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The Remains of Home: Remembering Partition through the Trials and Travels of Objects

By Sohini Chakraborty

15 August, 2017 marks the seventieth year of the Partition of the British-administered Indian subcontinent. Much has transpired since the trifurcation of the British Raj’s ‘jewel in the Crown’ and time has taught the many inhabitants of South Asia that violence lurks just beneath, threatening to be unleashed at the simplest of supposed transgressions. The partitioning of the Indian subcontinent was not motivated by a desire for self-determination or peace but hastily brought to fruition by Britain’s need to withdraw from the region. Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins support this assertion in Freedom at Midnight, which opens by drawing the attention of the reader to the bleak New Year’s Day in 1947, when Britain, ravaged by war, was stumbling under the excessive strain of war expenses that had crippled its industry and bankrupted its exchequer. And yet London was the capital of a conquering nation and of an empire on which ‘the sun would never set.’ The British involvement in the two World Wars had led to the loss of an entire generation of young men and by 1947 there were barely a thousand British members in the Indian Civil Services, who still somehow administered and controlled the destinies of 400 million people.

The partition of the Indian subcontinent was announced on June 3, 1947, bringing to an end almost two hundred years of colonial rule, which came down to a novel task of dividing the vast machinery of statecraft into two distinct nations – the Hindu-majority India and the Islamic state of Pakistan. The partition, however, had divided not only the territories of India and its people but even archaeological artefacts, everyday objects, museums, properties, libraries, and archives. The material implications of Partition entailed the divisions and transfers of the most mundane of governmental assets in the form of tables and pen stands to the egregious division of archaeological treasures. All departmental assets and financial liabilities of British India had to be divided within a ridiculously short span of seventy days. Karachi, which was to be the capital of Pakistan, required infrastructure that had to be built from scratch. One of the many instances was of the 203 typewriters that were in the possession of the External Affairs and Commonwealth Relations Department in undivided India. According to the expert estimations, the reduced workload of the Delhi office would require 182 typewriters. The rest, along with 31 pen stands, 20 benches, 125 paper cabinets, 16 easy chairs, and 31 officers’ tables would go to the Pakistan office. Such was the bureaucratic nightmare that everything from a ceiling fan to a paper clip had to be accounted for and fairly distributed.

Nationalist claims of both sides would ultimately extend to include the archaeological treasures of imperial India. The antiquities of Mohenjodaro proved to be the most contentious. The Indus valley artefacts came to occupy a central focus in the negotiations because of its greater importance in imagining an ancient Indian past. Any discussion on Mohenjodaro was marked by a perpetual sense of loss of heritage and handing over all artefacts excavated jointly in undivided India was not an option. More than 14,000 artefacts were divided down to the middle, covering a range of items from seals and statuary to ordinary artefacts of stone, clay, and metal. A fifty-fifty principle of division was also applied to four unique articles, which included two gold necklaces from Taxila, a carnelian and copper girdle from Mohenjodaro and a necklace made of jade beads, gold discs, and semi-precious stones. Guided by a strict principle of equitable division, the Partition Committee took apart archaeological treasures without any heed to desirability or integrity, ignoring ethical options in favour of settling bureaucratic squabbles.

Much of what I have discussed so far is an account of governmental assets, objects, artefacts, and archives, the equitable division of which were a bureaucratic necessity. But as we turn to the other dimension of Partition, that is its impact on millions of ordinary lives, a different narrative, far removed from the statist perspective, emerges. Colossal displacements had occurred on both the eastern and western borders as a consequence of the division with millions of people leaving behind their family homes and along with it the precious family heirlooms as well as the everyday objects that had been a part of their mundane lives. In his essay, “Growing up Refugee”, Manas Ray remembers his mother’s sewing machine, his father’s volumes of Greenwich Encyclopaedia and a family cot among other items that had crossed the border and survived. These everyday objects reminded the ones who crossed over and the generation that was to follow of the lives and times left behind, weaving seamlessly into imaginations of an ancestral home that could no longer be claimed but must be re-imagined in another landscape.

Stories of ‘things’ left behind are aplenty in every family that crossed borders. My grandfather every so often remembers his mother’s ring he inherited as a young man but lost sometime later in life. His elder siblings who remembered more about life pre-partition would lament the loss of a life that could have been and in old age found solace in recounting tales of a childhood spent riding bicycles along the beach. A friend of mine shared with me her great-grandfather’s habit of writing journals, which he had meticulously maintained even before the partition. Of course, all of that had to be left behind.

India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have all witnessed an entangling of their miseries since 1947 and yet memorializing that singular moment that had led to the creation of the (erstwhile) two separate nations has taken seventy years. ‘The world’s first Partition Museum’ slated to be completed by August this year, brings together ‘alternative histories, subaltern experiences and contemporary plural narratives’ by setting itself up at the Town Hall in Amritsar in an attempt to curate one of the most traumatic experiences of the twentieth century. Kiswar Desai posits, ‘Museums have been more about collections than experience, about documentation than memory, about history through objects rather than storytelling.’

The 1947 Partition that resulted in a mass exodus of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs from both sides of the border have many stories to tell, some of which must be mediated through objects – both extraordinary and mundane. The museum in Amritsar intends to be a ‘people’s museum’ based on the recollections of its victims and survivors and is stocked with materials they have provided. It has already built a collection of more than 2,000 historical materials. One such example is of a family that has donated its family swords for the museum. An elderly family member had hidden the swords at the time of Partition so that they could not be used for the murder of their friends and neighbours, who were now separated by religion.  The museum also houses an iconic terracotta sculpture of a woman’s head made by camp commander S.L. Parasher during his stay at Ambala Baldev Nagar refugee camp. Sculpted using earth taken from the camp itself, the statue has become symbolic of the trauma and pain that the partition had inflicted on millions.

Ordinary objects are made meaningful due to the experiences they emerge from and the extraordinary tales of trauma, violence, resilience, and kindness they represent. A phulkari dupatta hangs in one of the walls at the museum. It belonged to a woman who, like many others, was asked by her family to jump into a well to avoid violation and disgrace. Although she survived, most did not. The memorialized dupatta endeavours to remember all those who had lost their lives in acts of honour killing and also those shreds of humanity that had saved others. The museum also exhibits a phulkari coat and a battered leather suitcase belonging to lovers from Lahore who were separated during the divide but were later reunited on the other side of the border. These were the only two items they had in their possession when they met once again.

Objects and artefacts are tangible remains that link people to past events by attaching a sensory experience to history. What moves in times of war and what gets left behind to be recollected in fond remembrance becomes a hypothetical question when considered in abstraction. Whether they would be precious collections treasured over a lifetime or basic necessities that might serve some practical use in the future was a decision undertaken in moments that had no precedence and provided no possible pattern. There are innumerable writings, films, artworks that remember the absurdity, the uncertainty, and the horrors of Partition. In Midnight’s Furies, Nisid Hajari writes that some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse. But if one moves away from a statist recounting of Partition by situating the displaced and their belongings at the centre of the analysis, an alternative understanding of its unmitigated trauma emerges, one that exists in the everyday long past the incident. Similarly, the division of governmental assets and archaeological artefacts bring to the foreground the anxieties and concerns that emerged in the restructuring of the nationalist histories of the newly-formed nation states.

Those objects that travelled and the ones that did not were entangled with memories, tales of which were passed down from one generation to another but are today often received with uneven significance. The generation of adults who had witnessed ‘the great divide’ are mostly no more and the young too are fading by the day. This eventuality has triggered an alarm wherein the realisation that a crucial part of Indian history is disappearing has led to the undertaking of several projects aimed preserving it. Reading Partition through the lens of objects is a tentative step towards an engagement with an alternative analysis of history, one that brings together governmental assets and personal belongings under the same rubric by knitting together history and memory through an evaluation of tangible remains. The division, separation, trials, and nostalgic remembrances of objects form a less explored narrative of Partition. In keeping with the objective of the Partition Museum let us remember, albeit a little differently, a shared traumatic and tragic past that in many ways defines modern South Asian identity and continues to exist in the mundane.

Photo: The Partition Museum, Amritsar

Sohini Chakraborty is an M.Phil. student at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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