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9 April 2007

Memory, lived and forgotten
Ravinder Kaur's work breaks new ground in the study of Partition to understand
how it still affects its inheritors

by Urvashi Butalia
(The Financial Express, April 1, 2007)

[Since 1947: Partition Narratives among Punjabi Migrants of Delhi
by Ravinder Kaur
Oxford University Press, 2007]

Among the recent spate of books on the Partition of India, Ravinder Kaur's stands out for its meticulous attention to detail and its wealth of information. Her focus on the city of Delhi, and within that three resettlement colonies, and a specific time period stretching from 1947 (not August but March when the actual movement of people began as a result of the early disturbances) to 1965, the year the rehabilitation programme was officially closed, both marks this book as different and enables a close, detailed examination of one aspect of this multi-layered history.

Kaur turns her attention to the lived experience of Partition among refugees who arrived in and made the city of Delhi their home. She examines how the shape of the city changed and how the process of such change, impacted the lives of the migrants. Taking the widely accepted image of the Punjabi refugee as enterprising, dynamic, proud, and hardworking, she asks why it was that Delhi, for example, did not see the kind of violence that Karachi fell into very shortly after the influx of refugees there. Why was it that the Punjabi refugee in Delhi was more acceptable than his/her counterpart in Karachi?

But more, Kaur's work breaks new ground in the now increasingly important study of Partition and memory. Looking at the link between private and collective memory, Kaur shows how the two influence and shape each other. Partition refugees often personalize stories of general violence and trauma, telling, and feeling them to be their own, and marking the shifts in political climate, location, as felt, personal things. Her introductory chapter explores this in detail, pointing out that many Partition studies have looked at the then and after of Partition refugees, but have not necessarily addressed the process that went into the making of a refugee, and into the making of his or her life thereafter.

She further complicates the discussion of memory by showing how the fragemented ways in which memory is stored in an individual's mind can often turn, in the narrating of such accounts, into a linear narrative where the connections can be borrowed from the received collective recounting of the meta narrative of that event. In this way, according to her, the meta and micro narratives overlap and inform each other.

The whole question of the definition of who is or who is not a refugee is also discussed. People who had already left their homes for one reason or another, before the events of August 1947 and who were subsequently unable to return, became, willy nilly, refugees. But the official definition of refugee did not have the space to accommodate them, for in order for it to do so, they would have had to have fled across an international border. The arbitrariness of dates and state definitions touched people's lives in profound ways.
Supplementing this question is another key area of enquiry: what does it mean to speak of refugees being well settled. Who defines what being settled is, and Kaur suggests that any attempt at definition must engage with the local groups that have emerged out of this 'critical event' (to borrow Veena Das's formulation), and the new modes of action and behaviour that came in with them, for, according to her, the pre-history of critical events is as important as the event itself.

Kaur's conclusions support much of what has been learned and offered by recent enquiries into Partition and its multiple histories. As more and more fields of enquiry open up, it becomes increasingly clear that there is no longer one, single, undifferentiated narrative of Partition. Rather, such a major historical event contains within it multiple, layered and nuanced narratives - which are in turn encoded within various layers of silence dictated by class, location, gender, majority or minority status and so on and which enable us to seek out its multiple histories. In that sense this book is a welcome addition to the increasing body of literature that is engaged in this important exercise.

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