record their narratives, the memories are so powerful that you are completely taken by them. It takes me a lot of time when I go back and begin to process them. Something I began to notice while I was doing this was that I, as a researcher, as an oral historian, am armed with lots of biases, lots of ideas I have grown up thinking about Partition, lots of ways in which I imagine Partition. And often in an interview, we tend to impose our own understanding on the interviewee. So it is very important to come back and to listen again and see where our biases are starting to creep in. To see whether we have allowed our interviewees to speak, or whether we have sometimes stopped them unconsciously. So, for me, after interview, coming back, sitting by myself and re-hearing the audio—new things come up every time. Sometimes I feel I could have probed more. Then I go back and do another set of interviews. Then I have this huge chunk of memory to sift and sort through, and that takes a long time. I think, one of the beauties of history is that it is so subjective. Every time you come back to it, there is some new meaning you that you discover. You have to allow yourself that time, you have to allow those various subjective meanings to come in, so that you can understand what is being said holistically.

ccccWhen you are archiving, you are so invested in what the other person is saying. But when you go back and hear the recording again, you become aware of other things. If it is video, you notice body language. If it is audio, you notice silences, you notice the tone changing, you pick up non-verbal messages. Those are so significant and give you a lot of information to interpret, analyse. Often those prompt you to go back if you can.

Aanchal. I want to echo everything Anam said. Because it is all true for oral history. But just to contextualize, because this is a conference for historians and academics and teachers who teach history: What is the purpose of oral history? Why are we studying oral narratives? There must be some vacuum or some gap in our understanding of a particular event, particularly if the event is rather close to us and still contemporary—like the Partition. Somebody said on the first day: What if we could go back in time and ask the people who were studying about ancient and medieval history, what they thought of their past? And in a way, Anam and I and people like us are quite lucky because we can in fact do that. So, why is oral history important for me and why am I collecting it? For me, the umbrella term ‘Partition’ is massive. Fourteen million people displaced—and that is just the official number. Many say it was up to 22 million—one million killed here, one million killed there. But what oral history attempts to do is to see the single person who moved from one place to another not just as a statistic but also an individual. And that’s really important.

Referring to the ‘silence’ that Anam mentioned: many people who’ve lived through Partition do have silences. Some talk, some have silences. It’s important to explore the reason for this silence and how we can study it in its varieties. Because Partition is a conglomeration of many things—history, politics, identity, oral narrative and memory which in itself has drawbacks and changes. It is very important that when we record people’s memories, we understand that memory is also unreliable. So we use different techniques, different approaches.

Anam, for example, goes back multiple times. I look at the subject through the lens of objects. Maybe because I need an ‘in’ into the event. If I ask, ‘Why did you carry this bangle when you crossed the border?’the story becomes about the bangle and, through that story, I learn the story of migration. I learn about the bangle, but also about the family that carried the bangle, Why this bangle?Why did you choose it? Who did it belong to? Who gave it to you? What house did you live in? When did you hear about Partition? How did you make the journey across? What was your life like before that?

Another thing that oral history—particularly Partition history—teaches us about is undivided India. This is very important because we cannot study the Partition as an isolated event, stretching from the Noakhali riots in 1946 to December1947—that’s not the span of Partition. It happened way before and, as Anam said, it very much lingers. We are still feeling its consequences. Oral history allows us an expansive breadth of knowledge in all its versions depending on who you ask, depending on what of the country/countries you are asking about and how.

Tina. One of the primary benefits of oral history, I feel, is that it is one way of challenging the dominant, stereotypical view of history. The history that is taught in schools and colleges, in classrooms everywhere—that is very often a monolithic history. Could you comment on that please—do you agree? Of course, it can re-enforce the stereotypes as well, depending on who we are talking to. So how do you deal with that then—when the stereotype is re-enforced?

Anam. I will read a particular passage that talks about how oral history can challenge the typical understandings of Partition, and then I will answer your second question about what happens when it ends up re-enforcing those stereotypes. This passage is from an interview I conducted many years ago at a border village in Kasur. I met a man called Naseer Aashiq who told me of a mela that happens at the line of division at the border, where Indians and Pakistanis come together.

Iqbal sahib explains to Ashiq that I wanted to speak withhis uncle regarding his visits to India in the early years. Helaughs and responds in Punjabi, ‘Then you should have comehere a few days later, on third sawan (from the local calendar).A huge mela (festival) is held that day where Indians andPakistanis come together to pray at the mazaar (shrine), just onthe zero line.’ I lean forw