Going beyond a linear narrative

Going beyond a linear narrative
Before the chaos: Sughra Hamid's class at Amritsar Medical College, with Dr Amir-ud-Din (first row).

A young archivist from Lahore shares her experiences of what happens when people ask a different set of questions

By Anam Zakaria 

By Anam Zakaria

“I will go to hell now,” wailed the sixth grader, seated in an upper middle-class school in Lahore. I had just distributed a stack of postcards that had arrived from India as part of the Exchange-for-Change project I was running for the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP).

Indian students had sent pictures of religious festivals, weddings and other cultural events. A postcard depicting a Hindu deity had landed with this particular child. She looked up at me with wide, innocent eyes and whispered, “My eyes have committed a sin, my mother said if I see something like this on TV or anywhere, I will go to hell.”

It was 2011, and we had recently launched Exchange-for-Change. I was standing at the front of the class after distributing the postcards when a student came up to me and said, “My friend is crying. She doesn’t like her postcard. Please give her another one.”

When I asked the child what was wrong, she told me her eyes had committed ‘zina’. I asked where she heard that and she said that her mother had forbidden her to watch Indian TV shows and movies because they showed multiple gods, which was haram in Islam. The other students remained busy looking at the postcards they had received and responding to them, apparently undisturbed by the episode. I gave the upset student another postcard with no religious symbolism on it.

During the course of the project we had several debriefing sessions, in which we would invite questions, let the students bring forward their curiosities and their stereotypes. Through photographs, videos, facts and anecdotes we would challenge some of these stereotypes.

So near and yet so far

Indian and Pakistani students perform bhangra on stage at St. Pauls School, Delhi

Indian and Pakistani students perform bhangra on stage at St. Pauls School, Delhi

One story that was very popular with the students was how my grandmother once told me that she once had breakfast in Lahore and lunch in Amritsar. They found fascinating the sheer proximity of the two cities, which are so inaccessible to each other now due to visa difficulties. The story also brought about a sense of closeness, of shared cultures and history.

Most children found it very difficult to distinguish between nationalism and religion and often found it amusing to make fun of Hindu names, gods and traditions. Over time, as we discussed the religious diversity in India and Pakistan, their attitudes changed. They were fascinated to learn how many Muslims reside in India, and Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan.

One child came up to me a month into the project and exclaimed, “We are so similar!” She had just learnt from a letter from India that Indians liked biryani too. That had shattered some of her stereotypes, which had taught her to “otherise” Indians.

A few months into the project, I took a handful of Pakistani students, aged 9-12 years, to Delhi accompanied by two staff members. As the school principal received us with garlands and reached forward to place a tikka on our foreheads, three of the children started actually crying.

They asked me if this meant they had become Hindu. They had heard tales of their ancestors being converted by force and wondered if this was their fate too. The rest of the nine children stood puzzled, waiting for instruction. I told them the act was in good spirit and did not mean conversion. When the agitated students remained unconvinced, I got my tikka applied first, apologising to the Principal who looked uncomfortable, wondering if she had done something wrong. Seeing me apply the tikka calmed the upset students and they enjoyed the rest of the function with great enthusiasm.

The imaginary monster

St. Pauls School, Delhi receives students and teachers from Pakistan as part of Exchange-for-Change

St. Pauls School, Delhi receives students and teachers from Pakistan as part of Exchange-for-Change

In a study on Partition, Gallup Pakistan found that 76 per cent of Pakistanis have never met an Indian. Given that religious minorities form just three per cent Pakistan’s population, it is unlikely that most mainstream Pakistanis have come across a Hindu or Sikh either. But in the absence of this ‘other,’ Pakistanis have constructed the ‘other.’ The Two-Nation Theory that all mainstream political parties overtly or tacitly endorse, is entrenched in history textbooks and media debates, especially in Punjab. It demands the existence of this ‘other,’ to define ourselves against.

The ‘other’ then becomes a figment of our imagination; an imaginary monster looming on the other side of the border, a monster fed on State jingoism, biased educational curriculum and media propaganda. An essential part of our identity is based on the premise that Pakistan is the “pure” next-door neighbor of an infidel nation, one that it must protect itself against.

History in most state sanctioned Pakistani textbooks only begins with the Arab military commander Muhammad Bin Qasim, who invaded Sindh and rid the land of all infidel practices. Such textbooks openly term Hindus as enemies, labeling them as mischievous and treacherous. This demonisation includes stressing versions of the past that focus on enmity between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs and accentuate Hindu and Sikh atrocities at the time of Partition, portraying Muslims as innocent bystanders and victims.

Shattering stereotypes

Students, teachers and CAP members crossing Wagah border into India

Students, teachers and CAP members crossing Wagah border into India

One of the children who was part of the delegation we took to India had later told me, “There was a passage in my class five Urdu book. It said Sikhs used to butcher little children with their swords and cut them up into little pieces. When we crossed Wagah Border and you told me that a few Sikhs were receiving us, I expected them to be holding those daggers. When I saw them holding the garlands instead, that image shattered in front of me.”

For most Pakistanis, who never come across Indians, this image may never shatter. Such textbooks and their tall claims, backed by narratives like the one my grandmother initially shared with me, are the only truth they may ever know. For most children and grandchildren of Partition, these are the only versions they have heard, the only truth they know. Many of them, even the most educated, find it difficult to decipher between religion and national identity. A seventh grader at an upper-middle class school in Lahore once emphatically stated, “Of course Shahrukh is Pakistani, after all he’s Muslim!”

Many in Pakistan and India use the same logic is to question the loyalties of religious minorities in their respective countries, who have to time and time again prove their Pakistani or Indian-ness.

Nearly all (92 per cent) of the Gallup survey’s respondents stated that they would have voted for Pakistan had they been mature adults at Partition; 80 per cent said that they would have agreed with the “two nation theory”, and 71 per cent felt Muslims had benefitted from the creation of Pakistan.

The survey also found, alarmingly, that almost half (48 per cent) of Pakistanis believe that Muslims did not carry out any violence against people of other religions at the time of Partition. More than half of the respondents (56 per cent) stated that Hindus were mostly responsible for causing chaos and clashes during Partition. A similar number (57 per cent) stated that neither they nor their forefathers had any Hindu or Sikh friends before 1947. The phrase, “Hindus can never become the true friends of Muslims,” from the Punjab Textbook Board’s Social Studies textbook resonates loudly with this line of thought.

Not surprising

Pakistani students and teachers at India Gate, Delhi

Pakistani students and teachers at India Gate, Delhi

To another question about how accurately history textbooks in schools depicted events related to Partition, 27 per cent of the respondents felt the textbooks were completely accurate while 38 per cent felt they were accurate to some extent. Only 18 per cent believed they were completely inaccurate while 17 per cent stated that they did not know.

Less than a quarter (24 per cent) of the respondents responded negatively to the question “Are you satisfied with the syllabi of children’s history textbooks in schools?” This section of the study explored how Pakistanis view history textbooks and whether they feel that the textbooks accurately represent historical events.

This is not surprising. Sitting in the heart of Punjab, throughout my childhood, I heard stories about bloodied trains, massacres and mutilated bodies. These versions were told and retold through textbooks and Independence Day special programmes every 14 August. They were also reiterated in storytelling sessions with my maternal grandmother, who had volunteered at the Walton Camp in Lahore, one of the largest refugee camps set up for the millions crossing over the newly formed border after Partition.

Whenever I expressed a desire to visit India, my grandmother – one of the kindest people I know – would say, “Tobah tobah, udhar tou sirf saanp rehte hain,” (God forbid, only snakes live on that side). She had fortunately not lost a single family member at Partition. Yet over time, I learnt that many Partition survivors like her had personalised general stories of carnage and bloodshed, and felt and shared them as personal tragedies. For my grandmother, India was synonymous with Hindus and Sikhs who had butchered women, men and children at Partition, and whose bodies she had to bury during her time at the camp.

The Gallup Pakistan study also states that 61 per cent of Pakistanis have never come across an incident of a Muslim being saved by a Hindu or Sikh at Partition.

Another set of questions

Pakistani and Indian students meet each other for the first time at St. Pauls School, Delhi after participating in a 16-month letter-and-postcard-writing exchange project

Pakistani and Indian students meet each other for the first time at St. Pauls School, Delhi after participating in a 16-month letter-and-postcard-writing exchange project(first row).

But in the midst of all this, are other narratives and stories waiting to be explored. Another narrative emerges when the material is interrogated differently in a more nuanced way – as the renowned political psychologist Ashis Nandy has done. In the study on Partition he conducted a few years ago, 40 per cent of his respondents recalled stories of being rescued by someone from “the other side”.

During the course of my research on Partition, after 25 years of repeatedly hearing stories of the Walton Camp at family gatherings, I went back to my grandmother and began to ask a different set of questions.

Earlier, when recounting stories about the refugee camps, her tales of blood and violence resonated with me for that was what I had learnt through my textbooks and mainstream discourse in society. However, now I began to inquire about other aspects of her life, especially before Partition. When I asked her about Hindu or Sikh school friends in Model Town, Lahore, where she lived, that I had heard was a largely Hindu dominated area, she told me for the first time about Uma and Rajeshwari.

Both actually returned to Lahore for a Kinnaird College reunion as alumni some years ago. They and my grandmother Kusloom Hamid  (married name Kulsoom Rehman) had maintained contact through letters prior to the visit, during which they met again for the first time and exchanged gifts. My grandmother had never mentioned this to me during our many conversations about Partition, until I began to write my book and ask her different questions.

It was only when I told her I’d heard that Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs also saved each other at Partition – stories I heard through CAP’s Oral History Project – that she told me about how a Sikh family saved her sister Sughra Hamid.

A rescue in Amritsar

My grandaunt Sughra was a student at the Glancy Medical College (later Government Medical College), Amritsar where she was staying in a hostel in 1946. Worried about her safety in a predominately Sikh area, her father in Lahore, my great grandfather Muhammad Abdul Hamid, known as M.A Hamid — India’s first Muslim Chief Engineer and later the Chief Engineering Advisor to the Government of Pakistan — asked a Sikh colleague, Executive Engineer Officer, Tarlochan Singh to take Sughra home if there was any trouble in the city. He also told her to go unquestioningly with the Sikh gentleman if he came to pick her up.

It turns out that the Principal of the college was Muslim and was rumoured to be in a relationship with a Sikh lady doctor. There were already riots in the city by this time, and some Sikhs decided to attack the girls hostel at the college in retaliation for the relationship.

Hearing about the potential attack, Tarlochan Singh hastened to pick up my grandmother’s sister. He was a young man, with a wife and children, but he risked his family’s life to keep my great-aunt in his home for two days, hiding her in a cupboard in fear of any raids — finding a Muslim girl in a Sikh home at that time would mean death for all of them. My great-aunt’s hostel was attacked that night and many of her friends were injured or killed as she learnt later. She would sit and cry at Tarlochan Singh’s house, wondering which ones had survived.

Later, when the situation calmed down, he managed to smuggle her to the Muslim part of the city where my great grandfather’s friend Dr. Amiruddin lived. A few weeks later, my great grandfather sent a car to collect her from Amritsar – along with men armed with rifles to ward of any potential attack from Sikhs along the way. Such was the irony of that time – on one hand it was a Sikh family that saved his daughter’s life and on the other hand he felt the need to protect her against the same community.

I heard about another of my grandmother’s sisters, Yasmeen Hameed, being nicknamed “Gui” after her father’s Sikh friend’s daughter.

I was struck by how many other stories my grandmother held within her, stories which had been engulfed by the trauma of Partition, by the State narratives that reinforce the bloodshed and violence at the hands of non-Muslims, by the histories that emphasise “otherisation”.

What dialogue does

Grandparents and great grandparents on both sides of the border hold many such tales deep in their hearts. Some utter them; others speak through their silence. But for many children and grandchildren of the Partition generation, these stories are never heard, never explored. Though Partition survivors have lived through the violence and trauma of Partition first hand, they have also lived in a community where the ‘other’ was not really the ‘other’ but an essential part of their daily lives. There was a mutual co-dependence of sorts. Their children however have only inherited a linear version of history, a history most often gone unchallenged.

Though one must be vary of generalisations, many Indians suffer from similar biases and prejudices. It is perhaps no wonder then that a child of about six ran away from me in Mumbai after hearing I was from Pakistan. When I asked him why, he said he was scared of Ajmal Kasab. Other children were amazed that I was not clad in a burqa; they asked me if had ever tasted pizza, been to an ATM, and of course, whether I had met Hafiz Saeed.

Through the parochial lens that we use to see the ‘other,’ such stereotypes become easy to form. The only hope lies in the fact that with more access to each other, some of these stereotypes can be thwarted. The Gallup Pakistan study found that 73 per cent of Pakistanis felt that their opinion about Indians become positive after meeting them. In January 2016, I held a Skype session with 7th graders in a school in Mumbai. Though we started the discussion with an air of suspicion, with children openly telling me that when they thought of Pakistan, they automatically thought of terrorism, at the end of the one hour session, one child commented, ‘Now I know not all Pakistanis are murderers, I can think of going across too.’

That’s what dialogue, what one hour of conversation between Indians and Pakistanis can achieve. The longer we wait however, the more we are at risk of being absorbed by the rigid and myopic versions of the ‘other,’ versions which will become the only truth that we will ever encounter, for those who recall the nuances of that time, the varied experiences, the co-existence, would no longer be amongst us.

Anam Zakaria is the former Director Exchange-for-Change, and the author of Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians (HarperCollins 2015). This is a revised version of a piece earlier published in Scroll.in

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