The Stuff of History

The Partition Archive’s stories encapsulate experiences that often escape official histories

In 1947, Nirmala Dandekar, then Sudha Shridhar Gadgil, was a young woman living in a chawl in Dadar in Bombay. She knew little about Partition, but she noticed the sudden presence of large numbers of refugees in the city. They were housed in schools, which turned into virtual refugee camps, and most of them, she recalls, were Sindhis.

It was these Sindhis, many of whom had come by sea from Karachi, who went on the change the face of the city of Bombay, and who moved from there to Gujarat and neighbouring areas, setting up trading centres and educational institutions. For the researcher or writer, this little detail in Nirmala Dandekar’s interview alerts her to an aspect of urban Maharashtra and Gujarat that we seldom learn about in history – how cities and cultures were remade by the influx of Partition refugees.

Little is known about these details of the history of Partition. Seven decades of living with the long-term consequences of the division of India into two countries has, sadly, let to little introspection and thought about how millions of lives changed, how businesses and properties changed hands, how families were divided, and friends never able to meet again and so much more.

At 25, Arghwani Begum from Sahaspur in Uttar Pradesh was at the end of her pregnancy when Partition happened and the family had to move to the Purana Qila camp where she gave birth the next day. There were no clothes to wrap the infant in, she tells us, so she wrapped an old frock belonging to someone else around him. It bears remembering that the circle of birth and death did not stop with the disruption caused by Partition.

Rehmatullah Rad was a little younger, and initially his family was in Jammu. He talks about another little known aspect of Partition – the ways in which language changed. A decade or so before Partition, Rahmatullah describes how Punjabi slowly gave way to Urdu – after some time he says, they only spoke Urdu with each other, and the Punjabi disappeared. This impoverishment of language, so real to people, once again does not form the stuff of history.

So much of Partition history has been seen in terms of the three major communities that were involved – the Hindus, the Muslims and the Sikhs. And yet, when such traumatic change happens, it does not discriminate and it takes everyone in its sweep. In the interviews collected by the 1947 Partition Archive, you see Hindus, Muslims, Dalits, Christians and more. This enables the reader to understand the nuance and detail of the many stories of Partition.

Sometimes in this archive you meet people you know – and you learn things you did not know about them. For Milkha Singh, the well known athlete, the story of his father telling him to run, Bhaag Milkha bhaag, has become iconic. But here, you hear about the journey he made, back to his home village of Kot Addu, where he met his old friends and where he acquired the sobriquet, the flying sikh. If Nirmala’s and Rehmetullah’s stories offer sociological detail, Milkha Singh’s story describes the emotional side of the experience of Partition.

The Partition Archive’s stories encapsulate a range of experiences in them. These can relate to location, or class, or religion, or language, or gender, to name only a few.

Together they alert us to the complexity and layeredness of the many stories of Partition, reminding us of the importance of the voices of people, and the need to hear any and every kind of voice.

Urvashi Butalia is a writer, publisher and founder of Zubaan Books.