Sitting in his office while students stroll by under leafy shade trees and rickshaws tut-tut on a nearby road, Khawaja Muhammad Zakariya thinks back to a tumultuous time decades ago when his country was violently split in two: the partition of India. His father hurried home one day, telling his young son they had to gather up their money and jewelry and leave their Muslim neighborhood immediately for an uncle’s house across town.
“The day we moved … that area was attacked, and many were killed and injured but we had left about two hours before,” Zakariya said, recalling the violence-plagued months leading up to partition. The family later left Amritsar for good, taking only the valuables they could carry, joining other families on packed trains to Lahore.
The retired professor of Urdu literature in his mid-70s spoke from his office at Punjab University in Lahore, just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Indian city of Amritsar. He was relaying his life history to a volunteer from The 1947 Partition Archive.
The archive is a massive effort to collect stories from people who remember the 1947 split of the subcontinent, often referred to the largest mass migration in history. The generation that still remembers the birth of modern India and Pakistan are now elderly men and women, and it’s a race against time to record as many stories as possible.
“That segment of the population is disappearing really, really fast,” said Guneeta Singh Bhalla, the Berkeley, Calif.-based executive director and driving force of the archive, speaking by telephone. “Within the next five years the vast majority of what’s remaining is going to be gone.”
Partition marked a massive and bloody upheaval. Hindus living for generations in what was to become Pakistan had to flee their homes overnight. At the same time, millions of Muslims abandoned their homes to cross the border into Pakistan.
The hastily-arranged partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan was brokered by the departing British colonialists. Months of violence preceded the partition announcement, often whipped up by politicians or various religious and political groups jockeying for power. In the chaotic days and months following the August independence of India and Pakistan, violence multiplied as religious sentiment intensified and there was little in the way of police or military to maintain order. There are no exact numbers of people killed and displaced, but estimates range from a few hundred thousand to two million killed and more than ten million displaced.
Bhalla’s interest in oral histories was sparked by a visit to a memorial in Hiroshima featuring similar work. She began recording stories of survivors she knew in the U.S. until there were so many people wanting to tell their story she recruited more volunteers.
Eventually she created a non-profit organization in 2011 devoted to tracking down survivors and recording their stories. She quit her job in December 2012 and now devotes all her time to the archive, based out of offices at U.C. Berkeley. So far, their contributors have collected more than 2,000 oral histories from partition survivors. They want to have 10,000 by 2017, she said.
In a sign of how far people traveled after partition, Bhalla has received stories from nine countries and in 10 different languages. Her own family migrated from Lahore to India during partition but emotional ties to the family’s old hometown are strong: “I still know their addresses.”
In India, Prakhar Joshi has spent the last 15 months crisscrossing the country interviewing about 150 people. Often, this means listening to extremely personal stories of murder, rape and shattered families.
While every person he interviewed had their own version of displacement, some stories left Joshi distraught for weeks. He recalled a 76-year old man in New Delhi who was an eight-year old boy in a refugee camp on the Indian side of the border in the days when violence was at its height.
“One of the camp leaders handed out sticks and other weapons to the men. And small spears to the young boys in the camp,” Joshi said. The man told Joshi they were ordered to kill anyone younger than them. After almost 68 years, Joshi said, the man still has trouble sleeping thinking about the children he killed.
“When I started collecting stories, my first few stories were very traumatic. They shook me to the core. I knew riots had happened, but I never knew the scale of the savagery,” Joshi said.
Not every story is so horrific although partition seems to have left a lasting memory for most.
Desh Raj Kalra was 18 when his family left behind their sprawling house and grain trading store in Pakistan. He remembers a childhood where Hindus and Muslims lived together amicably. But one day the village chief, who was Muslim, told them he’d heard reports of violence and that they should leave.
“We thought we would be back in 10 to 15 days so we left everything behind. My grandfather told us: governments may change but people will never change. But it’s been 68 years now. None of us ever went back. And now I am too old to make the journey,” he said.
The interviewers don’t just ask about partition itself. Armed with an extensive questionnaire, volunteer Umair Mushtaq talked with Zakariya, the retired professor, for three hours. They discussed Zakariya’s memories of flying kites as a young child, watching wrestling matches, his family’s struggles as refugees in Pakistan, and Zakariya’s university studies and marriage.
Eventually, Bhalla said, the archive would like to have a physical space where people can hear the histories and learn more about partition.
Zakariya said he’s glad there’s a project like this to make the stories available for future generations.
“Even my children, they put many questions to me about partition,” he said.