Most Partition narratives in English and Hindi focus on Punjab. There is such a dearth of popular accounts from other regions that despite being a Muslim from Bihar, I knew nothing about the experiences of Bihari Muslims who migrated to Bangladesh. I grew up on works centred on India's western frontier, such as Khushwant Singh's novel Train to Pakistan, the Bollywood film Gadar and the non-fiction book The Shadow of the Great Game.
That's why I was glad to chance upon Inherited Memories: Third Generation Perspectives on Partition in the East, an anthology published by Zubaan. The book had its genesis in a 2015 collaborative project between the German cultural centres in Kolkata and Dhaka. The project began with the question: is there a "culture of remembrance" in India, something akin to Germany's? It eventually sought to explore "how memory is passed down, what is retained and lost, and how it is owned and shared by subsequent generations" in the context of the Partition.
The book features interviews of 20 descendants of people who migrated during the Partition, 10 each from Bangladesh and West Bengal. There are two accounts of participants describing visits the project facilitated to their ancestral homes across the border. They relate family stories, cultural practices, and their perceptions of Partition, identity, belonging, and the land and people across the border.
The interviews are remarkably revelatory. I did not know that the Urdu-speaking Muslims who had moved to Bangladesh after Partition faced persecution there during and after the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Urdu speakers were seen as collaborators of Pakistani forces during the war. While some were repatriated to Pakistan in the following years, hundreds of thousands effectively became stateless.
Only in 2008 did the Dhaka High Court rule that the "stranded Pakistanis" were Bangladeshi citizens. "The incredible part of this story," interviewee Khaled Hussain says, "is that even today 300,000 Urdu speakers are languishing in 116 camps across the country."
Hussain, a campaigner for his community's rights, was born in Bangladesh in 1981. He shares the dilemma his community now faces: as they fight for integration into the Bengali mainstream: must they give up their distinct language and culture that originated in Bihar?
"There are so many rituals that we have borrowed from Hindus," he explains. "In weddings, the rituals are different in Bengali and Urdu-speaking communities… We use sindoor, which is entirely a Hindu custom… Father would wear kurtas with pockets on both sides. This was not a Punjabi kurta, but the typical dress of the Urdu-speaking elders, and nobody could stitch this kurta outside the [refugee] camp, only tailors in the camp could."
The interviews present a gamut of Partition experiences. There is diversity in terms of gender, class, place of origin, caste, and migration patterns. We learn about neighbours helping families as well as neighbours pillaging houses. Interviewee Somnath Rudrapal talks about how artisans migrating from Bangladesh faced harassment from locals in Kumortuli, the settlement of potters and idol makers in Kolkata. Sanchita Bhattacharya has problems with the word "refugee" and wants to be identified as a "descendant of people who witnessed Partition".
Along with the harrowing stories of violence, discrimination, and loss, there are everyday observations. M Haque talks about his family shuttling across borders that were relatively open until the Nineties. He moved to Bangladesh in 1987, but did not face any major problems. Comparing villages on either side of the border, he says that West Bengal lags behind Bangladesh in terms of infrastructure, incomes, education, and laissez-faire policies.
The book also features five essays that discuss different aspects of Partition and how the project was conceived and carried out. Among these, Firdous Azim's stands out. It highlights recurring themes and patterns in the interviews, highlights the silences, especially those regarding traumatic events, and provides a useful guide to navigate the accounts.
While each interview is complete in itself and brings out diverse nuances, the essays could have provided more context and analysis. I occasionally found it hard to locate the personal experiences within an overarching narrative or to draw conclusions. For instance, it would have been good to know if the number of interviews of migrants to Bangladesh from Bihar vis-a-vis West Bengal reflects the actual composition of the migrant population. While the accounts and the essays sporadically touch upon caste, there could have been more enquiries along this line, especially considering critiques of the caste-blindness of South Asian oral-history archives.
The book would have been richer with perspectives on the question the project began with: what shape does a culture of remembrance take in partitioned nations? The interviews instantiate these at the individual level, but there is little insight on how it manifests collectively.
South Asia does not have an ostensible culture of remembrance. While museums, memorials, remembrance days, or attempts at collective reckoning are lacking, the past continues to have a stranglehold on the present. Religion remains entwined with nationhood in all three countries despite its failure at keeping West and East Pakistan together. Historical wrongs, real or imagined, keep being invoked for political ends.
Inherited Memories is a remarkable account of individual memories and histories. I hope the anthology becomes a springboard for macro-investigations into how the past seeps into the present in South Asia.
Syed Saad Ahmed is a writer and communications professional.