2022 – After 75 years, hidden memories of the generations of Britain that divided India rise | Kavita Puri

TTwo sisters gave me a piece of paper that was faded and yellow. It had her father’s words written on a typewriter. He died in the 1990s and his last request was that his ashes be divided and scattered in three different places: in the Punjabi village in modern Pakistan where he was born, on the Ganges near Haridwar in India and from the Severn Bridge. in England. These three places shaped his life, from his expulsion from Pakistan to the partition of India and his emigration to Britain. He felt that he belonged to all of them and wanted a part of them to remain, in death as in life.

Five years ago, I began collecting testimonies from people in Britain who lived through the turbulent events of Partition. I soon realized that it was not a story from afar, but one that was all around us in Britain, with a lasting legacy.

The partition of British India along religious lines in 1947 into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan led to the largest migration outside of war and famine in human history. When people found themselves in a minority in a new country, an estimated 10 to 12 million people moved across new borders, leaving the homes they had lived in for generations. About a million people were killed in sectarian violence. More than 75,000 women were raped, kidnapped and forced to convert to the “other” religion.

Many families in Britain have a connection to the partition as those who emigrated from the Indian subcontinent in the early post-war years came largely from places affected by it. They came to rebuild the country and their lives. They arrived with those memories that are seldom spoken out loud. But in 2017, during the 70th anniversary of the split, that silence began to break up.

I traveled to the UK and was told horrific stories. I met a 70-year-old man with an indelible scar carved on his arm by a poisoned spear. I cannot forget the agonizing sound he made when he declared that he was doomed and nearly died when a mob entered his village. I heard an old man who seemed almost childish describe the horrors of waking up to a train platform full of corpses. A woman spoke of hearing her uncles plot to kill all the girls in her family to protect them from shame, and that was the fear of sexual violence. Her grandmother convinced her. Lots of stories like this have been hidden for decades by those who live among us who still suffer from nightmares from that era. And we didn’t know.

But Jill Divided also has other stories to tell that they want to remember. From a people who have lived side by side for generations – Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus – with common languages, food and culture. Deep friendships developed. They share sadness and joy together, regardless of religion. A man told me how a Muslim woman from his village breastfed his Sikh cousins ​​after their mother died. What could be more intimate? There are also accounts of friends and strangers who overcame hatred to save the religion of the “other”. A man told me that on the day a Muslim mob killed his father, his Muslim neighbor saved his sister and 30 other Sikh girls by sheltering them in his house.

Now this generation was wondering aloud if they would visit their ancestors’ home before they died. Will they see the childhood best friend they didn’t have time to say goodbye to? Is the favorite tree you climbed still standing?

When I began these interviews, I never would have imagined that the legacy of partition in the UK could be so diverse and complex. Shock and fear can be transmitted, even in silence. But also the permanent attachment to the forsaken land, even if no one has returned. Sometimes that connection is obvious. I’ve seen grandchildren keep dirt in a Bangladeshi jar over their stove, or wear pebbles from Pakistan around their necks every day, or cherish the salvaged legacy of India – all the places their ancestors left 75 years ago. Often these things have their only relationship to that time and place. It is proof that their families were present in this country as well, which is very relevant to these young people today.

Muslim refugees preparing to flee India, September 1947. Photo: AP

In all that time, Boundaries have not been able to erase that history, memory, or emotion. And in the five years since the seventieth anniversary, this past quietly hidden among the descendants of those who lived to see it has awakened.

For some families, this has meant gaining a new understanding of the word “separation” itself and how it affected their older relatives. For others, it was the realization that the beginnings of their family history could be completely traced in another country across the border.

Many of those who contacted me to share their stories were from the third generation. They wanted to know their history after their ancestors who came here. They asked, “How do I ask my relatives about their pasts when the topic never came up?” Others said, “I wish I had asked when my relatives were alive.” Date. Across our country, heirs to partition are trying to rebuild their family’s past: start conversations with family members, visit archives, learn about their history, take DNA tests, and in some cases even return to the country from which they fled long ago.

Writer Elif Shafak points out that third-generation immigrants are the ones who dig into memories: They have “memories older than their parents. Their parents tell them, ‘This is your home, forget everything.’” For the people I spoke to, identity matters in all its complexity.

Of course, these aren’t just personal stories within the family – they’re part of our shared history. That’s because it was a British border drawn to divide British India when the British Empire began to collapse. The subjects of the Raj came to Britain and are its citizens, and several generations now live by the millions on these islands. Partition, the end of the empire and the subsequent migration to the lands of the former colonial ruler could not be a more British story – one that everyone needs to know and learn about. However, it is not a mandatory part of the national curriculum in England. In Wales, black, Asian and minority ethnic stories will become mandatory lessons from September.

As the anniversary approaches in August, it is always bittersweet: joy of independence but sadness of lingering loss. A few days ago, a daughter emailed me that her father, one of the people I spoke to, had passed away at the age of 92. A reminder that our connection fades at this time.

Seventy-five years later, in Britain, we are all heirs to partition and empire. We must decide what to do with this legacy; Decide what is remembered and what is forgotten. The legacy will continue in ways we have not seen before. It happened a long time ago but somehow I feel we are just starting to deal with it – both within families and in the UK.

Kavita Puri is the author of Voices of Partition: Untold British Stories, which will be re-released on July 21st. Her documentary Heirs of Partition will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 8 August at 9am and is available on BBC Sounds.

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