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.        

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Return of Daadi -- by Om Juneja

Now that Daadi had died lying in bed and not on the floor, that too without lightening the oil lamp, who was going to guide her to heaven? How was she to find the way because there was no black cow with white patches in the room when she died?  The pure white money that Daadi thought could be used for buying the cow that would carry her soul through the oceans of life remained in her clenched fist unused. What was to be done with this money that rightfully belonged to the maternal uncle? Should it be given to Punditji or to the temple in donation or should it go back to Mamaji, our maternal uncle? Do we still need to donate the cow to expiate the family from the sin of selling chrome leather?

All these questions needed answers before the cremation. So all the male members of the family went in a conclave, while all the women got busy with preparing Daadi for cremation. Some neighbours went to buy huge logs, the bamboo sticks, dry grass, white and red cloth sheets, earthen water pots, cow-dung cakes, flower garlands and a host of other things for performing the last rites for the dead.

Hearing the news of the death of Daadi, Mahashaji, a neighbour, came to pay his last respects to her. Seeing him there the women had a sigh of relief. He was a practicing priest in the reformist Hindu movement of Arya Samaj and was knowledgeable in such matters. So the women requested him to guide them in performing the funeral, as the elder males, who were in conclave debating the issue, had not resolved the big riddle of Daadi’s place in heaven or hell. Punditji, who had suggested expiation of the sin by donating a cow, followed the traditional Hindu scriptures of Sanatan Dharma and the Puranas. He was yet to be called for.  

Taking control of the situation, Mahashaji started chanting Vedic mantras. Hearing the chanting, the elders dissolved the conclave immediately without resolving the riddle. Father asked Mahashaji to stop the chanting, as they were yet to reach a consensus on the issue of cow donation.  Quoting the authority of the Vedas, Mahashaji said there was no such thing as heaven or hell. Everything is here on this earth, he said quoting some verses in Sanskrit. We must live our lives in such a way that death facilitates the journey of the soul into a new life, which happens as soon as the soul departs from the body. Denouncing the authority of the Puranas, he asked how can a black cow with white patches save someone from damnation if there is such a punishment for selling cow’s leather?

Reciting some more verses from the Bhagwat Gita, he told us that Daadi had not died. She had only changed her body. Like we change our clothes when they are torn, Daadi had just discarded this body. She would soon come in a new body, which would be more beautiful because she was so pure, loving, chaste and giving that the Almighty would certainly give her a very beautiful human body. Such a good soul, Mahashaji declared always gets a human form and not the body of a cat or a dog.  

The idea that Daadi was not dead and that she would be soon with us as a young child excited me and my brother, who wanted her to be a boy like us so that we could play with him.  Now the face of Mahashaji looked very radiant to us. Gloom started disappearing from our minds. We saw a glow on the face of Father and his brothers who seemed to agree with Mahashaji as he was so learned that he recited a mantra from the Vedas or a verse from the Bhagwat Gita after every sentence that he spoke. Unlike Punditji who had frightened us with a vivid description of hell, Mahashaji took us out of the dark that had enveloped the family. The feeling of guilt that I had because of our disclosure about the business of Father started disappearing. After all Daadi was going to be with us soon as a child.  Comforted in this belief, we started watching the ceremony with interest once again.

Men prepared a stretcher with a few bamboos, some hay and dry grass. Daadi covered in a white sheet was laid on this. Neighbours, friends and family members laid floral garlands and wreaths on her corpse. Women who were wailing so far, started crying and weeping loudly. Attired in white pyjamas Father carried a water pot in his one hand and burning incense sticks in the other. Four uncles and cousins now lifted the stretcher on their shoulders and all the males lined up to march to the cremation grounds on the banks of river Yamuna behind Taj Mahal. Mahashaji again recited some verses and sprinkled water on the road. The procession then started marching. Some one spoke ‘Ram Nam Sat Hai’ loudly. The name of Lord Rama is the only Truth thus became the strain that was repeated in a singsong voice by the marching congregation, which soon disappeared on its way to the cremations grounds.

We went to Mother and other women who did not accompany. Women and children did not go for the cremation. They stayed at home wailing and crying. Soon this also stopped and women became busy with cooking which had not been done ever since Daadi died. Seeing no one around me, I particularly became morose and hid myself in a corner waiting for Father to return with a small baby from the cremation ground. Mahashaji had told us that Daadi was going to change herself into a beautiful baby soon after cremation. Thinking these thoughts soon I felt sleepy. I now clearly saw Daadi, who had changed herself into a small boy. This boy had the bright and loving eyes of Daadi. I tried to talk to him. He did not speak. I shook his arms. He did not respond. I shook his legs. Nothing happened. When I looked at his face, it was pale. I got frighten and shrieked. Mother came running. She shook me up and then hugged me. I told her sobbing what I had seen. She told me that Daadi had died forever and would not come back.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Unusual origins – A Sikh from Multan

Interview on Aug 05 2011

By Reena Kapoor

Camera, Lighting by Iram Nawaz

We interviewed Mr. Preet Mohan Singh Kapoor on August 5th 2011 in his San Ramon, CA home. Mr. Kapoor had graciously agreed to give us his time and share his family’s experiences and story. Iram Nawaz and I arrived a few minutes early to set up and get started. Pretty soon we were listening to Mr. Kapoor’s vivid descriptions of pre-partition life in the Lyallpur, Multan (now in Pakistan); and then he recounted how his family moved, just before partition, to Faridkot and Delhi and finally settled in Panipat after partition was announced.

Mr. Kapoor relied on his own remarkable young memory, as well as on accounts from family members that he had heard repeated over the years.  All of us with parents or other older family members who encountered partition know exactly what this means – you grow up hearing the stories of partition over and over again and pretty soon they are ingrained in your psyche as if you had been there.

Mr. Kapoor was only three years old when his entire extended family decided to leave their ancestral home in the Multan region and move initially to Faridkot (India). They were unusual in that there were very few Sikhs in Multan; in fact Mr. Kapoor is still unique as a Sikh in that he speaks a little Multani (language). In the summer of 1947, partition had not yet been announced but the air was rife with talk of trouble.  Many people like Mr. Kapoor's family left their homes thinking that once political negotiations were settled and communal tensions calmed, they would be able to return home. But that was not to be. Partition was announced only a few months later and in August 1947 all hell broke loose. Mr. Kapoor never went back.

Eventually the whole family resettled in Panipat and started a new life there. Mr. Kapoor recounted many incredible challenges they faced in their efforts to restart their lives; there was no running water or even electricity for many years in their home. It was inspiring to hear these stories and appreciate – as I have come to over the years – the strength and resilience of dislocated survivors to rebuild their lives from scratch. I thank Mr. Kapoor for welcoming us into his home, taking time out of his schedule and sharing these stories with us.

It is inspiring, enlightening – and sometimes incredibly saddening – to conduct these interviews and listen to these extraordinary stories. All in all I feel lucky to have this opportunity.  But sometimes during these serious encounters there are also moments of hilarity and lightness.  In an effort to capture these accounts with excellent quality audio and video we insist that we find a quiet room where we can interview our subjects uninterrupted. This was the case with Mr. Kapoor as well, which he and his wife fully accommodated.  However during the interview we did have some close calls, which in retrospect were quite funny.  At one point their son entered the home singing loudly, but quickly caught himself and we were able to recover and go on. And then right smack in the middle of the interview we heard loud cackling from the next room followed by high pitched “Hello, hello, hello” like someone was making prank phone call.  Iram and I both looked at each other in horror.  I continued the interview but Iram, my intrepid and smart partner, walked over to the next room and then came back apparently having quieted things down.  We did not hear these sounds again and I continued on wondering what had happened.  Once the interview ended Iram said with a twinkle, “Mr. Kapoor your parrot was quite a challenge…”, which is when I realized it was the talking bird that had interrupted us. Mr. Kapoor said, “Yes he loves to talk to anyone walking by the window!”. We could not help but burst out laughing.

Note:  Mr. Preet Mohan Singh Kapoor is not related to Reena Kapoor.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Child of Partition Remembers

 By Reena Kapoor 

(Interview of Mr. Abhay Bhushan by Reena Kappor; Camera work by Anurag Wadhera; Also present, Iram Nawaz)

Mr. Abhay Bhushan was only three years old when his family decided to leave Sukkur (now in Pakistan), move to Lahore and from there promptly to Delhi in July of 1947.  He describes this decision as a wise one prompted by his mother's good instinct that trouble was imminent and they should flee to (what was to become the new) India as soon as possible. As history shows trouble did break out soon after with much violence, suffering and tragedy on all sides.  Mr. Bhushan's family left and moved to Delhi and was soon resettled thanks to the Indian Railways where his father was employed.  Their resettlement in Delhi in the newly minted India was fortunately not as traumatic, as it was for many others. Mr. Bhushan's father had been posted to Sukkur as an employee of Indian Railways. In fact Mr. Bhushan's immediate family was from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, India.  So when they fled to India they were returning home in a sense. Unlike many others they did not lose all they owned as a result of this flight to safety. Despite this small mercy, Mr. Bhushan and his family were witness to several incidents of horror and violence. Mr. Bhushan himself, as an impressionable three year old, witnessed the murder of a man and his horse; he also saw his father rescue a fleeing man from a mob by letting him jump in their car and dropping him off to safety. He shared many experiences that members of his larger family went through, which left many traumatized and broken for life. Mr. Bhushan expressed an oft-heard wish that partition should never have been allowed; he still feels a strong affinity for people - of all religious faiths - from that region. His passionate message to us and to younger generations is one of living in peace, finding common ground and practicing tolerance. 

I interviewed Mr. Bhushan on July 29th 2011 on a cool Friday morning in Santa Clara. This is the first interview I've done for the 1947 Partition Archive Project. Despite having done scores of customer interviews as part of my professional life, I had been nervous, excited and everything in between but overall I'd mostly been looking forward to the opportunity. This is a subject close to my heart and my childhood memories. 

He declared upfront that he was only three years old when it all happened so he did not remember too much and it was "not all that traumatic" for his family. However by the end he was quite emotional about not only the horrible tragedy that disrupted his childhood but also the deep religious divide that continues to separate a people who share so much in common -- heritage, culture, language, food.  He expressed a passionate desire that this project not only record this history but also act as a way for newer generations to heal so as to never let such a tragedy happen again. His moving testimony and desire to see peace in the sub-continent was touching and a great reminder of why I am - and as are many others - volunteering with this project.

Just such a peace is my personal hope too. In fact a friend recently commented to me that this 1947 project is about opening up old wounds. That made me take pause and think. I realized his comment was neither a criticism nor discouragement but just a statement of fact.  In fact I agree with him.  In reality that's exactly what's needed: we need to open up old wounds, expose them to sunlight and air, even let them bleed a bit, so they can then dry and heal.  Only then can we have some hope that this will be forgotten, old sins forgiven and perhaps such madness will never repeated. Many in our generation from the sub-continent have seen our parents, grandparents, friends, relatives suffer the memory of this horrific time for a lifetime, and many carry this burden even today. It's time to bring some healing.  Additionally, the capturing of history - on all sides - is critical.

When I was growing up in India the history of partition was related to me only from family members amid expression of much grief, tears and trauma - and even some animosity for the "other" side.  In school our history textbooks paid a pathetic lip service of a few dissatisfying lines to the migration. Likely a misplaced political correctness, or a fear of reigniting the insanity, led our history writers to decide that this man-made tragedy was best buried. Perhaps the fear was real and even understandable but this expunging of history has not served us well. Today we are on the verge of losing this history almost completely as the population of people who were born in and before the 1930's, 40's ages and passes on.  People on all sides still feel wronged by the events of this time, and many unfortunately continue to be at odds with each other, with little hope of mending fences; hence the importance of capturing these histories - on ALL sides - with empathy, care and an essential sense of urgency.  Timing truly is of essence.  I hope this project will have the impact we all dream of.  While time is a powerful healer it is not enough to make sure new wounds don't appear. A commitment to peace and an honest history has the power to do that. As a wise man said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".  I feel truly grateful to have this opportunity to help preserve this remembrance.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

She Died Thrice by Om Juneja

Yes, my grand mother, whom we knew as Daddi died three times. When we wanted something like butter from her, we respectfully added ji to her name and called her Daadiji. She then knew that we were looking for something that she alone could give. Mother and other women in the house had no control on such things as butter or lassi (butter milk). She reserved them for her sons and not for us, the grandsons. Grand daughters had no say in the matter, as they were not to stay in this house after they got married. After all they were the birds of passage that were there to fly away one day, sooner or later. Sons and grandsons were there to stay and so they were under the charge of Daadi who rationed the supplies, while all the daughters were under the charge of Mother and other women who had very little to offer to their girls.

In all there were four sons, three daughters-in-law, four grand sons and three grand daughters living under one roof, and an attic. Every body had to line up for using the lavatory that was just one and if you wanted to take bath, the best bet for you was to go outside this hundred by hundred feet house and sit under the running tap, which flowed only once during the day for two hours in the morning.

So to go to the school, first thing that you had to do was to reserve your turn in front of the lavatory and if you missed it, you had it. What would you do if high-pressure churned your stomach or your intestines creaked or you wanted to pee urgently? If lucky, you yelled or shrieked and boxed the lavatory door asking your brother to come out quickly. As he would generally not oblige, so you made an attempt to break open the door. But no such yelling would do if your uncle or dad were inside taking his sweet time to relieve him of all that extra food that he got because he was the breadwinner and you the bread eater, as Daadi called us.

On those unlucky days of the breadwinners occupying the inside seat, you jumped this queue and went to the public tap. If lucky there, you sat under the tap after removing your vest but retaining your underwear.  The running water tap provided you much relief and you prolonged your squat till someone threw you out because she wanted to fill her pitcher or pail. The bullying neighbour anyways came yelling from a distance and you had to pack up before he came to the tap.

There were no taps in our houses. The water supply line was given to us only when all the elders approached the President of the municipality. He did not think it necessary to provide water connections in these houses evacuated by the Muslims who had gone to Pakistan. The Hindu refugees who had come from Pakistan now occupied the entire housing complex and they needed water connections because they would not begin their day without taking bath and offering prayers to their gods.  Some of these gods, like Shiva, needed a regular bath early in the morning every day. So my father and others pleaded with the President to provide water supply to these houses in Khoja Haveli – the colony of the Khojas, the ethnic Muslims who embraced Islam during the reign of Aurangzeb in Agra and had now gone to live in Pakistan, the land of the pure.

It was one of the Khoja boys who met my father on the platform of Delhi railway station where Father worked as a coolie. The family thought that he had died in the train that was to bring him to Delhi in India from Lahore in Pakistan. This was during those heady days of Partition when he decided to come to Delhi. Daadi never liked this idea of leaving the village. She, in fact, blamed Father for misleading every one in the village to believe that they will have to leave this village where they had lived since ages. No one knew since when had our people come to live there as it was forever and ever.

Father knew what was going to happen because he read English newspapers and heard the radio news regularly. After all, he was the only graduate from National College, Lahore in the entire village. Before leaving, he told every one in the village that he would receive them in a nice house in Delhi that he would buy from the money that he carried with him. This however did not happen. His train was burned and most of the passengers died and those who escaped fell in the mighty river Ravi inundated with floodwaters from the Himalayas. This river divided Pakistan and India.

This Khoja boy who met Father at Delhi railway station was on his way to Pakistan. His father worked on our village farms. He left the village to the famed city of Taj Mahal in search of a better life and now owned a small shop in Agra. Recognising Father, Bashir took him to Agra and taught him his business of selling chrome leather. With the money that he had earned working as a coolie and the savings that he had retained from the money that he brought with him from the village, Father bought the business from Bashir, who left for Pakistan with some cash and the comforting thought that when things get better he would come back to run the business himself.

Daadi with all her children and others managed to reach Gurgaon, a town near Delhi. It was here that we came to know that Father was alive and was running a small shop. Uncle Ram finally found him in Agra and thus the family moved there. Father, however, could not tell Daadi about his No sooner did Father leave the village; it was attacked by the zealous marauding mobs.  Daadi leading every one left the burning village on foot just in time to reach a refugee camp in the city. Dead sure of her return to the village, she collected all the cash, gold and silver from the house as also from her daughters-in-law and put it in a copper vessel that she buried under ground so as to recover it on her inevitable return. So she believed firmly. Not to come back to this village was simply beyond her imagination. Being a chaste Hindu, how could he sell the leather made out of the body of the sacred cow, holy mother? This was a secret that was kept only among all the brothers away from women and children. Whenever we wanted to know what the kind of business it was, we were told that a business was a business. Children however were not allowed to share business secrets.

One day my brother and I followed our father to his shop secretly. It was an exciting trip into the business world of shoes. Cobblers carried their shoes wrapped in while cloth in huge bamboo baskets on their heads. These baskets were covered with white cloth. On reaching a trader, they would take down their baskets and show their wares to the shopkeeper. The shoes shone brightly. After selling their shoes, Gopal, the cobbler, went to Father’s shop to buy chrome leather. We hid ourselves behind the bicycles and cycle rickshaws parked nearby. Taking a strategic position, we watched Father opening the bundle of chrome leather. He showed these huge pieces of leather to Gopal, who bought it to carry it home to make shoes. In the meanwhile, we saw Father turning in our direction. We ran for fear of life and came home to tell Daadi what we had seen and smelt. The market lining up the shops had a strange smell of raw leather, which we had never smelt before because we did not have the shoes made of such expensive material, which was made in the tanneries run by the Chinese in Calcutta.

That night, Daadi did not eat her dinner and went on a long fast to purify herself from the sin of being the mother of sons who sold leather made out of the body of the holy cow. She was sure that now she could not be saved from damnation as Kam Dhenu, the mythical cow would simply not allow her to catch her tail to carry her across the ocean of Sansar, this world to the Swarglok, the heaven.

It was for this reason that she never wanted to go back to her village anymore because Muslims, the beefeaters, had now polluted her house in the village. These beefeaters could not enter her house because they worked for her on the farms owned by her family. Being the owner of those farmlands, she had made her own rules and one of them was that no beefeater was to be allowed inside her house, which had a herd of cows whom she worshiped early in the morning carrying a thali of flowers and honey and curd and the inevitable vermilion to anoint the forehead of every cow that we owned. On every Ekadashi, the eleventh day in the lunar month, all these cows were bathed, decorated with garlands made of marigold flowers, anointed with vermilion   and were fed personally by her and her chosen daughters-in-law before they were sent out to graze on the family farms. Daadi told us that she had leant this from her mother who ordained that all the Suhagan women, happily married must perform this ceremony on every Ekadahsi day when the moon comes down from heaven with Lord Gopal, the child Krishna, to bless the cows and the owners in all those houses where they are worshipped.  The moon, she told tell us, would never descend near the house of a beefeater, as it can smell beef, cooked or uncooked. When we asked whether she had ever herself smelt beef, she yelled at us for asking such a blasphemous question. How can any one go near a place storing beef?

Now that Father had committed a blasphemy and she was eating the food bought from the money that he earned, Daadi decided to go to some pundit, the religious scholar to find a way to expiate this sin. A good trustworthy pundit was difficult to find in this new place where you knew very few people who could be relied upon and should not cost much.

So the whole family got in this business of finding someone who could authentically find a solution to this problem. After all how long would you allow Daadi to go without food? She had not eaten a morsel ever since she came to know this horrible act tarnishing the family name and denying her a place in Swarglok, the heaven. After all, who would not like to live in Swarglok, the kingdom of Lord Vishnu reclining on Sheshnag, the mythical serpent in the company of Lakshmi, his consort on the white ocean? To live eternally young   in the company of gods was pure bliss, which no one wanted to miss. The dying Daadi, therefore, became a matter of great concern for this community of refugees who debated the moral dilemma of reserving a place in Swarglok, the heavenly other world or surviving the trials and tribulations of Partition on this earth. The ever-increasing line of visitors debating this question of our family’s place in heaven or hell created a crisis that needed a quick resolution.

A meeting of all the elders who had come to live in this new place from our village was arranged. No one could suggest a viable solution as no one had ever faced a dilemma of such dimension and magnitude. There were my distance uncles, cousins and others from the same village that had entered this business of selling shoes, which they had bought from the running Muslims. But no one had bought a business of selling chrome leather, the leather made out of the body of the holy cow. While the community went on debating the ways to tackle this, the condition of Daadi went on deteriorating, more so because no pundit could be found to solve the riddle.

One day when the doctor came to examine her, he pronounced that she was going to die in a couple of hours. In order to save the dead from sure damnation, the cemented floor of the small room was washed with water. A bamboo mat was placed on it. Burning incense sticks were fixed on all the four sides of the mat and an earthen lamp full of oil was kept lit to guide the departing soul on its way to heaven. A neighbour brought a garland of marigold flowers. Mother kept a white sheet of cloth ready to cover the face of Daadi when she died. Another neighbour brought a small bottle containing the water of the holy Ganga so that it could be poured on her lips just before she dies.

When all the women got together to recite the verses from the Gita, Daadi, who was lying unconscious on her Charpoi, the wooden bed, was brought down by Father and his brothers who laid her on the mat. Soon we managed to hide under her bed to watch what was happening in the house. No body talked to any one, while the chanting continued. Every one was scared of death. We were mortified because of the guilt of telling about Father’s business. Daadi had told us that when Yam Raj, the lord of death came, she would plead with him to expiate her for the sins of her sons and show the way to go to Kam Dhenu, the holy cow. She was very sure that the Holy Mother Cow would hear her supplication and take her to Swarglok. With our bated breath we waited for Yam Raj to come and talk to Daadi. I even saw him coming out of the ceiling and pointed it to my brother, who could not see him. So after some discussion with my brother, I asked Yam Raj to go away.

We waited for one long day after the doctor had told us about Daadi’s impending death. She lay on the mat completely unconscious. The swelling line of visitors went on increasing. No food was cooked in the house, though a neighbour fed us, the children.

At sunset, Daadi stirred a little mumbling something. Mother poured a few drops of water in her mouth. Daadi called Father and asked, had all the cows retuned home from grazing? Father nodded. Her face glowed and then again she relapsed into her old state. There was commotion in the room.  Women forgot the chanting. The visitors who had lined up were the first of announce her return from heaven. Daadi however gave no such news.

In the meanwhile some one announced the arrival of a pundit. Daadi stirred again when told about this. Pundit touched her hand. Every one in room had a sigh of relief. Father and his brothers stretched their arms to lift Daadi to the bed. We ran out of our hiding below the bed. Luckily no one noticed our flight. We heard Pundit talk to Father, who told him that he would like to expiate the sin of selling chrome leather. Father and Pundit then walked up to Daadi’s bed. Father told Daadi that Punditji had found a solution from the Shastras, the scriptures that say that this can be expiated by donating a black cow with white patches on a full moon night. Daadi nodded in agreement. Mother brought some lemon juice. Daadi broke her fast and the ordeal ended. There was jubilation all around. Every one waited for Pooran Mashi, the day of the full moon-night.

Mother got busy preparing for the big puja on the day of Pooran Mashi. All the cemented floors of the house were washed with water. The doors and windows were wiped and cleaned, as was the whole house.  Children were given a clean set of clothes.

There was joy everywhere. We waited for the black cow with white spots to arrive. Father came with Punditji at the appointed time to perform the Puja of the holy cow. Daadi, though weak, looked happy. She asked Father whether he had arranged the donation of the cow. He said he had. She probed further and asked who had paid for this? Father told her that he had done it from his own income. How could that be? How could such a pious act of donating a cow to a Brahmin be performed from the income of a son who earned his living selling cow leather? This was simply unacceptable to Daadi. She could not be convinced despite all the scholarly quotations from Shastras, the scriptures by Punditji, who said that the source of income was not mentioned any where in any book. Daadi remained totally unconvinced. She did not agree to perform the donation ceremony. Pundit had to go back as there was no way to convince Daadi.   

Gloom returned to our house again when Daadi went on indefinite fast. This time she did not talk about heaven and hell. She became very weak, almost fragile, even after a few days of fasting. Lying in the bed, she would mumble something about her village days. She would inquire about her cows calling their names. She would order Uncle Ram to go and put a pail of water so that Kali, the black cow, could quench her thirst. Sometimes at dusk, she would stand up at the door for the cows to come back and order Mother to prepare the thali for Puja. After finding no cows, she would fall in the bed, unconscious. Mother told her that there were no cows in this place in India. We had left them in the village in Pakistan. This continued for a few days. The doctor treating her gave up all hope and advised Father to be ready for her death any time.

Once again she was going to die. As no one wanted her to die in the bed, so the bamboo mat, incense sticks, Ganga water, white cloth and an earthen lamp full of oil were kept handy. On the fourth night, she was laid on the bamboo mat for the second time as she had lost her breath temporarily. Mother and all other women started chanting verses from the Gita.  Every body was sure that the inevitable was going to happen. The doctor had already declared this fact.

My maternal uncle, who had heard this terrible news in Delhi, came to meet Mother. As soon as he went near Daadi, she stirred and mumbled, though her face could not be seen in the poor light of the earthen lamp. She again stirred and attempted to waive. Seeing this Father nodded and she was put back in the bed. Nothing much happened during the gloomy dark night.

When Boota Ram, maternal uncle saw Daadi in the morning, he found that she wanted to talk to him. Apologizing for his late arrival to meet her, he explained how busy he was marking the scripts of his students. As this was the term ending time, so his school did not grant him leave to come here.  Daadi’s face glowed. She attempted to smile but could not. She called Mother, who asked Boota Ram if he had the money required for donating a cow. He immediately took out the money from his pocket and gave it to Mother. Daadi gathering all her courage snatched it from Mother. Now she had the necessary amount, pure and chaste from the earnings of a teacher in her fist. She ordered Father to call Pundit. This super human effort of snatching the money from Mother sapped the little energy that Daadi had. She fell down in the bed and died for the third time. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

The real victims, the people are often forgotten.

UC Berkeley Student Shreya Dingra interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Bhatia.

            On Saturday, April 2nd, 2011, I interviewed Mr. and Mrs. Bhatia with my mentor Ganesh Ananthanarayanan at the Bhatia residence. I felt rather apprehensive but not as much as I had been for my first interview considering I had a mentor with me who had conducted quite a few interviews and I could count on him to help me out if I got stuck and needed help with asking any questions. The thing that I was most worried about was translating some words into Hindi since neither of the couple could speak or understand English. I was hoping for some unique stories of the migration that occurred during partition and for interviewees who had been more affected by partition than the interviewees from my first interview. I was not disappointed and left the Bhatia residence in shock and wonder.
            Both Mr. and Mrs. Bhatia had detailed and interesting stories to tell of how each of their families were forced to move from Multan, Pakistan to India. Mr. Bhatia’s family consisting of him, his parents, four sisters, and three brothers, was put onto a goods train in the freezing weather of January, taking only a few belongings and leaving all their valuable gold and silver underground near their house, believing they would return for it. The family had to suffer through two days of hunger and thirst while many Muslims standing on bridges where the train would go by underneath threw garbage and rocks and urinated upon them as their strain passed by. One of Mr. Bhatia’s sisters who was pregnant at the time, delivered a baby boy who died on the journey shortly after his birth. Later, their family was forced to stay in a camp at the Fazilka border of Punjab between India and Pakistan for four days after which they were transported to Haryana. In Haryana, his family lived in a small hut and the men earned money for food through any labor work they could lay their hands on for a few rupees. After two months they moved to Delhi where they continued to look for labor work that they could get by on for a few years until the Municipal Committee provided them with a very small double story flat. At this time, Mr. Bhatia did bookbinding until his marriage after which he bought a shop of his own.
            Mrs. Bhatia’s family was more violently awakened and forced to run out of fear of being killed. One day, Mrs. Bhatia came home from school when she was in first grade and a horrible scene was in front of her. Everything was in chaos. People were shouting “they have been cut” and running everywhere while amputated bodies were lying all around as the Muslims attacked the Hindus and Sikhs of her town. Members of the BJP were picking them up and laying them in the school to treat them. That night, Mrs. Bhatia’s father overheard some Muslims speaking of not letting him go because he sold good medicine and forcibly converting him. This was the moment when her family decided that they would pack up and sneak away to Punjab by train and they acted immediately. Her uncle was not spared and was butchered and thrown into a sewer while another one of her uncles and his son were injured and thrown into a car that the Hindus could only hope was headed to India. Upon their arrival in Punjab, her ten year old brother and father refused to eat food that was offered to them for free so both of them did labor work to earn a few cents every day to collect enough money for food. Eventually they were reunited with her Uncle’s son only to find out that her Uncle had died as well but finally their family was together and they began to settle down near Bhatinda, Punjab. Her ten year old brother continued to earn for them through his labor work while their father lay sick in bed. He was able to put himself through school and eventually became a doctor. Mrs. Bhatia prides her family in that they did not gain anything from the government but worked laboriously and tediously to build their life one more.
            Mrs. Bhatia also told us the story of twenty five women in her extended family who all jumped into a well to save their pride and avoid being raped by Muslim assailants, all except for one died. This one newlywed young girl escaped from Pakistan to India, walking the entire way by night and sleeping in fields by day, dressed in a burka, the attire for Muslim women. It took her 6 months but she painstakingly made it and would get off at every station to see if her family was to be found. At last she found Mrs. Bhatia’s family who reunited her with her family within a few days.
            Upon hearing these unthinkable and priceless stories of partition I was awestruck by the damage that partition had inflicted upon the people of both India and Pakistan. The stories that the Bhatia’s had to relay to us were both personal and painful to bring up but they are true stories of people and families who lived through the gruesome atrocities of this event. I realized that caught up in all the political turmoil and the physical separation of India and Pakistan, the real victims, the people, are often forgotten. But through these interviews, their stories can be heard and collected for the world to know.
            Both Mr. and Mrs. Bhatia agreed that partition was unnecessary. They both advocated for the decision that Jinnah should have been made President of India and none of this violence would have occurred. In their eyes the damage inflicted upon the people, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, alike, was not worth the separation of the state. Through both interviews that I have conducted I have heard the same response that the people need not have been brought into this political schism. I feel that this is often the popular belief that most sufferers of Partition share. However, I have come to question this belief. No doubt, millions of lives were ended and many families were torn apart but I doubt whether it would have been possible for Muslims and Hindus to have coexisted in peace after this intense hatred had been stirred. Would a united India truly have saved more lives or would the two populations have continued to massacre one another, eventually leading to a total destruction of Indian civilization? In the beginning of this class we learned of how these two religious groups had lived in essential harmony for thousands of years and these facts were reinforced by my interviewees. After the interview I came to wonder then how or why these two religious groups were suddenly so full of hatred and animosity. Was it a cause of political persuasion to an uninformed public and if so, would the violence truly have not occurred had partition not occurred? Though this answer cannot be answered matter-of-factly, after conducting these interviews, it is a question that I would like to further explore through research and more stories.

An invaluable experience

Lucy Rosenbloom reflects on her insightful interview with Mr. Gill in San Mateo, CA.

The man I interviewed was 12 at the time of Partition. His family lived in what was to become Pakistan, so he left his village and moved to India in a long journey that involved various camps on the way. He now lives in San Mateo.

Before participating in the Archive Decal, the only exposure I had to partition in school was a brief unit in a course on traumatic histories on how women's bodies were the source of pride/lack of pride for the family and the community. For example, we looked at stories of women who were seen as so dishonorable after being raped by the other side that their families wanted nothing to do with them and killed them. In that course the stories seemed extreme and far removed, but through looking at oral histories in this course of women in similar situations, I am beginning to see that this is a huge part of the Partition narrative and not an example of a few stories on the fringe. Honor and women came up in my interview. He did not have stories of women being killed by their own families, but in his story (without me even mentioning it) he said that the older men all gathered and did discuss this possibility. Luckily it wasn't done, but the fact that the thought came up and was discussed in a possible way made me realize how widespread such practices were. It was pretty shocking to imagine the conversation taking place and having to actually make a decision to kill the women or to spare them. And the fact that he, as a 12 year old boy, was also aware of this process makes it appear that, while it didn't actually happen, it was a lingering theme in the air and most have caused a lot of emotion.

I felt a little nervous before the interview. The nerves came from the feeling that I wasn't prepared. It is impossible to anticipate what will come up. So I read over the suggested questions repeatedly and tried to think about how to steer the conversation and make sure I didn't leave anything important out. But the second I began I realized that spontaneity is the nature of this whole process! As much as you prepare it is always an unexpected experience. Yes, editing may come later, but in the moment of the interview storytelling is all about hearing someone else’s experiences for the first time.

I expected that it may be difficult to get the interviewee to talk, but I was completely wrong! Before the interview began I overestimated the role of the person asking the questions. Those who experience something as large as partition have so many stories, that asking the perfect question isn't necessarily what is needed to get them to tell their experiences. I found that my role really was to listen. The man I interviewed came to the table eager to share. He came with three pages with careful notes written on all sides of the pages. Those handwritten stories and his eagerness to tell them were what stuck out to me the most. I wondered, when had he written these pages? Were they written out specifically in preparation for the interview? Or had he been carrying these pages with him since the events? Even if he hadn't had the physical papers the whole time, clearly he had been carrying these stories with him in a more abstract sense for so many years. He knew what stories were important. Even when I tried, I couldn't really steer him in a sort of direction. That was when I realized that this wasn't just a valuable experience for me as the listener, but for him as well. And so in that sense my role, which was a lot less about asking the “perfect” question than I thought it would be, was very important in giving him a space to share his story in. Everyone, especially after experiencing something so monumental, wants to be listened to. Because of this, after the interview I felt that I understood the process of storytelling in a new way.

As the interview was coming to an end, because I was realizing that I had exhausted the questions, I wanted to ask so I tried to come up with some sort of question that would tie everything together and allow for some concluding thoughts. I was hesitant and unsure about how to do this because maybe it was impossible to come up with some general statement to end such a huge story with. I ended up asking “What have we learned from Partition? And what can/should we learn from Partition?” His answer was simple, yet it got to the heart of the events of Partition. He began talking about how religion should be a private thing. Religion has been a strong dividing factor for groups of people in so many situations throughout history. It really is one of the oldest, and continuing, themes we see in large scale historical narratives. The question arises, is it possible? His statement was full of an attitude of acceptance. He seemed to be willing to, and hopeful that others would also, recognize people and what they had to offer not only defined by their religions. That comment also really stuck out to me.

It was also very interesting because, while he commented that religion should be private, he also did think that Partition was a good thing. To answer that question he relied a lot on hindsight. He was 12 the time of partition, so he, as he himself said a bit, was a bit too young to form opinions at the time. So his opinion about whether or not partition should have happened was created in the more recent time. His support of Partition seemed to come from a sense of national pride. He moved from Pakistan to India, and in explaining why partition was good he used examples of the positive things about India today, and some negative things he sees about Pakistan. So the question he was answering, in some sense, was are you happy that you grew up in India rather than Pakistan? This is a different question, but it is one of the many, many questions that is within the whole complex process of partition. In answering “do you think Partition was a good thing?” there are so many approaches to take.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Being a child of Partition

Being a child of Partition, I always thought that memories o f Partition would die with me as they did with my parents and grandmother who forbade us not to celebrate “Azadi” (Independence of India) as it was “Barbadi” (devastation). Growing up in Agra where the family had settled after living in refugee camps for over two years in Sargodha, Amritsar, Ambala, and Gurgaon, I thought otherwise. Traumatic in nature, this forced migration plunged my elders into a dark pit from which it took many years to come out.

Now, my children have voluntarily migrated from India to the USA and we have come to live here in California. Understanding the urgency of getting my story recorded, I volunteered at the first opportunity I came across, whic h was through a newsletter of the Indian Community Centre at Milpitas. I count myself lucky that I am associated with the 1947 Partition Archive. This group of highly motivated volunteers remind me of the Ghadar Party boys who created history by publishing  a weekly newsletter from San Francisco in 1913 that blew the bugle of India’s independence.  Congratulating this group for their initiative, I wish them success in the daunting task of recording the narratives of 1947 Partition. 

Prof. Om P. Juneja is Emeritus Professor of English, M. S. University of Baroda.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Gurjit Mundh reflects on interviewing her grandfather

        The interview conducted was of Atma Singh, who is currently eighty years old.  His family lived in Char Chak, Pakistan before the Partition and his father, Shiv Singh, was an agricultural worker. Atma Singh went to school in a gurudwara until second grade and learned Urdu. He stopped going to school in order to help his father with the farm work. He was about sixteen years old during the Partition and was not married. He and his family learned the Partition was going to occur in 1946 and slowly every Hindu and Sikh began to leave their city. The Muslims told them to leave and eventually the fighting began. The Sikhs thought that their city would be in India and not Pakistan but once the announcement came out in August 1947, Atma Singh and his family prepared to move.
       The town next to Atma Singh’s was a Muslim military and they wanted the non-Muslims to leave Pakistan. The Muslims raged war on Atma Singh’s town and eight other towns that contained Sikhs. While they prepared to move, fighting broke out and Atma Singh was holding a holy book. The Muslims spared him after learning that he was carrying holy book that was like the Quran, and if the Muslim killed him, then he would have sinned. The government told him to reach Nanaki Sahib and he did. He stayed there for 10 days and people with money quickly left. However, he and his family left slowly and eventually reached Frozepur. He remembers that the people who fell behind were looted by the Muslims. He heard the Muslims murdered many people at the border and then the Indian military helped them pass. It took them a month and 10 days to pass the border. He says everyone was worried about surviving and people left their elderly and children behind.
      His family reached Chak Dann with their cow who gave a lot of milk. Eventually, they left to Simla because their family was there and there was a lot of farmland. He saw Muslims kill Hindus and Sikh and he saw Hindus and Sikhs kill Muslims. He said that friends turned on each other. It was a time when poison spread everywhere. Children were being born while traveling and fighting was necessary. The government did not do anything for them and his family only had 40 Indian dollars and had to survive entirely on their own.
      Atma Singh eventually moved to the United States and had three children: two daughters and a son. He and his wife now reside in Yuba City, California.
      Before the interview, I was very nervous. It was my first interview so I did not know what to expect. I also wanted to make sure that I did not touch on any subjects that were too emotional or ones that Atma Singh would not want to discuss. I expected the interview to go well, however, because I had talked to my aunt and uncle and they had told me that Atma Singh, my grandfather, really liked to talk about the Partition. I also knew that I would feel more comfortable talking to someone I knew, like my grandfather, then a stranger.
      After the interview, I was angry at myself for not asking my grandfather about his story before. I was surprised by all the things he had to say and the trauma he went through. I felt like I was a part of the horrors. It was a very uplifting experience and it made me want to interview more people and learn about their stories. The only thing that was different from what I expected was how comfortable Atma Singh was when telling his story and how happy he was afterwards. I was glad that I did not say anything that would upset him. I think it was a good experience for him as well.
      My interviewee did not believe in the necessity of the Partition. Instead, he said it was the government deciding things without asking the consent of the people. A part of the interview that stuck out to me was when Atma Singh was talking about how friends turned against each other. He told me the story of this low-caste Muslim girl who lived in his house with her family in Pakistan. When he and his family were about to leave, the girl hugged him and asked, “When will we see each other again, brother?” He said he was very surprised at how her family acted by threatening him and questioning why he was touching their daughter. Atma Singh seemed visually upset by this incident. When I was listening to this part of his story, it struck me how people just turned on each other and how things changed in towns within minutes of the Partition.
      I learned a lot from the interview. First of all, the statements made in class were verified in the interview I conducted. The horrors of Partition and the decline of relations between groups of people who were living peacefully just months before were apparent. The interview also illustrated the sexist view of the Indian/Hindu/Muslim culture. Women could be killed in order to save honor. My interviewee confirmed the popular view of the Partition. However, he did state that the Muslim people in his community helped him escape from the Muslim “gangsters” of other towns. The interview did change my view on Partition, particularly because I felt the emotions more through a personal story than a video shown in class. It is amazing to see how the Partition affected the common people and not just the aristocracy. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Unraveling Truth from Fiction

      Natasha Goldie interviews Dr. Gurnam Brard on Feb 26, 2011

     Dr Gurnam Brard’s interview took place on a Saturday afternoon in his brother Kartar’s home in the Oakland Hills, California. The delicate linger of cardamom and turmeric in the air guided my way down the wooded path towards his home. The Brard family had kindly invited me and my mentor Guneeta, for a home cooked Punjabi lunch before we began. This was my first interview with the archive project and I had no prior experience with oral history interviews. Days before the interview I had feared Murphy’s law would best describe my experience. In opposition, the day went without a hitch; Dr Brard was extremely hospitable and Guneeta was knowledgeable and helpful. We discussed aspects of his experience over lunch with his elder brother and his sister in law, both of whom had experienced the Partition.

    Dr Brard had authored his own autobiography East of Indus, which colorfully captures his memories of youth in rural Punjab leading to the Partition and beyond Post Colonial India. He revealed he was 17 years old in 1947, when he learned of the partition. His family is Sikh and their village Meraj was on the Indian side of Punjab; fortunately for them they were not forced to migrate. He explained that he still remembers the faces of the dead and dying strewn across the fields and paths of his village. He lost his best friend Nawab Din, who was a young Muslim boy that lived in the same village. He remembered that Nawab and his family tried to flee the village to Pakistan, however, there was an attack on the village before the family could successfully migrate and Nawab’s mother was killed. At the age of 17, Dr Brard had witnessed the death of a family friend and neighbor; the sight of Nawab’s mother’s body is still vivid in his memories. For Nawab and the rest of his family, their fate is still a mystery.

     The tragic loss of Nawab’s mother and the unknown fate of the rest of his family are only a minute fraction of a fragmented, complex and deeper narrative of the Partition.  I came away from the interview with a tremendous intrigue and passion to pursue the cultural and oral narratives of South Asia’s history.  Dr Brard is now a retired physicist, who divides his time between his family in the Bay Area and in Lake Tahoe where he is an avid skier. I am thankful to Dr Brard and to those who reveal their past, for they are the key to understanding the past and unraveling the truth from the fiction.
Natasha Goldie, background:  I am a 24 year old, half Thai/half Scottish, agnostic student. I did not know Dr Brard, however I had read his autobiography prior to the interview.  I am studying an MA in history at the University of Edinburgh. I am currently in the US on an exchange with the University of California, Berkeley. I am currently conducting research for my MA dissertation, that will be on a social and cultural aspect of Indian history. Thus, I am gaining invaluable experience with oral history and background research for my dissertation.