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INTERVIEW: Anam Zakaria

August 09, 2015

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Anam Zakaria

-- Photo by Mohammad Ahsan
Anam Zakaria -- Photo by Mohammad Ahsan

Anam Zakaria is a development professional, educationist and researcher based in Pakistan. She has an academic background in international development from McGill University and started her career with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan in 2010. She led their Oral History Project, collecting narratives of the first and second generations of Pakistanis. The Footprints of Partition is her first book.

Tell us about the methodology of your research. What do oral histories offer to the existing discourse on Pak-India history?

Oral histories, for me, help deconstruct metanarratives. The dominant discourse in Pakistan that I was familiar with throughout my childhood revolved around the bloodshed and violence of Partition. It helped me value the creation of Pakistan but always left me with a bloody aftertaste, a gruesome picture of battered bodies, massacres and blood-strewn trains. While many people I spoke to narrated similar horrific stories of Partition, interviewing them helped me understand that the past can never be a linear trajectory, nor black or white. There are many nuances that are missed in recorded history and speaking to Partition survivors brings those nuances to light, giving me (and hopefully my readers) a more holistic understanding of the past.

You say at some point that you did over 600 interviews for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan. Why did you choose to include these ones in your book?

To give you a candid answer, I chose the ones that left me with a lingering to go back and know more, that opened my eyes to new realities and left me with a desire to further explore my history. These were the stories I wanted to share with people. The research and writing process was a very personal journey for me. I was learning, unlearning and relearning. I wanted my readers, especially the younger ones, to have a chance to do the same through my book. This is not to say, however, that I was only moved by a handful of stories and not by others. One aspect that I was sure of from the very beginning was that I wanted to particularly focus on those stories where people had a chance to revisit their past, or at least had a longing to do the same. I was interested in knowing about their experiences for this was something one did not find in history books. I also wanted to include stories from different generations in order to explore what the journey of Partition has been like and what meaning Partition and the ‘other’ hold for different groups of people.

These stories don’t often feature in history books, either for the purposes of propaganda or due to issues of verifiability. In the absence of evidence, how much weight can we attach to these stories? The job of oral histories is not just to record history but to also give us a glimpse into how people feel about an event and how they choose to remember it. To filter out the feelings and sentiments of people who went through Partition perhaps raises its own questions of validity.

Pakistan is one of the few countries left with their first generation alive, and to deny them a voice simply because it may not be considered fact would be an injustice to the nation. We need to understand what goes into making history, and the eyewitness accounts of those who saw the creation of this country must be recognised as part of it. After all, who decides what history is and how it should be recorded?

You suggest that state narratives employ Partition stories to suit our contemporary political aspirations and fantasies. How so, and to what end?

I often find that in order to evoke pride in our nation, we find it necessary to filter our history to one where all Hindus and Sikhs become violent perpetrators, enemies of Islam and Pakistan. In a twisted way, we feel that if we show another, more human side to the ‘other,’ our patriotism may falter. And thus, we go on to call Hindus mischievous and treacherous, we tell our children that they can never be our friends. This is a case not just in our country, but in others too. It is also becoming a concern in India where Pakistan and terrorism are increasingly becoming synonymous. Defining nationhood and instilling patriotism is a tricky task but we must choose ways which are less venomous.

In exploring these stories that present alternative perspectives into our past, you run the risk of appearing to be in disagreement with the state-approved versions of the two-nation theory. What are your expectations from the publication of this book? How does it fit into the current political climate in India and Pakistan? My book does not set out to question Partition or the two-nation theory. It is an attempt to provide our children with a more holistic understanding of the past and I hope it is taken in that way.

It is unfortunate that policies and events at the macro level have the power to swiftly change opinions. Events like the Mumbai attack or news of [alleged] Indian funding in Pakistan can overnight turn the innocent desire of revising the past into a treacherous act. However, what needs to be understood is that there are countless people on both sides of the border who want to travel across, who share bonds and relationships with the so-called ‘other.’ Macro-policies may make life a lot harder for them but they cannot take away those relationships.

What do you hope it to achieve with this book?

I hope that my book is able to highlight these relationships, and that it is able to record this part of our history for the future generations that are at risk of absorbing a rigid understanding of the past. This, in no way, should challenge our nationhood or patriotism. Who says patriotism needs to be based on hatred and hostility?