Memories of the ‘other’: three narratives of partition
The partition generation suffered great tragedies in 1947 but it also remembers a time when the ‘other’ wasn’t really the other but rather an integral part of their community.
Seven years ago, I joined The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP) – a local nonprofit organisation – to spearhead their Oral History Project in Lahore and Islamabad. During the course of my tenure at CAP and later during my own independent research, I had the opportunity to interview hundreds of Partition survivors in Pakistan, and some in India as well. The Partition survivors I spoke with had all experienced some degree of loss, violence, and trauma.
People spoke of the blood-strewn trains, of the despair of the refugees, of mob violence and riots. They vividly painted gut-wrenching images of women jumping into wells, of rape and abductions, of looting and slaughter. At times, they had personally witnessed or endured these violent episodes. At other times, they were so entrenched in the collective memory that the people who narrated them seemed to carry them as personal traumas, the pain deeply engraved in their bodies and minds.
I would often leave their homes nauseous, my palms sweaty, my stomach knotted. To this day, I remain baffled at how society as a whole healed after the trauma they endured, trauma that was too difficult for me to even bear to listen to six decades after Partition. The personal and collective memories of 1947 continue to haunt the survivors, and in many ways, also the post-Partition generations because these memories were never fully heard or shared, let alone processed. Yet they don’t disappear, they cannot disappear. These memories, these silences, these uttered and unuttered experiences loom over us, not only shaping our individual identities and life journeys but also dictating our politics, our sense of nationalism, and our relationship with our pre and post Partition histories.
70 years after Partition, India and Pakistan define each other in opposition to the other, using 1947 repeatedly in the political rhetoric to create a sense of otherisation and to quite an extent, dehumanise the ‘other’ across the border.
As a third generation Pakistani, I then expected the same state-endorsed narratives of Partition to be repeated, narratives which drew a clear binary between Muslim victims and Hindu and Sikh perpetrators in Pakistan and Muslim treachery and Hindu victimhood in India. I found that over the years, these state narratives had indeed begun to impact personal memories, filtering out the nuanced and complex experiences of Partition survivors and imposing black and white understandings onto them. It was only when I started to notice the silences, small anecdotes of shared festivities, the remembrance of a Hindu or Sikh friend that rescued them at Partition, that I began to explore the deep-seated memories that Partition survivors had but often did not share. These narratives pushed me to challenge my own preconceived notions and understand that Partition can only be explored on a spectrum, where hostility and faultiness coexisted with communal harmony, shared cultural practices, and rescue stories.
The first two narratives in particular give insight into a past that the state narratives nowhere acknowledge, let alone endorse. The third narrative depicts how the further we move away from 1947, the more likely we are to embrace a myopic understanding of Partition.
Naseer Ashiq: Naseer Ashiq lives in a border village in Kasur and spoke of a mela that takes place every year in the month of sawan. Indians and Pakistanis come together to pray at the mazaar just on the zero line. Greetings are exchanged across the border, after which the rangers first allow Indians to come forward to seek blessings and then Pakistanis.
The border, which is meant to divide, serves as a point of reunification, a place where shared culture and customs are still celebrated.
It was here that Naseer’s own father was able to meet with the family he had left behind. Adopted by a Sikh couple before Partition, he had returned to his biological parents in 1947 so that his life would not be in danger once the communal riots began. Naseer tells me that until his last days, his father cried for his Sikh parents and siblings. It was at this mela that they were able to reunite – albeit for a fleeting moment. This narrative shows that identities that were crystalised at Partition were far more fluid and diluted in the pre-Partition days.
Muhammad Rauf: Muhammad Rauf had left Amritsar in June 1947, when he was in second grade. Terrified of the riots, his family had locked their home to rush to Lahore, leaving behind all their belongings, certain that they would return.
It was only 62 years later that Rauf was able to go back to India. Travelling through the Wagah border to attend a religious procession in Batala, Rauf was only given a city-wise visa. Amritsar was not on the list and he had learnt to long suppress the nostalgia for his birthplace anyway. Pakistan was his only home, he told himself. Longing for the pre-Partition past could be construed as anti-national behaviour in a country that considers Partition to be its biggest victory to date.
When he arrived at the Wagah border, the Sikh officer looked at his passport and exclaimed, “Oye dekh, ye saada apna hai.” The officer went out of his way to accommodate Rauf who stood there perplexed, wondering mein inka kaise ho gaya? It was only when he sat down and opened his passport that he realised it read, “Born in Amritsar.”
Rauf began to weep during the interview and confided that he bribed the bus driver to detour and show him a little bit of Amritsar, his city. The memories he had learnt to suppress washed over him and he spoke of the longing to return, to stand on his soil, to breathe his air, this time with a visa that allowed him to explore his birthplace. Unfortunately, Rauf passed away before fulfilling his dying wish of visiting Amritsar again.
Adan: Adan was studying in Class 7 when CAP launched the Exchange-for-Change project, connecting Indian and Pakistani students through letters, postcards, and a physical exchange. When the time to visit India came, Adan’s mother – born in Pakistan after Partition – refused to let him go. She said she was afraid he’d never come back. She had heard how her father has lost relatives and property in Kapurthala at Partition, how he had barely escaped. She said she had a ‘very frightening picture of India in her head.’ A few days later, however, I learnt that Adan had received permission to travel. When I asked her what changed, she told me her father, who had personally suffered at Partition told her to let him go: “My father said he was confident that Adan would be fine there. I was shocked that despite losing so much, he still wanted to let his grandson go back. It made me rethink that maybe India wasn’t such a bad place…”
This story highlighted that sometimes, the Partition generation was actually more open to the ‘other’ than the post-Partition generations. They had suffered great tragedies in 1947 but they also remembered a time when the ‘other’ wasn’t really the other but rather an integral part of their community. Unfortunately, with minimal people-to-people interaction between India and Pakistan, the younger generations only inherit a hostile and violent understanding of the past, often finding it difficult to imagine the ‘other’ without prejudice and animosity tainting their perceptions.
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