21 Jan 2017 16:42 IST

Shared histories, sharing histories

Pic credit: Bojan Milinkov/Shutterstock

Where do you belong when you think you no longer belong?

Famous people are not always the most pleasant and you sometimes feel that if you admire someone greatly, then it’s best you do that from a distance. Some are rude, some are demanding, some are supercilious, and some are overwhelmed. Also, who am I to insist they give me time and courtesy? Better not to attempt to get to see them from up too close and personal and have your idealism shattered upon discovering the feet of clay. That happens to us, wittingly or unwittingly.

An exception to this was the author of the hugely popular and beautiful book, The Book Thief. The Australian writer, Markus Zusak, lively and amusing in his on-stage interactions at the recently concluded Lit For Life in Chennai, was admirably soft-spoken and unassuming off it. I think I even saw him oblige a young volunteer who thrust a phone into his hands saying, “My mother wants to talk to you.” He obliged, with some bewilderment.

It was an eventful three days at the lit-fest, with the usual suspects (read, Shashi Tharoor) drawing huge crowds and others enjoying the attention of decent-sized audiences. A panel that interested me showcased three ‘memory-keepers’: Kishwar Desai, Anusha Yadav, and Aanchal Malhotra.

Kishwar is in the final throes of setting up the Partition Museum, in the old town hall, not far from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Apart from photographs and memorabilia, the museum has an audio and video collection of personal stories about Partition. It’s a massive project about a massive moment in India’s history. Some 18 million people moved from one side to the other in what is believed to be the largest migration in human history. It’s shocking that it has taken 70 years for such an institution to be set up. That in itself is a comment on how we view history — or not at all.

The work being done by Kishwar, Anusha and Aanchal assumes greater significance seen in this context. The Indian Memory Project has been online for over six years now. It has a wide focus: the personal histories of individuals backed by photographs and information. If you have a story to share about someone in your family or someone you know, you are welcome to send in your contribution. There are guidelines, of course.

The stories are growing and there’s so much to know and understand. For instance, I heard from one person whose family moved to Delhi from Lahore during Partition. The children were converted, and quickly baptised, so they would be protected, and the family moved. Not the uncle, though. The subject says her uncle said, “Where Lahore goes, I will go.” And so he remained in Pakistan.

People have shared stories about their grandfathers, grandmothers, parents, siblings… theatre artist Jalabala Vaidya writes how she performed for President S Radhakrishnan in Rashtrapati Bhavan, another speaks of his father being an expert on coral reefs and how, only when he grew older did he realise the importance of the work he had done. There is a delightful photograph of a newly married couple doing a movie-inspired dance-round-tree routine — way back in the 1950s!

Aanchal’s grandfather came away to India during Partition and set up the hugely popular bookshop, Bahrisons Booksellers, in Delhi. She asks a fundamental question: If you had to leave your home overnight, what is the one thing you would carry back with you? Go to her photoblog and see what people carry, their stories, their memories. She looks at tangibles and intangibles that imprints the past indelibly in the subconscious. This is what makes the present, and is the bedrock of the future.

The one thing all three ‘memory keepers’ emphasise is that when people speak of Partition, they speak with love of the places and people they left behind. They express bewilderment, they ask questions, but there is never a dialectic of hatred.

Aanchal’s January 6 post on The Hiatus Project (tales of familiar spaces) quotes a subject as saying: “Sifting through memory is as important as recording and archiving it… You can’t hold on to everything, it’s just not possible. One has to learn to sift, to weight, and then maybe to forget. Forgetting is as important as remembering. We must clear some space, let in some light. Otherwise the world would be too heavy a place. Our hearts would be too heavy.”

We would do well to listen to these wise words, to forgive and sometimes forget. She’s saying that’s the best way to remember.

Personal histories, just as personal experiences, help us know who we are, where our roots go down, and where new green leaves sprout, where the flowers bloom, where we belong, where we could belong. They tell us that we can belong here, and there. That even if it sometimes seems that way, the past is not over, distances do not sever, everything’s a seamless moving forward. That’s why they matter: the stories of ourselves belong in the stories of who came before us and who will follow.

How will we know, though, what to remember and what to forget?