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.