For most of us the significance of borders have been associations with maps, often replicated in geography class and rarely used with the coming of GPS, stamped visas for facilitating tourist travel and maybe that occasional debate about the strife over territory between governments. But have we ever thought of what it’s like to live a life shaped by the existence of a political border?
For Guneeta Singh Bhalla who had spent her childhood in Punjab, Kashmir and Ladakh an “awareness of the border” had always been acute. But it was a trip to Japan that spurred the beginnings of the the 1947 Partition Archive; one of if not the first platform to record the people’s oral history of Indian Partition. In Hiroshima, Bhalla watched the recorded testimonies of those affected by the atom bomb and hit her at such a profound ‘visceral’ level that in that moment she knew she had to do the same for people’s account of Indian Partition, which had never been part of public records.
Moreover, one of Bhalla’s relatives passed away before she could record his Partition story. “That’s when I realised there were so many people who were going to die and we needed to know their stories, and not some washed out official narrative,” says Bhalla who then single-handedly began recording Partition stories. Initially her stories came from Faridkot, Punjab where her maternal grandmother lived and from the people who came to the gurdwaras in California, where she had later moved. Today almost ten years after her endeavour to preserve Partition stories her archive has 4,300 Partition stories from across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Heading the archive is Bhalla with staff in California and Delhi along with scholars, interns and around 500 citizen historians who volunteer to collect stories for the archive.
So how are ancient sorrows buried, bandaged or out of reach from conscious memory revived? How are the fragmented truths embedded in them preserved? Each Partition survivor has a unique story to tell and often their ethnicity and profession is taken into account when framing questions for them. Though some principles for the archiving of oral stories from this tragic time remain universal; open-ended questions, a non-judgemental attitude and accepting whatever the contributor has to say as the truth. “The interviewer must remember it’s not their story,” says Bhalla when talking about the training process for recording Partition stories.
While today with The Partition Museum opening in Amritsar and stories of Partition appearing in many crowd-sourced projects Partition doesn’t have the social taboo it did when in 2008, Bhalla began archiving Partition stories. “Breaking that barrier around the vocalisation of Partition and getting funding was very difficult. I invested all my life savings in this project before receiving the support of generous donors.” It was also challenging for Bhalla to make people understand why despite being Sikh she was interested in the Partition stories of people of all ethnicities. Surprisingly not everyone around her had the global perspective that she did. Presently for Bhalla the major challenge for managing the archive is “the race against time”; recording as many stories as possible before the stories die with those who witnessed them. “Our goal is to record a minimum of 10,000 stories. There is a long way to go,” says Bhalla.
To many of us exposed only to official history through formal education the thought of people’s memory of historic events often interweaved with their personal narratives might seem perplexing if not altogether irrelevant. For Bhalla who quit her job to run the archive and is now based in Delhi, connecting with elders has been “incredibly moving and transformative”. While watching the same happen to young people when Partition stories “open up their minds” about identity and make them “more empathetic”, along with the times when separated family and friends reunite through the archive, are moments of great personal fulfilment for her.
When asked about the aspects of identity that resurface in Partition stories that Indians should know about today, Bhalla gives some thought-provoking insights,“Its a myth that India was undivided before Partition. British India was formed by the merging of thousands of independent kingdoms. It was the province of Punjab and Bengal that had remained undivided before 1947. That is why the people of that time have such a strong sense of local identity that remains even after residing in new nations. Secondly, religion as a divisive factor in society only became important after Partition. It’s only the generation after Partition that has such strong communal feelings.” In times like ours where the call for collective nationalism is producing violent repercussions, perhaps these stories which are secular legacies of our existence are more relevant than ever.
To know more about 1947 Partition Archive and their Partition stories, you can visit their website here.
They are also having a three week long multi-media, interactive exhibition on the people’s history of Partition in Delhi. For details click here.
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