ANAM Zakaria’s The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians is an honest and sensitive investigation into Pakistan’s traumatic birth. Born out of an oral history project that Zakaria headed for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, the book weaves together her observations of contemporary Pakistan with memories of four generations of Pakistanis and Indians as they try to reflect and make sense of the past.
The book is divided into four parts, ‘Azad Qaidis’, ‘When Home is Elsewhere’, ‘A Museum of Memories’ and ‘Bharat say Rishta kya?’, each representing the experiences and political attitudes of successive generations. Seventeen long interviews, covering the stories of Partition survivors, Pakistan’s firstborns and the following generations are weaved into Zakaria’s personal narrative, which is why the book often feels like a travelogue through Pakistan’s ideological landscape.
Sixty-eight years on, Partition remains a point of obsession for most Pakistanis. Over the years, it has been mythologised, romanticised and rewritten in sand. The hysteria around it has mixed with religious-nationalist politics, taking increasingly absurd forms, an example of which comes up in the introduction of the book. Zakaria recalls a cultural excursion to India with some Pakistani students of hers. When the principal of the host school moved forward to place a tika on her guests’ foreheads, three of the students began to cry, asking Zakaria “if this meant that they had become Hindu”. She adds, “They said they had heard that Hindus would forcibly convert Muslims to their religion; was this their fate too?”
Disturbed to see one young student affect other students by a mere rumour or superstition, Zakaria was intrigued by this incident. “I wondered whether these children had ever heard the stories I had only recently come across; about Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs celebrating religious festivals, about Hindus who did not convert but instead saved their elders. I wondered if they knew how many of their great-grandparents had homes across the border, how they ached to see their friends and neighbours one more time.”
Having said that, Anam is quick to distance herself from any romantic notions of the past: “It is my understanding that Partition was too complex an event and the pre-Partition years too multi-layered to be neatly packed into categories of hate or friendship, rescue or violence”. This, in fact, is the most refreshing aspect of her writing — she is careful not to make any tall claims and displays remarkable self-awareness when dealing with her subjects.
Of course, pre-Partition India was not a political and cultural utopia but the dynamics of the pre-Partition years were different — “the religious and cultural identities that became crystallised at Partition were far more diluted and fluid in the preceding years”. So why is the unlived experience of Partition a source of bitterness for younger generations?
Zakaria’s central thesis is that an impersonal, fact-based approach to understanding Partition is not enough, that it needs to be understood in continuity with our present-day political fantasies. For most Indians and Pakistanis, the impact of Partition runs deep and personal. Enduring memories of rape and pillage, and neighbours turning against each other are frequently evoked and revisited by leaders and citizens on both sides the border in order to justify their view of the ‘other’.
In such a context, the ‘objective’ facts of history do not help us in unlearning subjective conclusions about ‘the enemy’. The powerful trauma left in the wake of Partition and the fluid, unreliable memories it produced stand against the supposed one-dimensionality of the past, transmuting it into something timeless. Through the collection of these oral histories, Zakaria argues that the Partition is still happening; in the hearts and minds of Indians and Pakistanis who lived through it, in the collective imagination of those who inherited a filtered version of it, churning out new sets of consequences and processes that are neglected in national discourses regarding ‘the other’.
Zakaria manages to highlight the anomalous nature of our borders and the things they symbolise. On a trip to Sheikhupura, Zakaria learns about a mela that takes place on the 3rd of Sawan. It has been an annual affair since before Partition and continues till today. Indians and Pakistanis both attend, praying at a mazar on the zero line, watched by security personnel from both sides. They bring food, and greet each other from across the line. She points out, “the border, which is meant to divide on the basis of religion, serves as a source of connection for Indians and Pakistanis for religious reasons itself ... Religious and geographical distinctions come to be blurred at the line of division itself.”
This paradoxical consequence of dislocation, seen through the focal point of this festival, stands in contradiction to the endless stories about the extreme variances of Hindu, Muslim and Sikh identities; about the venomous conspiracies the enemies hatched to stop us from practicing our religion, how a new country had to be formed to live safely apart from each other. As Zakaria points out: “To hear that Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims could seek blessings at the same shrine, that they could come together to greet, hug and celebrate together, is an anomaly for me. To unite on top of that at the very border which is meant to divide is almost satirical.”
This cognitive dissonance and emotional longing rendered by being split along arbitrary lines is highlighted in Begum Roshan Ara Bokhari’s story. Bokhari is one of Pakistan’s leading choreographers. She spent much of her childhood travelling between what is now India and Pakistan and was only 13 years old at the time of Partition. Her family of dedicated Muslim Leaguers was on vacation in Kashmir when Pakistan was formed. When they arrived to their home in Lahore, all her Hindu friends had already left; their homes were empty. As she recalls: “The landscape had totally changed after Partition. It just didn’t look the same without all my friends, with new people in their homes. And then, when school reopened after summer vacations, seeing the empty desks and chairs was very difficult to process as a child. The atmosphere was markedly different and the idea of never seeing my friends again didn’t settle well with me.”
Years later, on a trip to India she would try to reconnect with some of her lost friends, and though the political antagonism of the divided countries never crept into their conversations, Bokhari felt that “officially, at least” she didn’t belong there, no matter what her “heart or her friends said”.
This is not to say that Zakaria argues against Partition or the formation of the new countries that represented a refuge for those who had exhausted all avenues of negotiations with other stakeholders in British India (and went through slaughter and dislocation for it). Zakaria observes that “the dichotomy between good and bad, between violence and harmony, was blurred for many of her interviewees”. They told stories of friendship, as well as murder, which is why Zakaria believes that it is not her job “to testify which versions of history, the dark or the rosy, are the correct ones”.
Her choice to use oral history as her methodology is indeed an interesting one. She doesn’t neglect the traditionally linear view of history where developments are a one-way transition and once done, they cannot be undone; however, by exploring generational differences and contradictions in oral history narratives, she rejects the cynicism such linearity carries.
Of course, her methodology has its own issues and limitations — it is hard to verify the ‘facts’ being presented in individual stories and perhaps a different set of interviews could be used to tailor a completely different claim. Moreover, the book lacks analysis of the Indian perspective and neglects Pakistan’s regional diversity; most of her interviewees are from Lahore and nearby cities such as Kasur and Sahiwal. Zakaria expresses awareness of such limitations, and makes modest claims about the empirical framework of her work. She is not out to establish facts, but instead she seems interested in “how and what they [interviewees] choose to remember” and the stories they tell themselves.
By demonstrating that the past is being redefined, Zakaria suggests that it is something we construct in the present, and the present is something we extrapolate into the past. If a different past is possible, then a different future will become inevitable.
‘Pakistaniat’ — the notion of a unique national identity that is specific to subcontinental Muslims — is believed to have preceded the creation of Pakistan; to have caused it. The interviewees in this book, ranging from those who long for their homes on the other side of the border, to those who believe that India and Pakistan have nothing in common except for a desire to annihilate each other, form a collective narrative in which ‘Pakistaniat’ emerges as an extrapolation, a postscript to the creation of Pakistan — something that is subject to contemporary social processes and political revisions that in turn, trigger mutations in our memory, redefining our understanding of reasons and circumstances around Pakistan’s birth.
Zakaria challenges the notion of predestined animosities between the two hostile states. With the rise of belligerent nationalism and worryingly antagonistic elements on both sides of the border, this challenge is an important one.
The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians
By Anam Zakaria
Harper Collins, India