Chronicles of a departure remembered

Devabrata Seth, 90, and his wife Tripti Sen share, among other things, a common pain though the two were on opposite sides of the border during Partition. Devabrata, then 17, lived in Maniktala where his family home was burnt and looted. Tripti spent her childhood in Jessore, where she went to school and recalls drawing maps of a "much larger India" in geography class.

By Malancha Dasgupta in Calcutta
  • Published 16.08.15

Calcutta, Aug. 15: Devabrata Seth, 90, and his wife Tripti Sen share, among other things, a common pain though the two were on opposite sides of the border during Partition. Devabrata, then 17, lived in Maniktala where his family home was burnt and looted. Tripti spent her childhood in Jessore, where she went to school and recalls drawing maps of a "much larger India" in geography class.

Deborshi Chakraborty, who passed out of Presidency University recently, has been travelling between Calcutta and Dhaka, collecting stories from the likes of Devabrata and Tripti for the 1947 Partition Archive, a website that brings together the stories of Partition survivors. The brainchild of Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the Archive boasts nearly 2,000 interviews and over 4,000 hours of footage even as the journey continues.

Guneeta,a physicist by profession, grew up listening to such stories from her grandparents. But when Guneeta went to school in the US, she would wonder why her textbooks did not include a single chapter on the Partition. "My father was born in Lahore and his family was forced to flee to the newly formed India in 1947. They faced many hardships in those early days but eventually settled down in Delhi. What I found strange was that it was not even mentioned in my textbooks while we learned about the Holocaust or the Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings in world history class," said Guneeta, who was born in Delhi and moved to the US at the age of 10.

Surprised and pained at the younger generation's "lack of knowledge" about Partition, she took it upon herself to set that right. Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2008 gave her the idea of how to go about it. "It was so powerful to hear the stories of experiencing the atomic bomb from survivors. Suddenly it was all very real and human and I felt their pain much more than watching videos of the mushroom cloud or reading written accounts of those hours that followed the dropping of the bomb. I knew the same had to be done for Partition," Guneeta told Metro.

She began by recording witness accounts on a hobby camcorder, while on a trip to India in 2009. The Partition Archive was born two years later.

Guneeta recalls interviewing Bhim Sharma in a dusty machine parts shop in Batala, Punjab, and hearing him speak about the day his village in Narowal district of west Punjab was surrounded by a mob. "The entire village took refuge in one house. When all hope was lost, three women on horseback, masked as men with turbans on their heads and ammunition strapped across their bodies, caught the mob unexpected and lobbed grenades at the leader. He was killed and the mob dispersed. The women then escorted the villagers to safety," she said.

The story came a full circle when months later, and thousands of miles away in Morgan Hill, Kuldip Kaur corroborated Sharma's account and recalled the three women on horseback who protected a caravan she was in when it was being attacked by a mob.

"Every single story I collected impacted me in a significant way, especially those of young children who suffered atrocities, or women who played an unusual role. They changed my perception of south Asian culture," said Guneeta.

There are many such stories that would have been lost forever had it not been for the 1947 Partition Archive. Some recalled their lives at refugee camps - the air thick with painful recollection, uncertainty and suspicion, some shared tales of escaping while hiding in mailbags on train, some recalled how they witnessed killings and some spoke about days of starvation.

Mahesh Khanna was 15 when he was put on a train from Lahore to Amritsar along with his sister and younger brother. The journey in that crowded train on August 14, 1947, remains etched in his mind. "My parents had told us not to look outside. The train was so crowded that we could hardly breathe. We were sandwiched inside without any water to drink," he recalled, sitting in his flat at the Lansdowne-Hazra crossing.

The siblings spent three days in Amritsar, watching trains loaded with people, some alive and many dead, arrive and waiting for the rest of his family to come and join them. His parents reached on August 17. "I remember one particular train. Only two men - the engine driver and the guard - got off it. The train was packed with bodies. They had been killed and dumped inside the train and blood was still trickling down from the compartments. As a child of 15, I saw these things happening before my eyes," said Mahesh, his voice choking even after 68 years.

It was too expansive an endeavour for Guneet to carry on solo. To collect stories from across the globe quickly and cost-effectively, Guneeta decided to crowd-source. She taught people how to record oral history interviews via free online seminars. The Archive today has around 450 volunteers aged 13-85 from more than 150 cities across the world.

Subhasri Ghosh, who teaches history at Asutosh College, joined the Archive in November 2013. "Since Partition and migration are part of my Phd research, the Archive offered me an opportunity to explore the human dimension of Partition. It is imperative that we record the valuable stories for posterity. This was the driving force behind my joining," she said.

Deborshi, who joined the Archive in June, after completing master's in history from Presidency University, was drawn to the project after he chanced upon the website while browsing the Internet. Of the 30 accounts he has recorded in Calcutta and Bangladesh, he was the most touched by the tale of A. Hamid, who has not met his daughter since 1972.

"The family moved from Kharagpur to Saidpur, Bangladesh in 1947, but came under attack in 1971. Many of them were killed and the rest fled to Dhaka, hiding in train wagons, without food and water for five days. On reaching Dhaka, they lived in camps along with captured Pakistan soldiers." Hamid now earns his living by selling perfume oil, hoping he will be united with his daughter some day.

"There are only a few of us who are alive to narrate experiences of the Partition and so unless these are archived now they will be lost," said Tripti, a retired schoolteacher who has penned her experiences in Panchalir Panchali.

Tripti and her family came to India when the 1948 riots broke out. "My father was stuck in Calcutta as trains had stopped and my mother was alone with three children. Once my uncle and aunt were killed, my mother could not help but put my eight-year-old brother and me on the train so that we could escape while she waited for my father to return. It was February 16, 1950. We reached Calcutta late and spent the night on a platform of Sealdah station. In the morning, the stationmaster helped us. My parents and my youngest brother came to Calcutta a fortnight later."

Her husband, Devabrata, 90, remembers standing under the Maniktala bridge when some people suddenly started burning houses and stabbing people. "Once trouble stopped, we pulled out burnt and stabbed bodies from inside the houses. We spent the night taking care of the injured," he said.

But Rudrani Gangopadhyay says not all stories are of trauma and pain. There are many touching accounts, too, of people from different communities helping each other. For the Jadavpur University student, working for the Archive has been life-changing. "The generation that has witnessed the Partition is dying. I realised this while taking the interviews. This is a great initiative because we need to archive the stories of struggle before it is too late. I have interviewed 60 families and honestly this has nuanced my understanding of the Partition. We have all read about it in textbooks but to sit and listen to stories in reality is a different experience all together. It has changed me as a person."

Agrees Kaisar Ahmed, who had witnessed the Great Calcutta Killings a year before Independence. He was nine then and lived on Harish Mukherjee Road. "The Partition has been erased from consciousness when it had such a tremendous effect on our national identities," said the 78-year-old retired chartered accountant who now lives in the US with his sons.

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