Retelling India’s Independence and Partition through personal stories

Crowd-sourced archives retell the events of 1947 through personal stories with modern storytelling skills, and share them in the public domain

Updated - August 14, 2020 06:14 pm IST

Published - August 14, 2020 09:44 am IST

A suitcase with the belongings of Savitri Devi Bhalla

A suitcase with the belongings of Savitri Devi Bhalla

More than a decade ago, when Guneeta Bhalla visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, she came across documents of people sharing their stories of the atomic bombings. These accounts helped her understand the suffering and hardships that survivors had to go through.

It was then that the idea of documenting the stories of India-Pakistan’s Partition occurred to her. From a family that migrated from Lahore to Amritsar, Guneeta had grown up hearing terrifying stories of Partition from her grandmother, who fled with her three children. “She spoke of her train journey to India, watching bodies strewn along the tracks. Initially, these were just stories to me and my family, until I realised the importance of documenting them for generations to come,” says Guneeta.

Her 1947 Partition Archive documents the oral history of Partition from the survivors. Started in 2009, the project has a repository of over 9,300 stories, collected by a team of 600 people.

Several organisations in India are now waking up to the importance of archiving oral history to shed light on the events that happened in 1947.

Presenting stories of the past with modern storytelling skills, initiatives such as The Citizens Archive of India and Museum of Material Memory are bringing personal stories to the public domain. These stories have a large readership online, as they highlight the non-academic aspect of Independence and Partition.

“There is now a sense of urgency as most of the people who lived through those times are getting old. Not all of them have a vivid memory of the events, so it has been a race against time for us,” says Guneeta.

The Citizens Archive Of India began with a basic motive of keeping memories alive. “The founder, Rohan Parikh, wanted to bring forward India’s lost and neglected stories from 1947 and before. So together we started recording videos of people telling us about their early life,” says Malvika Bhatia, archive director of the organisation.

Mithoo Coorlawala at University of Cambridge

Mithoo Coorlawala at University of Cambridge

Of the 242 tales that they have recorded, Malvika loves the one of Mithoo Coorlawala who turns 103 in September this year. “From an affluent family, she attended Newnham College at the University of Cambridge in 1938 for her Master’s. On completion of the degree, while her male counterparts got a convocation, the women were given a polite letter congratulating them for graduating. Several years later, Cambridge University decided to change it and summoned all the women students for a convocation ceremony. In 1998, almost 60 years after she graduated from college, Mithoo went back to collect her Masters certificate,” says Malvika.

Archiving memories

Another organisation that believes in archiving old tales is the Museum of Material Memory.

Run by author Aanchal Malhotra and Navdha Malhotra, the digital archive documents history through the memory of things. “Though we do not specifically write about Independence and Partition, every story from that era has been impacted by these events in some way or the other,” says Aanchal who penned Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory .

Started in 2017, the website has stories from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. It crowdsources stories from people who reach out on social media.

“People write to us with basic information about a commodity they discover, and then we guide them to find more about it by interviewing the people around them. You will be surprised to know the stories people have discovered by trying to trace the ownership of briefcases, cutlery, clothing and worn-out documents,” says Navdha narrating the story of Rashi Puri who set out to find details about her great-grandmother Savitri Devi Bhalla, after discovering a dupatta that belonged to her.

Rashi reached out to her grandfather, Savitri Devi’s eldest son Joginder Bhalla, who narrated how Savitri Devi, a widow with three children, made her way from Lahore to India. Before Partition was announced, families had already started migrating. A Muslim family from India arrived at Savitri Devi’s doorstep in Lahore and moved into the house. The two families lived together before the Bhallas moved to India. “All of this came to light only because Rashi wanted to know more about her great grandmother and her dupatta ,” says Navdha.

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