Friday, September 30, 2011

Fatima Jamil interviews Partition Survivors

by Fatima Jamil

My class mate and I co-interviewed a Sikh couple who had lived through partition. While neither of them experienced having to migrate from present day Pakistan to India, they felt the effects of Partition.  Uncle had actually been born and lived in Burma until he was around the age of adolescence, when his family had to migrate to India due to the Japanese attack on the area in the early 1940's. He told us that his family’s house was burnt down and that they lost practically everything. Their migration to India was long and hard, and a good majority of it was done on foot. For his choice of career, he joined the Indian air force, though he was not a pilot. Because of this he was stationed in different cities and when Partition was indicated in 1947 he was stationed in Karachi. He said that while in Karachi, he didn’t leave the air base much and that the relations amongst his colleagues of different religious backgrounds was friendly. He said that when the news of Partition was announced he was transferred out and so he did not experience any violence. However, he did mention that on his train ride through India, on his way home, that the tension and nervousness of all the passengers could be felt.

Auntie’s story was slightly different, while her family also moved around a bit due to the fact that her father’s work required it, as he worked for the British Raj as an irrigation specialist, she hadn’t moved quite as much as her husband and she had been born and raised in modern day India. She told us that before partition she was friends with a Muslim girl, whom she went to school with and whose house she would go over and play at. She told us that during pre-partition days she remembered peddlers going door to door and selling all kinds of goods, from fruits and vegetables to yards of brightly colored fabric. She told us that her and her friends would walk to school together or would sometimes ride together in a tonga (a horse drawn buggy). However, Partition started and fear of mobs from neighboring towns attacking her town, fueled by the violence that was taking place amongst those who were migrating from one side of Punjab to the other, changed things.  Her and her friends started having to be escorted to school by an armed civil-servant in a car that had curtained windows. Ultimately her family ended up moving to a safer village, where she became a teacher at a Sikh school for girls and became headmistress of the dormitories.

After the start of partition, and when she and Uncle had gotten married, she left her teaching post to live with her husband in the town that he had been stationed at. While she was very lonely there, they ended up only staying a short while as he was moved again. Then during the war that ensued partition her husband had to leave her and their children. He thought that the town that they were in would not be greatly affected by the war so he told her to stay, and that there would be no need for her and the children to join her brother who was living in a different area.  Unfortunately, a few days after he left the town came under threat of air bombardment. Auntie said that there were only a few people who had stayed in the town with her and they ended up coming and staying in her house. She said that sirens would go off every time there was a threat of attack and her, her children, and those staying with them would have to jump into the trenches that had been dug in her back yard. This lasted for several months.

After things calmed down and her husband returned they lived in India until her husband retired very soon after which they moved to America in 1980s. When asked why they chose to leave India, Uncle said it was because his brother-in-law had moved to America and he told them that they should also immigrate. But then auntie turned to him and asked, “Why don’t you tell them the truth?” She then told us that the reason they left India was because after retirement Uncle couldn’t stand the civil life in post-partition and post-war India, such as standing in line to buy sugar. Once they moved to America both of them worked in Mervyns for several years. Now they are both retired, own their home, have grandchildren, and spend most of their time gardening. They said that they are happy.      

Before the interview I was a bit nervous due the fact that I did not have much experience conducting interviews. I was worried that I might have difficulty making sure I asked all the required questions but at the same time be able to maintain a natural conversational flow.  Also, I was unsure of how open my interviewees would be. I expected the interview to go well as I went with a mentor and one other student. I knew no matter what happened it would be a learning experience, and I was more excited to hear their story than I was nervous about me not doing a good job.

I came away from the interview feeling uplifted and grateful. Hearing about the difficulties that my interviewees had undergone, and seeing that their view of life was still positive was inspiring and uplifting. I also felt gratitude towards my interviewees’ for sharing their experiences with us.  I had hoped that the interview would be a good experience for me and it was.

One of the things that stuck out to me during the interview was that Auntie was more willing to share with us than her husband; more specifically he did not seem to think his story was that important.  For example, before we started the interview he told us that he did not have any big stories. When asked weather they thought Partition should have happened or not they both said that it was unnecessary and that it was a political thing that had nothing to do with regular people. Another thing that stuck out was the advice that they had for the younger generations. Auntie said that you should work hard and be honest and you will get through life, and Uncle said that it is important to have respect for all people.        

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