Anam Zakaria, a development professional, has been a leading light for the Oral History Project of Citizens Archive of Pakistan. She interviewed the first and second generations of Pakistanis in parts of Punjab to document their narrative of Partition, which challenges the existing discourse about the past in India and Pakistan. In an exclusive interview with Riyaz Wani, she talks about how being part of the project changed her way of thinking about Partition — a story completely different from the present political discourse of hate that is spewed in both India and Pakistan, a story of love, brotherhood, communal harmony and friendship.
Edited Excerpts from an interview
Your book was born out of an oral history project that you headed for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan. You have done 600 interviews for the project. What was it like conducting these long conversations?
Overwhelming! Everyone I spoke to had such powerful stories to share. Sometimes, I would have to remind myself that these were people’s real experiences because they sounded so surreal and at times, horrific, that I didn’t want to believe anyone had had to go through something like that. The stories of violence were definitely the hardest to listen to but those of nostalgia and longing were heartbreaking as well. Often, days later, I couldn’t stop thinking about what my interviewees had shared with me. Their voices would ring in my ears. The interviews were also overwhelming because often, they were challenging my existing understanding of my country’s past. They were providing me with alternative narratives because of which I had to un-learn what I knew and begin a new process of learning.
Did you find the reflection of our present times in these interviews? Or do they tell a different story that helps deconstruct, as you say, the meta-narratives?
I feel that memory, over time, becomes filtered. It gets influenced by meta-narratives, by mainstream stories of violence and hostility. Many of the interviewees I spoke with had personalised general stories of violence and trauma. So in a sense, I did see a reflection of our present in these interviews. However, when you delve a little deeper, you realise that there are several layers of experiences and stories that they are holding within. For years, my maternal grandmother had only narrated stories of the bloodshed she had witnessed while working at a refugee camp in Lahore. When I started to write this book, I went back to her and began to ask other questions. All of a sudden stories of her friends Uma and Rajeshwari began to creep into our conversations. I also learnt, for the very first time, that her sister had been saved by a Sikh family during Partition. Similarly, many of my other interviewees also shared such stories, which provide a powerful challenge to the one-dimensional mainstream discourse.
But you have interviewed only Pakistanis for the project. Why did you not travel to India to try and see if there is an alternative account here considering the two countries have, by and large, followed two different political and ideological trajectories?
I have managed to collect and share a few narratives from India. I would have certainly liked to do more extensive research across the border but visa issues, funding limitations and holding a fulltime job while researching and writing this book were some of the reasons that did not let me do so. What I did find in my brief travels to India, however, was that despite the differences, everyone I spoke with expressed very similar emotions as people on the Pakistani side of the border. The nostalgia and the longing to go back to see their homes and neighbors, and to know more about one’s past, were present in many of the people I spoke with in India and Pakistan.
You say in the book that the religious and cultural identities that became crystallised at Partition were far more diluted and fluid in the preceding years. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
From the interviews themselves! The mainstream discourse I grew up with nowhere mentioned that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs could come to pray together, that they could participate in each other’s festivities or live together peacefully. The narrative was one of division However, many shared endless stories of celebrating Eid, Lohri, Diwali and Dushera. In the course of my research, I also found out that there were several places in Pakistan (including on the very border which is meant to divide) where some of these practices continue to date but for the ordinary Pakistanis, this would be unimaginable.
Even 68 years after Partition, many of the people I spoke with still did not want to cut off the ties their families had shared with the so called ‘other’ for centuries. One of them even mentioned, very casually, that a Sikh family had adopted his Muslim father prior to Partition. This did not seem like an anomaly to him, but for me, someone who was born in the late 1980s, when tensions between the countries were heightened, this was rather shocking.
How is your book being received in Pakistan? Does nuancing the understanding of the past as your book attempts to do help in the current climate?
The book is being received very well so far, which I’m delighted to see because it means that there is space in society to accept the nuances of our past that I’m trying to highlight. The current climate is indeed tense and I always find it unfortunate when macro-policies begin to affect people and relationships on the ground level. I don’t know how much my book will do in impacting policy, but I am hoping that it can bring to the forefront that there is much more at stake across the border than political issues. State level policies are often successfully able to mould mainstream public opinion; I hope the stories I highlight can act as a humble challenge.