The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan mostly affected those who were unaware of the fact that they were being ruled by “foreigners”. People in the villages of Punjab and Bengal were uprooted from the lands they had been living in for centuries and had to flee across the border – a border whose existence was still a myth to some. In August 2019, India and Pakistan celebrated 72 years of Independence, but few could have mourned 72 years of the Partition.

Kavita Puri’s book, Partition Voices: Stories of Survival, Loss and Belonging, is a work of oral history that attempts to bring forth the stories of British South Asians who survived this traumatic event. It also consists of accounts of Britishers who lived in the subcontinent during the Raj. This book is based on a series of the same name that Puri presented for BBC Radio 4 in 2017.

A second-generation British South Asian herself, Puri understands the importance of creating a public space for her compatriots to share their Partition stories. The memories of members of a formerly colonised people living in the country of their ex-colonisers make for a fascinating theme. Puri raises important questions through her interviews and engages critically with the stories she hears. At the same time, she also introspects on the effects of asking survivors to talk about Partition.

Loss of a home(land)

“Partition, though filled in horror in so many ways, is also a story about love. Love of your land.”

Land and religion are the two ends of the Partition spectrum. When and why land became a signifier of religion is a question we still grapple with. Mohindra Dhall, a Hindu born in Lyallpur, now in Pakistan, moved to Ferozepur in Indian Punjab in 1947. He still dreams of the two Punjabs, in India and in Pakistant, becoming one. “If you see a Muslim wedding or a Hindu wedding,” he tells Puri, “there are loads of rituals which I can tell you are all common. It has nothing to do with religion...because they belong to that particular land, the particular place that you come from…” Many partition survivors echo the same idea about land and religion not being interchangeable.

In her semi-autobiographical work, Borderlands, scholar Gloria Anzaldua discusses her experiences growing up as a Mexican-American (Chicana). She writes, “I am a turtle, wherever I go I carry ‘home’ on my back”. This statement stands true for almost all the Partition survivors whom Puri interviews for her book.

Their sense of “home” is fractured and ambivalent, and yet they have carried “home” on their backs and migrated to new lands to create a new life. The “land” they associate with “home” is lost, but their sense of an original home still remains. Partition Voices creates a platform for these survivors to share stories about their home(land).

Decolonisation and demonisation

“In the main, people were whipped up by demonisation of the other, encouraged by the rhetoric of politicians and a feverish media.”

Even after 70 years, Karam Singh, one of Puri’s interviewees, is baffled by the possibility of people murdering one another so ruthlessly after years of peaceful co-existence. The answer to his puzzle perhaps lies in the accounts of some other interviewees, who talk about the hierarchies that existed in British India: the coloniser and the colonised, the Hindu and the Muslim, the upper class and the lower class, men and women.

There always exists an “other” in contrast to the “self”, leading to the festering of violence. The self needs an “other” to know who the self is, and with time, this other is demonised and perceived as a threat to the “self”. And so, Sikh and Hindu men raped Muslim women, while Muslim men in turn raped Sikh and Hindu women.

The decolonisation of India did not completely eliminate the “other” or the “foreign” for either side. In Partition Voices, we meet the Indian diaspora who are still “othered” by Indians and the British. Tara, a third generation British South Asian, talks about encounters when she has time and again been asked to “go back home”.

Here, Puri writes, “…what people need to understand is that Britain was once the centre of an empire, and migration happened. There have been people from the former colonies here for centuries, and after independence, they were invited over to help rebuild the country after the war.” For British South Asians, the sense of rootlessness stems from having to face racism in Britain and discrimination in India, making them question their identity, and often forcing them to live in confined spaces.

Partition Voices, thus, is an important milestone in the Partition project because it ascribes importance to the British-South Asian dynamic and talks about the shared history of these two nations without villainising or glorifying either side. In a day and age where the influx of migrants around the world is treated with anxiety and anger, Puri’s book sensitises readers to the realities of migration through the 1947 Partition.

Furthermore, the diversity in the voices of the survivors proves that nothing exists in isolation, and it is difficult to categorise people in the easy brackets of “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong”. Puri’s narration moves people away from these brackets and looks at their accounts as human experiences, wrapped in love, hate, betrayal, revenge, loss and longing.

Partition Voices: Untold British Stories, Kavita Puri, Bloomsbury.