Huddled together, my mother and I floated past lotus flowers, until we gently bumped to a halt against a boat selling vegetables. I don’t remember what it was that we bought that day. Grocery shopping as a toddler with my mom, on a Dal Lake shikara in Srinagar is one of my earliest childhood memories from India. I grew up as an army ‘brat,’ switching cities and cultures often. From Kashmir we went to Ladakh, then Delhi, and then onward to Pune. Summer holidays took me back to my roots each year. They were spent listening to stories of our ancestors and roaming the now bygone forests of Punjab. Curiosity was a constant state of mind for me. The new places and people I often met were always a matter of intrigue. In each new environment the armed forces sent us, I tried to learn about the locals’ stories, and when I couldn’t I made them up in my mind. Ancient and diverse cultures lent themselves to rich oral traditions. The stories that permeated my Punjabi summers especially managed to inform my adult life. So much so that one fine day I dropped an ambitious career as a physicist and began chasing peoples’ stories. This is how I helped lead our community into building The 1947 Partition Archive, the largest oral history compilation ever created of South Asian oral tradition. The crowdsourcing model we employed is a concept borrowed from my days as a physicist, and is now inspiring digital archives on a plethora of topics in India.
Jeep adventures were a mainstay of army life in the 1980s. When we weren’t in the mountains, some of my favorite jeep journeys were the day trips we took with uncles to the Wagah border. Back in the 1980’s the Indo-Pakistani border region in Punjab was a jungle where beehives left untouched grew six feet tall. The Wagah border was a fence with an unceremonious gate and with bored guards on either site almost always gossiping together. My father, I knew, had come from the other side. Yet, we couldn’t go to the other side. It was a mystery. Lahore was a sort of fantasy dreamland that could only be imagined but never touched. Years later in my 20’s I pondered how it was that I could so easily travel the whole world but not visit the other side of the Wagah Border. So close, but yet so far. So alike, but yet a world apart.
During my late teens, my paternal grandmother sat me down one day and told me the story of her ordeal in 1947. We were living in the US by then. “We had no choice but to drive over dead bodies,” she told me. I tried imagining it. I simply couldn’t fathom such circumstances. She went through the details of escaping violence in Lahore with a toddler (my father) and two tiny kids in tow. When she and eventually my grandfather escaped Lahore, they left behind centuries of ancestral memories. They were all lucky to have survived, a fate not shared by many others who made up the nearly 15 million refugees left homeless during the creation of modern India and Pakistan, (and since 1971, Bangladesh) via the partitioning of Punjab and Bengal in 1947.
Despite what my grandmother told me, my American high school history book described the 1947 independence of India and Pakistan as a fairly uneventful occurrence: Gandhi had led a peaceful march and the British had departed, leaving behind India and Pakistan. When I described my grandmother’s ordeal to my high school teacher, she noted that it was likely an exaggeration since our history book mentioned nothing of violence at that scale during Partition, or any violence at all for that matter. So little was taught about South Asian history in America, that in 2009 I was quite shocked to see a headline in the Oakland Tribune describe the India-Pakistan conflict as an “ancient feud” that had been going on for “centuries” – never mind that a century had not gone by since the two countries came into existence.
Despite my high school teachers dismissal, I believed my grandmother. It bothered me deeply that this immense experience which had shaped her, the lives of my father and my own existence was a forgotten chapter in our history. Something needed to be done. I didn’t know what. The answer finally came more than a decade later, while I conducted research towards my PhD in physics in Japan. A trip to Hiroshima’s peace memorial in 2008 led to the “aha” moment. It came as a jolt. Then on, there was no looking back. Video recordings of Hiroshima’s bomb survivors describing their ordeal were deeply touching and heart wrenching. Their words, combined with facial expressions and body language conveyed a deep truth that couldn’t be ignored or forgotten. So potent was their testimony that it inspired action such as the nuclear-non-proliferation movement, new research into the bomb and the building of the memorial itself. That’s what we needed on Partition: stories from those who remembered, like my grandmother, because those lived experiences could not be denied, unlike my retelling, which could be challenged.
That winter in January 2009, I casually began recording witnesses of Partition telling their stories during a trip to Punjab. I had a decade long habit of carrying a hobby camcorder with me during all my travels. Despite my family’s reservations on the idea of recording their neighbors’ stories, within just a day, word had spread and more storytellers had come forward than there were hours in the day. I knew then that there was a need to tell these stories. After finalizing my PhD thesis later in 2009, I took a postdoctoral fellowship at University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Once in the bay area, I began tabling at Mosques, Gurdwaras, Mandirs and events, gathering volunteers and storytellers. By 2011 we had a name, ‘The 1947 Partition Archive’ and had received our first donation cheque for $194.70 which prompted us to register The 1947 Partition Archive as a non-profit organization. By 2016 we had registered as a charitable trust in India. Today, over 1,000 volunteers and 3,000 donors have helped record and preserve over 9,300 oral histories from those who witnessed the events of 1947. It is truly a community archive, built by all of us, for all of us. What we are learning from the stories points to a multifaceted and deeply nuanced history of India that is far more subtle than that which has been captured by textbooks, pop-culture and movies thus far. In June 2020, we received our first grant from the US National Endowment for the Humanities, giving us recognition as a serious global resource on South Asian history.
It’s important to note that The 1947 Partition Archive couldn’t have been initiated in India. Being in the diaspora, I was unburdened by the identity politics that are so prevalent and mostly inescapable in South Asia today. I was an Indian American, looking to serve my homeland and looking to learn a bit more about my own heritage from a blank and unbiased lense. Archives and documentation work often tend to be very community focused in South Asia and so, a platform like ours that was open to anyone and everyone who had stories from 1947 was met with suspicion in its early days, but has since come to be appreciated as a truly open and egalitarian space for telling all histories, and not just those which may be favored by dominant socio-political forces of the day.
For me, The 1947 Partition Archive has not only been a means to rediscover and experience my birth culture in the most intimate way possible, but a means for me to give back through community service.
Many of us drank from wells we had never seen before. There were no doctors to help us when the cholera and dysentery spread. By the time we reached Behram Baug camp, about 100 or 200 people had died from water-borne diseases. This was when we lost my mother-in-law.
At Behram Baug, we were transported to the Amritsar Railway Station by military personnel. On our way, our truck was attacked but the military were able to turn back the insurgents without bloodshed. This was one of the many moments on this trip when I was grateful for the protection of those around me. Our Sikh neighbors and these military men ensured that the rest of us made it to Lahore untouched. . When we arrived, people were celebrating Eid ul-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice. We made it through disease and violence and found a new home. I believe that strength and courage are what got us through those dark times. I wish to tell future generations to hold unto those virtues so that they will do the right thing when the time comes. I would not want them to regret what they could have done for the rest of their lives.
This interview was conducted by Fakhra Hassan.
This story was curated by Simi Chundusu and Patricia Price. Read her full story here.
Guneeta Singh Bhalla is founder of The 1947 Partition Archive. Previously, she was an experimental condensed matter physicist who completed her tenure as a post-doctoral researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley. After a 2008 visit to the oral testimony archives at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial she was inspired and began interviewing Partition witnesses in 2009. She was also troubled with the realization that the generation of eye witnesses was nearly gone and taking their stories with them. This led to the concept of crowdsourcing oral histories of Partition, thereby engaging the public in recording the people’s history of the world’s largest mass human displacement.