Writing, Reading, Digitising, Interviewing: Postmemorial Engagement with Histories of Partition


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

 

In my final research update for Sarai, I am interested in reversing the gaze to explore the importance of ‘our’ personal subjectivities – the stories of the writers, researchers, artists, digital archivists and volunteers working on Partition – in order to further complicate our understanding of the postmemories of Partition. The myth of distance from our topic of interest that has traditionally been used to signify the objectivity of the writer has always been problematic, especially when the topic in question is a traumatic event that has shaped modern South Asia. Indeed, many scholars working on Partition have argued for the need to reflect on our own engagement with the histories and memories we study. As Urvashi Butalia notes, ‘I have always had a deep suspicion of histories that are written as if the author were but a mere vehicle, histories that, to use Roland Barthes’ phrase, “seem to write themselves”… I have no wish to pretend that these histories, these stories, are in no way an “objective” rendering of Partition. I do not believe that such a thing is possible’ [1].

The scholarly work of Dipesh Chakrabarty, Urvashi Butalia and Sudhir Kakar has not only helped shape the study of Partition and its legacies, but is also indicative of the ‘hinge generation’ – the generation born to those who directly experienced a traumatic event – and its deeply personal postmemorial attempt to understand and excavate familial and national histories. Their research has worked through the silences and amnesias of repressed memories to create a ‘space for a more honest and expansive version of their societies’ collective memory’ [2].

Literature, on the other hand, has worked with a unique freedom to (re)imagine, recover and fantasize without ‘betraying the nation-state’ [3], or ‘violating the authority of (personal) experience’ [4]. For generations born after 1947, their relationship with Partition is mediated through not just personal accounts recounted by ancestors, but often just as much by a reading of Manto’s Toba Tek Singh. For those of us with no familial connection to Partition, our understanding of the event is thus shaped closely by literature, photography and cinema. Indeed, The 1947 Partition Archive posts weekly book recommendations of fiction and non-fiction dealing with Partition online [5]; reading the literature on Partition being seen as an important part of engaging with Partition itself. Thus if ‘when we read Partition literature, we are not simply reading, we are experiencing the Partition through the act of reading’ [6], this is integral to understanding how generations after Partition relate to the event. Simultaneously, the act of writing enables postmemorial generations to ‘make sense, … to talk to each other’, in an interaction where the author is also a ‘mediator of conflicting memorial legacies’ [7].

This Side That Side, a recent anthology of graphic narratives about Partition featuring the work of young generations of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi artists and writers, exemplifies this [8]. The book compiles conversations of sorts between Partition’s grandchildren, for the stories are almost all co-authored as a creative collaboration between those on opposite sides of the border. While the stories range from the innovative and the moving to the cliche, it is the idea behind this compilation that is most important: these stories represent the complex postmemorial tryst with Partition and their attempt to ‘restory’ its histories, narratives and legacies. Indeed, as the editor Vishwajyoti Ghosh writes in his introduction, this book attempts to ‘listen to the subsequent generations and the grandchildren and how they have negotiated maps that never got drawn.’

Why does this introspection on the role of those of us producing content about Partition matter to our understanding of the digital histories of Partition? Very simply because in the digital space, everyone is potentially an archivist, writer, historian, and it is this capacity of the internet to make the production of knowledge more diverse, interactive and collaborative [9] that breaks new ground for postmemorial generations engaging with histories of Partition. Far from the hegemony of top-down official histories, digital archives democratize our understanding of the past by empowering internet users who are now simultaneously ‘citizen historians’ who can contribute stories and interview those who experienced Partition. The user can produce content, provide images, add comments, access hyperlinks, search for alternate narratives and virtually become his or her ‘own historian’ [10]. Indeed, as Adity Tibrewala of the 1947 Partition Archive pointed out in our interview:

Online archives, along with documented histories, are interesting because of how information is presented. Online archives are not like a book with chronological page order and a clearly delineated way of reading information. There are links and accessing them means hopping between pages, opening lots of different tabs at once, scrolling through photos and stories on Facebook, browsing videos on YouTube, etc. This difference in how one is presented information online says a lot about what sort of histories and narratives are being presented—and are being created by each person who accesses information online [11].

The 1947 Partition Archive is a volunteer driven project, where people enroll as citizen historians who document and interview those who experienced Partition. Some of these citizen historians interview their own grandparents and other family members, and often find themselves listening to stories they had never heard before. Citizen historian Akshay recounts his experience of interviewing his grandfather:  

I knew vaguely what his experience was like but doing the interview helped me to understand it better. I learned details of his life that I had never known, for example I did not even know where exactly he was born. There were emotional moments in his narration that I felt very unequipped to handle [12].

The interview process spatially brings the postmemorial generation face to face with those who experienced Partition and simultaneously temporally transports them to a lost time and history that they are actively recovering. This act of interviewing is therefore often as emotional for the interviewer as for the interviewee. In the words of another citizen historian, ‘Each time I conduct an interview, it stays with me for days afterward’ [13].

Thus, South Asian digital archives on Partition, and social media discourse about them, have enabled the creation of a ‘digital participatory microhistory’ [14] that breaks through the silences and one-dimensional narratives of official histories. As Tibrewala notes, ‘The digital space allows people to become part of a global movement to preserve a people’s history of Partition regardless of their physical location. Anyone, anywhere can sign up for an online workshop to conduct interviews’ [15].

Such a digital history of Partition is not limited to oral history and the collection of interviews. The very act of archiving and digitization photographs, old manuscripts undertaken by archives such as the Panjab Digital Library is a postmemorial recovery of a shared culture and history lost with Partition [16]. As Daljit Ami pointed out in my interview with him, ‘Before Partition, people could read Punjabi in two different scripts: Gurmukhi and Shahmukhi. In digitizing material written in Shahmukhi and making it available online, we are undoing Partition in the digital space’ [17].

Through the course of my research and interviews with those working with South Asian digital archives, I have become increasingly certain that any contemporary analysis of the legacies of Partition that does not take into account its digital manifestations would be sadly incomplete. The digital divide in South Asia is considerable, and yet the ways in which younger generations of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and members of the South Asian diaspora negotiate their interlinked histories online offers new possibilities for understanding the postmemories of Partition. I am thankful to CSDS Sarai for the opportunity to explore this in detail and am very grateful for fascinating conversations with all those who have patiently shared their thoughts and experiences with me.
 

References

 

[1] Butalia, Urvashi. 2000. The Other Side of Silence: Voices From the Partition of India. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[2] Greenberg, Jonathan D. 2008. Against Silence and Forgetting. In Anjali Gera Roy and Nandi Bhatia (Eds.). Partitioned Lives: Narratives of Home, Displacement, and Resettlement. New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley. Pp. 255-273.

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

[4] Yusin, Jennifer. 2009. The Silence of Partition: Borders, Trauma, and Partition History. Social Semiotics. 19(4). Pp. 453-468.

[5] 1947 Partition Archive. The Partition Library. Retrieved on September 30, 2014 from http://www.1947partitionarchive.org/library.

A disclaimer accompanying weekly Facebook posts on The 1947 Partition Archive featuring recommended books and movies on Partition adds, ‘The Partition Library online is a volunteer service to create a comprehensive listing of all known literary works, fiction and nonfiction, on Partition. The books reflect and represent diverse constituencies, viewpoints and opinions. It is important to note that the views of the featured authors do not reflect the views of The 1947 Partition Archive, which remains a comprehensive reference resource.’ See, for instance: https://www.facebook.com/1947PartitionArchive/photos/a.801810649842647.1073741845.144867352203650/841595429197502/?type=1

[6] See [4].

[7] See [3].

[8] Ghosh, Vishwajyoti (Ed.). 2014. This Side That Side: Restorying Partition (An Anthology of Graphic Narratives). New Delhi: Yoda Press.

[9] Haskins, Ekaterina. 2007. Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age. Rhetoric Society Quarterly. 37(4). Pp. 401-422.

[10] See [9].

[11] Quote from my email interview with Adity Tibrewala, The 1947 Partition Archive. I am thankful to Adity and Elaine Jones for their support and assistance.

[12] Sharma, Akshay. 2014. 2014. Citizen Historian Highlight. The 1947 Partition Archive. September 08. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/1947PartitionArchive/photos/a.648106778546369.1073741830.144867352203650/839820916041620/?type=3&theater

[13] Reena. 2013. Citizen Historian Highlight. The 1947 Partition Archive. October 24. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/1947PartitionArchive/photos/a.648106778546369.1073741830.144867352203650/671091186247928/?type=3&theater


[14] Caswell, Michelle and Samip Mallick. 2014. Collecting the Easily Missed Stories: Digital Participatory Microhistory and the South Asian American Digital Archive. Archives and Manuscripts. 42(1). Pp. 1-14.

[15] See [11].

[16] See http://www.panjabdigilib.org/.

[17] Quote from my Skype interview with Daljit Ami, Panjab Digital Library. I am grateful to Mr Ami for a very useful conversation on digital archives.

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Published on: October 7, 2014


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