Wednesday, February 6, 2013


My relationship with history is a messy one. Born more than forty years after Partition, surrounded by those who remembered it, the event trickled into the deepest shadows of my imagination, populated by mind-elves in saris and kurta pajamas, squabbling about the Muslim League, Unionists and Congress in muddled, half-understood Urdu and Punjabi. When I was asked to summon my thoughts about it as a college student, archivist or interviewer, the elves clambered out, noisily, to the background sound of yellowing pages rustling against a thumb with paper cuts.

My first awakening, the first time these ghosts with their UP accents and starched cotton saris were asked to organize themselves and explain to my post-everything self what 1947 stood for, was in college. Until then, Partition was a badly understood idea at best, confused by school-sanctioned patriotism and tacky “Love the soil of Pakistan” bumper stickers. Then came Ayesha Jalal, with her dry prose cutting through the nonsense of national idiom and setting my mind on fire. She was followed by historians, political scientists and dozens of interviewees who exhausted my capacity to comprehend Partition. I fantasized about crawling into my grandmother’s closet, scented with mothballs, and not coming out until my thesis wrote itself. I alternated between frenzied bouts of reading and writing and running from all things Partition-related. The process was so all-consuming that my idealistic motivations about educating children fell by the wayside. How, how, how would I transmit my half-baked ideas to anybody? The weight of August 1947, its sticky heat and oppressive ennui, made my mind sag like plants in an Amritsar home that a young woman and her mother had expected to return to, but didn’t.

There was the Jinnah movie in fifth grade, of which I remembered only a pregnant woman’s belly being pierced with a spear while an angry Junoon tune played in the background and the Stanley Wolpert quote about Jinnah which has been reproduced so many times in so many school assemblies and 14th August demonstrations. There were vague ideas about Muslim rights and the image of sadness-tinged, upright forefathers refusing to sing Vande Mataram and something to do with Hindu supremacy. There was the story of my grandmother and the death trains-the image seared into our ten year old brains was the one of her beautiful hair being chopped off after being exposed to filth and fleas on the two-month journey to Pakistan. There were the stories of my other grandmother and her home with its important visits by important people who we studied about in history books and the sense that we must live up to their expectations (don’t decry nationalism or their ghosts will look down on you reproachfully, don’t joke about them or Allah Mian will hear you). There was all this, no doubt, along with a heaviness, a pregnant-but-not-ready encyclopedia of images and ideas, in the minds of my students. They were me. I was twenty-two. Where does one even begin to commit to this moment in history, to this colossal undertaking of simultaneously understanding and explaining Partition? So I organized the things I could not and would not teach and how I could not and would not teach them. I went to class and fiddled with pedestal fans, dusted chalk off my kameez, passed around photocopies about inoffensive things like the geography of Pakistan (the borders already drawn for me by 1947). I talked about refugees and the Muslim League and the Congress and overthrowing colonialism, making all the political characters sound Equally Good and On The Same Side. I expended huge amounts of energy on not noticing that it was forty seven degrees Celsius and there was no electricity and how it just didn’t matter what I taught anybody in that context. In return, they taught me about their colonies and picnics at Benazir Bhutto park and playtime and loss. We became friends and I grew increasingly bitter with the idea of an objective history.

I started hating the questionnaire we used to interview oral history candidates, with its quiet assumptions about class and nationalism. Do you remember seeing the Pakistan flag unfurled for the first time? Were you proud to fly PIA the first time? I’m so sorry to steer you back to our topic, but can you describe Karachi’s nightlife in the 1950s? It made me sick. Meanwhile, Pakistan moved on, never allowing us a moment to catch our collective breath, not caring that I was scanning decaying newspaper articles about Mujib-ur-Rehman’s Six Points and vintage advertisements for Kashmiri Beauty long-lasting matchsticks. I would transcribe interviews, my heart breaking over and over for the man whose wife called him a coward and burned him with her disappointment when he ran for his life during a Dhaka riot in 1971; applauding the lady whose excellent matchmaking services and record of finding Very Suitable Boys saw her through bombing raids in 1965 after she was widowed. In between, I would check Facebook and Twitter for updates on the situation outside our window. Zulfikar Mirza drunkenly poked fun of Muhajirs. Rehman Malik came into power and a joke about calling apples bananas made the rounds. We lost students’ family members at summer camp to communal violence and missed a few days of school. Osama was killed. Drone strikes escalated. Polio vaccine campaigns came under threat. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t, we said. Pakistan was reappropriated as “Af-Pak.” All that history we were digging up that made us part of India, we joked, was becoming obsolete, as if such a thing were possible. We saw ourselves morph into a Taliban state, a Global Threat, citizens of the world’s Most Dangerous City. People told us we were brave and we felt uncomfortable. On most days, Partition and its stories made no sense.

The following year, as a teacher, I quietly struck “South Asia; the partition of the subcontinent and the subsequent history of the Indian and Pakistani states” off the world history syllabus for my O level students. It’s because I didn’t want to confuse them by offering them “real” history the same year they learned the mutilated Partition history of Pakistan Studies, I said to school administration. It’s because I would much rather teach China, a topic that is so relevant today, I told students. It’s because our syllabus is so lengthy, I told colleagues. I couldn’t decide which answer was best. It could be because Mrs. J left her home in Amritsar unlatched because she was going to return soon, but she, like her neighbor Sadat Hasan Manto, never did. It could be because Mr. I was an Urdu-speaking man from Calcutta who migrated to Punjab, didn’t fit in, migrated to Dhaka, didn’t fit in, migrated to Karachi and still doesn’t fit in. It could be because a million silent rapes have been replaced by louder ones. It could be that I am exhausted, and twenty five, and no smarter than three years ago, and there is noise in my head, a rustlerustlerustle of pages of books and interviews which leap out and eat me alive. It could be that the thought of going to graduate school for history lost its charm when the idea of writing papers about Objective History appeared to be a monstrous irrelevancy before the fifteen year olds I have not yet taught. It could be, that in another forty years, a granddaughter may beat her head against the boulders left to her by my generation…and by then, I will have grown to understand, by then I will have something to teach.



nb said...

Please publish this somewhere. This one deserves a much wider audience.

s.e. said...

Thank you :)
I have absolutely no idea who would want this, though.

Meher Ali said...

love this, but do you really think grad school would have been writing papers about Objective History? in my experience, the idea that such a thing exists is the first thing that is torn apart. academic learning of history has so many problems though...maybe the better way to teach is through literature and stories. would be awesome if you could transform some of those oral histories you heard into short stories.