Preserving Memories of Partition That Aren't Our Own

Through personal narratives from grandparents and depictions in books and movies, young people in India and Pakistan have constructed their own memories of Partition.

The Wire’s #PartitionAt70 series brings a number of stories, through text and multimedia content that will attempt to draw a comprehensive picture of those weeks and months when entire geographies and histories changed forever.

Although my nani shared stories of Partition with my mother, I have only ever been treated to small anecdotes from her childhood. Whether these stories took place in Rawalpindi or Delhi, I can’t say. The trauma of Partition, though never exactly hidden from me – she happily recounted living in Rawalpindi when I told her a Pakistani college friend was from there – has never been a story she wanted to share. And the thing is, my nani and I share everything, even clothes, though in recent years she’s complained that my pants are getting too tight and dresses too short for her to wear in public.

As the years pass on and my nani continues to live the bachelorette lifestyle by herself in Chandigarh, I’m all too aware that the woman who taught me how to gossip and snark may be gone soon, just like the rest of my grandparents. She’ll take her stories with her, and they’ll remain permanently untold, either because she prefers it that way or because I’ve never found a good time to ask. It’s always seemed a little cruel to rake up her past just to satisfy my own curiosity.

Instead, I turned to fiction to fill the vacuum of personal narrative. Over the course of a semester, my Pakistani friend and I made our way through a number of books to piece together our personal histories.

Our friendship was typically representative of the cultural and linguistic similarities that bind together South Asians outside South Asia, and the political infractions of our nations seemed so far away from us that they never really figured in our friendship. We were too busy bonding over music and an emotional dependence on chai.

As we read our way through books like Bapsi Sidhwa’s Candy Man and Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, the suddenness and viscerality of the violence hit us both hard. Before our discussions, I’d never stopped to think that Sikh men too must have been complicit in the violence. Just like my nani harboured a lingering distrust of Muslims, my friend’s dadi (who migrated from Amritsar to Rawalpindi) felt the same way about Sikhs.

In the past year, I’ve discovered that several of my friends have engaged in similar exercises – turning to their grandparents, fiction, poetry, songs, movies to understand their own history. The past few years have also seen a number of initiatives related to Partition pop up. Everyone seems to be racing against time and death in a bid to preserve memories.

Those who actually experienced Partition will be gone soon, the stories they told their children and their grandchildren will live on, but those who come after us will have had no contact with the ones who survived the separation. My children, for example, will not feel the same contortion in their stomachs when they hear an old Punjabi woman describe her harrowing train journey from Pakistan to India. They will not feel, at least not as acutely, the confusion of an old passport that says, ‘Birthplace: Undivided India’.

Mine will be the generation that will shepherd the Partition’s transition from personal to institutional memory. We’ll have access to our grandparents’ interviews and possessions but the stories that accompany them will be ours to construct.

Never one for suffering alone, I decided to inflict this uneasiness on my friends by asking them, “How do you think your children and grandchildren will remember Partition?” The answers – from both Indians and Pakistanis – prophesy a future in which this intimate history will turn into the dry facts that feature in history textbooks. It’s just going to be a thing that happened. Several also suggested that they will rely on movies like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag to tell the Partition story.

There’s one scene in the movie that makes it a compelling choice, where Milkha Singh reluctantly returns to Pakistan, the site of his parents’ murder and the source of his lifelong trauma. But once there, he ends up meeting the son of his Muslim friend. It’s a touching story within the story because it captures the tenuous idea of nationalism possessed by those who migrated. My Pakistani friend’s grandmother still pines for Amritsar, my Indian friend’s grandmother says her most cherished wish is to return to her birthplace.

At a time when “Go to Pakistan” is the insult of choice, how will we preserve these complicated emotions surrounding Partition? Will we flatten everything out in a tale of communal tension or create more art to render these complicated stories?

Despite our best efforts, we will deviate from the ‘authentic’ or ‘factual’ memories of the separation. We will constantly have to remind ourselves that real life doesn’t grant us the luxury of a cohesive narrative. Our collective memory of Partition has always been a mix of fact and fiction – those who survived Partition have mixed in their own experiences with the stories they heard at the time, their children and grandchildren have added to this collage with fiction, songs, movies and poetry about the migration. Currently, I’m too intimidated and awed by the weight of history to wonder what we’ll blank out and what we’ll play up in the next seventy years.

Nehmat Kaur is a culture writer based in New Delhi. She writes a weekly column for The Wire called Name-Place-Animal-Thing and tweets @nehmatks.