On Archiving the Past

Jaded's picture

This week I'm flitting between three cities, attending conferences in two, making my way back in the third one -- moving in my old room again, while half of my boxes and things are stuck in another house eight hours away from where I grew up. Thinking about memories, what each place, room holds and means to me has become quite the routine for this time of the year. Memories of my family intertwine with national history -- partly because of my grandmum's participation in the freedom struggle and in part my great-grandfather's connections with Nehruvians -- so much so that writing anything about the nation would be futile without mentioning my family and the place I occupy and negotiate in both spaces. My sister and I usually clean grandmum's cupboard, pack up her photographs, clean her saris while her ghazals play on the tape -- it's something we do without discussion or planning, it's an annual chore of sorts. This year, mum invited two of our aunts along, all of us began with the cleaning and boxing. Somehow, they started talking about her little quirks, her way of cooking this sabzi or the other, quickly praising her poise ("Right to her last days, she has never been inconvenient to anyone") that dissolved to silence as my sister asked my aunts what was she like when they were growing up, if she was as radical as the stories assure us. These are not memories you want to remember her by, auntie huffed, think how great a grandmother she was to the two of you, the Swadeshi¹ thing is very old, what's the point of thinking of all that now? I find this extremely disorienting -- to specifically remember her as a defanged version of her older self, as a wife and grandmother but not as a woman in her own right who wanted to be more than just a housewife.


A friend asked this question a few days ago and I am still grappling with what it implies, what it can unfold. She asked me to write one day about South Asian feminisms² and its legacy of violence, to the extent that to speak of South Asian feminisms is to speak of violence -- and what does it mean for us today, what responsibility do we have to various women's movements across South Asia. The conference I went to yesterday, before starting on her paper on Urdu poetry, the speaker stood up and apologised to all the Bangladeshi feminists present -- she said the Pakistani government would never state this, but as a feminist she feels responsible for her compliance and silence in the Bangladeshi war of 1971 -- a conference that addresses South Asian feminism was a good platform, she said, to make new memories out of national histories. While those were terse and moving moments -- sadly, they will not exist out of spaces made by academia and institutional discussions of feminism. Grandmum and her friend -- who I only know as Fatimabibi -- tried to keep in touch after her family migrated to Bangladesh after the Partition as many Muslim households in Bengal and Orissa did, but both were young mothers with families that didn't want to accommodate their ideologies, eventually they stopped writing to each other, my grandmum wouldn't ever speak of her -- I only found their letters while doing a project on family this semester. And even then, I felt like I was intruding on words and memories that I wasn't meant to be a part of -- grandmum mentioned burning a few letters on Fatimabibi's request in her journals; all she said was, "Those were important but not happy words". I don't know what was that in reference to -- I could speculate, but I won't. These are not my memories to play with. It's one thing to claim responsibility as a political move, as an extension of your beliefs, quite another to destroy history, to remain *that* firm on your belief of what comes under responsibility³.


At the conference today, a French feminist suggested we should "memorialise the Partition", with museums and murals akin to the Jewish museums that document the Holocaust across Germany and Austria, a way to grieve and remember what happened, "now you'd have a specific venue". Except stating the obvious that the Partition and the Holocaust were two extremely different occurrences of violence and that they need to be contextaulised thoroughly before making any sort of comparison, the Partition and the Holocaust were gendered in specifically different ways. One of the reasons we don't have many survivor memoirs is precisely because of this gendered violence -- many women from the Bangladesh war of 1971 or even the Partition(s) of 1947 are alive today, how do you go about archiving or memorialising something that is not yet a part of the "past", which exists within communities of silence? I will never know what my grandmother was like before she was anything but a wife and a mother, even though by the Partition, she was already safe and tucked away in a "apolitical" family in Bombay -- what about scores of women who are not allowed to be (by circumstances or people) to be that "objective" about history as my grandmum eventually became? How do you archive a past that rehashes itself over and over. If Godhra was any indication, Partition wasn't that long ago. Feminists and other progressive activists went to Godhra to listen to rape survivor stories; instead they returned with survivors talking about their children and grand-children, being optimist of their future; if they did refer to the violence, all they said was "Insaniyat hi nahi rahi" -- what would it mean to ask these survivors to register their voices, so that certain human rights violations could be recorded, when all they could talk about was how inhuman the whole ordeal was.


I am still reeling at the suggestion of memorialising the Partition -- for one moment it seems doable, to erect a monument, where people can pool their grief but even that fantasy has thorns. Like many Hindu families, mine too has a few members who were influential enough to have a hand in the Godhra riots, whose kin have been massacred during the Partition, who had been a part of the massacres themselves. When I was 8, an old uncle passed away and I was told to sit in my room while the adults debated what they should do -- the man quite happily confessed to killing more than 50 Muslims back in 1947, later things would be whispered about him but he wouldn't speak of that time. All I remember of him is that he had a parrot in his house and I had fun with them the three times I met him. Like many conflicts, our legacy of Hindu-Muslim conflicts doesn't always have a single perpetrator (not extending this to the Godhra riots) -- there isn't a single enemy, sometimes the "enemy" is a beloved uncle or auntie, a relative. Sometimes the victims are not some esoteric nameless-faceless subjects, they are people who you have shared land and memories with. How to even begin to memorialise all this? At whose cost?


1. She belonged to a Gandhian household, embracing the Swadeshi movement felt natural to her, as she would later tell us.

2. I don't think a "South Asian feminism" can exist -- not today, not when there are so many intra-communal conflicts. By South Asian feminisms, I mean the various women's movements that exist in South Asia, not some amorphous hat-tip to an uncritical call to solidarity.

3. I would like to believe I could destroy letters that would give me a "personal" narrative of the Partition as experienced in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), but quite honestly, I am not so certain of myself these days.

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