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‘The Partition generation that migrated to Britain is in no-man’s land when it comes to belonging’

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Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices begins where heaven meets earth, where we leave this world and enter the other, where our ashes are mixed with soil and submerged into water. Her book begins with the cremation of her father, born in Lahore (now, of course, in Pakistan), living out much of his life in Britain, and finally resting in the Ganga (now, of course, in India).

Puri is a journalist with the BBC in London, and the impetus for Partition Voices came in 2017, as the 70th anniversary of Independence and Partition approached, in an effort to record testimonies from across Britain of colonial British and British South Asians who had been witnesses to – or participants in – the events of the year 1947.

But, of course, her journey is also personal. Stemming from her family’s experiences, it records a difficult and dual migration – first, of refugees fleeing across the Radcliffe Line, and then farther, across the tumultuous dark waters to Britain. Upon arrival, the first generation of South Asians, men and women who had lived under the Raj, now fought to live alongside it.

The struggle for acceptance and new beginnings often overshadowed the desire to remember and preserve the memory of the homeland. There were no public spaces to commemorate their voyages of suffering, no avenues to protest unconcealed racism, and hence, many memories, bound in honour and shame, lapsed into silence and were hardly ever passed down to subsequent generations.

Puri spoke to Scroll.in on email about Partition Voices, which spans twenty-three chapters divided into three parts: End of Empire, Partition and Legacy. It is a complex, poignant and important work, at whose heart lie the twin notions of homeland and belonging. Excerpts from the interview:

Before you began working on Partition Voices in 2017, what were your impressions of Partition and of the subcontinent? As a South Asian woman who can trace her history back to undivided India, how has working on this series changed that perception, if at all?
Honestly, growing up I had very little knowledge. I was never taught about the Empire or the Partition at school in Britain, and no one talked about it in my family, so I had to fill in the gaps myself by reading history books. But a lot of that history was of “high politics” and not the lived experience. When my family members would gather, they would reminisce about Lahore – but no one was in Lahore now. They would identify as Punjabi first – not Indian or Pakistani.

How easy or difficult was it to track people down and have each one tell their story as they remember it? You have in this book a range of diverse interviews, covering people of different religions – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi, Christian – and nationalities – Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, English – as well as the different places they migrated from in undivided India and settled in in the UK.
I was mindful that interviewees were elderly, and I was asking them about a traumatic period in their lives, so I did not want to make direct approaches. The production team reached out to faith leaders, organisations, local newspapers, journalists as well as academics. We did call outs on the BBC Asian Network and Indian-language radio. Often the children or grandchildren would get in touch with us about family members who lived through that time. For the radio series we recorded around 40 interviews, far more than we could use.

For the book I went back to all the interviewees and conducted further interviews with each of them, as well as my own independent research. Each chapter is devoted to one person’s story but, put together, they form a broader narrative of the end of Empire, Partition and the legacy in Britain today.

The interviews are with a range of people: Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Parsi and colonial British, but also reflect the different geographical experiences – Bengal, Punjab, Delhi and the Sindh province – as well as female stories in particular. This collection is far from definitive; I think no collection can be. But it attempts to show a rich, nuanced and diverse tapestry of Partition experiences and memories.

I am struck by your choice of the narratives that opens the book – Pamela Dowley-Wise and her recollections of Calcutta, her birthplace. We often imagine Partition to be a South Asian issue, but we forget how intimately the British too were involved and affected by the consequences of the year 1947, particularly those who regarded undivided India as their home. “Separation and parting was the norm for so many [British] families in India”, Pamela says when she is sent away to boarding school to England. If I didn’t know the context, I would think that you were speaking about the days of Partition, as this is generally the lexicon for those days. To read them this way was very interesting. I wonder if you could speak to the entwined histories of Britain and undivided India in light of Partition Voices.
The effects of Partition are not confined to the Indian subcontinent, they also stretch to Britain, and this has been a revelation to many people. As all my stories are rooted in Britain – mostly because of the people who migrated here in the post-war years – I wanted to show how closely British history and South Asian history are connected. It was therefore important for me to include colonial British stories.

Of course their experiences were different, but they are also important to record. The three British stories in the book are distinct. All spoke Hindi, or Urdu (or both), each had a deep feeling for the Indian subcontinent that never left them. Two returned to work there in the years after Partition. When they came back to England after 1947 it did not feel like home. And it was certainly less exciting and colourful, and, naturally, fewer creature comforts without a retinue of staff to look after them. And much colder and damper as well!

What are the ways in which your interviewees remembered their roots, what kept them connected to the soil of the place they considered home? Pamela, who was born in Calcutta, says that she is “British but her roots are in India”. In contrast, Bashir Maan was born in what became Pakistan, but claims Scotland is the place he considers home, that he is “a Scottish Pakistani”. And even Kenneth Miln, born in Megha, calls himself “spiritually Indian.”
For some people, a physical memento from the place of their birth was needed to remember it. One man, Mohindra, returned to Faisalabad (then Lyallpur) to take a brick from his childhood home, with permission from the owners. He brought it back all the way to Edinburgh ,where it sits in the middle of his living room in a glass case. This one brick has assumed the status of an ancestral home.

Raj returned to Karachi, after leaving for Bombay in September 1947, and took stones back with him to London. He keeps them in his study and during the interview he took them out to show me. He kissed them and said he has them so he can feel connected to his soil. For others, they want to return one last time. Iftakhr wanted to go back to Gangoh to bid farewell to the place he was born, and the earth his mother is buried in. “India was Mine as well” he tells me.

This Partition generation is in no-man’s land when it comes to belonging. Home to them is the place they were born in, as well as the places they may have moved to on the Indian subcontinent and Britain. As for the colonial British, they feel they have hybrid identities.

Stories of the Partition are so much more than just that. Can you address the tangential nature of such a history and its memory? Were there things your interviewees revealed to you that you did not expect them to?
It was the detail of the memories: The sadness over the cricket bat left behind; wondering whether a childhood best friend who was now elderly was still alive; the yearning to see the tree climbed by friends of different faiths in Punjab; sadness at leaving behind a young love. Partition is this cataclysmic event, but often the thing that still touches people most is the smallest thing. I loved getting to the bottom of that.

Relations between people of different religions was complicated, and your book illustrates this throughout. But after migration to England, what was the relationship between these communities like?
In Britain in the post-war years Indians and Pakistanis worked side by side in the mills, factories and foundries. Differences so pronounced on the Indian subcontinent mattered less in Britain. People worked together to fight against discrimination in pay and against racism. This unity started to dissipate by the 1980s. The communities are not hostile in any way, but they are largely separate and inter-marriage is still unusual.

Many of the interviewees, in various chapters, did blame the British for Partition, and yet they have made England their permanent home. Why did people choose to migrate across the oceans in the first place, and do they find the juxtaposition a complex decision?
Many of my interviewees were active in the independence movement. One, who was a member of the Bengal Volunteer Force, even advocated the use of force to achieve their means. But even though their lives had been hugely disrupted by Partition and some may have blamed the British (and particularly the last Viceroy to India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, directly), for the most part, interestingly, they saw no contradiction in making Britain their home.

Are there any particular interviews that have remained with you?
Every interview has stayed with me. And even though the accounts were given with great sadness, the interviewees wanted to be heard, recorded and respected. I think they took strength knowing that their version of history would be documented in the archives too.

Of course, the horror stands out. The brutality in singling out the “other” religion, the branding of women, the abductions, the casualness with which violence and murder took place. Entwined in all these stories though are compassion and humanity, and that left me with a feeling of hope.

Karam Singh’s father was killed by a Muslim mob, but the same day his sister was saved by their Muslim neighbours. Nirmal Joshi, a Hindu, was warned by her Muslim “brother”, whom she tied a rakhi on every year, that she would be abducted by the Muslims of the village if she did not leave her village near Lahore immediately. He took her, her sister and mother in his cart to the train station to leave for India. Her “brother” saved her life.

Gurbaksh Garcha saw trains filled with corpses passing by the edge of his family’s fields in his Punjabi village. One day a woman fell off the train with her two children. They were Muslims in a Sikh village. The Sikh women protected them from the gangs roaming around, keeping them safe and fed in a barn, before taking them to a place of safety so they could leave for Pakistan.

It is the stories of attachment to the place that people left so long ago that I found most touching, even if it is a place that people have not been back to in over seventy years. That generation remembers a time before borders, division, partition. And their identity is still bound to that place today.

I understand that you are a journalist, but in working with people who are essentially living histories, how difficult was it to retain your distance from the details? Did you have any coping mechanisms to deal with the stories you were collecting?
In my day job I deal with traumatic stories. But documenting these testimonies – in detail, and so many – was difficult. It hit me afterwards, and if I am being completely honest it hasn’t left me. I think so many of the interviews will stay with me forever. I still feel emotional hearing bits of interviews. I have learnt that this is quite common amongst people who record Partition interviews. I am sure Aanchal you have found the same yourself. Ultimately, I did not experience what the contributors did, and I never underestimated what it was like to say the words out loud, sometimes for the very first time.

You spoke with those who bore the brunt of violence, as well as those who caused the violence. Was there any difference in these interviews, not just in the telling, but also in your listening to them?
The perpetrators would speak about what happened but would then distance themselves – the actions were in self-defence, I had no choice, I was part of the mob but did not kill.

I did not want to pass judgements on any of the interviewees – what they did or thought over 70 years back. I do not pass judgements in the book. I listened to the stories they told me, and questioned them all in the same way. There were perpetrators, but also bystanders. People talked about seeing young girls taken off and doing nothing in order to save their own lives; or walking in the caravans past people who were frail and needed help, but to stop would endanger them. We have no idea what it was like to be there at the time, and the decisions we would have made.

I am curious about the stories of women that have found their way into your book. The stories of women who were abducted, of women who remember their homes, of women who stood up to the men in their household. Was it different, recording the stories of women and of men?
It was harder to find women to speak to us. The people who would come forward to be interviewed were mostly men. But the women who spoke up were forthright. No one spoke of sexual violence personally. That story will now never emerge in Britain, I think. But people did speak of witnessing abductions, the mutilations of womens’ bodies, and women being forced to have abortions by family members after they had been raped.

There is an interesting story in a chapter titled “Rootless”Veena Dhillon discovered a stack of poems and essays after her mother Amar Dhillon’s death in Britain, and was surprised to learn her family was originally from Pakistan, since she had always assumed it was India. The Night of Flight is a poem that beautifully documents her parents’ wedding night under the stars on the roof of their home, and how suddenly a few hours later they had to flee on trucks to Jalandhar, where they were refugees.

Amar Dhillon was an accomplished writer. She was an educated woman, but when she came to Britain she took menial jobs and raised her children. She writes in detail about sacrificing her life for her husband and children (who are all very successful doctors). She speaks eloquently of her passion for her husband, leaving her birthplace, becoming a refugee, as well as how it felt to leave for Britain. Hearing about Partition and its effects in this unadulterated form through Amar’s voice, at a time when so few women were able to extend their voice, was revelatory.

How important was it to have the section titled “Legacy”?
“Legacy” was critical to the book. The effects of Partition knowingly or unknowingly are carried down through the generations – in terms not only of trauma, but belonging too. Empire (and Partition) is not taught widely in British schools, so unless you have a specific interest, it is not a period of history that is well-known. For the second and third generation where issues of identity can be complex, this history matters. The stories of pre-partition India are important as these testimonies show how much people of the subcontinent have in common. What I also learnt was that there are people across the country (like me) trying to piece together their family histories from clues left in the present.

Lastly, you mention that the story of Partition is also the story of Britain, not just in the official sense of history, but also a peoples’ history. In light of Brexit, what do you hope will be the takeaway from a book such as Partition Voices?
These stories highlight how profoundly political decisions affect the lives of people long after the event itself. As a refugee, even if you cannot live in your “home” country, that sense of belonging never leaves you. That connection to your land can persist through the generations. I think that is an experience not just for Partition refugees but also refugees today.

Empire and its end is the story of Britain. It explains the migration flows to post-war Britain, and ultimately why the country looks the way it does today, having been shaped by their British South Asian compatriots. (There are well over three million people of South Asian descent living in Britain) My hope is that this history – in all its complexity – which explains modern Britain becomes more widely understood and taught in Britain.


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