NOTES FROM HISTORY M2 THE MAGAZINE
MEMOIRS OF A SPLINTERED PAST
There is a sea of start- ups surrounding Dr Guneeta Bhalla’s desk at Skydeck — the incubator for University of
California at Berkeley.
Enthusiastic entrepreneurs eagerly discuss the latest technology
and business trends around her.
The two desks occupied by the
team of the 1947 Partition
Archive — a nonprofit that aims
to produce an oral history record
of the India-Pakistan division —
are silent. Their quiet conceals far
stories that are vastly different
from those of their colleagues’
“They call us a startup around
here,” remarks Dr Bhalla wryly,
when I ask about her neighbors.
Misnomers about her venture
apart, she has ramped up pretty
quickly. Before she started the
archive in 2009, the soft-spoken
35-year-old physicist had zero experience running a non-profit. In fact, her doctorate thesis — about manganite
nanostructures — is hardly the sort of topic that would
interest a historian.
Her journey from physics to non-profit storytelling was
born out of an attempt to situate experiences from survivors
of the Indian Partition within the larger context of world
Those attempts started early.
Dr Bhalla grew up with tales of Partition told by her
grandparents. These stories resonated with the ones she
read about the Holocaust in school. But her efforts to educate her classmates and teachers about Partition were met
with stares of disbelief and incredulity.
Part of the problem lay in inadequate documentation
about the event. Numerous fiction and non-fiction works
catalogue the Holocaust through tales of its horror, unflagging hope and personal redemption.
The Partition experience, however, is different.
Dry government statistics record the event. Most non-fic-
tion works are academic in nature. Fiction, whether in films
or books, constructs a binary narrative of exclusive hatred
between two communities. Such stories are bracketed under
jingoism or art that is inaccessible to the common man.
Most tellingly, personal narratives are absent from the discourse.
There are no records of Ravi Chopra and how his family
was uprooted from a secure existence in West Punjab to the
chaos of a newly-independent Delhi when he was just 8
years old. The now 75-year-old former Indian Army officer
remembers being shot at in a ghost train littered with bodies of dead Hindus.
Similarly, there are no records of Irfan Chaudhary’s journey in the opposite direction from East Punjab to Karachi.
His journey, which occurred when he was 14, was conducted on bus and foot with rest stops in open grounds, where
women and children were raped or murdered.
Bhalla’s moment of epiphany occurred during a 2008 research trip to Japan. She had read about the Hiroshima nuclear attack in history books. But audio
recordings of the event, as it was described by survivors, vivified the event.
When he was eight, a bul- let hit Ravi Chopra’s calf
muscle. It was fired as
the train, one of several
used during the Partition
to transport Hindus
from Pakistan to India, was
standing on a railway plat-
form in Pakistan. Chopra’s
family was too scared to ven-
ture out and there was no first aid on the train. Instead,
Chopra’s grandmother swabbed urine on a piece of cloth
from a dhoti and tied it around his wound.
The Chopras had fled their home in Kosoval, a small
town in West Punjab, in darkness with select belongings.
Although they had heard tales of violence and atrocities
from neighboring towns, the Chopra family’s roots in
their community had lulled them into a false sense of
That afternoon, the wife of a clerk, who worked at the
local police station with Chopra’s father, warned them of
the townsfolk’s intentions to torch their house.
By the time it reached Lyallpur in East Punjab the
train that the Chopras had boarded was full of corpses.
Their family escaped only because a Muslim railway official, an acquaintance, claimed them as members of his
The 1947 Partition
Archive at Berkeley
is on an urgent
mission - to fill the
in the discourse
before the survivors
and their stories are
OF THE BORDER
; M3 ; M3
Story collection by Dr Guneeta Bhalla, right, in Jagdev Kalan, a village in India
Story collection by Silicon Valley software engineer Farhana Afroz in Dhaka COUR TESY: FARHANA AFROZ
COUR TESY: ME THA SK YLAB DAOHEUNG