Taking Partition stories online
Ajit Cour lived in a small lane in Lahore. In 1947, when the riots began, she watched as houses in her neighbourhood were set on fire. One night, her parents escaped with her to Shimla, but they had to leave her grandparents behind. They thought the riots would last a week, and anyway old people were being left alone, and then the family would go back home.
The homecoming never happened. Instead, there was Partition. Her father, travelling on foot, made his way back to Lahore to look for her grandparents. He was lucky to find them. In a refugee camp.
At around the same time, Khursheed Irfan Ahmed was studying at the Kinnaird College For Women in Lahore, one of the first women’s liberal arts institutions in the subcontinent. She recollects that it was thanks to the then registrar of the college, M.G. Singh, that she got admission there. “Later, I found that he was murdered. That was the first blow of Partition I felt.”
These stories are part of a series of experiences shared on a website called the 1947 Partition Archive. Headed by Guneeta Singh Bhalla, a first-generation Indian-American and physicist by training, the project is run by a small team at the University of California in Berkeley, US.
Since 2010, the team has been engaged in an effort to compile as many personal accounts of Partition as possible, while it’s still possible to talk to survivors. Highlighting this sense of urgency is the target that the team has set: It hopes to collect 10,000 stories by 2017, the 70th anniversary of Partition (and independence) of India and Pakistan. Young people are trained through structured apprenticeship programmes, fellowships or internships to record stories of older family members. Alternatively, trained volunteers from the team reach out to survivors who are willing to share their experiences.
According to their website, the archive’s core team—curators, digital archivists, researchers and video editors—is “nearly completely volunteer-based”, with people from “diverse cultural and religious backgrounds, nationalities, and professions”.
A native of California, Sarah Kirby is one of them. “This is a universal story even though it’s happened in a country that I’m not from and might never go to,” she says. “It has happened everywhere.”
There are others like Farhana Afroz, a volunteer oral historian with the project, who has been personally affected by Partition. Afroz was born in Bangladesh but has lived most of her life in West Asia. Successive generations of her family have been displaced by partitions, first in 1947 and then in 1971—her grandfather was born in India, her father in Pakistan, and she in Bangladesh. “This generation, the 1947 generation, is not going to be here for too long. I have none of my grandparents with me any more, and I just feel that before these stories are lost forever, they should be archived. I just want to be a part of it,” she says.
Also read | Kuldip Nayar on Why India needs a Partition museum