Khalid Bashir Rai was seven when his family had to abandon their home. It was August 15, 1947, the day India was partitioned into two states and his younger brother was born. Amid early sparks of violence, Rai’s family fled for Lahore, leaving behind Kasbah Bhural, a small village near the Punjab border where the family had long, deep roots.
Everybody in Kasbah Bhural was upset when we were leaving, Rai remembers. It was the kind of place where, “if you rented a room, you didn’t want to leave,” he said. “Our family had been living there for centuries… All our people were buried there. You love the place you live in.”
Rai’s story reached Saadia Gardezi, one of the founders of Project Dastaan, a non-profit connecting Partition refugees to their hometowns through virtual reality.
The Dastaan team travelled to India to video his home in Kasbah Bhural. On the way, they found a mosque Rai still remembers and discovered that the Sikh population had not only preserved old Sufi shrines in the region, but also continued to celebrate festivals of the Muslim community.
Rai teared up when he saw his old home in the video. “You’ve taken me back to memories of my childhood. I can’t remember every place because so much has changed. But I recognise the masjid, the durbar of Shah Hussain…”
The idea for Dastaan germinated in 2018, when Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak, two seniors at Oxford University, were exchanging family histories over coffee. They had grown up hearing stories about their grandparents – refugees from one of the largest forced migrations of the 20th century – and realised their grandparents had undertaken journeys in opposite directions.
When the country was coming to terms with its new political boundaries, Ahuja’s grandfather migrated from Bela in what is now Pakistan to Delhi, while Malak’s grandfather travelled from Hoshiarpur to Lahore. Both had always longed to return home, but never could, owing to inter-state conflict, the trauma of the past, and eventually, old age.
Moved by the stories, Ahuja and Malak – along with their classmates Sam Dalrymple and Saadia Gardezi – summarily launched Project Dastaan as a way to take Partition refugees back home.
At first, the founders interviewed relatives and friends of friends. But as word got around, younger members of migrant families began reaching out to them on social media, asking for their parents or grandparents to be included in the project. Volunteers in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh too signed up in short order, making the process streamlined. The team would interview the migrants and the volunteers would video their pre-Partition homes using VR technology. This video was then shown to the migrants, edited, and finally uploaded on Vimeo.
Project Dastaan is today backed by the likes of Malala Yousufzai, Gabo Arora (former creative director of the UN) and historian Yasmin Khan. CatchLight gave it a grant of $30,000 and UK’s National Partition Commemoration Project offered it support.
Based on the interviews, the Dastaan team is also creating Child of Empire, a film directed by Erfaan Saadati that will combine Partition stories with animation to form an interactive VR experience. The movie has been accepted into the 77th Venice International Film Festival Gap Financing Market for funding this year.
Marks of trauma
Project Dastaan wants to record 75 stories before the Partition’s 75th anniversary in 2022, but the coronavirus has slowed it down. So far, it has connected eight migrants, and interviewed at least 20.
Among them were brothers Iqballuddin Ahmad and Badaruddin Ahmad, both of whom lost their homes in attacks and fires in 1947. Iqballuddin migrated from Chak Karman in Roopnagar, Punjab, and Badaruddin from Messa Tibba, in Himachal Pradesh. They hid with their communities near Sinana village in Himachal Pradesh, before ending up in Korali Camp, where more people died due to scarcity of supplies and the poisonous copper sulphate (“neela thotha”) in the water.
They ended up seeking refuge at Harbanspura Camp and Walton Camp in Lahore, where they started a new life before moving to the UK. Despite suffering losses and grief during the Partition, when the team met them, they spoke largely of their friends and neighbours of other faiths who helped them through their journey.
“After Sam and Sparsh went to Chak Karman, they luckily found one of the mosques Iqballuddin and Badaruddin wanted to see,” said Jayosmita Ganguly, the Bengal lead for the project. What’s more, while eating at a dhaba, they even found out about Narendar Singh, a Sikh who was Iqballuddin’s closest friend. Iqballuddin had shown the team his photograph of Narendar Singh.
Sam and Sparsh asked around, and one man told them, “Yes, uncle stays near Chandigarh.” Unfortunately, Narendar Singh had died some years ago, but his wife, Kuldeep Kaur, was keen on speaking to Iqballuddin on the phone.
“They were talking for the first time after 70 years. It was a surreal feeling,” said Ganguly, whose grandfather, Rabin Sengupta, was also a migrant. “That’s the beauty of this entire endeavour – migrants are constantly talking about their pasts and their childhood. You and I can still go back to our childhoods if we wanted to, but these people never could.”
Ahuja has seen a familiar trope in the stories of Partition refugees.
“Migrants tend to have very similar stories – not because their migrations were similar, but more because their histories are told in a collective manner,” said Ahuja. He describes this trope as: “things were good, then that community turned on us, and so we fled”.
The problem, he has learned, is that when that story is retold, the first bit of that trope is whittled down through the generations. “No one talks about the fact that things were good between communities. It goes straight to ‘We escaped x community when we fled’. And that I think is what serves nationalist politics, that deliberate amnesia towards a more pluralist past.”
Ahuja says the amnesia is facilitated by the governments in India and Pakistan today, which are “gaining votes by defining themselves in opposition to each other”.
“The stance of our governments is to ignore the pluralism, and project a unitary version of what these countries should have been,” said Ahuja. “But the more these nations try to speak of how different they are from each other, the more alike they look, because they’re doing the same thing by destroying each other’s plural heritage.”
Ahuja says the communal politics raging through the subcontinent has also blinded the diaspora. “I have family friends who will share pictures of the Taj Mahal and say, ‘This used to be a Hindu temple’… The diaspora especially has a lot to learn from this project, because things used to be better before the Partition than WhatsApp forwards will tell you.”