Potent Memories From a Divided India (NY Times)
Growing up, Guneeta Singh Bhalla heard a terrifying story from her grandmother. In August 1947, as British India was being partitioned into independent India and Pakistan, her grandmother fled Lahore, in what was soon to become Pakistan, for Amritsar, in what was soon to become India. All around her was carnage. Clutching her three young children, she looked out the train window to see bodies strewed along the tracks. The memory haunted her until she died.
For years afterward, Ms. Bhalla regretted not recording her grandmother’s story, and it spurred her to begin recording other people’s memories of that time. The project, known as the 1947 Partition Archive, has grown far bigger, far quicker than she ever imagined. Since its inception here two years ago, its dozens of volunteers have video-recorded 647 oral histories from more than seven countries and stored them digitally. It describes itself as “a people’s history” of that wrenching time.
“It’s something that’s been brewing in my mind since high school,” recalled Ms. Bhalla, a research physicist who is now 34, about the same age as her grandmother in 1947. “As I was growing up, it was always in the back of my head, and bothersome, as family members were passing.”
The partition, which carved up British India roughly along religious and political lines, uprooted over 10 million people. Hindus and Sikhs escaped to India; Muslims to Pakistan. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians were left to choose where to live as minorities. The dead were difficult to count; estimates range from 250,000 to two million. No one knows how many were raped.
The oral history project is equally remarkable for being the first of its kind. As much as the partition hangs over the politics and psyche of the Indian subcontinent, there is no memorial — digital or analog — to mark it. This homegrown, volunteer-run project, directed from a few cubbies at the University of California here, is one of the first efforts to collect those memories. Now, because most of the partition’s witnesses are gone — most subjects are in their 70s and 80s — the project has taken on new urgency. At least 20 of the 100 people Ms. Bhalla has interviewed have died, she said. And so, with help from donors, the archive plans to dispatch 20 story gatherers this year to several cities in South Asia to collect stories while their tellers are still alive.
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