“Are you not tired of listening to this old story?” asked the 90-year-old woman I had travelled from Delhi to Chandigarh to meet. “I’ve been talking for hours.” Her story goes back to November 1947, when she was 19 years old and nine months pregnant. She was fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs in Mirpur, in what is today the contested territory of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. She walked barefoot through a forest, without food or water, for three days before reaching an Indian army camp in Jammu.

She recalled bullets raining from the sky, killing her father, father-in-law and aunts. Her mother, grandmother, sister and two brothers had been abducted and taken to the concentration camp at Alibeg, in an old gurdwara a few kilometres from the new Pakistani border. She described how people, no longer able to carry their young children, had buried them alive, and how she and her husband had licked mud to feel some wetness on their lips. When she gave birth to her daughter, cutting off the umbilical cord with a sword she still possesses, the first instinct was to abandon the child in the forest and move on so that at least the couple could survive (they eventually carried the child). When she was reunited with her abducted family, she barely recognised them since they had become skeleton-like, their hair and bodies infected with lice.

Her question – was I not tired of listening – came after three hours of talking about the violence she had witnessed. “What will you do with the story?” she asked hesitantly, for the story had been set aside to languish for years. “It is so old and full of violence, who will want to read it? What will it change?” Even though 70 years had passed, she was afraid to recount her memories. Her story, when narrated, bore the tone of reportage: as if she had read about the killings, not lived through them. After several reassurances, she continued and six hours later, the story unfolded and settled heavily in the room.

Even after I returned to Delhi, the story still consumed me. I barely slept. I was haunted by images of children buried alive and bullets raining down. I tried to listen to the recordings of the conversation the next day and that night again, I was unable to sleep. A few years ago, when I was consecutively recording several stories a week, images of those stories would amalgamate into one while I slept. I would wake up frantically in the middle of the night and have to situate myself within my room. But even then, I rarely ever thought about the psychological consequences those interviews were having on me – I never once gave this result of my craft as an oral historian the scrutiny it deserved.

The sword that was used to sever the umbilical cord as the 19-year-old mother fled the ethnic cleansing in Mirpur.
The sword that was used to sever the umbilical cord as the 19-year-old mother fled the ethnic cleansing in Mirpur.

Collection of memories

I realised that Mirpur was different than anything else I had heard about before, and perhaps I wasn’t equipped to understand it. On the second night, well past midnight, I reached out to the only other person I knew who had worked with Mirpuri families.

I met Prakhar Joshi the following week. An engineer, he was one of the first Story Scholars of the 1947 Partition Archive who recorded stories of families that migrated from Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. He had a particular interest in border villages. “I haven’t recorded anything since 2016, but this was my first assignment with the archive and I really had no idea what I was getting into,” said Joshi. “There was so much silence about Mirpur, and because of the sheer degree of violence, families had distanced themselves from what had happened. Ultimately, I managed to record over 60 stories.”

Joshi talks about a group imprisoned in a cave in the mountains, where people were being segregated on the basis of gender and religion. At the time, seeing that it was only Sikh males who were being killed, a Sikh father chopped off his son’s hair. Another pleaded with the perpetrator to be allowed to sit with his dying daughter until she succumbed – an ordeal that lasted 48 hours, before he too was mercilessly killed. Joshi recounted the story of a woman who, after fleeing from Mirpur, found refuge in a gurdwara in Jammu where she used her long hair to sweep the floor and this way, feed her family. He spoke about a father and elder son who severed off the mother’s head, as the younger son watched, because they were fearful of the worse things that could happen if she were caught by the “other”.

The writer interviewing Uma Sondhi Ahmad.
The writer interviewing Uma Sondhi Ahmad.

Joshi admits it was only on his return to Delhi that he realised something had happened to him during his time in Jammu and Kashmir. He became quieter and barely responded to emotion. The accumulation of traumas had made him a receptacle of violent memory. Since he no longer works with the 1947 Partition Archive, does he still think of these families? “It’s difficult to forget them,” he said. “I live in Lajpat Nagar, a refugee colony, and each time I see a nameplate for a Mahajan or Gupta or Ahuja – common last names from Mirpur – they take me back.”

Despite spending so much time in the company of people, oral history can be an isolating craft. Very often, after the interview is over, one is left only in the presence of recordings. This process involves sifting and sorting, transcribing, translating, transliterating, but most important of all, listening. Oral history is not reportage or journalism, but rather, the very penetration of human memory. Memory, which becomes unreliable and malleable as time passes, ironically remains the sole informant in recreating personal history – an accumulation of which, in the case of the Partition of India, can help formulate collective history. The point in this collection of vast memory is to find new ways to understand the existing past.

Despite its heaviness, there are reasons to do this work. It brings “forth narratives that are usually forgotten or silenced in the mainstream discourse of historical events,” said Anam Zakaria. The Pakistan-based researcher, educationist, therapist and author of The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians began recording interviews for The Citizens Archive of Pakistan in 2010. “Recording oral history can be an incredibly overwhelming experience,” she said. “It exhibits various perspectives of the same event through the lives of ordinary people. But how does one keep their sanity, or distance oneself when one is so intimately involved, or even deconstruct and study a narrative for the purposes of pedagogy?”

Anam Zakaria conducting an interview with her team for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan's 'Oral History Project'.
Anam Zakaria conducting an interview with her team for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan's 'Oral History Project'.

Zakaria says that after conducting an interview, she has to put great effort into reconnecting with people, even those in her life. “Even as I am speaking to you now, I feel flushed and hot,” she said. “It has a bodily effect on me. But perhaps the most important consequence of this work is that images from my interviews appear in my dreams...I start to give new meaning to these stories and I become a character within them. So it transforms into a very personal kind of trauma that I have temporarily inherited. But at the end, it’s important to remember that, at that moment, as much as it feels like my own, it is someone else’s story.”

Importance of distance

Feminist writer and publisher of Zubaan Books, Urvashi Butalia, in her seminal work, The Other Side of Silence writes about being “emotionally entangled” with her research material.

Did it matter to the people I was speaking to...that the memory of Partition not be lost? That the history of Partition had ignored their experiences and stories, and mine was a part of an exercise, tentatively begun, to restore these stories to history? That remembering, to me, was an essential part of forgetting? I had no easy answers to these questions.

— 'The Other Side of Silence'

She continues this section of her book by talking about how the burden of stories of trauma often felt as though it had “shifted” onto her during the course of the conversation. How, once people began to emerge out of their initial reluctance, they spoke for long and cathartically, making her, the listener, the “bearer of the burden”.

Devika Chawla, Professor at Ohio State University and the author of Home Uprooted: Oral Histories of India’s Partition, inherited memories of her grandmother’s home, in now what is Pakistan, long before she began her work in oral history. “Nostalgia,” she writes, “seeps into generations. And stays. You can miss home, even when it was not home.”

A special train for refugees. Photo credit: Teadmata/Wikimedia Commons [CC Public Domain].
A special train for refugees. Photo credit: Teadmata/Wikimedia Commons [CC Public Domain].

Chawla was cautious not to record more than one interview every few days while doing her fieldwork in India, for it was too emotional to sit through the stories and have to process them right after. She strategically chose to re-listen to the stories only after she returned to Ohio. “Far away from the epicenter of where it happened, often in isolation, I am able to confront the narrative better, there is a more intimate connection between me and the interviewer’s words.” She says that all stories from that time are traumatic in some form or another. “Some are not necessarily traumatic in the details they hold, but the way in which they are told. It’s this layered form of storytelling – where history intersects with memory – and the voices that have stayed with me.”

Ritu Menon, publisher at Women Unlimited and co-author of Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition, also recalls the voices that remain. “In Borders and Boundaries, there is the story of B, who at 16-17 years, is the eldest of seven sisters. Somehow, the caravan exiting Lahore leaves behind B and her father. Eventually, he is killed and she is left at a camp in the care of a local tahsildar. When two years pass and no one comes looking for B, the tahsildar – who has indeed taken care of her – decides to get B and his son married. The couple is happy, B is not forced to convert, she has learnt Urdu and over the years, gives birth to three children. But little does she know that her brother has come to Pakistan several times to look for her. Finally, she is retrieved against her will in 1957-’58, and pressured by her brother, is taken to India, where she refuses to stay with the family, but instead, in an ashram. The brother tries his best, but she says in Punjabi, ‘Main aithe aa gayee aan, bas. Meri jo tahaahi honi si, ho gayee hai’ (I have come here at your insistence, that is enough. I have lost everything now, I will not go anywhere).” Eventually, B makes something of her life, but it was not a life that she had wanted to live because she never wanted to return.

What Menon cannot forget is the words B had said when they asked her about her past – “Daffa karo, hun ki yaad karn hai, daffa karo (Leave it, what is use in recalling the past, forget it.)”

Ritu Menon.
Ritu Menon.

Looking out the window, Menon said, “Even now, I find it difficult to remember anything else that she might have said, but those words stay with me. Her story was like a microcosm of the entire process of dislocation during Partition at every level – emotional, psychological, physical, financial, familial, everything. She sort of encapsulated it. But I want to emphasise that all the women we interviewed – mostly wards of the state – were very willing to talk about what they had experienced, for till now, no one had ever asked.” Menon no longer works with narratives of violence. “There are no more words, the vocabulary is perhaps exhausted.”

So what are the words we use to describe trauma, talk about division, render emotional and physical loss, and encapsulate belonging or lament? “The relation between Partition and language is a complicated one,” author and translator Rita Kothari wrote in a piece titled Speaking about Partition from 2017. “Were languages capable of bearing the burden of words that could capture the enormity of Partition? Words such as bantwara or vibhajan (both connoting division in Hindi), ladpalayan (migration and exodus) or virhango (separation in Sindhi) appear too quotidian to fully capture the trauma of this experience. Do we have words, for instance, to articulate...the minoritisation of Urdu in India as well as the hegemony of Hindi?” she asked poignantly. Clearly the burden is not just of memory, but also of articulating it.

Like Menon and Butalia, Dr Alok Sarin, a clinical psychiatrist at the Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research in Delhi and co-editor of The Psychological Impact of the Partition of India, affirms that Partition memory is as much about recall as it is about silence. He talks about how when there is a natural disaster, the people, the government, private bodies roughly know what to do in terms of damage control or relief and rehabilitation. But this is not the case for manmade events.

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“Unfortunately, we do not think about the impact of trauma on the individual and collective psyche as something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. Rather, we internalise it,” he said. “We need to provide a listening space for experiences that are overwhelming – much like Partition – in order to be able to recognise and deal with trauma.”

Then why is it that people chose to remain quiet? Why did they normalise this traumatic displacement? They didn’t talk, cry out, describe or feel. On the contrary, they suffocated traumatic memory, depressed it lower into their bodies, allowed it to fester and perhaps even lead to prejudice among subsequent generations. What happens when a crisis is no longer an active crisis, but a latent, lingering one? Does its memory not require and demand exploration? Should its first-hand accounts be dismissed on the basis on being inherently unreliable because they cannot be corroborated or proven? As Butalia writes in Partition: The Long Shadow, “The exploration of memory is not something that is or can be finite. Every historical moment that offers us the possibility of looking at it through the prism of memory demonstrates that the more you search, the more there is that opens up.”

Such sights were not uncommon during the Partition. Photo credit: Photo Division, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons [CC Public Domain].
Such sights were not uncommon during the Partition. Photo credit: Photo Division, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons [CC Public Domain].