Monday, May 30, 2011

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.

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