Haroon Khalid and his wife Anam Zakaria from Pakistan, came to India recently to launch their books, In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan (Rupa) and The Footprints of Pa
Haroon Khalid and his wife Anam Zakaria from Pakistan, came to India recently to launch their books, In Search of Shiva: A Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan (Rupa) and The Footprints of Partition (Harper Collins) respectively. Interacting with this young and charming couple after their engaging presentations at the Foreign Correspondents Club, one could not but help feeling Indo-Pak political relations, they came like a pleasant whiff of fresh air.
Selected to head the Oral History Project team of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), a non-profit organization dedicated to cultural and historic preservation of Pakistan in Lahore and Islamabad, Anam Zakaria has made a path-breaking and admirable attempt to understand how the perception of Pakistan and India has evolved over the years.
Culling from the oral narratives of four generations of mainly Pakistanis and some Indians, her book including seventeen interviews, is divided into four sections: The Border: Azad Qaidies (freed prisoners), Families Partitioned: When Home is Elsewhere, Reclaiming Heritage: A Museum of Memories and Redefining Partition: ‘Bharat se Rishta Kya ’ (What is the relationship with India ). Each section provides readers with the experiences, life journeys and perceptions of different generations of Pakistanis and Indians in order to get an idea of how the meaning of Partition and what became the ‘other’, has shifted over the years. The stories are of people who left their homes and friends behind on the ‘other’ side, who remember the violence but also the humanity that prevailed during the bloodshed of 1947, as well as narratives of the children and grandchildren of the Partition generation, who have come to understand it through the lens of their elders.
Over three years, the author conducted 600 in-depth interviews across different socio-economic classes, mostly in and around Lahore. She realized that many of the narratives came from memories of horrific torture, rape, lootings, kidnappings, death and displacement, quite similar to the ones she had heard from her own maternal grandmother, who had served at Lahore’s largest refugee camp at Walton and also similar to what she had read in history textbooks as a student.
Some people readily shared their experiences, but there were others more reluctant to whom she persistently appealed, till they were willing to re-open that chapter of their lives. Recalling memories filled with horror, while some cried during their interviews, others spoke about losing entire families without as much as a tremble, what surprised the author was the emergence of memories of the good times that the Muslim and Hindu families had had together before Partition . There were stories of enjoying each other’s religious festivals, together, of sending mithai (sweets) to each other’s homes at Diwali and Id before Partition, stories of school friends, of neighbours who were more like family and even of rescue rather than vengeance when the pre-Partition madness began. A paragraph describes it:
Mansoor tells me that it was the month of Ramadan and the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were getting ready to prepare for Eid. This was common, he says. In the tightly knit community of Lahore, everyone would participate in each other’s festivals. Sweets would be distributed, new clothes would be made. Children would enthusiastically put up lights and decorations, unable to contain their excitement for the coming days. Melas would be organized, swings and food stalls the highlight. The Hindus, who owned most of the mithai shops, would stack up hundreds of boxes, forming a pyramid of colourful delights. Each day customers would flutter around them, buying kilos’ worth of sweets. It was in this atmosphere that Partition riots thrust their way in. ‘We were looking forward to Eid when all hell broke loose. I don’t know what happened but it was within those next few days that we came to slitting each other’s throats. That is something I still cannot reconcile with. What happened to us ’
And then there were stories of families divided by the Partition, with many pining to travel across the border to visit their abandoned homes and meet their old friends.
The author reasons out that while common sense dictates that the bitter memories of Partition would now be forgotten and new relationships would have been forged over the years, but admits that has not always been so. She points out how the memories of Partition have been “repackaged through state narratives” and how attitudes have only hardened over the years with post-Partition events- wars, religious extremism, terrorism- leaving “new imprints on 1947”.
I cannot help recalling my interaction with some members of a group of Pakistani ladies-artists and professionals- who visited India in 1999 as part of a cultural exchange programme organized by South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA). One lament expressed was of how the militancy in Pakistan had severe adverse effects on civil society. Another input that emerged on my query was of a lot of anti-India/ anti-Hindu sentiment in schools.
The author admits that her initial stereotyped perceptions about Indians changed after she studied with many Indian students for three years in Canada. Her opinions became less hardline and more forward looking and accepted that while history was bloody, all Indians could not be blamed for what had happened. She feels that the past should be forgotten and they should move forward, but explains that Pakistani students studying in low to upper middle-income schools did not have opportunities to interact with Indians. Like she in her childhood, they too had only heard negative stories and so talking with the Partition generation on one hand and these young students on the other, the disconnect between the two kept striking her. Why was it that so many children born over five decades after Partition, held so much bitterness despite many of their grandparents and earlier generation had good memories of their Hindu and Sikh friend and also when many had tried desperately to cross the border to see their homes one more time. One such recent narration which moved the author was of Viqar, who was thirteen at Partition, had left behind his family’s 350-year-old haveli in Meerut to come to Pakistan. But his family’s bonds for over three centuries there could not be eradicated overnight. “Even when I go back now all these years later, they always embrace me. I remember the first time I visited Meerut again was in 1956, almost ten years after Partition. My neighbours and friends clung to me and began weeping. The women gathered around me too. They were crying and asking for my mother and sisters. These were my people, my home. We had lived together for so long. How could we forget one another ” Even today, half of Viqar’s family income comes from his mango orchards in Meerut, still after by his Hindu/Sikh neighbours and friends.
This book is recommended not only for all Indians and Pakistanis of all age groups, but also by all India/South Asia watchers, Indologists etc. It would also be worth translating into Hindi and Urdu.