By Aanchal Malhotra
“Are you not tired of listening to this old story?” asked the 90-year-old woman I had travelled from Delhi to Chandigarh to meet. “I’ve been talking for hours.” Her story goes back to November 1947, when she was 19 years old and nine months pregnant. She was fleeing the ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs in Mirpur, in what is today the contested territory of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. She walked barefoot through a forest, without food or water, for three days before reaching an Indian army camp in Jammu.
She recalled bullets raining from the sky, killing her father, father-in-law and aunts. Her mother, grandmother, sister and two brothers had been abducted and taken to the concentration camp at Alibeg, in an old gurdwara a few kilometres from the new Pakistani border. She described how people, no longer able to carry their young children, had buried them alive, and how she and her husband had licked mud to feel some wetness on their lips. When she gave birth to her daughter, cutting off the umbilical cord with a sword she still possesses, the first instinct was to abandon the child in the forest and move on so that at least the couple could survive (they eventually carried the child). When she was reunited with her abducted family, she barely recognised them since they had become skeleton-like, their hair and bodies infected with lice.
Her question – was I not tired of listening – came after three hours of talking about the violence she had witnessed. “What will you do with the story?” she asked hesitantly, for the story had been set aside to languish for years. “It is so old and full of violence, who will want to read it? What will it change?” Even though 70 years had passed, she was afraid to recount her memories. Her story, when narrated, bore the tone of reportage: as if she had read about the killings, not lived through them. After several reassurances, she continued and six hours later, the story unfolded and settled heavily in the room.
Even after I returned to Delhi, the story still consumed me. I barely slept. I was haunted by images of children buried alive and bullets raining down. I tried to listen to the recordings of the conversation the next day and that night again, I was unable to sleep. A few years ago, when I was consecutively recording several stories a week, images of those stories would amalgamate into one while I slept. I would wake up frantically in the middle of the night and have to situate myself within my room. But even then, I rarely ever thought about the psychological consequences those interviews were having on me – I never once gave this result of my craft as an oral historian the scrutiny it deserved.
I realised that Mirpur was different than anything else I had heard about before, and perhaps I wasn’t equipped to understand it. On the second night, well past midnight, I reached out to the only other person I knew who had worked with Mirpuri families.
I met Prakhar Joshi the following week. An engineer, he was one of the first Story Scholars of the 1947 Partition Archive who recorded stories of families that migrated from Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. He had a particular interest in border villages. “I haven’t recorded anything since 2016, but this was my first assignment with the archive and I really had no idea what I was getting into,” said Joshi. “There was so much silence about Mirpur, and because of the sheer degree of violence, families had distanced themselves from what had happened. Ultimately, I managed to record over 60 stories.”
Joshi talks about a group imprisoned in a cave in the mountains, where people were being segregated on the basis of gender and religion. At the time, seeing that it was only Sikh males who were being killed, a Sikh father chopped off his son’s hair. Another pleaded with the perpetrator to be allowed to sit with his dying daughter until she succumbed – an ordeal that lasted 48 hours, before he too was mercilessly killed. Joshi recounted the story of a woman who, after fleeing from Mirpur, found refuge in a gurdwara in Jammu where she used her long hair to sweep the floor and this way, feed her family. He spoke about a father and elder son who severed off the mother’s head, as the younger son watched, because they were fearful of the worse things that could happen if she were caught by the “other”.
Joshi admits it was only on his return to Delhi that he realised something had happened to him during his time in Jammu and Kashmir. He became quieter and barely responded to emotion. The accumulation of traumas had made him a receptacle of violent memory. Since he no longer works with the 1947 Partition Archive, does he still think of these families? “It’s difficult to forget them,” he said. “I live in Lajpat Nagar, a refugee colony, and each time I see a nameplate for a Mahajan or Gupta or Ahuja – common last names from Mirpur – they take me back.”
Despite spending so much time in the company of people, oral history can be an isolating craft. Very often, after the interview is over, one is left only in the presence of recordings. This process involves sifting and sorting, transcribing, translating, transliterating, but most important of all, listening. Oral history is not reportage or journalism, but rather, the very penetration of human memory. Memory, which becomes unreliable and malleable as time passes, ironically remains the sole informant in recreating personal history – an accumulation of which, in the case of the Partition of India, can help formulate collective history. The point in this collection of vast memory is to find new ways to understand the existing past.
Despite its heaviness, there are reasons to do this work. It brings “forth narratives that are usually forgotten or silenced in the mainstream discourse of historical events,” said AnamZakaria. The Pakistan-based researcher, educationist, therapist and author of The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians began recording interviews for The Citizens Archive of Pakistan in 2010. “Recording oral history can be an incredibly overwhelming experience,” she said. “It exhibits various perspectives of the same event through the lives of ordinary people. But how does one keep their sanity, or distance oneself when one is so intimately involved, or even deconstruct and study a narrative for the purposes of pedagogy?”
Zakaria says that after conducting an interview, she has to put great effort into reconnecting with people, even those in her life. “Even as I am speaking to you now, I feel flushed and hot,” she said. “It has a bodily effect on me. But perhaps the most important consequence of this work is that images from my interviews appear in my dreams…I start to give new meaning to these stories and I become a character within them. So it transforms into a very personal kind of trauma that I have temporarily inherited. But at the end, it’s important to remember that, at that moment, as much as it feels like my own, it is someone else’s story.”
Feminist writer and publisher of Zubaan Books, UrvashiButalia, in her seminal work, The Other Side of Silence writes about being “emotionally entangled” with her research material.
Did it matter to the people I was speaking to…that the memory of Partition not be lost? That the history of Partition had ignored their experiences and stories, and mine was a part of an exercise, tentatively begun, to restore these stories to history? That remembering, to me, was an essential part of forgetting? I had no easy answers to these questions.
She continues this section of her book by talking about how the burden of stories of trauma often felt as though it had “shifted” onto her during the course of the conversation. How, once people began to emerge out of their initial reluctance, they spoke for long and cathartically, making her, the listener, the “bearer of the burden”.
Devika Chawla, Professor at Ohio State University and the author of Home Uprooted: Oral Histories of India’s Partition, inherited memories of her grandmother’s home, in now what is Pakistan, long before she began her work in oral history. “Nostalgia,” she writes, “seeps into generations. And stays. You can miss home, even when it was not home.”
Chawla was cautious not to record more than one interview every few days while doing her fieldwork in India, for it was too emotional to sit through the stories and have to process them right after. She strategically chose to re-listen to the stories only after she returned to Ohio. “Far away from the epicenter of where it happened, often in isolation, I am able to confront the narrative better, there is a more intimate connection between me and the interviewer’s words.” She says that all stories from that time are traumatic in some form or another. “Some are not necessarily traumatic in the details they hold, but the way in which they are told. It’s this layered form of storytelling – where history intersects with memory – and the voices that have stayed with me.”