Literary Review

Digitising memories

Photo: The 1947 Partition Archive and Mehta Skylab Daoheung

Photo: The 1947 Partition Archive and Mehta Skylab Daoheung

When I saw the Berlin Wall fall in 1989 on B&W television, I decided that someday I would go to the remains of the Wall and pray that relations between India and Pakistan eased up. Pray for the Wagah border post to cease being what it is: a symbol of the division of families. When I actually went there in 2010, the prayer did not rise to my lips. Though I was not aware of it, around this time a different kind of exchange had started between citizens of the two countries; this time aided technology. In earlier decades our memory was shaped by writers who wrote about the pain through great works of fiction. But now the ordinary people have started telling the stories of their families, recording them, and making them available forever. In the body of Partition tales, this is the era of non-fiction: of understanding what the Partition did to families, especially women.

The loss of her grandmother and not having heard her family stories prompted physicist Guneeta Singh Bhalla to start the Partition Archive project in 2011. The resource-rich www.1947partitionarchive.org has until now collected 1,100 recordings. As Bhalla says, “The actual interviews are one to nine hours in length and reviewed by a panel of archivists for accuracy and quality. They are then indexed and added to the digital archive.” The project showcases some of its work on YouTube and Facebook but by 2017 aims to be available through online streaming on its Story Map and to make the complete collection available at select library locations across the world “in a way that is productive and educational without compromising any standards.”

Sachi G. Dastidar’s Indian Subcontinent Partition Documentation project (www.ispad1947.com) makes a similar effort by documenting the missing Hindus in Bangladesh, post 1947 and 1971. Their websites have been hacked multiple times but they continue to work with schools in Bangladesh and India.

In Pakistan, Muhammad Owais Rana from Citizens Archive of Pakistan www.citizensarchive.org talks about their Oral History Project, which started in 2007. “The idea is to digitise the history of Indian subcontinent for current and future generations.” Besides recording 1800 stories, CAP also runs the “Exchange for Change” programme with children from both countries towards a greater shared understanding of our history. Its Indian equivalent is Chintan Girish Modi’s “Friendships across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein” on Facebook. Modi says, “The digital world doesn’t require visas. The availability of options to talk to someone across the border opens up so many possibilities. Suddenly, you discover shared interests, shared grouses too and have conversations that need not necessarily be about problems or conflicts alone.” Shiraz Hassan is a lone warrior of sorts. Through his blog shirazhassan.blogspot.in people from India send him addresses of their old houses in Pakistan, and he locates them and sends them their images.

Photographer, designer and archivist Anusha Yadav is interested in the way old photographs and texts come together. “I want to take people back to the context created from the old photographs. It makes the storyteller fill the gaps in memory. Something films can’t do.” Her Indian Memory Project (www.indianmemoryproject.com) is creating a visual and oral history project of the Indian subcontinent via family archives. Launched in 2010 with five pictures and a few stories, one-fourth of the stories available today deal with Partition. Many have helped reunite families split across the globe.

Chandigarh-based Punjab Digital Library www.panjabdigilib.org has already digitised one billion pages of ancient texts and has found diaries, gazettes, records of meetings on Partition. Working with multiple language texts, Daljit Ami a senior member at PDL, says, “Partition caused a huge rupture in our culture. The irony is that we have Shahmukhi texts here for which we don’t have readers. In Pakistan they have Gurmukhi texts for which they don’t have readers. In the digital age, we can take steps to make our texts available beyond political boundaries and recreate a shared culture.”

Kalathmika Natarajan, social media researcher at SARAI, says, “Even as demands for a physical memorial for the victims of Partition are treated with indifference by governments, online memorials are able to transcend the politics of physical borders and archive a permanent people’s memorial for a shared South Asian past.”

Though many people-based movements by eminent citizens from both countries could not break down the wall between the nations, they have been the backdrop in which these new attempts to gain a shared understanding of our past is taking place. These new memorials are not mere nostalgia. These are what we bequeath to the next generation — a people’s history of the sub-continent. While governments do what they do, what these ventures need is support. As Yadav says, “There is no lack of appreciation from people, but what we need is funds.” It is time we citizens provide tangible support to these ventures and make a concerted effort towards peace. Else we will be forever stuck with Wagah as our own Checkpoint Charlie.

Recent documentaries on Partition

Abar Ashibo Phire (Bengali) Director: Supriyo Sen, 2004

Anhad Baja Baajey (Punjabi) Director: Daljit Ami. 2004

Stories of the Broken Self (Punjabi) Director: Furrukh Khan, 2006

Partition: The Day India Burned (English) Director: Ricardo Pollack, 2007

Rabba Hun Kee Kariye (Punjabi) Director Ajay Bhardwaj, 2007

The Sky Below (English) Director: Sarah Singh, 2008

Stories My Country Told Me (English) Director: Eqbal Ahmad, 2000

Three Women of Three Times and the Border (English) Director: Buddhadeb Dasgupta, 2011.

Khayal Darpan (Urdu) Director: Yousuf Saeed, 2014.

A Season Outside (English) Director: Amar Kanwar, 1997

Crossing the Line (English) Director: Anita Barar, 2007.

Amandeep Sandhu’s Roll of Honour was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014.


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Printable version | May 25, 2022 12:44:52 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/digitising-memories/article6274912.ece