In February 2020, I was sitting in my neighbour’s living room, recording the story of her family’s migration from Lahore to Delhi during the 1947 Partition. Raj Suneja is ninety years old, but both her storytelling skills and attention to detail are things to marvel at. Once deep in the conversation, she effortlessly recalled anecdotes about her father, Amolak Ram Kapur, one of the seven lawyers defending Bhagat Singh and twenty-seven others in the trial for the Lahore Conspiracy Case in 1929.

She spoke fondly of their home on Fane Road, the akhara, the garden, their two cars, cows and a tanga, and how they were the first family in their neighbourhood to get a Godrej refrigerator. She told me how unable to catch up to the curriculum of her new school in Delhi, she ended up writing the story of their migration in her exam paper. She took out old newspapers and journals written in longhand, books mentioning her father’s cases, and proudly showed me the framed photograph of him on the side table. It was evident that for those few hours of our meeting, she remained suspended in the memories of a pre-partitioned childhood.

This is what I do as an oral historian of the 1947 Partition – record stories and eyewitness accounts of the largest human migration till date.For the last seven years I have done this work across cities in India, Pakistan, North America and the UK, talking to family, friends and strangers, negotiating visas, borders and difficult territories – both physical and emotional – in order to write a human history of Partition.

My first book on the subject, published in the subcontinent as Remnants of A Separation and in the UK/US as Remnants of Partition, looked at the personal objects carried across by refugees to either side in 1947. The generation who witnessed Partition is now in its twilight years, which makes this fieldwork exceptionally time-sensitive. But if someone had told me in February 2020 that a pandemic would put a pause on my research for the remainder of the year, I may never have believed them.

Slowing down the momentum

March saw the entire world go digital. There had never been anything quite like it before. With cases surging across the country, neighbourhoods (ours included) being turned into containment zones, and people being forced to remain within the four walls of their home, human contact seemed a thing of the distant past.

I won’t lie – I revelled in this at first, for apart from my interviews with Partition witnesses, my world was small. I wasn’t too social and since I already worked from home, there wasn’t much visible change to my days. In fact, I spent the month finishing up a manuscript I’d been working on for the last three years. Once I submitted it, I took stock of my next project.

I had hoped to spend the summer in and out of Punjab working on a community history of the people. But lockdown was the new normal, and so I started with secondary research (books and digital archives), assuring myself that whenever the world opened up, I’d begin field work. Weeks went by, months even, before it was clear that the pandemic was here to stay.

Oral History interview with Savitri Mirchandani, 2016

Travel became an unimaginable concept, any human touch was quickly followed by rigorous sanitisation, and physical proximity was feared. I then began to get news of death – of either the virus or old age – from the families of people whom I’d previously interviewed. It pained me that despite being so intimately involved in telling the story of their lives, I couldn’t even be physically present to offer my condolences after their deaths. WhatsApp and Zoom took the place of warm embraces, pixelated tears attempted to speak to the profundity of loss, and then, sure enough, inundated by the news and Covid-19 reports, the momentum of my research also eventually slowed down.

My signature style of writing has been a collage of travelogue, history, memory, conversation, and culture, but I was currently limited to the pages of historical archives. Furthermore, my proposal for this new book promised to capture the beating heart of an Undivided Punjab, and for that, the voices of people – the oral history – were essential. It was during this time that I began ruminating on why exactly the personal interview was so significant, and why – like the rest of the world had been able to do – it could not go online as effectively.

The importance of physical presence

To do this I must tell you what my primary research entails, and address the larger question of what Oral History really is. Through the collection of oral accounts, we study the ways in which individuals witnessed certain events in history. Oral History, thus, is not reportage or journalism, but rather, the very penetration of human memory and personal past. In countries like those of the subcontinent, where a rich tradition of oral culture exists and outweighs official archive, it becomes one of the most authentic sources to recreate and understand a certain time.

Often these interviews are spaces where people say things for the first time – they discuss what happened to them and their families decades ago; they return – in my case of Partition-related research – to the other side; they reminisce lost friendships and loves, homes and landscapes; they mourn, ruminate and unburden. It’s not just about recording personal experiences, though, but also the diversity of experiences. For communities that have been marginalised, overlooked or rendered invisible, Oral History allows their stories to be heard and preserved. In that sense, these interviews are sacred.

Sometimes, I think back to the time I spent travelling across the world recording stories of Partition. Yes, the subject matter was heavy and the conversation was intimate and often tragic, but so much of that experience made me feel as though I was a part of the writing of a new kind of human history. The kind that refused to acknowledge migration only through data or numbers, but looked at the story behind each of those numbers.

Ambedkar University student conducting an interview with residents of Trilokpuri

Confined to my home, in the midst of a pandemic, I found myself missing all the cups of tea and coffee we would consume during these interviews. All the different ways people would address me – beta, beti, puttar. How the pronunciation of my name would change from Aanchal with a nasal n, to the Bengali Ochol. How words of languages left behind on the other side would pepper the speech of my interviewees – takka for lane in Pothwari, chabka for a box with a lock in Jhangi. How I was shown objects as mundane as books and shawls and as unique as stuffed crocodile heads and silver cigarette cases as tangible traces of homes left behind.

These are just some of the reason Oral History depends on physical presence, for the interview is not only limited to what is spoken, but also what is left unsaid – what is gestured or revealed through the spaces we inhabit. Apart from the fact that most of my interviewees are above the age of 75 years and suffer from some medical condition or the other, the physical presence is also a way to build trust and comfort.It is one of those essential things that elevate an interview into a conversation.

And this is precisely why I found myself having difficulty navigating the online space to continue my research. I knew it needed to be done, but I was uncertain on how effective this shift would be. I couldn’t have been the only one grappling with this issue though, so I reached out to other oral historians to understand how the virus had impacted their research.

How things have changed for oral historians

Journalist Yunus Y Lasania, who is working on an oral history of Operation Polo and the annexation of Hyderabad state in 1948 tells me that not only did the lockdown interrupt his plans of travelling to Delhi to research in the National Archives, but the pandemic has also created fear amongst his ageing interviewees. Yunus, who has been recording the last surviving generation who witnessed Operation Polo, says his youngest interviewee is 80 and oldest is close to 95 years. This also makes him worried about their health, for he is unable to go and check on them, as he ordinarily would.

When I suggest the possibility of online interviews, he tells me that many of them are hard of hearing, the majority feel uncomfortable with technology and most require the comfort of his company in order to relive the past. “WhatsApp and Zoom may work for many professions, but they are almost perfunctory for this kind of intimate and serious conversation. You need to build a rapport, build trust and in that sense, being physically present is essential. Even just sitting and sharing a cup of irani chai with someone can spark the most interesting recollection, which I doubt is possible remotely.” For now he is occupied with secondary research, but tells me that he has invested in a new mic with a 20-foot wire for whenever he is able to resume his fieldwork.

The quintessential flâneur known as The Delhi Walla, Mayank Austen Soofi is not an oral historian in the conventional sense, but rather a chronicler of the social history and everyday life of Delhi. He shows no partiality to his subjects, writing about and photographing everything from a rickshaw-wallah’s afternoon nap to a woman at prayer, from a Lutyens Delhi bungalow to streets of the old city, from the flocks of birds to the species of trees.

In 2019, The New Yorker described Soofi as “assembling the portrait of a megacity in a volatile age” and in that sense, it sort of encompassed what his blog transformed into during the pandemic. Mayank’s work depends wholly on social interactions and daily travel, but confined to his home during the lockdown, he wondered how he’d be able to record these extraordinary circumstances. To understand how other people were spending their days inside, he developed two new photo series for his blog – We, the Isolationsists and The Window Gazers, inviting photographs and text from across the world. Both series continue to attract submissions even months later.

Mayank Austen Soofi at work

But, consumed with chronicling the change in his city, Mayank told me about how and why he began using WhatsApp to continue his work. “It started with friends and then soon widened to people I had met once or twice before, and then it extended to strangers. I wanted to have conversations about the urgency of these times. I wanted to map a city simultaneously in flux and at standstill; create an archive that we can look back on and understand the ways in which we lived and overcame. Through WhatsApp, I entered into people’s home from the safety of my own, and yet there remained something intimate about our conversations.

“What I have learnt is that even at a time like this, people do find happiness in conversation, they laugh, they share; that even when we are isolated from the outside world, there can be a sense of universal connectivity.” When it became mandatory to wear masks, Mayank wondered what would happen to the traditional portrait. But upon venturing out himself – masked and careful – he realised that he did not miss the faces, that this too was a particular portrait of a time.

Oral historians often travel near and far for their fieldwork. Sam Dalrymple, co-founder of Project Dastaan, a peace building initiative, travelled not only across India but also to various cities in the world in order to take his interviewees back to their pre-Partition childhood homes with the help of VR technology. Using the details recorded during oral history interviews, they would narrow down the area where a person was born and had migrated from in 1947, and then travel to that area and record present-day footage in order to “take the person back” virtually.

Earlier this year, the project received funding which would allow them to travel across the subcontinent for the next several months. Just a week before the lockdown was announced, the team was making plans to travel to Ladakh, where they would be recording an important oral history interview in a village on the border with Baltistan. For the next two months, all work was suspended as they decided to wait it out.

Projec Dastaan_taking interviewees back via Virtual Reality

Meanwhile, the team sharpened their skills by learning about new camera equipment that would help them in the field, and reading about the regions they hoped to travel to. It was during this time of isolated research that Sam ventured into the regional partitions that had taken place in the subcontinent.

“I began looking very closely at areas in North-East India – Tripura, Assam, Manipur – or the story of the Princely States, or even the partition of Burma from the rest of the Indian Empire in 1937,” he said. “The Partition of Punjab in 1947 has proved so crucial and important that it often overshadows even Bengal, not to mention all the other regional partitions that were happening simultaneously.” Envisioning this to be a project of oral histories extending from Burma to west Asia, Sam’s fieldwork will begin only after it is safe enough to travel, but he welcomes the possibility of some interviews being conducted through various online mediums.

Many of us learn to be oral historians in the field. We own the term without even knowing that it exists, we conduct the fieldwork without understanding the field that we belong to, we bear the burden of others’ stories as a byproduct of our research. I became an oral historian because there was a need to record the stories of a dying generation whose experiences had been relegated to either silence or statistical data. But I didn’t have any experience in the field, and neither did I have anyone to guide me.

In that sense, my path to Oral History was one of self-learning and necessity. But several colleges and universities across the world today have dedicated courses on the practice of Oral History and its importance.

Surajit Sarkar, coordinator of the Centre for Community Knowledge at Ambedkar University, Delhi, has been documenting Oral Histories of neighbourhoods and communities across the city with his students. In 2019, they partnered with the Delhi Government to launch an Oral History programme, which aims to record the stories of “all sections of life, including politicians, economists, cultural enthusiasts along with the common man”.

When I ask Surajit how the pandemic has affected this project and his teaching of the craft, he tells me that though the recording of interviews has slowed down, it has not stopped. “We have managed to continue our work online, but this is usually followed up with visiting the person, whenever they feel comfortable enough. So much of oral history is in the personal connect,” he stressed.

Surajit Sarkar with his students in Mehrauli

If Oral History is a field-based profession, then its teaching is field-based too. The pandemic has forced a lot of this kind of hands-on teaching to be re-conceptualised and re-imagined through a virtual lens. Students are no longer asked to do their fieldwork across the city, but, rather, limit it to family members or friends.

“Teaching Oral History has become a much longer process, because when one is in the field with students, it is easy to learn the dos and don’ts, how to understand and follow the ethics of the interview, how to avoid standard responses and ask creative questions,” said Surajit. “But our entire methodology of education is now mediated by the virtual.”

Curating the memory museum

In 2017, a friend, Navdha Malhotra and I, had together founded the Museum of Material Memory, a digital repository of material culture of the Indian subcontinent, tracing family history and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity. It was conceived as an accessible, borderless online space, and so not much has changed in its daily working. But one of the most interesting things we noticed during the pandemic was that because people were confined to their homes with time at their disposal, they began to view the everyday through different eyes – in particular, everyday objects of age.

The Museum is submission-based and encourages people to look at an old object in their home, ask questions to family members about its origin, and write a short essay. Through such storytelling, we are able to reveal not just a history of objects and the people they belong to, but also unfold generational narratives about the tradition, culture, customs, language, geography and history of the vast and diverse subcontinent.

Since March this year, we have seen a surge in both the quality of storytelling and the number of submissions we receive, and the Museum has become a source of hope for me when thinking of what the digital space can be capable of. In some ways, it would appear that as the world around us becomes more uncertain, our personal histories become more precious.

So while online platforms cannot replicate physical intimacy, they must serve – for this duration – as champions of our methodologies. I realise that visiting people of a certain generation is not possible or safe at the moment, despite how time-bound the collection of their stories remains. It has taken me a while to understand this and reconfigure my own research to fit the parameters of the pandemic. My hope is that during this time, the quality we inherit is that of conversation and empathy within our families – something quintessential to Oral History and something that often gets lost in the busyness of everyday life.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.