Most personal accounts of what had transpired during the weeks before and after August 1947 are handed down as inter-generational knowledge. And yet, given the traumatic uprooting and violence of the event, there remains a palpable silence around stories relating to violence against or loss of family members. As a third-generation member of a family that had witnessed the Partition of British India in 1947, I grew up listening to stories full of paradoxes. The stories of my grandparents were replete with instances of compassion between individuals and families despite the raging madness that prevailed throughout the larger community.
My grandparents were young in 1947, but the vivacity with which they recalled their stories — all filled with a myriad of emotions — ensured that I never got tired of listening to them. Having studied the twentieth-century history of India in school, I understood how the Partition happened and knew that it was a highly complex, emotionally charged incident with impacts beyond geographical and temporal arenas. However, all of these were facts, numbers mentioned in reports formed by committees and governments of the time.
There has clearly been failure to preserve the personal stories of conflict and companionship alike, most of them circulated by word of mouth as intergenerational knowledge, or depicted in art forms. This was not something that dawned on me so seriously until I participated as an ambassador for the Mittal Institute’s project, “Looking Back, Informing the Future: The 1947 Partition of British India,” and was tasked with interviewing those who had witnessed the Partition.
My initial interest in the project stemmed from feeling connected to the history of the Partition in some way. I wanted to know more about individual experiences — how people moved from being a refugee to calling Delhi their own. As a young oral historian, my interest soon turned to exploring the collective memory and its potential to preserve and pass on generational knowledge that often slips through the cracks in written history — particularly in accounts of trauma and mass migration that can lead to selective amnesia.
Collecting stories was not as simple as I had presumed it would be. A substantial number of interviewees were selected through word of mouth, personal contacts, and by reaching out to the Residents Welfare Associations. However, the emotional wounds of the Partition are so deep that very few were willing to share their experience. Its religious context further intensifies the challenge when dealing with individuals from religious minorities who were not easily convinced to part with their stories. Moreover, the task of excavating meaningful information from the now-blurry memories of my interviewees remained a constant challenge. While some were very candid and open about their experiences, others were hesitant and unsure. It was important to gain their trust and make them feel comfortable. I also had to grapple with issues stemming from language barriers, or instances when interviewees could not recall the exact details. I noticed that men were generally more confident about sharing their experiences than women, who sought validation of their own personal stories, many of whom had never properly shared their accounts with anyone — even their family members.
The more I spoke to the witnesses, the more I understood that there is a lot we don’t know. The academic understanding of the chain of events that came with the Partition is devoid of these stories, which are all worth sharing and preserving for posterity. Just as each individual I met was different, so were the stories they told me. There were a few commonalities: being subjected to a situation of utter chaos and panic, of uncertainties and fear. But there were also many inconsistencies in the accounts, something I attribute to the slippery nature of human memory.
Most of the witnesses I interviewed had a point of contact, a relative or a friend in post-Partition India where they tried to go, and the process of reaching out to them and receiving help was not uniform. Some were fortunate enough to find shelter and food sooner than others, while others spent over six months in the refugee camp. Day-to-day tasks became stressful — sometimes impossible. Issues with menstrual cycles, insomnia, and starvation were so common in the refugee camps that people became conditioned to bear them. An 80-year-old woman in my neighborhood told me that her younger brother, at the time a baby, crossed the border with a cloth stuffed in his mouth because her parents were terrified of being caught. She still recalls seeing her brother gasping for breath, his face red.
Apart from illuminating the untold stories of the Partition, I discovered that oral history also helps uncover that which the respective national politics does not allow at the moment. We remember and cherish those who led movements and protests, but my interviewees were common people, part of the masses who were not the country’s “heroes,” but showed courage and strength in the most difficult of times. They endured the trauma of barely being able to survive, and built their lives from absolutely nothing. It has been my pleasure to be a part of this project, and it has made me much more aware of the humanitarian consequences of the Partition that continue to influence South Asia.