By Parul Srivastava
“…but I am not an important person, why do you want to record my experience? Who will want to listen to my experience when my children have never cared to ask me about how I came to India from Karachi, Pakistan…”?
– An interviewee’s words when I explained why I wanted to record and listen to their story in Lucknow, India.
I grew up with my grandparents in our 100-year-old house in the old part of the sleepy city of Lucknow in India. Born in 1928, my grandfather had been a constant source of old and rare stories. He was a great storyteller, and I loved being the listener. From my early years, I knew how the city of Lucknow became what it is today and how it was in the 1930s. He passed on stories which he had heard from his father, who was working with the Imperial Bank (which is now known as the State Bank of India) with the British.My grandpa would talk about stories from the days when my great-grandfather was posted in Lahore. I was inquisitive to know more and more about those times when India had still not been partitioned. Upon visiting the old areas and monuments in my city, I would imagine how life must have been for my great grandfather in Lahore, in a city where no one else from my family had ever set foot on post-Partition, given the relations between India and Pakistan, we couldn’t have even thought of doing so. Shopping in the thriving Refugee market in the Aminabad bazaar, I could only imagine what the original shopkeepers went through when they settled down in Lucknow after 1947. I got a chance to know this during my association with the 1947 Partition Archive, started by Dr Guneeta Singh Bhalla.
Listening to stories of how people in Lucknow reacted to the radio announcement of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the hullaballoo of the Quit India Movement, the radio announcement by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with his famous lines had a significant impact on me. I realized that one simply cannot think of missing out on the experiences of people who had lived through India’s Partition in the year 1947, which is the greatest migration that ever took place in History! With the Berkeley-based oral history project called the 1947 Partition Archive, I met many families belonging to different religions, regions, linguistic backgrounds, classes, and castes. I can firmly say that this rare experience has made me look at Partition from a different lens. As young and emerging citizens, we should safeguard these micro-histories that are not available in our curriculum. Stories that we overlook as students of History, historians, and academicians in debates like what constitutes as a reliable source or how far can memory be trusted.
Interviewing people in my city of Lucknow was a reinstating moment for me wherein people belonging to various religious communities told me about how Lucknow has never faced communal riots. Hence, few people migrated from the city. Amusingly, many talked about how they were more scared of rumours during World War II than they were of Partition. A gentleman residing in Hyderabad, India, shared with me his experience of days leading up to August 14th- 15th in 1947 and how his father had put up a hoarding outside their shop in Rawalpindi,Pakistan saying ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ because they had no intention of leaving their home, their city, nor their flourishing business.
Another lady who eventually settled down in Lucknow, India, after migrating from Punjab, Pakistan, in the aftermath of Partition told me about the horrendous train journey she embarked upon with her entire family and the sigh of relief they felt after entering the Indian territory. She said that they used to wear two to three sets of clothes at all times because they never know when they would have to leave their house and flee the country!
A woman nearing 90, residing in Lucknow, told me that her family did not think much about Partition because her father was a feudal lord in Oudh, and the condition over there was pretty normal. However, the family felt the gravity of Partition when her first cousin, who was studying in Lahore (back then, going to Lahore was as easy as visiting any other Indian city), fell in love and married a fellow student. Henceforth, he stayed back in Pakistan, and it was only later that the borders became stiff, and it became impossible for families living on either side to even meet one another!
I interviewed another lady in the old parts of Lucknow. She told me that it never entirely occurred to her that there was a division between the rulers and the ruled in India because, during World War I, Indian soldiers fought for the British. This realization came to her only when students from her college asked her to join a rally for the Quit India Movement! Once Partition happened, she had no idea that tentative goodbyes would turn into permanent ones. This is in context to her Muslim classmates who left for Pakistan- never to come back. The house that I interviewed her in belonged to a Muslim Civil Servant who later sold it to her family before migrating to Pakistan. Talking about the city of Lucknow, she said that structures and monuments like mosques, churches, temples still exist here, but the spirit is somehow absent.
The Archives of both India and Pakistan are full of files that are our source of information about the Partition of 1947. All this, however, cannot transcend the details shared with me by a person I interviewed who worked at refugee camps in Agra. He gave me an account of how the local population of India received the refugees and what kind of feelings and prejudices prevailed for them among the natives.
The discipline of History has mainly concentrated on the Political aspects of the Partition of India. Due to this, we are all missing out on the human element of Partition. It has been over 70 years since the Partition took place, and hence there is an urgency to record the experiences of migrants and eyewitnesses while we still can. These brave people had to migrate to an unknown land that would now be their homeland. The youngest Partition survivor/migrant/eyewitness is over 73 years of age, as of today.
Consequently, there is a burning prerequisite to identify and interview Partition survivors to not miss out on any experience that they lived. We cannot afford to lament over the loss of such irreplaceable-distinct experience and miss out on a treasure trove of human dimensions of Partition. If we had more sources of people from various historical pasts, imagine how much more we would know about people’s personal experiences from history.
Author’s Bio: Parul Srivastava is a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral scholar visiting the University of Massachusetts Amherst U.S.A for 2020-2021 and a PhD Researcher in the Department of History, University of Hyderabad. She has a long association with the 1947 Partition Archive and has performed various roles in the non-profit organization.
This article is based on oral interviews collected with funding under the Story Scholar Program from the 1947 Partition Archive, Berkeley. All interviews conducted by me are with the 1947 Partition Archive. Stanford University Libraries contain few interviews that have been conducted and archived by the Berkeley based Archive. This article is based entirely on my experience of conducting interviews in India.
 Interview conducted in Hyderabad, India and is archived with the 1947 Partition Archive, Berkeley
 See the works of Yasmin Khan, Ian Talbot, Mushirul Hasan, Sucheta Mahajan.
 Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhasin. 1998. Borders and Boundaries: How Women Experienced the Partition of India. Brunswick, N J: Rutgers University Press.
 Butalia, Urvashi. 1998. The Other Side of Silence. New Delhi: Viking.
Feature Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Partition_of_Punjab,_India_1947.jpg