Wisdom has it that forgetting the past risks repeating it. The old must remind both themselves and the young where they came from, what happened to them and why, and who was responsible.
It remains to be asked, however, whose memories need remembering, a question integral to the establishment of India’s Partition Museum which aims to “tell the story through the voices of those who lived through the times”. While researching for the museum, co-founder Mallika Ahluwalia was surprised to find that those who witnessed Partition tend not to speak about it to their descendants. She has, in Divided by Partition, United by Resilience, compiled twenty-one individual stories:
“We know this generation lived through the worst of Partition, bore their burden silently and focussed instead on giving a better life to their children. Their stories are difficult, but also inspirational.”
She includes statesmen, film makers, artists, writers, journalists, sportsmen and businessmen who have reached “the highest echelons of critical and/or popular acclaim in their area of work.” Their stories describe visceral details of the bloodbath in the trains, caravans, buses, streets, the plundering, the inexplicable alienation of neighbours, and the humiliation of proving one’s sectarian identity through explicit bodily examination. But Ahluwalia finds success, grit, resilience and triumph of the spirit in these narratives.
Even international readers may well recognise at least a couple of the personalities who share their stories with Ahluwalia: Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister of India; former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani; Grammy-winner Gulzar (born as Sampoorna Singh Kalra).
Yet it is precisely this selection that raises doubts. By her own admission, the people included in the book are household names in India and hardly ordinary at all. Talent is something one is born with; many others had families with connections and enough money to reboot their businesses and lives. Working with these national icons as material for Partition memory is diametrically opposite to archiving objects that people brought along with them when migrating. The latter is an authentic gesture in search of everydayness.
This is not to imply that her subjects have nothing relatable to say. Gulzar, also a film-maker, poet and lyricist, had arrived in Delhi before the Partition. He says his writing helped him purge the memories of what he had witnessed:
“There was one Muslim boy in school particularly, who used to, I remember, lead the prayers in school. He was senior to me in school – a very fair boy, very musically talented. One day I saw a man, I later got to know his name was Samandar Singh, dragging this young boy away. The boy was just going meekly, he wasn’t even protesting. When he took him away, I cried all night, I remember. We knew he was taking the boy behind Roshanara Bagh to kill him.”
He goes on to comment about effect of the suppression of memory:
“The Second World War was extremely traumatic, but in Europe, in America, in Britain, they made films, and they purged it out. But we were not able to make films on Partition, neither in India nor in Pakistan, so it remained suppressed inside us and made us claustrophobic. Maybe if we had done this then, maybe if we had cried out completely, if we had completely let our emotions and regretted the violence that happened, it would have been behind us today. But we kept it suppressed.”
One might note that Gulzar’s comparison is not quite apt. Whether in WW2 in general or the Holocaust in particular, the culprits were identifiable, some of whom even brought to justice. But in the case of Partition, the processes of law, justice, history and memory have entirely failed the “ordinary” people – the very people Ahluwalia singles out in the foreword to her book.
The poor and the marginalised are where one must look if genuinely looking for modest stories about struggle and survival.
Kuldip Nayar, an award-winning journalist, remembers meeting the man who drew the Partition line for Ahluwalia:
“[Cyril John] Radcliffe had very little data to work with … He was a sensitive man. He felt that what he had done had had repercussions, though he did not think he was responsible.”
“Kuldip also met many of the other players involved in the Partition, form Mountbatten to Nehru to Patel to the members of the Boundary Commission, trying to piece together the puzzle of what exactly had transpired…But Kuldip could find no good answers on this quest to understand the event that shaped his circumstances so much by uprooting him and forcing him to a new place and life.”
It turns out that no one – the British, the Indian politicians, or Radcliffe – was directly responsible for the madness and the suffering. Going to famous people, in search of answers, results in blaming the massacres on friends and neighbours.
The struggle of memory against forgetting has been immortalised as being virtuous. But it cannot succeed in this if it tries to make sense of the past by remembering things in a selective fashion. Museums are on the whole bigger than books; more can fit. But nevertheless, the history of Partition is ill-served by cherrypicking among the people who experienced it.
Divided by Partition, United by Resilience: 21 Inspirational Stories from 1947, Mallika Ahluwalia, Rupa Publications.
This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.