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 forward with interest, wanting to know more about the festival that brings together two historic enemies. However, despite belonging to Lahore, a city that lies at the heart of Punjab, I have never been taught to speak Punjabi as part of the modern education system, and have only recently started to learn it on my own; it is, after all, seen blurred lines as an uncultured language confined to rural corners, not suitable for the educated and ‘civilized’ elite. I turn towards Haroonand ask him to translate for me; he is far more fluent than I am. I want to know everything about this mela.
The mela, as we find out, has been held since before Partition and continues till date. Indians and Pakistanis both attend, under the vigilant eyes of the rangers. They bring food and mithai, and greet each other from across the line. First the Indian group is allowed to pray at the shrine and then the Pakistani lot.
If I am to believe Naseer Ashiq, the border, which is meant to divide on the basis of religion, serves as a source of connection for Indians and Pakistanis for religious reasons itself. Together they come to offer their prayers, in their own customary manner, at a shrine that they both revere and respect—a shrine that is Hindu, Sikh and Muslim; each to his or her own. Religious and geographical distinctions come to be blurred at the line of division itself.
This is paradoxical, almost self-contradictory, to say the least. Born in the late eighties, I have grown up hearing stories about Hindu, Muslim and Sikh divisions, about how the communities could not live together primarily because they could no longer practise their religions side by side. A new country had to be formed: Muslims were a separate nation;their practices were at extreme variance with the non-Muslims of India. ‘They’ worshipped multiple idols, ‘we’ worshipped ‘one Allah’. There was nothing mutual; there were no grounds for unity. Separation was necessary. To hear that Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims could seek blessings at the same shrine, that they could come together to greet, hug and celebrate together, is an anomaly for me. To unite on top of that at the very border which is meant to divide is almost satirical. For Naseer Ashiq, however, this is the only normal that he knows. Later, I am to find out that there are many other such melas that take place across the country. At some of these, for instance at Baisakhi at Ram Thamman, in Kasur district, local Muslims and non-Muslims come together to celebrate, while at others, he festivals take place at the LoC or other lines of division across the country and Indians and Pakistanis come forward in celebration from both sides.
‘It was here at this mela that my father, Saraf Din, met his Sikh family after 1947 for the first time.’ Sikh family? His father was a Sikh? Taken aback, I interrupt him in English, looking at Haroon in complete confusion while Ashiq in return looks at me puzzled, unsure of what I just said in the foreign language. I ask Haroon to confirm whether Naseer Ashiq belongs to a Sikh family that continued to stay on this side of the border. That would be most fascinating for in a land of 3 per cent minorities, it is not common to run into non-Muslims. But no, he answers. ‘I am a Muslim and so was my father but he was adopted by a Sikh in India before Partition. He didn’t have any children so he asked my grandparents to give him my father.’ I wonder how Saraf Din’s parents felt about him having a Sikh upbringing, but Ashiq brushes off my question with a shrug. It holds no value for him; nor is it something that has concerned him. For Ashiq the situation is simple. ‘The Sikh gentleman brought up my father with so much love and devotion that my biological grandparents were only happy and as a reward, God graced him with four sons and a daughter later on. His other sons, my chachas (uncles), were called Sucha Singh, Acher Singh, Bajna Singh and Khoja Singh.’ He doesn’t find it necessary to mention the daughter, his aunt’s name. ‘The Sikh family was my father’s real family. Even when the Partition riots broke out and Sikhs and Muslims were killing each other, the Sikh gentleman ensured that my father was safely sent to Pakistan.’
Saraf Din was fifty-five at the time of Partition and looked just like a Sikh, wearing a pagri and beard matching that of his father and brothers. To me this sounds almost surreal; a Muslim boy with a Sikh father and Sikh brothers and sisters. However,I am told that contrary to what most Pakistanis and Indians like myself believe today, such hazy divisions were common in the pre-Partition days, when communities intermingled with each other, their identities getting diluted in the process. Ashiq, unlike myself, has grown up hearing such stories from his father. His understanding of the ‘other’ is not rigid like mine, nor is the division between India and Pakistan and Indians and Pakistanis as stark. Living at the border, where he can see Indians across from him, further reiterates the arbitrariness of the lines of division. Despite the armed forces and border controls, he has probably come into contact with far more Indians than the ordinary Pakistani. They are not strange and imaginary figures for him but instead, are a part of his daily existence.
Aanchal. I know you couldn’t hear everything that Anam is saying but what she is reading is from the first chapter of her book The Footprints of Partitions: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians. If any of you do manage to pick it up, that is the story about Kasur that she just read out.
Anam. I am sorry you couldn’t hear all of it, but the idea was: here I am as a third-generation Pakistani with so many prejudices, so much hostility that I have acquired through the years. Unfortunately, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are all, in many ways, indoctrinated in this. So here I am, sitting with someone telling me a completely different reality, a reality at the very border where Indians and Pakistanis come together, the way they greet each other, the way they participate in each other’s festivities. So that provides an important challenge to state narratives, to the holes in state narratives. I think that’s important.
ccccBut to come to the other question that Tina asked: What happens when these oral histories also feed into those stereotypes so that it re-enforces them? I think that definitely happens and part of that is the impact that state-level narratives have on personal memory. When the state chooses to remember a certain version, a certain side of the truth of a historical event, and continues to accentuate that one truth, it has an impact on how people recall and remember that event. In Pakistan, for instance, because the bloodshed is heavily re-enforced, and often re-enforced in isolation, we don’t talk about any other possibility or narratives of Partition. Many a time, when I would go and do these interviews, these were memories that the Partition survivors also recalled, they had it ready on the tips of their tongues. So, for instance, for 20–25 years of my life, I heard my own maternal grandmother’s experiences as a volunteer at a refugee camp, of aiding the ill, of the massacre trains coming in, of the corpses she had to bury, and it was everything I had read in the textbooks, it was everything that was stereotypical about the narratives of Partition. It was when I went back to her and decided to ask her different questions, when I decided to listen to the silences, that I began to uncover other truths from her life. I asked her, ‘You know, you lived in Lahore in Model Town. That was a Hindu-dominated area. You went to school there—didn’t you have any Hindu or Sikh friends?’ I then started hearing about these friends. All of a sudden, I started to hear rescue stories, how her sister was saved by a Sikh family . . .
Partition needs to be seen on a spectrum. You will find shades of all kinds of narratives. They are not only harmonious, they are not only violent—they are contradictory. And those dichotomies and contradictions are the only reality for the Partition survivors. It is my job as an oral historian to be able to sift through those and reveal those deeper layers. Especially those repressed memories that have for too long been silenced by the state.
Aanchal. But to come to the other question that Tina asked: What happens when these oral histories also feed into those stereotypes so that it re-enforces them? I think that definitely happens and part of that is the impact that state-level narratives have on personal memory. When the state chooses to remember a certain version, a certain side of the truth of a historical event, and continues to accentuate that one truth, it has an impact on how people recall and remember that event. In Pakistan, for instance, because the bloodshed is heavily re-enforced, and often re-enforced in isolation, we don’t talk about any other possibility or narratives of Partition. Many a time, when I would go and do these interviews, these were memories that the Partition survivors also recalled, they had it ready on the tips of their tongues. So, for instance, for 20–25 years of my life, I heard my own maternal grandmother’s experiences as a volunteer at a refugee camp, of aiding the ill, of the massacre trains coming in, of the corpses she had to bury, and it was everything I had read in the textbooks, it was everything that was stereotypical about the narratives of Partition. It was when I went back to her and decided to ask her different questions, when I decided to listen to the silences, that I began to uncover other truths from her life. I asked her, ‘You know, you lived in Lahore in Model Town. That was a Hindu-dominated area. You went to school there—didn’t you have any Hindu or Sikh friends?’ I then started hearing about these friends. All of a sudden, I started to hear rescue stories, how her sister was saved by a Sikh family . . .
There is an anecdote I recorded about a village in Langrial in Gujarat district in Pakistan, where a Sikh choudhary of the village asked everyone—all three populations that lived there—Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs—to bring their papers of landholding and burn them. Because if no one knew whose land belonged to whom, no one could attack one another. He was quick to make the connection that identity—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh—is linked to land in some way. Another thing they did in that village is that Muslims wore black turbans. Soon, every man began to wear a black turban, so that if anyone came from outside, they could not tell who was of what faith.
I think the purpose of oral history in memory is to challenge our notions of what we think we know about the past. Because Partition was experienced differently by different people. Even if two people came from the same village and then moved away to the same village, their stories will be different depending on their personal experiences. Of course, oral history also reinforces many notions that have been ingrained, like Anam said, by the state or our families at some point—the biases that we have. When I was recording interviews in Pakistan, I was made very aware of being the ‘other’ many times. We have talked about the ‘other’ so many times in this conference in these last two days. Aap faraq hain, aap mein or hum mein (you are different, there is a difference between you and us). Hum alag hain (we are different). Toh yeh feeling jo alag wali hoti hain, kab aye aur kaise aye aur kyun aye. Because mujhe faraq dikh nahi raha tha (So the feeling of being different, when how and why did it come I don’t know.Because I could not see any difference.) I couldn’t see the difference. Of course, that is a very reductive and naive way to look at differences or similarities. But I couldn’t see it and yet I was made to feel that ‘otherness’.
Oral history reveals many things that we don’t want to see, or have purposely overlooked in the past. But these things are important to see, understand and acknowledge. So why do we do this work? Because there is a need to. Why is it that so many third and fourth generations, who are descendants of refugees,never asked these question? I never asked the question before these objects. It took the catalyst of material culture to prompt me into asking what I really wanted to know, which is the malleability of memory.
Tina. Yes, let’s talk about the malleability of memory. I think a lot of cognitive scientists have questioned how reliable memory is as eyewitness testimony. So, if oral history is basing itself on memory, how do you deal with this malleability of memory or mis-remembering or perhaps even deliberate mis-remembering? It’s not just that memory had changed over time, but people may deliberately mis-remember. What also happens sometimes is that the family story or the state story will have an imprint on the kind of memory that a person has. So how do you deal with that?
Anam. There is a lot of emphasis on trying to find the truth. And I think oral history, in many ways, like I was saying, helps you sift through state narratives, to recover other memories of Partition. It offers you another glimpse or another shade of the truth. But we have to remember that history, all forms of history, at the end of the day are subjective in interpretation. Even ‘facts’ are not self-evident givens as Urvashi Butalia says. It is important for me to understand what people have chosen to remember or chosen to forget and why that may be happening. What is important enough for them to remember? What have they silenced? And what are we finding in the silences? It is not to do investigative journalism.Rather, it is to report people’s experiences, even seventy years after such a traumatic event that continues to shape them in so many ways. My job is not to sit there and probe and get down to the facts of it. My job is to say, ‘Here we are, seventy years later. How does this continue to impact you? What can I take away? What can I learn? Or unlearn?’
Aanchal. I think there are many things that I unlearnt along the way, which is natural. It happens and it hits you in the face and you feel rather stupid for it. For example, deviating a little from the topic: When I first went to Pakistan, I was curious. What will Pakistan be like? What will the people be like? But it’s the same! Like Anam said, state narratives and media affect a lot of what people remember and how they remember. That being said, I think, right at the beginning, we need to understand that if memory is about remembering, it is also about forgetting. Like recall is also about not remembering certain things, whether you consciously eliminate the thought or tell yourself over the years that that is the truth. You reinforce that truth and you remember it that way. That’s important to keep in mind. The other thing is what Anam said—our job is to record the multiplicity of narratives, so that we have enough data (1) that it will exist, and (2) that you can corroborate certain things with one another, which is very important. Say you have 10 interviews from people from 10 different areas of the walled city of Lahore. And they all claim that in August 1929, they saw Pandit Nehru standing on the banks of River Ravi saying, ‘Poorna Swaraj’. That happened—because 10 people remembered it that way.
Because memory is unreliable, there are certain academic sources we must always refer to—we must keep this in mind too. Our job, first as oral historians and second, as writers of oral history—people writing books about things that will be read by a public, some of whom know certain things about Partition and some of whom don’t—is to arrive at a combination of oral history and academic sources as best we can. This is because we are trying to put together the most holistic portrait of a time when we were not present.
Anam. If I can just add something here. I think, as Aanchal is saying, it is so important to not see these mediums as contradictory. We often tend to divide conventional history and oral history as two opposite ends of the spectrum, but they can really supplement and complement each other. Now, when we are talking about conventional history sources in South Asia—I know that yesterday’s conversation was on textbooks, so perhaps much of it has been covered—we have an issue of history being distorted to serve political ends. And then you have to question how objective that conventional source of history is, how censored or distorted it is. Oral histories and conventional sources of history can supplement each other—so one does not need to see them in conflict or opposition. Rather, one must see them as complimentary. That is the only way we can get a holistic understanding of the past.
Tina. That is what strikes me the most—that mainstream history, if I may call it that, gives us one view. But oral history, whatever it may lack in accuracy at times because of the failures of memory and the problems associated with memory, adds so much in perspective. You gain a lot that you wouldn’t otherwise. And I think this is a very important tool, especially for classroom teachers.
Aanchal. I think we are making it sound as though recording memories is easy. You just go to someone, you ask the questions, you get the answers. I do want to stress that oral history continues to be a very difficult realm of study, if I can call it that, because you are taking the burden—the term ‘burden’ being very loosely used—of someone’s memory upon yourself, not just for the purpose of archiving or recording but also to study. And that is complex and it is heavy. I am lucky that there is someone like Anam on the other side of the border, so we can have these conversations, because it is so rare. I just want to stress the continual difficulty of the medium, not just in asking the questions but in getting people to open up. Because, when you go to someone’s house as an oral historian and a scholar, you are essentially a stranger. Certain things need to be done to build that trust, and we all have our private/personal methods to do that.You’re asking someone to excavate something of great vulnerability and give it to you because you asked, you want to know. And I think in that process of exchange, you also need to give something.It is, therefore, a very difficult field of study which should only be utilized as a tool by people to learn more about the past.
Tina. Another benefit that we were talking about yesterday was that oral history can help us make connections which perhaps would not otherwise be possible. So, would you like to share the story of the house in Dalhousie? I think it’s very interesting.
Aanchal. I think we are making it sound as though recording memories is easy. You just go to someone, you ask the questions, you get the answers. I do want to stress that oral history continues to be a very difficult realm of study, if I can call it that, because you are taking the burden—the term ‘burden’ being very loosely used—of someone’s memory upon yourself, not just for the purpose of archiving or recording but also to study. And that is complex and it is heavy. I am lucky that there is someone like Anam on the other side of the border, so we can have these conversations, because it is so rare. I just want to stress the continual difficulty of the medium, not just in asking the questions but in getting people to open up. Because, when you go to someone’s house as an oral historian and a scholar, you are essentially a stranger. Certain things need to be done to build that trust, and we all have our private/personal methods to do that. You’re asking someone to excavate something of great vulnerability and give it to you because you asked, you want to know. And I think in that process of exchange, you also need to give something. It is, therefore, a very difficult field of study which should only be utilized as a tool by people to learn more about the past.t.d that was the end of the conversation.
Then my book was published. And a Sikh gentleman with an orange pagdi arrives at my family’s bookshop in Delhi, clutching the book. He is worried,even frenzied, and rushes into to the shop and demands to meet the author because—‘I am reading this book, my wife got me this book, Chapter 17 is about a house—“Kaikisha”.’ The house’s name is Kaikisha which means galaxy. Now, remember the woman’s name is Sitara, her sister’s name is Surya. Clearly, Miya Afzal Hussain is obsessed with constellations. So, this Sikh gentleman, Ambassador Gurdeep Bedi, comes to the shop and says: ‘This house that has been talked about in Chapter 17, it is my house, I live there, we were given it in a claim after Partition. How is this house in this book?’
ccccSo, my mother tells me about this, and I burst into tears and I call Mrs Ali in Lahore and say I’ve found her house, I found the brother who lives in the house.She says, ‘Oh, I wish they’d send us some photographs.’ She hasn’t seen the house in 70 years and, clearly from our conversation, she loved it dearly. Now, because I am shameless, I invited myself to Dalhousie—the Sikh gentleman was quite taken aback.
This is me in Dalhousie, holding the black-and-white photograph that Mrs Ali gave me, standing in front of the house. As you can see, nothing has changed: the Sikh family has not changed a single thing. In fact, the brothers remembered taking the exact green can of paint and painting over the house to retain that quality. The inside of the house is the same. It is stunning. Afzal Hussain built it like a planetarium. It was round because he was obsessed with constellations. The Sikh family kept his nameplate—M. Afzal Hussain. Everything becomes very real with material artefacts from the past. Afzal Hussain carved stars and sun into the ceiling. He did it all over the house, carved little stars, little constellations. It is beautiful, absolutely beautiful.
Then, when I was in Dalhousie, I figured I might as well go and see if any of the old records are there of the house, because a lot of the pre-Partition records kept by the British were quite good. So, I go to the district office and this is what I am shown. This is just one side of the room—there is another side with the exact same stack. And the gentleman showing me is extremely reluctant, saying it will take too long since there are so many files. But I tell him I will help him. It takes us the whole day, but we eventually find File 123—Buildings by Miya Afzal Hussain. At that moment, it struck me so forcefully how real it all is. The file is there, everything is there—it’s not like you’re finding a manuscript by a king you knew existed. This is an ordinary person, an average person—and his handwriting, his file, all of it is here. And the plans of the house. I photograph them (even though the gentleman’s telling me not to a hundred times) and I send them on WhatsApp back to Lahore. This is the first time Sitara is seeing her father’s signature in years. This is the first time she is seeing the letters he wrote—and he was a copious letter-writer. There were about seven years of letters about the drainage system in the house—the nala. It is very difficult to construct in the hills—we don’t realize this. But I was going through seven years of letters saying the nala is draining water into my house, the nala is going here, the nala is going there—he took great effort to document everything.
It was amazing because it was coming full circle and becoming very real. The last letter in the file is dated 12 May 1947, when Afzal Hussain is asking the government for an extension—he wants to build an extension to the kitchen in May 1947. So, clearly, there are no plans to move across the border, he is going to stay there in a summer house. And it is heartbreaking to receive the news of Partition. He stays back for about a month after Partition to wrap up everything, but then he has to give up the house. Hence, the Bedis get it in a claim.
The reason I go to Dalhousie is, of course, to Skype with Sitara Fiaz Ali,to show her her house. She hardly says anything, but she is very happy. Then I give the phone to the Bedi family and I let them take her around the house, show her the walls, the ceiling, because it is a rather intimate conversation. At the end of the conversation, I hear the daughter of the Bedi family, Harleen, say to Sitara’s daughter: ‘Agle saal hum hamare ghar mein milenge (Next year, we will meet at our house)’. So it shows you that these things are possible. It is not a Pakistani family and an Indian family talking to each other but two families that shared the history of a house and have put themselves in that house. So, I think that the one thing that oral history does is to make us feel as though, even if only for the duration of that conversation, the border is not so cemented, it is not so engrained.
Anam. Recording oral history, especially across the Line of Control or in other border villages, really shows you how much the reality of the people living by those borders is different from how we imagine it to be. For the longest time, the Wagah border is how I had imagined borders, with soldiers chest thumping on both sides. But if you go to some of these other borders, you realize that the ‘other’ is not really the ‘other’. And sometimes with Partition, people just ran to the other side and settled right across from where they used to live. I have heard narratives of people who could see their homes on the other side after migrating because they had settled right across that line, in their new ‘safe haven’. There are also narratives of people coming together and meeting their families, divided families, at the border, at the Line of Control. These are things that you will often not get to hear in other accounts of the Partition.
Aanchal. People also represent the border in wonderful ways. So there are weavers in Gujarat who wove this border into their fabrics. What is the border? It is a line! And how do they explain it: this is where we were, this is where we were sent. The government put these rural women from Sindh in a place in Gujarat. But there, they were not indigenous in terms of weather, in terms of climatic conditions, yet they had to stick to it. So they talk about it through creative means, they put the things that they remember from their house into their weaving. I recorded a story, here in Calcutta, of a woman who had come from Chittagong, who kept saying that when she came to Calcutta, she missed the flora: ‘I missed the flowers of Chittagong.’ She describes smell, and this is where oral history allows you to be a little creative because you can record all sorts of memory. She says, ‘I try to sow the same flowers here. Next time we went back, we got seeds and I tried to put them here in Calcutta to have my own private Chittagong. But, of course, nothing would grow because trees and plants bear allegiance to their soil. Like people, they cannot be uprooted and planted elsewhere.’ It is very poignant if you think about it, what people try to do in order to grapple with a new sense of identity.
Tina. Another benefit of oral history is that it allows you to bridge the gap between generations. Anam’s work is very cross-generational. I was wondering, when you interview someone from the generation of the event and then you interview someone of today’s generation, how is Partition viewed by each? And what do you think is the impact of this distance vis-à-vis time on our memories of Partition?
Anam. Before I started this work, I would have assumed that the further you moved away from Partition, the easier it would be to let go—of that hatred, that prejudice, that bitterness—and move on. And yes, many people have been able to do that. But what I found, what I continue to find when I work with schoolchildren in India or Pakistan is that the further away we move from 1947, the more ‘Partitioned’ we have become. The younger generations, in many ways, are far more hostile than their grandparents who suffered Partition. This is a consistent discovery for me, and I will share one anecdote that I think summarizes what I’m trying to say. I was planning this exchange programme for The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a local Pakistani NGO and I was supposed to bring a delegation of Pakistani students to India. One of the students who wanted to go was not allowed by his family. His mother said, ‘He cannot go to India. I have heard all kinds of horrible stories, I don’t want you to go’. When I went to try and convince her, she said, ‘My father was born in Hoshiarpur and he lost everything over there during Partition. He lost his family, he lost his property and I’m afraid that if my son goes, he too will never come back.’
Aanchal. OK. Her father had come and his grandchild wanted to go to Pakistan and the mother was very against it. Then she spoke to her father and she was actually quite keen for the grandchild to go and he eventually got to go.
Anam. The point is that, many times, Partition survivors, as much as they have suffered and witnessed bloodshed, also remember a time when the ‘other’ was not really ‘other’ but simply a part of their everyday reality, part of their everyday experiences. That is no longer the case. Today, when you say Indian or Pakistani, the words are loaded with communalization, division, hostility. And, of course, with the wars, the media debates, the rhetoric of antagonism and hostility, the textbook biases, all the negative perceptions get entrenched and start to influence you. As for the younger generation, most of them will never meet an Indian or a Pakistani on either side of the border. For them, these distortions of history or these censored versions of history are the only truth. It is very hard for them to think of those on the other side of as anything other than almost-monsters. Of course, I am speaking about a certain segment of the population—I don’t want to say that all Indians and Pakistanis do this. But my fear is that it is becoming worse, because access to the ‘other’ is becoming more and more limited. How we imagine the ‘other’ is becoming more important, and that imagination is often fuelled by a lot of prejudice or politics or media or textbooks and such.
Aanchal. Sometimes, within families itself, the silence of the parent or the grandparent who witnessed Partition adds to this prejudice as well. Lack of knowledge can add to our biases about people and that is very prevalent in families—especially for children who sometimes only hear about the violence, so that their construction of the narrative is somewhat linear. Because violence happened in Pakistan or because violence happened in India to my family, hence the Pakistani or the Indian is bad. When I went to Pakistan, people were shocked, first of all, that I was from ‘Bharat’, because I did not look like or speak like an Indian. They did not know what an Indian looked like, and they expected me to speak and dress like the actors in Indian TV serials. So, how are these narratives constructed and how is the identity of the ‘other’ constructed—these are very important when it comes to the second, third, fourth generations.
Anam. I completely agree with you: the younger generations are getting a very packaged view of what happened. And that is happening in the oral histories particularly because traumatic memories stay at the forefront—that is what we remember, they are the charged memories. The other memories of friendships, of longing and nostalgia all too often start to recede. The younger generations are often only getting that version of the truth which is then reinforced in their schools—the teachers are reading from the same textbooks. So the cycle is continuing. Then they come home and watch the same thing on TV.
Social media, of course, can bridge many of these divides, but social media is a tool and it depends on how we use it. Often, social media will further reinforce the same kind of biases that are present in other forms of media and history textbooks as well.
Tina. How do you think the tools of oral history can be used in the classroom to develop the sort of historical temperament we have been talking about for the last two days?
Aanchal. I think two things have been mentioned already: Janaki mentioned the wonderful ‘Young Historians’ videos, and another teacher mentioned the use of oral history projects in Bangalore. Introducing objects is always very interesting. They don’t have to be Partitioned objects, they don’t have to be objects that bear conflict or migration within them. But sometimes asking children to bring in old objects from their homes creates very interesting narratives. Because it is a tangible thing. Sometimes I have seen it with objects that are from the other side—the children don’t know anything about Pakistan but they know that this object is from Lahore. Where is Lahore? I have no idea. Lahore is this beautiful place that my grandfather came from. So, try using tangible things—it is very interesting and easy.
Anam. I agree. Something else that really helps me is the Skype exchanges I do between students sometimes. Before the Skype exchange, I ask them to speak to their grandparents or parents about their memories, not particularly of migration but two/three memories of the place that they grew up in. When they share those, they are not only bridging the gap between Indians and Pakistanis by talking to each other, they are also bridging an inter-generational historical gap in many ways because they are bringing together memories of their grandparents. Often, the way they speak about the space or what they remember about a particular city or a village would be similar across both sides of the border.
Question. In Indian Partition history, the first time, at least as a student of literature, I heard of oral history was Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India. And while Butalia brought out stories or testimonies of those women, one of the main charges labelled against her—the criticism against her and Ritu Menon—was that the mediator always comes in. The person who is listening, his or her politics, his or her ideas always come in and that has been one of the major problems in oral history or in it being taken seriously. So are we listening to the narrator’s version of the story or are we listening to the mediator’s? How do you take care of that when you both are recording?
Aanchal. I started this work in oral history with a very particular interest in how my generation perceives it. And I have to say that when I am recording these histories, I am a very objective observer. Because I learnt very early what happens when you get involved in the story. What the person remembering requires is a point of retreat—distance. To be able to view the story. What the oral historian becomes then is that point of distance. You’re not a participant in the past you are a participant in reconstructing the past. While writing, I think it is very important—and I have done it in my book—to have me in the conversation because I am understanding as well. And whether I have shed a bias or gained a prejudice, I am adding that in the narrative as well. Because if it happened to me, it is likely to happen to someone else too. I guess having myself in the rewriting of what I have heard is more important than my mediating the conversation at that moment. Recording is one thing. And listening, transcribing, translating, and understanding—that’s a totally different process. So, I think, to have me in the narrative, in the final narrative, is essential for me. Because me and my generation are trying to unpack certain things.
Anam. I am going to echo everything that Aanchal said. The narrator will always come in. When I do an interview, particularly if I do it in another language, I come back and then I translate it. The words I choose indicate that, of course, I am bringing my meaning into it. The only thing I can do is to allow myself and the reader to see, as much as possible, where I am coming into the conversation. I often mention what question comes into my mind as I sit here, what appears challenging to me, how I am interpreting it. Sometimes I also say: This is what I understand, but perhaps there is another way to look at it. For example, if I am in Muzaffarabad in Kashmir and someone says to me, ‘Look, you know, we still have temples over here that show that it is a very multicultural civilization.’ I go to that temple—and then I discover that it is non-functional. Now, there are two ways for me to interpret this. One is to say that this person is living in some romanticized version of the past where they think it is a multicultural civilization.There is no idol inside, so obviously it is non-functional and that multicultural civilization has been eliminated. Or, I can look through that person’s lens and see what he or she is trying to show me: that this temple here, it is a remnant of that past. So, often, as a narrator, you can have that dialogue and you can put the different questions in your mind onto paper, so that your readers can get access to the many shades of that conversation you have had with the interviewee as well asit with yourself.
Tina. What you say is true for any field where we have human beings studying human beings, whether it is psychology, sociology or anthropology. I don’t think that this is a weakness specifically in this area. It is something we need to be aware of. It is unfair to tag only oral history for this.
Krishna Kumar. I want to make a theoretical point which may perhaps contribute a little bit to what is being discussed here about history, its nature, its value in education, in the curriculum and so on. After finishing my book, Prejudice and Pride: Social Histories of the Freedom Struggle in India and Pakistan, or rather after its publication in 2001, I became very restless, thinking that I hadn’t actually finished understanding what I had set out to—how textbooks sculpt the mass-mind of these two nations: India and Pakistan.
So, two or three years on, I thought I must write another book and eventually that book, Battle for Peace, was published in 2007. Now, when I was working on that book second, I came across an interview in the Pakistani magazine, The Herald, published from Karachi. Published around 2004, an interview with the Begum of Bhopal. She had chosen not to migrate to Pakistan in 1947. She was a very modern woman, both for her situation and for the times. She thought at that time that India would be a better place for her to continue to live in and, being the Begum of Bhopal, she was able to do so. But, as years passed, she changed her mind and finally decided to migrate to Pakistan. Now, in this interview, she shared many feelings about her first decision, about her second decision and then about her subsequent feeling that she had made a mistake.
A few months before the interview was published, she passed away. I found the interview an extremely rich piece of text. Of course, it was an oral interview transcribed into publishable text, so perhaps it was edited here and there, but it was a very complex and rich text. I thought it was very useful for my work, which was to sort out layers of the interaction between the two countries which continues to take place on many levels in the mind, levels of memory, levels of desire and ideas about the future. It was a grand text, I thought, so I started analysing it. The analysis, when it was ready, made me look for a title for that chapter. When we use oral history, I think we sometimes forget that it is actually an oral resource for history. It is not history, yet it can be useful for history. So, I came up with another title or another name for this particular kind of data which had proven very useful to me for my work. And the name I gave to that history which the Begum was sharing with the world, a few months before her death, was ‘Perceptual History’. And in this chapter, and in the rest of the book, I have argued that, if well-written school textbooks on history want to make an impact on the popular minds, especially on the layers of early socialization, then these textbooks as well as the teachers who use these textbooks, no matter how good these textbooks are, must acknowledge perceptual histories and then engage with them. So that a more dynamic version reaches out to children, one that is capable of enabling them to become introspective and analytical about what they have picked up from so many different sources and which lurks in their socialized minds.
Aanchal. Thank you, Professor Kumar, for that. It echoes our thoughts as well.
Aanchal Malhotra is a visual artist and oral historian working with memory and material culture. She is the author of Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory (HarperCollins 2017) and the co-founder of the 'Museum of Material Memory', a digital repository of material culture from the Indian subcontinent, tracing family histories and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity.
Anam Zakaria is an author, development professional, psychotherapist and educationist with a special interest in oral histories, identity politics and conflict narratives. Her first book, Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians, explores the shifting inter-generational perceptions of the 1947 Partition and won the Karachi Literature Festival German Peace Prize 2017. Her second book, Between the Great Divide investigates the impact of the Kashmir conflict in Pakistan Administered Kashmir and will be released by HarperCollins in July 2018.
Tina Servaia is Head of Humanities and Arts, Calcutta International School.