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How technology and social media help trace Partition memories

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-08-2017 Nitin Sreedhar

If you cannot bear these stories then society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked? I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.

— Saadat Hasan Manto

Any discourse on Partition cannot be separated from the stories of those who lived through it. Painful, heart-wrenching and cathartic, these stories return history to the people. They are the stories of those whose lives were redrawn by Cyril Radcliffe’s demarcations, and who overnight became Indian or Pakistani. Over the years, technology and social media have enabled individuals as well as organizations to process and preserve Partition history.

Projects like The 1947 Partition Archive, The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) and Bolti Khidki are among a growing number of resources that are invaluable to understanding Partition as well as enabling communication between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is a people’s history that is stitched together through personal stories.

This is a history that belongs to 93-year-old Bhim Sharma, whose village in west Punjab was saved from the mob by three armed women on horseback. It is the history captured in a 1949 photograph of a man called Syed Ali Mehdi Naqvi, who was forced to relocate from Hyderabad, India, to Pakistan. His melancholic stance is a reflection of the collective pain of all those who left their world behind.

Partition is said to have created nearly 15 million refugees and a death toll of 1.5 million. There is rarely consensus on numbers. However, there is credence in memories and the stories born of them.

It is this belief in the power of storytelling that has also given rise to a very different kind of museum. The recently concluded three-day pop-up, Remembering Partition: Museum Of Memories, at the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai was one such window into the subcontinent’s history from the ordinary person’s point of view. Its repository of files, oral narratives and personal objects gave Partition a human face and a deep emotional resonance.

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Guneeta Singh Bhalla conducting an interview at Jagdev Kalan village in Punjab. Photo: Courtesy www.1947partitionarchive.org.

Power of the spoken word

The stories recorded on The 1947 Partition Archive, The Citizens Archive of Pakistan and Partition Museum mine the wealth of oral narratives

The first thing you see on the landing page of The 1947 Partition Archive website is a large interactive map where India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are peppered with little orange dots and numbers. As you zoom in, smaller boxes emerge, throwing light on the stories of those who were forced to migrate.

One of the testimonies is of septuagenarian Zafar Afaq Ansari. He was born in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, and moved to Delhi, where he lived till the age of 9. During Partition, he and his family moved to Karachi, taking one of the last few trains still running between the two countries. All these years later, the impact of Partition on his life is still evident: “I feel like a bottled plant. I can be put here, there…. I have no roots.”

The 1947 Partition Archive, which is the world’s largest collection of oral histories of Partition, was released to the public on 10 August in collaboration with a consortium of Indian, Pakistani, British and American universities. The site explores migration and documents memories. “We are immensely excited to be releasing this work into the public domain so that it is accessible to all, giving each of us an opportunity to discover our rich history for ourselves,” says Guneeta Singh Bhalla, founder of the archive.

Kishwar Desai, chair of the Partition Museum, Amritsar. Photo: Hindustan Times

The idea came to her when she visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2008 and listened to the testimonies of the survivors. Her earliest stories are based on interviews she gathered almost by chance in Faridkot, Punjab, in 2009. The site, www.1947partitionarchive.org, was launched in 2010. Today, the archive has over 4,300 stories on digital video from more than 350 cities in 12 countries across the world.

“Building the archive itself has popularized the notion of recording stories and created a neutral and safe atmosphere around memorializing Partition. And it also took something that was very subaltern and brought it out into the public sphere simply by getting lots of people to record stories,” says Bhalla.

It is a similar democratic notion of history that led to the founding of the Partition Museum in Amritsar in October last year. It was set up as a people’s museum, preserving the memories of those who experienced Partition and showcases personal artefacts, letters, photographs and documents. One of the most significant exhibits is the Oral Histories archive. “Because we are a people’s museum, using people’s own voices was very important, so you hear history first-hand from someone who lived through it,” says Mallika Ahluwalia, chief executive officer of the Partition Museum.

The Oral Histories project explores narratives from both sides of the border. Ahluwalia says they hope to include more stories in the coming years. “It continues to scale up constantly. We hope to create a large publicly accessible archive, so that people can come and listen to these narratives. Maybe in 15 years, someone will be able to hear their great-grandmother’s voice when they otherwise wouldn’t have, or someone might find a missing relative,” adds Ahluwalia, over email.

On CAP, a centre that is trying to digitize Pakistan’s history, Arsalan Khatoon’s memories of Partition are very specific. As she was about to make a run for it, leaving her home in Hyderabad, India, in September 1948, her last thought was of the rotis still cooking on the tawa (griddle).

It is such narratives that help people piece together and make sense of the traumatic events that transpired. Since its inception in 2007, CAP has digitized 100,000 images and collected over 2,200 oral narratives. “Through these archives, we explain history drawn from people from different walks of life—from those who took an active part in politics to those who lived in villages and were far removed from decisions made in cities. It is the history of the partition of South Asia in the eyes of the common man,” says Aaliyah Tayyebi, senior project manager, Oral History Project, CAP.

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The ‘Well Of Remembrance’ at the ‘Museum Of Memories’ exhibition at the Godrej India Culture Lab, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint.

Cross-border conversations

Bolti Khidki and CAP’s Exchange for Change are initiatives that attempt an India-Pakistan dialogue

The people behind these archives believe that history belongs to everyone—the stories they collect reinforce the idea of the subcontinent as a whole rather than the separate entities of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They believe that the fractures that exist between nations are often exacerbated by a lack of communication and that it is often up to ordinary citizens to build bridges.

Bolti Khidki—The Speaking Window is a digital initiative launched in April that shares stories of Partition survivors from India and Pakistan on its Facebook page. “Most Partition survivors are old and it will be difficult to trace them after four-five years. Our generation should know where they come from. We thought the best way to do this was by documenting these tales for the future generation through a photo series,” says Sandeep Dutt, 22, who started Bolti Khidki with his friend Faisal Hayat, a 19-year-old journalism student based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Born in Lahore, now in Pakistan, 75-year-old Punjab Rai Talwar was just 5 at the time of Partition. It has been a long journey for the retired engineer from Raja Jang in Pakistan’s Kasur district to Ludhiana. Having seen refugee camps and roads filled with bodies, he has only one message for the youth today: “Don’t hate the people of India/Pakistan for the wrongdoings of the governments.”

Dutt was inspired to collect such stories when he came to know that his Urdu teacher in Punjab, Sardar Prem Singh Bajaj, was from Sargodha, now in Pakistan. He shared the idea with Hayat, whom he had met on a public group on Facebook, Aman Ki Asha, that promotes dialogue between the people of India and Pakistan. They launched Bolti Khidki together and started sharing the stories that they collected.

"Once you understand that people across the border are people like us, then all the animosity automatically comes down. The idea is to have a friend, for if you have a friend, then you might not have hatred."

More than 30 stories and 7,500 followers later, Bolti Khidki has started a volunteer programme under which youth in India and Pakistan can get in touch with it and help collect stories. “When you hear these personal tales of Partition, you realize there’s no hatred among the people on either side of the border,” says Ritika Sharma, 26, who edits the stories on Bolti Khidki.

A similar cross-border initiative was started by CAP and Routes2Roots, an Indian non-profit. Called the Exchange for Change (EFC) programme, it enabled school students of India and Pakistan to communicate with each other.

“Once you understand that people across the border are people like us, then all the animosity automatically comes down. The idea is to have a friend, for if you have a friend, then you might not have hatred,” says Aaliyah Tayyebi of CAP. EFC was a programme involving over 2,000 children from 10 schools on either side of the border, featuring an exchange of letters, postcards, posters and an oral history project. “And this made the children understand that people across the border were not as alien as they were made out to be,” says Tayyebi. Some of these programmes also enabled a student exchange between some schools in India and Pakistan.

Tayyebi recalls that the letters exchanged dealt with subjects ranging from popular Pakistani soaps and films to cricket. So much so that many of these thoughts would give rise to independent conversations on social media. The last EFC between India and Pakistan was in 2015.

The impact of this initiative, as well as all the other projects and archives, lies in this second life of history. It is about the continuing interaction outside mainstream textbooks and across political borders. It is about the transformation of History (with a capital H) as a top-down authoritarian discourse to a history that is living, participatory and belongs to all those who were affected by it.

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Dinesh Khanna’s painting of his grandparents in Lahore in 1923. Photo: Courtesy Indian Memory Project.

Beyond partition

Letters, objects and photographs on India of the Past and Indian Memory Project recount the history of the subcontinent

Thirteen years ago, when Subodh Mathur returned to the US from Jaipur after his father’s death, he thought about his family’s and, more specifically, his grandmothers’ legacy. Mathur and his elder brother, Subhash, decided to edit Dadi-Nani: Memories Of Our Grandmothers, a book of stories written by family and friends. Simultaneously, Mathur also launched a website, www.dadinani.com. Soon, it expanded beyond grandmothers’ tales, inviting people to contribute their stories. In 2010, Mathur converted Dadinani.com into Indiaofthepast.org, which captures personal memories from the 1950s and earlier.

With around 400 stories, Indiaofthepast.org is a reservoir of memories. These are stories of Partition written by people from India and Pakistan, but they are much more. “There are those who suffered during Partition but whose families bounced back. Many of them remember their lives in what is now Pakistan fondly. Many Pakistani readers are happy to read about what their cities were like long ago,” says Mathur on email.

But this is only one kind of story on the website. Others feature memoirs, stories of armed forces heroes, historical fiction, children’s testimonies of their parents, and even old food recipes. Take, for example, “My 1947 Box Camera Selfie”, in which Sangat Singh, now 84, writes about his passion for photography as a 14-year-old in Lyallpur, now in Pakistan. Singh purchased a Kodak box camera from the Katchery Bazar for Rs6 and 12 annas. “With this box camera, I took what is now known as a selfie—a photo of myself that has been with me all this time! I set up my Kodak box camera on a table, and got my youngest sister Jindi, then nine years old, to press the button.”

CAP also helps tell such stories. The idea is to document significant stories and events in the life of people from the early days of the creation of Pakistan. There are memories that recount the culture and nightlife of 1947 Karachi. Different voices describe the city as one that was beautiful and so clean that it would put many a European city to shame. The Palace Hotel was a throbbing epicentre of nightlife and this was followed in the 1950s by the Metropole, where people would line up to visit the disco.

It is narratives like this that help understand history better. “The idea is that we must bring our history to the forefront and talk about all that is not in the books. We are trying to make history more engaging and interactive through storytelling,” says Aaliyah Tayyebi of CAP. It is in keeping with this notion of history that CAP will be curating Pakistan’s first living history museum in Lahore later this year.

Anusha Yadav. Photo: Courtesy Indian Memory Project.

For Anusha Yadav of the Indian Memory Project, history is always personal. Her website, www.indianmemoryproject.com, is a repository of photographs and letters piecing together subcontinental history. She mentions a photograph that was sent by one Muzammil Hussain Munshi from Kargil. The photograph is of his great-grandfather Munshi Aziz Bhat, who was one of the last Great Silk route traders of India. After Partition and the Chinese communist revolution, the trade route shut down, bringing to an end an entire way of life.

Many of the photographs are memories of emotional moments that happen to tell you more about particular periods and offer different perspectives on Indian history. “A photograph provides visual proof and is evidence of a kind. It gives people a visual context and that’s what causes an emotional persuasion. It allows people to engage with a question,” says Yadav. “My quest is to understand the world through visuals. It references everything—clothes, living conditions, status, relationships, and the person who is taking the photograph.”

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