Listening to what is said and not said

The listener: Urvashi Butalia talks of her work on Partition, The Other Side of Silence. File Photo: S. Subramanium.   | Photo Credit: S_Subramanium

A writer, publisher and historian, Urvashi Butalia is renowned for co-founding India's first feminist publishing house, Kali. Her work with oral histories has also been significant, culminating in one of the most influential books on Partition in recent years, titled The Other Side of Silence.

Here to attend the Oral History and the Sense of Legacy Conference organised by Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Urvashi elaborates on the significance of oral history to her work on Partition. The Other Side of Silence is the result of over 70 interviews she took with survivors of the violent era following Independence.

Even the formal, so-called ‘academic' histories of Partition have only really emerged over the past 15 years, says Urvashi. And, while these encapsulate the main players and key events of the time, she feels they focus too much on the politics and not enough on the people. “There is little mention of what ordinary people had gone through during that time,” she explains.

However, even as the child of refugee parents, she admitted that these histories never seemed inadequate until she began to use oral history methodologies and interview the survivors personally.

“Only then do you realise that behind all those statistics there were human stories of grief, courage, resilience and fortitude.”

It took Urvashi much effort to get the whole story, especially from women.

“You almost never get to speak to women alone; they're always accompanied by their family or their husband,” she says. As a result, most of the women would say what their families wanted them to say, or what they felt the interviewer wanted to hear. “They would never mention rape or things like that in front of family,” she says.

Urvashi insisted that the only way to overcome this reluctance was to build up a sense of trust between herself and the women she was trying to interview. Consequently, to get the whole picture, she had to pay attention not only to what these women were saying, but also to what they were not saying. “It was like listening in stereo,” she laughs.

“What struck me most was that so many who lived through Partition and the violence, came out of it with compassion,” says Urvashi. “There are many lessons to learn from them.” The main one, she felt, was that a similar event in the future should never be allowed to happen.

“If you go back to that time, you can see where the seeds were sown for conflict between two communities that lived for centuries in peace.” Urvashi feels that her work is relevant today, as the wounds of Partition have yet to heal.

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 10:00:37 PM |

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