Last week, in the birthplace of America – the city of Philadelphia – Indian and Pakistani Americans gathered to share memories of the birth of India and Pakistan.
The unique community event was aimed at generating a new public dialogue on the 1947 Partition migrations through storytelling and memory. In the intrepid gallery called Twelve Gates Arts, devoted to South Asia-related arts, the event Voices of Partition presented witness testimonies from both India and Pakistan. Co-hosted by online digital video project, The 1947 Partition Archive, and part of a global series, Voices of Partition was an unexpected success – a flood of RSVPs meant that the gallery had to double its seats; people were standing, sitting on the floor in the aisles, just squeezing into the space to listen.
Three local South Asian American senior citizens – Hindu and Muslim – shared their memories of migrating as children across the new and bloody borders of India and Pakistan. Sagar and Reena Banka were originally from Lyallpur and Lahore, and Khurshid Bukhari was originally from Patiala. They described their fragmented, episodic memories of how they heard about ethnic violence in August 1947, how their parents decided to leave their homes, and how they slowly rebuilt their lives, in the shadow of homes and friends lost, in new countries. Many commonalities emerged across their stories: All said their parents thought that they were moving temporarily – until things calmed down. None imagined today’s closed borders, and the wars the two countries have fought.
Unlike other moments of collective historical trauma like the bombing of Japan during World War II or the Holocaust, the Partition experience has not been institutionally memorialised, said Guneeta Bhalla, founder and director of The 1947 Partition Archive, in her framing remarks. Approximately two million people were killed, and over 12 million displaced, within nine months during the division of India. But there is no equivalent to the Hiroshima memorial, or the Holocaust memorial, for Partition.
This inspired Bhalla to start gathering and recording witness testimonies in 2010. Today, the archive has gathered 2,500 testimonies, has offices in five countries, and its goal is to gather 10,000 stories by 2017 from a generation we are fast losing to age. Supported by grant funding as well as private citizens from three continents, the project indicates the global impact of Partition’s migrations. Steadily, this archive is creating a historical record of the price that millions of ordinary people paid for freedom in 1947.
Forging new bonds
As the gentle and eloquent speakers narrated their experiences and shared old black and white photos, a new and palpable emotional community was forged between the speakers and their multi-generational audience. The witnesses shared what they remembered of that harrowing time-colored by their childhood. They recalled the stigma of being derisively called “fugees” – because many didn’t know how to pronounce the word refugee. They also reflected on the lessons of that experience of becoming refugees.
Sagar Banka said their experience was mirrored today in the Syrian refugees’ reception in Europe. He urged the audience that while Syrians were being derided in the media as refugees, people needed to recognise that they are more than that label. They are, as his father was, teachers, or perhaps doctors, engineers, lawyers… human beings. Pointing to his and his wife’s contributions to American society, he called for a more humane and inclusive response to today’s refugees so that they would also have an opportunity to become contributing members of society.
Bukhari’s harrowing tale of a narrow escape from Amritsar, to which her Patiala-based family had fled after increasing violence, ended with her reminiscing about a certain kachori stall in Patiala. She said, “Oh, I would love to eat those kachoris again.” Someone from the audience warmly replied, “I’m from Patiala, and that kachori-wala is still there!” In the question and answer session, others in the audience, who had also migrated in 1947, started sharing their stories, their journeys. A 21-year-old South Asian American young man noted that when he discovered that his grandfather had migrated to Pakistan during Partition, it had transformed his sense of his identity: “I guess we were refugees. Refugees.”
What emerged in this diasporic gathering of those who once were refugees was an eagerness to remember that experience without rancour toward the other religious community. For instance, Sagar Banka affirmed that beyond religion, it was the Punjabi language that, here in the US, bound him in closer friendships with Pakistani Punjabis. The shared familiar itineraries of beloved cities (Lahore, Dehradun, Patiala) and schools spun new inter-religious, inter-national emotional bonds in this contingent community, flecked with the red and gold paintings of the Lahore-based artist Komail Aijazuddin.
Established in 2011, the goal of Twelve Gates Arts is, in its founder Aisha Khan’s words, to “create and promote projects that cross geographic and cultural boundaries. The gates refer to the fortified gates that walled many ancient cities such as Delhi, Lahore, Jerusalem, and Rhodes – inside which lay the heart of each city's art and culture. Through this Voices of Partition event, Bhalla and Khan opened the gates of our political borders and divided cultures. The dialogue allowed people, through the sharing of remembrances past, to not only see that Indians and Pakistanis have much more in common than our politicians would like us to acknowledge, but also to forge new relations of peace between us".
This Voices of Partition is not the first event, nor will it be the last. On April 24, The 1947 Partition Archive will host its first Voices of Partition event in India in Delhi. They had hoped it would attract 100 attendees – they have over 1,000 waiting to register. On Facebook, they have 4,500 interested in attending. It seems this submerged history is still very much alive today, and people want to tell and hear these refugee stories. They will need a bigger venue.