You may have heard of a little project called The 1947 Partition Archive. It started about five years ago, with a tiny part-time team that put all their waking hours into it. Since then, it has exploded in popularity. It now has about 250,000 likes on Facebook and a team that spans the globe. The Archive’s mission is to interview the people who lived through Partition and record their stories — before the entire first-hand memory of the lived experience of Partition is gone.
Dr. Guneeta Singh Bhalla is the founder of this mammoth endeavour. I first meet her at a Zubaan event about Partition: The Long Shadow. I’m kind of bowled over by her whole existence; she is a physicist with a doctorate, who quit a plum job at Berkeley to start the Archive. She’s also incredibly unassuming and down to earth. The next morning, we meet at Café Turtle in Khan Market — an interesting space to be talking about Partition, given that it is named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan — to embark on a long conversation about her life and work.
Dr. Bhalla grew up in and lives in the U.S., so I am curious about what brings her to Delhi. It turns out that she comes here three times a year for work. This time, she’s here because the Archive is moving into a new phase and formalising into a trust. She’s here to fundraise and get people on board.
However - surprise! - “I’m actually looking into moving here now and at least getting the Delhi part of our branch off the ground.” Whoa! How does she feel about that? “Well, you know, I was born in Delhi! I spent the first ten years of my life here. And I come here often enough so it doesn’t seem that foreign to me. But it’s changing a lot and every time I come it seems like a [different] country. It’s not the same place I left. The only thing is — I’m used to being completely independent in the U.S. That’s normal [for me], but in Delhi there are a lot of barriers to being that way. And you know you hear all these crazy stories about Delhi being so dangerous and this and that so — there’s that. But I’m actually excited about it.”
Her answer pretty much leads me straight my next question, about what it was like conducting Partition research as someone who doesn’t live in the Subcontinent. “The first interviews I ever conducted were in Faridkot, in Punjab, when I was visiting my family. And there I used to just switch into Punjabi mode — you know, were in the village, speaking Punjabi.” She thinks that the only difference between her and everyone else who had been listening to the same stories was that she, perhaps by virtue of being of the diaspora, of having been educated in the U.S., saw the value in recording the stories. “Maybe other people around me were not seeing [these stories] in the same way because maybe they were used to it.”
“I think also, as part of the diaspora, there’s always the identity issue. [Recording stories] was like reconnecting with my identity and understanding why things are the way they are now and how we ended up in the U.S. And it’s all related to Partition - why our families ended up over there.”
Her father’s family came from Lahore, and she has many stories from his side. I want to hear one, so she tells me: “The story goes that my grandfather didn’t want to leave Lahore. He thought all of this would blow over. All his friends had moved, had sold their properties. He so firmly believed that nothing would happen — it was his ancestral city, all our ancestors had lived there for who knows how many generations — that he stayed on till August 13, when his neighbour said that I’m taking your family (his sister, my grandmother, my dad and his siblings) to the other side because things are getting bad.” The neighbour in question, by the way, was Faiz Ahmed Faiz — Dr. Bhalla had always heard that her grandfather’s family lived next door to a poet, but she only recently found out who the poet actually was. The train her grandmother and her father were on turned out to be a military train, and the family saw many horrifying things on the way to India. They ended up in the Amritsar refugee camp, where her grandmother’s brother took them in. Dr. Bhalla remembers stories her grandmother told of going places in a Jeep and driving over dead bodies. She was flabbergasted to hear those stories — “[they] sounded completely crazy!” Meanwhile, in Lahore, the Pakistani military showed up at her grandfather’s residence on August 14. “They said this is now Pakistan, and you have to leave. So [my grandfather] called some trucks and filled them up with everything in the house and got ready to leave. But as he was leaving, [the military men] said all of this is now property of Pakistan and you have to leave on your own.” He begged them, Dr. Bhalla says, to let him keep a few things, and finally he was able to take some financial documents and an heirloom Guru Granth Sahib belonging to the family that was a few hundred years old. The family still has the blueprints of one of their two houses in Lahore, a house on Lake Road that has now been turned into a government building.
“My grandfather and grandmother were separated for a very long time — they didn’t know what had happened to my grandfather. Eventually they reunited in a refugee camp. My grandmother never really got over it. She had a lot of interesting habits later in life such as taking a few possessions with her wherever she went and being very possessive about them. They lost everything. They were very — I didn’t know this because I didn't grow up wealthy — but they were very wealthy and they lost everything during Partition… Resettlement was very challenging for them, and [my grandmother] never quite got used to this side.”
She’s going to Lahore next week, she tells me, for a “personal-slash-Archive visit”, for the very first time. She’s been asked to take the blueprints to whoever occupies the Lake Road building now, and to show them this pre-Partition memory. She sounds nervous yet anticipatory to visit her ancestral city. “I’m going to be visiting our family’s old house and seeing Lahore for the first time.”
What led her to start this project? Did she ever imagine it would take over her whole life?
This story, too, is about family. In 2010, her grandmother’s brother died. “I couldn’t sleep that whole week… It was just like a bout of madness — an intense and completely irrational desire to put everything aside and just do this without even looking at the future, making no plans.” Initially, she says, it was totally haphazard — the small team was just doing whatever it took to record as many people as possible. She couldn’t do it herself, of course, even though she worked every evening after her job and throughout the weekends — so people kept joining, and all of them had to be trained, and equipment had to be acquired for every member of the team. Cameras were borrowed, handed out, returned, and so on. “Our house turned into almost this weird little cafe, where all these people kept coming in to borrow all this equipment, and I was living with my partner at the time and he was just like what’s going on?!”
She had no intention of leaving her career as a physicist at all — but there was a moment when the project grew so big that a decision had to be made. In January 2013, Dr. Bhalla left her job and started managing the Archive full time. She volunteered at this for almost two years, living only on her savings. When her savings ran out, she says, it was one of the hardest periods in her life. “You don’t realise the insecurity that goes along with [not having money until you experience it].” The insecurity becomes a mindset that is hard to get out of.
Eventually, luckily, they got a couple of very generous donors in Silicon Valley who saw the value in their work and donated enough money for five salaries. That’s where the Archive is right now, but Dr. Bhalla wants to raise more money now and expand the scope of the project, and the team.
How did they find this funding? “It was completely crowdfunded — we would go to mosques, gurudwaras, mandirs [in the U.S.] and make announcements, ask for money… People whose interviews we recorded, some of them would just donate. We had this policy of not asking [interviewees] for money but a lot of them… ended up becoming our donors.” The donations they have gotten thus far have been largely unsolicited. They’ve only started their first major solicitation effort now. Yet people seem to want to donate. Funnily, “[t]he only reason we turned into a nonprofit/NGO is because somebody gave me a cheque and I didn’t know what to do with it. You know how much they gave me? It was… $194.70. And I said, what am I supposed to do with it? [The donors said] well, you should form an NGO and deposit it in the Bank.” For six months, the team held on to that check. They were a small group, they didn’t even have a name at that point. Then someone came up with the name 1947 Partition Archive, and they formally registered the organisation, and finally deposited that first donation.
This project is huge — in size and impact. No one has ever recorded the oral history of Partition on such a gigantic scale. Dr. Bhalla tells me that the Archive was inspired by a project that memorialized the trauma at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 by recording the survivors’ oral histories. There are also Holocaust museums around the world that do similar work. However, Partition — an event that is considered the largest mass migration in human history and shaped the Subcontinent as we know it today — has not been given that kind of attention — until now.
Dr. Bhalla thinks that being nurtured in Silicon Valley is really what gave the project the big push it needed. She had always told people about her long-standing desire to do this, but she never encountered the kind of excitement or interest that was really needed - even when she talked about it in India - until she went to Berkeley as a physics postdoc. “I was so obsessed with the idea I kept talking about it everywhere I went. I had just moved to California so I didn’t have any friends there yet. I just kept going to student clubs, and I started talking to people, and a lot of students were the ones who originally joined in.” The Archive, strangely enough, became part of a tech incubator. People were pretty confused, she says, about what to do with a nonprofit in a tech incubator because naturally they couldn’t accept venture capitalist money. Still, “it worked out well for us! Because we learned a lot of intersting ways of doing things that we would not have otherwise. We started out with just me, and we went to a team of sixteen people in that space.”
Berkeley was also the perfect place to start this project because it is one of the few universities in the world that has an Oral History Centre. The Archive team had a world of resources right at their doorstep, and that’s how physicist Dr. Bhalla ended up becoming well-versed in oral history. Her phsyics background, though, is not totally irrelevant to the Archive. “The thing with physics is that I’m trained to build efficient systems to gather data from nature. With the archive, I used the same mentality - this is going to sound cold and horrible,” she laughs, “ - to build a system to gather data efficiently from humans.” They also brought on board a lot of people who had different types of talent - in history, in the humanities. “But maybe it helps that I’m not from the humanities because I don’t have the same sort of ownership over the stories because I’m not doing research on them, I’m just gathering them and putting them out to the world.” She thinks that the fact that they are not actually collecting these stories for research makes the process a lot more efficient, and helps them accomplish their goal of archiving as many memories as they can as quickly as possible.
However, she does admit that the team struggles with not having enough time to think through everything - especially urgent ethical issues. “Putting [the stories] out to the world is a whole other story, and we realised quickly that that’s not something that we can take very lightly, and it has to be done very carefully…It’s something that requires skills and knowledge and understanding, and looking at pros and cons, understanding how the public will receive it. [We] just don’t want to cut any corners or do anything too quickly and make a mistake.” They’re trying to balance the desire to collect, collect, collect, as quickly as possible, with the need to pause and think. An aspect of this ethical struggle is representativeness and possible biases towards one’s own community. Initially - since Dr. Bhalla is Sikh and Indian - people were suspicious, thinking she would only gather Indian stories, or only Sikh stories. However, since they were careful to build a diverse team, people no longer have that suspicion, she says. But naturally, these things have to be thought about.
Another aspect is the ethics of collection. They were lucky to have the Oral History Centre, which helped them develop a methodology of collection. Again, the Archive team faces a struggle to balance the urgency of collecting the stories before they’re gone with the need to respect the people who are giving them their stories. I ask Dr. Bhalla about ownership. There’s a release form, which is in legal language, and story collectors also give interviewees a version in plain English or whichever language the interviewee speaks, and explain the contents. People have to wilfully sign over ownership of that particular recording to the Archive - and if they don’t, the Archive doesn’t collect that story. “In terms of ownership, they own their story forever. The only thing they are giving us ownership of is that particular recording… They also sign a form to donate their story to us. The form also says we can only do something educational with their stories as stated in our mission.” Laws in first-world countries like the U.S. and the U.K. are very strong, but similar laws don’t exist in India, and probably not in Pakistan or Bangladesh either, which Dr. Bhalla admits makes story collection much more difficult here.
They are now trying to work on a way to bring [interviewees] their digital files for free. “The files are way too big to just stick on a DVD or email - so we’re working on things like sending everyone their audio files for free. It’s a matter of resources…[earlier,] volunteers were putting in their own pocket money to do this for people until we just ran out. [We’re working on building] a better system to send people their recordings. It’s just that it’s happening so fast that a lot of these things are not happening in the way that they would if we were to sit down and do it properly. But we just don’t have the time; we’re trying to rush and focus on just recording. Which means that these things like sending people their recordings get left behind, and it does cause distress, we do realise that, but it’s not as bad as not recording their story at all. That’s how we’ve justified it. But we…realise we have the responsibility to work on that.”
Making the Archive sustainable as a nonprofit is also an ethical issue. What they do is, they ask for contributions from the individuals who want to use their stories for research, or for writing or filmmaking. For example, a human rights museum in Canada wanted to display some stories. The Archive requested that the licensing contribution be waived. Similarly, “We have authors and documentary filmmakers who are very interested - and if the authors are going to be making a profit - if they’re academic, it’s okay, they can use the stories - but if they’re going to be making a profit, a portion of their proceeds have to go back to fund the Archive. Because if they’re benefiting from these stories, if they’re making a profit, some of that profit has to go back into story collection. [Being a nonprofit means] fundamentally that whatever money comes in goes back into story collection, it never goes into our pockets. Our salaries are public information and they’re set in advance, and they’re actually poverty level, so none of us are getting rich or anything off of this.” She laughs. “And if anybody did make a lot of money it would never be us, it would always be the institution and then that institution would put that money back in the mission.” The nonprofit structure makes her more comfortable ethically with the work that the Archive is doing.
But how do they deal with making the trauma and the guilt of Partition stories public?
“Good question! So we actually haven’t made them public because we don’t know how. We’re forming a Task Force on how to institutionalise the memory of partition. These are the questions that will be answered by that group of people. We have a number of individuals are already on board from the U.S., and Urvashi [Butalia] from here. And we’re looking for more individuals.”
The little previews that they put up on their Facebook page, which is the only bit that goes public, “[is] created in collaboration with the interviewee. So the editor work[s] directly with the interviewee, and [goes] back and forth until they [are] happy with the clip. As a nonprofit we not only have the burden of doing that, but we also can do that - unlike a for-profit [where it] would be like we’re using too many resources.”
And how does the Archive balance perspectives of gender, caste, class and ethnicity? Partition played out very differently for different communities. Dr. Bhalla nods in agreement. That is certainly an issue they grapple with, especially considering that initially, the Archive only ended up collecting the stories of middle class and upper middle class people. That’s why, she says, they started their Story Scholars Program. “[These are] paid scholars who go out within their geographical and language regions to record stories, and they’re encouraged to record stories in every economic group. We have had stories come in from people who [are] tribal, or transgender. We’ve had stories come in from a lot of communities who are often underrepresented in the mainstream. And that was our way of trying to addressing this problems, to have paid scholars who went out to rural areas, to villages.”
Their goals? What do they want to do with the stories once they are collected?
“Our biggest goal is 10000 stories by 2017, which is the 70th anniversary [of Partition] and we are looking into devising some sort of public awareness campaign…while everybody’s alive we’re just focused on recording the stories. In the future the idea is to disseminate the stories, to engage the public - you know, what the Holocaust memorials do now. They have everything from K-12 education curricula, and…different projects, essay contests, tolerance education [to engage students]. This is just the beginning is how we see it. The first step…How do we bring the memory of partition to the world in a way that is educational?” They want the stories to have a positive effect on society, to prevent things like the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and 2002 in Gujarat, and also the recent Dadri lynching. “It’s almost like it’s become okay, and it’s become normal. And that’s not okay. Those things should not become the norm like they have. I hope this work will help guide hearts and minds in the right direction - and I think it can. We see that on our Facebook page every day. It’s amazing the interaction between Indians and Pakistanis that occurs.” Laughing, she says, “When I need inspiration, sometimes I go on our Facebook page and I’m like, yeah, we’re doing the right thing.”
It’s interesting - they have such a massive Facebook following, when the people who use Facebook are largely of an age demographic that is, in terms of generations, twice removed from Partition. What is it like having created a project that is about the fading memories of people who will be gone in a few years, but is also about the passion of younger people to record those memories? Their team, too, is very young. How do younger people, people of Dr. Bhalla’s generation, of my generation, relate to Partition? How do they contribute?
“What happened is - when I recorded stories, I found myself getting carried away. It was like watching a movie, except even more engaging. Because you really got carried away in this other person’s life.” And all of a sudden, she says, along with this, other things also happened in the process of hearing someone’s testimony. “There [is] this bond that [is created] with this [older] person, there [is] this incredible trust.” She says that she realised that young people in the old days used to experience this all the time with their grandparents, “but in our modern day and age, these interactions have become so non-existent that when we have them, we experience this sort of emotional transformation, and I felt more and more people my age needed this experience.” She told other people about these transformational experiences she was having. When they joined in the process of story collection, they experienced it and told other people about it. “It was such a beautiful way to connect with another human, to non judgmentally record their story; and both people come away transformed.”
She also finds the intergenerational heritage of Partition experiences among families displaced by Partition very interesting. In her and her team’s experiences of story collection, she says, the vast majority of people who lived through Partition did not harbor violent feelings towards other communities. They had bonds with members of other communities and did not consider them the Other. Of course, there was a lot of inter-community Partition violence. However, she says, this did not seem to lead to prejudices based on religion or community in that generation. And on the occasions that it did, “when we break it down, we find that the love is usually for people that they knew personally - and the hate is for - oh, the bad Hindus or the bad Muslims, just this group they don’t know.” She finds that the next generation, “our parents’ generation, didn’t experience the bonds with the Other. They only heard stories about the bad things the Other did. Because they didn’t experience the bond, they seem to harbour very strong communal feelings.” Finally, the young generation that is participating wholeheartedly in the project now is simply curious. “We seem to have a kind of curiosity - like what? Why do we hate them again?” In their interview process, they try to spend a lot of time on pre-Partition memory. They often see the surprise of family members listening to the interview - “I had no idea my grandmother had a Sikh friend. I had no idea that my grandfather’s best friend was a Muslim.”
I remember an ad I saw a few years ago, a Google ad. Another Silicon Valley connection. She knows what I’m referring to. This is an ad in which a young girl is talking to her grandfather in India, who recounts memories of living in what is now Pakistan, playing with his friend Yusuf whose father ran a halwai shop, from where they used to steal sweets. The girl later sits down at her computer, in order to - guess what - google “park with ancient gate in lahore”, which turns up the result, “Mochi Gate,” after which she googles “oldest sweet shop near Mochi gate.” She calls the number of Fazal Sweets near Mochi Darwaza, which is picked up by Yusuf’s grandson, who flies Yusuf to India. Cue the sniffles. Long digression, but it seems so relevant to me to think about how the internet makes such a project possible, is the perfect place for the curiosity of the third generation to find its answers. Of course, not all answers will be as delightful or easy to find as Fazal Sweets. Some answers will unearth terrible violence and trauma. But there is curiosity about the pain as well. Maybe that’s why the Partition Archive has taken off like it has on Facebook.
Dr. Bhalla sees this curiosity in her Story Scholars: “We have a digital meeting every month, and they’re very excited to meet each other across the border. I remember scholars in Pakistan wanted to see if they could come to India - they tried to get a visa but it didn’t work out. Even for me, I’m very curious, I wanna know what’s going on on the other side of the border.” And I find it interesting she says that - as someone who has collected all these stories, she still is curious about what is “going on on the other side”. The Internet can’t answer everything - there is something, some information, some felt experience, that cannot be conveyed, that still remains “on the other side”, and this curious generation feels its absence keenly.
But to say that this generation, this age, is totally removed from Partition, as though Partition was some event that happened and is now over, is also an act of erasure. Partition is still there, in the now. The fact is that Partition was what formed these three nations - Pakistan, India, Bangladesh. Whenever we identify ourselves as a citizen of any of these three nations, we reference and call upon the memory of Partition. And this is what I want to talk about next. Dr. Bhalla invokes these ideas when she says, “When you interview someone [and they talk about their pre-Partition life], they did not identify themselves as Pakistanis or Indians…Punjabis identified themselves as Punjabi, Bengalis as Bengalis. So the concept of India, the making of that identity, was a very conscious effort by the Nehru government. It didn’t just happen.”
And in the case of Bangladesh, this memory reverberated when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Indeed, this memory reverberated (for India) in 2002, in 1984, during the Dadri lynching. Are those events, I ask, experienced as a repetition of Partition?
“We first interviewed people who first survived the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. They walked for a month [to get back home]… some of these people were Punjabis, some Bengalis - and some walked all the way to West Punjab. And then a few years later they experienced Partition - and then they experienced the wars, if they were living near the border - and then they experienced 1984. I met somebody who experienced four migrations and is now living in the U.S. - and he doesn’t even trust the U.S.’s seeming security and stability. He [says] no, this could fall apart any second.” She continues, “And that was really really interesting to me, because I had never fathomed it ever falling apart. I was always raised with such an illusion of security and I was like, that’s not going to happen! And he was like nope - everything you think is not going to happen will happen and can happen.”