‘Lahore is a lot like Delhi': Digital Discourse on Histories and Places across the Border


This is the third research note from Kalathmika Natarajan, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.

 

My research project started as a study of the digital documentation of memories of the generation that experienced Partition and what it means to talk of a ‘shared’ South Asian past online. The growing realisation that the preservation of memories of Partition has been a work initiated by and intimately connected to the generations after Partition has opened new avenues for understanding modern South Asian memory and history. My research thus focuses on ‘Partition’s grandchildren’ [1] and the digital manifestation of the ways in which generations far removed from the actual event relate to familial and national memories and histories.

After all, these digital history initiatives are possible only because ‘people of the younger generation sign their grandparents up to be interviewed’ [2]. Thus South Asian digital history initiatives are more than passive repositories of stories and photographs from the past. The ways in which they ‘frame’ these historical narratives, and the responses they receive, constitute a complex, political discourse that is revealing of contemporary ideas of identity and belonging.

I am interested in seeking answers for the following questions: Why does it matter for these younger generations to document and, in so doing, relate to memories of Partition?  What is the impact of this desire to understand Partition on modern Indian/Pakistani/’South Asian’ identity? What is the impact of the digital space and new media technologies on our relationship with history? How do we imagine the ‘lost’ spaces and times of our ancestors? [3]

The great South Asian dream articulated by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was a day when future generations, while ‘retaining (their) respective national identities’, could have ‘breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul’ [4]. I argue that the longing for cross-border travel is just as vivid among post-Partition generations and South Asian online archives are a resonant digital articulation of their desire to ‘know’ lost places and shared histories. This is a common theme in the comments and responses to South Asian digital archives and history initiatives. As Adity Tibrewala, staff member with the 1947 Partition Archive, noted in our interview, ‘What is really wonderful on Facebook is if we post a story about someone from a particular city who migrated and feels nostalgic about their home, a young person from that city will sometime respond saying something like “I live here! This place misses you too!”’ [5]

facebook - lahore - comments
Screenshot of comments on an old photograph of Lahore museum (c 1960s) posted by the popular Facebook page Lahore – The City of Gardens.

Indeed, this is often an exercise in the geographical imagination of places of (post)memory and the post-Partition generation’s desire to ‘return’ to places they may have never been to but exist in their imagination with particular meanings of ‘home’ imbued from familial or affiliative narratives of Partition. Narratives of lost homes and places range from the yearning for an often-idealised past of (relative) peace and communal harmony, to bitter memories of violence, betrayal and forced migration that are passed on to successive generations [6].

The post-Partition generation’s tryst with destiny is thus filled with place-names that evoke complex emotions about the legacies of Partition: the stark meanings of ‘Wagah’, the interlinked and shared histories of ‘Lahore-Amritsar’, ‘Kolkata-Dhaka’, ‘Srinagar-Muzaffarabad’. The vocabularies of life after Partition constantly remind us of the ‘other side’, of life ‘across the border’, of a ‘line of control’ and of the fact that ‘we cannot choose our neighbours’. Therefore, the imagination of nationhood in South Asia spatially situates our mutually-constitutive histories: a scenario where we are constantly reminded of the relevance of places ‘across the border’. These are mysterious spaces that are at once representative of conflict, and yet familiar by repetition and a desire to ‘know’ a history of lost family homes and home towns, ‘the point at which official, private and generational narratives of Partition are revealed as converging and diverging’ [7].

South Asian archives are thus virtual spaces where memories and histories of places on both sides of the border are followed closely by Indians, Pakistanis and the South Asian diaspora. Those working with several South Asian digital history initiatives – the Indian Memory Project, the 1947 Partition Archive, Exploring Lahore, among others – reiterated in my interviews with them [8] the fact that a substantial percentage of their followers belonged to both India and Pakistan. Images and stories of Partition from the Indian Memory Project were featured in the Pakistani newspaper Express Tribune as part of their commemoration of Pakistan’s Independence Day. [9] The Citizens’ Archive of Pakistan, in addition to documenting histories of Partition and the founding years of Pakistan, has launched an ‘Exchange for Change’ peace initiative to enable interactions between Indian and Pakistani school students [10]. This is a significant reiteration of the relevance of each other’s ‘shared’ history, an important counterpoint to the narratives of textbooks that seem to teach students in ‘Lahore and Amritsar – no more than fifty miles away from each other – to imagine themselves not only as the inheritors of different pasts but also as inhabiting different worlds’ [11].

‘Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein’ [12], an India-Pakistan online peace initiative documented responses to this question it asked on Facebook: ‘If you could visit just one place in India/Pakistan, where would you go?’ [13]. The answers are fascinating and indicative of the complex relationships that Indians and Pakistanis, born generations after Partition, have with places across the border. A predominant number of answers listed cities with which the respondents had family connections (‘Shikarpur, because my dada and his family grew up there… I feel like Harry Potter, falling into a pensive of someone else’s memory and witnessing everything silently’). Several other choices spoke of intertwined historical places (‘Lahore is a lot like Delhi, hence I am curious to see the similarities between the two cities especially in terms of culture’) and a common cultural/civilisational heritage (‘I’ve been to Taxila, which was another great university of ancient India, and I’d love to visit Nalanda to see what is left of the greatest treasure of the subcontinent’).

Shiraz Hassan [14], a journalist who began documenting histories of temples and gurdwaras in Pakistan and published photographs of them online, noted that this spurred requests for photographs from people whose ancestors used to live in those areas before Partition. In his interview with me, he acknowledged a sense of ‘connecting people to their roots’ virtually; people who would otherwise, thanks to visa complications, be unable to see the homes of their ancestors.

Social media and online history initiatives thus provide a complex digital landscape of nostalgia and memorialisation where violent histories of Partition are documented, even as the yearning to know and visit places of (post)memory is articulated. Rather than idealise a sense of nostalgic longing  as the singular postmemorial response to lost/shared histories and spaces, I hope to understand the post-Partition generations’ complicated relationship with histories and places that are simultaneously markers of identity and conflict.
 

References


[1] Kabir, Ananya Jahanara. 2013. 1947, 1971 and Modern South Asia: Partition’s Post-Amnesias. New Delhi: Women Unlimited.

[2] Quote from my email interview with Adity Tibrewala, 1947 Partition Archive.

[3] I use the term ‘lost spaces’ in my research to refer to the nostalgia/emotion of the loss of familial homes or a part of shared history, and not as the narrative of loss often utilized as a hegemonic narrative (of ‘Akhand Bharat’, or ‘planting Pakistan’s flag in the Red Fort’)  in some sections of discourse in India and Pakistan.  I am thankful to Amit Julka for emphasizing this distinction.

[4] Special Correspondent. 2007. Breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, hopes PM. The Hindu. January 09. Retrieved from http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/breakfast-in-amritsar-lunch-in-lahore-hopes-pm/article1780445.ece.

[5] See [2].

[6] I am thankful to Medha for reiterating this important point.

[7] See [1].

[8] Anusha Yadav (Indian Memory Project), Adity Tibrewala (1947 Partition Archive), Shiraz Hassan, Chintan Girish Modi (Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein) and Amandeep Sandhu have been very generous in providing information for my research. I would like to thank them for their support and interest.

[9] Bakshi, Rakesh Anand. 2014. Flashback: The Only Valuable He Saved. Express Tribune. August 10.  Retrieved from http://tribune.com.pk/story/746673/flashback-the-only-valuable-he-saved/.

[10] Citizens Archive of Pakistan. ‘Exchange for Change’ Project. Retrieved from http://www.citizensarchive.org/projects/exchange-for-change/.

[11] Joshi, Sanjay. 2010. Contesting Histories and Nationalist Geographies: A Comparison of School Textbooks in India and Pakistan. South Asian History and Culture. 1(3). Pp. 357-377.

[12] Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein. Facebook Community. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/fabaaodostikarein.
.
[13] Modi, Chintan Girish (Compiled). 2014. “If you could visit just one place in Pakistan, where would you go?” Medium. July 29. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@chintan_connect/if-you-could-visit-just-one-place-in-pakistan-where-would-you-go-f4156452dcf0.

— 2014. “If you could visit just one place in India, where would you go?” Medium. July 29. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@chintan_connect/if-you-could-visit-just-one-place-in-india-where-would-you-go-bdf827298eb9.

[14] Shiraz Hassan’s blog. Retrieved from http://shirazhassan.blogspot.in/.

Also, see Hassan’s writings at Dawn. Retrieved from http://www.dawn.com/authors/3157/.


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Published on: August 29, 2014


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