The Partition Party
My father crossed many rivers in his lifetime. He was born in 1941 by the Jamuna, the lower stream of the Brahmaputra that joins the mighty Padma, 80 kilometres downstream at Goalondo Ghat. Their expansive mud house at Sirajgunj stood on the river that had seemed to a child like a sea with no end. He roamed the ghats of the Subarnarekha, Rupnarayan, Damodar and Mahanadi later while working with the Indian Railways. His last years, post-retirement, were spent by another river, the Hooghly. But till his last day, he never ceased to think of it as “a mere stream” when compared to the Padma of his childhood and early youth. When I cremated my father, his frail frame took about an hour to turn into ashes. As the smoke billowed through the grey chimney, my grief intermingled with my biggest regret — I never took the initiative of chronicling his memories, the memories of an ordinary Indian, who had had to live the pain of Partition.
Guneeta Singh Bhalla, however, had started collecting oral narratives of survivors of Partition from 2010. Today, the 1947 Partition Archive, a giant cloud computer-based repository, conceptualised and led by the former physicist is teeming with thousands of tales.
“I help preserve memories of those who witnessed the 1947 Partition of South Asia,” says Bhalla. She continues, “We are a community-based archive that trains and empowers people to record and share oral histories of the witnesses of Partition. Together we have ensured this history won’t be forgotten by recording over 10,200 witness oral histories from 14 countries in over 36 languages and dialects, and digitising antiquated photographs, documents and images of personal objects of historical value, gathered from personal collections.”
Last week in Calcutta, Bhalla organised the first of a series of pre-launch events of what will be the print compilation of the archive. The book is titled 10,000 Memories: A lived history of Partition, Independence and World War II in South Asia. More such events are scheduled over the next few weeks in India, the US, the UK and Pakistan. The book is expected to hit the stands by mid-April.
One of the many accounts in the upcoming book belongs to Manisha Maitra, a 75-year-old former railway employee. The youngest daughter in a family of 12, Maitra had suffered a lot. First, the family was forced to shift to Calcutta from Khulna; this was 1946. Her father, a doctor, had to accept a job in a tea garden in Assam while the greater family lived in a crowded rented room in south Calcutta. “We had a horrible childhood in a communally charged air, even though we hailed from a wealthy family,” she reminisces.
Despite the financial constraints, all her siblings opted for higher studies and took up government jobs. Her husband, also a refugee, worked as a statistician in a government hospital in Calcutta.
Maitra tells me, “I always vote for the Left because I was disappointed with the role the Congress played during Partition.” She adds, “I hate parties that thrive on communal overtones and have played a disruptive role in the country’s division and the unbridled violence wreaked on it in the wake of Partition.”
Maitra’s Partition memories seem to dovetail into her electoral choices. I am reminded of my father once again. Like the Maitras, he and his five siblings were unbending Left supporters. He used to say, “No one stood beside the refugees nor consistently fought for their causes like them.”
Post Marichjhapi, post Singur and Nandigram, when he could not bring himself to defend the Left, he would get agitated and return to incantating his life’s truth, “The Left were like straw for sinking refugees… They stood by those who settled in camps, colonies and rented homes. Later, many refugees even gained land rights during Operation Barga.”
The archive does not analyse or interpret interviewees’ political leanings. Says Bhalla, “We preserve whatever a witness says. We believe oral history helps us understand our complex past from the perspective of ordinary citizens without erasing the subtle nuances, beyond the realm of the textbook or interpretative history. They capture their honest views, which otherwise get distorted by politicians and even historians to fuel new conflicts.”
That said, a lot of historians don’t attach much credence to what she does either and Bhalla is well aware of this.
Anindita Ghoshal is a historian and head of the department of history at Diamond Harbour Women’s University. She is the author of Refugees, Borders and Identities.
After browsing through the proof of 10,000 Memories, she says, “The long impact of the division and sudden uprootedness of the refugee families touched the psyche of a whole generation and even the next generations in ways that their political representations became one of the dominant factors in the vote bank politics of the refugee-absorbent states of West Bengal, Assam and Tripura.”
As a historian and independent collector of oral stories — she is not involved in the Partition Archive, though— Ghoshal believes Indian states along the border carry the imprint of Partition in popular politics, in the culture of identity politics, in defining the rights of citizenship of the refugee families and in the stateless status of some communities in northeast India.
During the event at the Oxford Book Store in Calcutta, Bhalla’s team organised a session with two witnesses, Prajnaparamita De and Nirmal Chandra Bose, who figure in the book.
De was born on the other side, in Faridpur, in 1941. She and her husband were professors at IIT Kharagpur after completing post-doctoral research in the US. She was so overwhelmed that day that she could barely speak. But Bose, 98, who had come from Hridaypur, a suburb of Barasat, 40 kilometres north of Calcutta, was full of reminiscings.
He spoke about how he was forced to migrate from Faridpur leaving behind 22 bighas of land, three ponds and a huge mansion by the Madhumati river, just after Partition. He spoke about his bedridden wife whois from a village in Jessore. And later, he tells me, “I was a big supporter of Congress during the Independence struggle. But later we were not happy with the way the Congress and its workers handled the refugee crisis after Partition. They could not do much for migrants like me.”
Bose was not coy about who his vote goes to now and he said he knew that the younger generations voted for the BJP. As he understands it, the deciding factor is the experience of Partition. He said, “These young people have never felt the pain of Partition, never suffered like us.”
On some days, my father would hum a forlorn Bhatiyali Baul song. It went thus: “Amar deha khancha epare/ Aar mon khancha opare/ Ki doshete korli bidhi, amai deshantar… My body is on this side/And my heart is on that side/What is my fault, O Destiny, that you consigned me to this fate.”