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.