Signposts of history

A unique reserve of India’s colonial history, the Partition Museum in Amritsar brings alive stories that had to be told, writes P S Nissim

Amritsar Town Hall. PHOTOS BY AUTHOR

Partition. An event that scarred the Indian subcontinent so badly, the after-effects continue to reverberate today. A line drawn hastily across an ancient land by a British civil servant over a course of a few weeks, but affecting the lives of millions of people.

We’ve all seen the movies, read the books, heard a few of the stories. But what has been missing is a detailed resource explaining the events from history that went before it, the news and records from the time, and, perhaps most important, a source for eyewitness accounts and testimony. As we begin to lose our grandparents and parents who have lived those days, recording their stories becomes even more important.

Documenting history

Placing these stories in a framework of historical fact gives them their resonance. Fortunately, we have such an effort now: The Museum of Partition, in Amritsar, created within the newly-renovated Town Hall, is within walking distance from the Golden Temple.

There is a newness to this museum’s methods. Not just because it was inaugurated in 2017, but because it seamlessly melds together the documentation related to the subject — audio and visual testimonies of those dark days, and even art inspired by the primary material. On the walls are large posters and timelines of the events, along with artefacts in showcases.

Next to these posters and artefacts are large video screens. These play short clips of interviews of involved players and documentaries related to the theme of the room. Headphones attached to the screens let you listen carefully to the video. There are sculptures and artwork explicating the mood of the times.

The museum is structured as a sequence of sections, each focused on a specific time period: the first room talks quickly of the arrival of the British in India as traders, and their ascent as rulers. Subsequently, we have the events of the struggle for Independence, including the roles played by the major leaders of the time. In parallel is the rise of Muslim League and their demands for a separate nation.

We go through the hasty process of creating a boundary line between the two soon-to-be-free countries, based on woefully scarce documentation and resources.

As we arrive to 15th August, 1947, the people near the boundaries are anxious : they don’t know yet which side their village will fall on. In one small room, we hear Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech, see the jubilation reflected in the newspapers of the time.

But in the very next room, the horrors of Partition fall upon us, the visitors. There are the millions of displaced families, thrown out of their hometown with just clothes on their backs. There are riots and lootings breaking out as rumours spread and multiply unchecked. There are trains of refugees, slaughtered in retaliation for perceived misdeeds.

Partition Museum artwork
Partition Museum artwork

Horrors unfold

There are the sole survivors of families, left behind or separated in the chaos. There is the famine and disease as the infrastructure of both countries crumbles under the flood of migrations. The stories are told to us in first person, in video interviews of the survivors, often with the original artefacts from the time.

One of the memorable stories is from a lady named Sudershana Kumari, who migrated to India with just a metal box where she used to store her dolls. In a video she describes how she left everything as a child, how she hid from rioters for days, and how she struggled to stay on her feet after reaching India. And right there, below the screen, is the metal box itself, lending a harsh reality to the story. There are other stories: One is of a necklace of beads discovered in the excavations of the Indus Valley Civilisation. When Partition came, which country would keep it? The heart-rending solution was to split the necklace, bead by bead, into two necklaces, and for each country to take one.

Dozens more stories. Manto is there, Amrita Pritam finds mention, there is Mahashay Dharampal Gulati, the founder of MDH Masalas, known to every Indian from the ads. There are clothes, paintings, knick-knacks, photos, notebooks...

You, the visitor, walk through the rooms, dazed from the onslaught of information and raw emotion, voices and images begging to be remembered.

The trauma of another time descends on you, telling you what the history books missed. Around you are other visitors: old folks who probably have a better inkling of those times, young teens and children discovering the story for the first time. The museum serves us all.

I stepped out of the building after several hours, noting with surprise that it was already evening. Outside in the courtyard, a cheeky boy tried to strike up a conversation with me, angling for either money or fun at my expense. Two older men immediately glared at him, warning him off. This is not a place for jest, they seemed to say. Only for memory.

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