Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Story Collector's Privilege -- by Reena Kapoor

"...and that's when it got bad..." he said and started to sob. Like a child, with big tears rolling down his cheeks, his face crumpled. He tried to wipe them away but they kept coming. We all paused. I did not say anything for several moments and then he said, "I'm sorry..." and continued to cry. The camera kept rolling. I was not surprised, nor embarrassed. Strangely he did not seem self-conscious either. "It's okay. Please take your time" was all I said. Here I was interviewing a man – my father's age – who was now crying. It was a little while before he went on to tell us the horrific – and unfortunately all too common – story of how his family was uprooted, forced to flee and reduced to destitution as a result of the Partition of India in 1947.

This was not a unique or unusual story. I have now conducted several interviews – all of people of my parents' generation – for the 1947 Partition Archive, and there has never been a dry eye on camera.  In this case our interviewee said he had not shared these stories even with his children. This is not uncommon either. And this is part of what makes being an interviewer for this project such a privilege.  We are recording the oral history of Partition by talking to people who witnessed and experienced it – on all sides. Our agenda is as simple as that.  But what I’ve witnessed is the telling of people’s worst nightmares come true, the demons that haunt even today but ultimately their resilience and fortitude in building new lives and gleaning often the noblest of life's lessons.

When I first volunteered for this project and started to interview people about their experiences related to Partition, I was excited about recording these stories, helping archive their personal narrative to preserve for future generations the lessons of history.  But as I've conducted these interviews, I have truly come to cherish the privilege of helping people tell each of their stories for their own sake. This project is about making sure that this important history is not lost.  But it is also at least in some way about healing old wounds.

My own story – like that of many Punjabis in India – is at least indirectly related to the Partition of India. I grew up in a Punjabi family where the adults often talked of their life before Partition, the horrors they witnessed during those terrible months and the rebuilding of lives in a new land. As I grew up I realized these stories must mirror stories on all sides. I was also struck by the lack of context and detail in most of our history books, which seemed to only pay lip service to these events. My sense was this was a horror created by mixing religion and politics – at their lowliest worst – and one, which should never be repeated. Yet there was also this personal sense of loss that people who experienced this never quite seemed to recover from. Perhaps one cannot ever reconcile with such a horror; perhaps the demons never leave you completely. I don't know and I cannot know since I have only heard these stories. But what I do believe is that if healing is to ever begin, and if we have a chance to make sure that these horrors are not repeated, then hiding from history cannot be the answer. And it is with that idea along with the admiration I have for those who have courageously shared their stories with us, that I feel honored to play a small part in this endeavor.