Generations Becoming My Family’s Partition Archivist
Maybe it’s unnatural to talk to my grandparents about Partition like an anthropologist rather than a granddaughter.
During routine gossiping in my grandparents’ kitchen, consuming their favorite spreadable cheese and Ritz crackers and onion mathi, I noticed that their garage was full of overstuffed Hefty-brand trash bags. My grandmother assured me that these dregs of their basement cleanup were garbage: merely old insulation and outdated paperwork. But upon nosy inspection, I noticed that these bags were full of life: receipts from my grandfather’s retail export store, sepia-toned elementary school portraits of my mom in rainbow-striped turtlenecks, Partridge Family– themed board games, handwritten Thanksgiving stuffing recipes stapled into the 1971 edition of The New York Times Cookbook , elementary school newsletters, thick-rimmed prescription eyeglasses, baby dolls with inexplicably shaved heads, gift shop purchases from the New York Zoological Park or the American Museum of Natural History or Bushkill (“The Niagara of Pennsylvania”), annotated copies of TEEN magazine, my mom’s redrawn Archie comics, and ASCII art.
After several panicked phone calls featuring my pleas to save everything , my aunt’s unsentimental demands to keep nothing, and my mom’s visceral embarrassment at her old poetry and last-minute plagiarized book reports, I forced my family to spend the next week methodically sorting through these discarded treasures and traumas. After four years of studying cultural anthropology and twenty-three of being a casual hoarder, I finally appointed myself as my family’s archivist. Armed with a scanner halfway to planned obsolescence and the teachings of nineteenth-century white colonial ethnographers, I began to uncover my family’s shared material culture.
Photograph courtesy of the author
In the process of sorting, trashing, dividing, rereading, and rehoming these riches, archiving and thus reinscribing joyous memories like family re/visits to Delhi and first American hybrid holidays, I have cautiously avoided excavating more emotionally heavy recollections. For many Punjabi families, including my own, violent memories of dispossession, loss, and displacement from the Partition of 1947 are hidden just beneath the surface of dusty photo albums or reused tubs of yogurt filled with raita. Underlying every family argument about Islamophobia or Hindu nationalism, the Partition is a festering seventy-four-year old wound that seeps out and bleeds into everyday conversation.
I want to write something pithy and unforgiving about how frustrating it is to summarize the Partition in two or three sentences, but this essay is also an exploration of how unapproachable and fraught it is to even talk about the Partition, especially with elders and survivors. The Partition of 1947 was the process by which British India was ripped into India, Pakistan, and, later, Bangladesh. All borders create violence, and this was no exception. The Partition was the largest mass migration in human history, killing 1 million, creating 14 million refugees, and spurring extreme violence. Partition also marks Independence Day for both Pakistan and India, so the anniversary falls on a terrifyingly nationalistic mass celebration. Twitter user @sesrenaissances puts it best: “august 14 and 15 are to mourn the partition none of this pakistan india shit.”
Two months after the Trash Bag Incident, in the thick of Covid-19 isolation, my grandmother interrupted our daily phone call about the Channel 12 news anchor’s dangly earrings to declare that she wanted to recount her full Partition narrative to me, chronologically and exhaustively.
I don’t just want to ask questions with an ethic of care; I want to come home after.
Despite theoretically embedding myself in anthropology, oral history, archives, and any discipline that feels self-indulgent (or as social scientists say, “postmodern and reflexive”), I am paralyzed by this conversation in practice . Understanding and approaching an ethic of care when interviewing family is not merely an academic question, but a deeply personal one. Anthropologist Audra Simpson, when writing about autoethnography and using her family as interlocutors, asks herself: “Can I do this and still come home?” Journalists that work with trauma survivors are only temporarily beholden to their sources, or psychiatrists with their patients. Family members who broker such subjects are permanently intertwined with their loved ones and cannot use the same techniques of maintaining emotional or physical distance. I don’t just want to ask questions with an ethic of care; I want to come home after. Despite our shared intimacy with deeply personal pain, I still want to be able to drink condensed milk chai with my grandmother and talk about how, yes, Anderson Cooper did seem tired today.
A year before the Trash Bag Incident, my mom and I visited Punjab, an active site of Partition and my maternal grandfather’s turbulent and once-syncretic ancestral homeland. Our visit unintentionally turned into a five-day semi-structured interview. Maybe it happened because homes in Jalandhar are often designed with an eye to interiority and keeping cool in the summer, maybe it happened because my mother’s Tauji’s bed was invitingly surrounded by space heaters (my grandfather always complains that cool in the summer means cold in the winter), or maybe it happened because hearing stories from elders are what ten-hour pilgrimages from Delhi are for. Sitting on her Tauji’s bed, my mother began to ask (read: cross-examine) her uncle about his Partition story: Where was his older sister during the journey? Was it three days or four that he didn’t eat? How long was his family separated? My mom approached oral history like a litigator, by establishing a clean and rigidly chronological storyline with an eye to narrative inconsistencies. I find this approach jarring and mechanical, and it has sparked many healthy debates (read: explosive arguments) between us.
But her Tauji didn’t seem to mind. He casually documented his rememberings in a bricolage of Hindi, Punjabi, and English, as my mom took notes on her phone and refused to translate anything to English for me. I absorbed his stories (the urgency if not the words), the heat from standing too close to the space heaters, and the skeptical gaze of his son, Navneet. We woke up early the next day—everyone had a joyous, noisy breakfast atop my sleeping body, so I woke up in a not-so-joyous mood—to drive deeper into Jalandhar to visit with my grandfather’s youngest sister. My mother again tried to ask her about Partition, while Navneet silently ate lunch.
I sat in the back seat as Navneet drove back home, trying to be secretive about listening to Jai Paul or Kaytranada or maybe some early 2000s British Bhangra so that I could feel as Punjabi as possible in preparation, as if their genre weren’t just as hybrid as I am. Navneet flipped through radio stations to the point of nausea; alternatively, my nausea could be attributed to taking blurry photos of roadside chaiwallahs and feeling guilty about being an anthropologist reproducing a (neo)colonial gaze in my amateurish street photography, or the general dizzying, visceral liminality of visiting the tenuous notion of a motherland. As Navneet skipped past local news channels, he made an offhand comment to my mom about how her Partition probing was as invasive and pointed as the investigative journalists on the radio or rapid-fire bickering news anchors.
Navneet’s comment annoyed me at the time (or maybe I was still pissy from “breakfast”), but I also not-so-secretly agreed: When interviewing survivors of trauma, sloppy or robotic interviewing practices can retraumatize or trigger their emotional distress. Years of (borderline unpaid) research assistantships at social science labs taught me that a central tenet in journalism and Institutional Review Board–approved social science research is to “do no harm.” Feminist ethnographers push this core belief even further: Our research should actively seek out emancipatory outcomes for our collaborators or participants, from catharsis to collective liberation. It is not enough to ensure that interviewees are not retraumatized. Instead, interviewers must ask: “Am I conducting this interview in a way such that expelling this narrative is beneficial or constructive for the participant?”
To me, an emancipatory outcome means embedding space for interpersonal healing and processing into the interview itself, ensuring that my loved ones don’t leave with a sense of emotional turbulence, burden, or uprooted trauma. I didn’t know at the time that my mom wanted to visit her Tauji to hear his Partition story, or that she wanted to resolve inconsistencies with stories she had heard from her father. To her, an emancipatory outcome is learning everything you can about someone who gives affection by pressing his forehead against your forehead. Similarly, I don’t have to follow standard Lab Protocol, or prod interviewees to expulse their narratives, for the sake of a career-defining scoop or theory. The Protocol for interviewing your family is integrating care into your conversations. I’m not wedded to guidelines from an NSF grant or academic journal (although I more than welcome any grants or journals to burden me with guidelines). Familial archiving affords me this fluidity with form. But I don’t know if I can trust myself with the responsibility to create that emotional infrastructure: Interviews are all tension, no release.
Even the most generously, rigorously researched ethical suggestions feel too sterile and clinical. The Dart Center’s Style Guide for Trauma-Informed Journalism explicitly cautions against “over-empathizing,” noting, “You’re not there to rescue or make things better for the person you’re interviewing. It doesn’t help either you or your interviewee if you climb over professional boundaries in order to become a confidante or advocate.” I don’t have professional boundaries with my grandmother. The 1947 Partition Project, an archive that exclusively collects and conducts interviews of Partition survivors, instructs: “Do not interrupt, EVER; use non-vocal feedback.” This ethos renders the researcher invisible and apolitical, but our role as interviewer is neither passive nor neutral. Our active presence, dynamic interview techniques, and relationship to the interviewee uniquely mold the conversation. After a painful and impersonal interview with the 1947 Partition Project, my grandmother didn’t bring up her Partition story for years. I wonder if it would be different if my cousin and I had facilitated the interview.
Photograph courtesy of the author
High school science teaches us that in order to establish a theory, our research and findings must be repeatable: Patterns are the basis of rational thought. In contrast (and, admittedly, this is reheating standpoint-theory leftovers and passing it off as a brand-new dish), oral histories don’t need to be reproducible. Minimizing the presence of an interviewer obscures the nuanced tensions at play, like power or familiarity. Assurance and active listening also make for a stronger interview. That I am interviewing my grandmother changes the dynamics of an interview because our positions in the world and relationships to power equally affect how we interact. That I call and/or visit my grandparents every day changes the dynamics of an interview. That I called my grandmother twice a day, every day, even when I moved to Bangalore after I graduated college to complete a fellowship about global affairs—please, do ask me more about my turbulent feelings around the (neo)colonial impulse to move abroad to make change—and she still lamented how I never called her changes the dynamics of an interview.
Collecting and diffusing oral histories is a political project. Rather than embracing static and universal narratives of the past, strategically collecting individual stories from loved ones destabilizes history: It is counter- and antihegemonic, and democratizing. Oral history is not a fixed artifact, but a flexible archive that opens the curtains to buoyancy, interiority, multidimensionality, and dissent within one narrative.
Amid a global revolution around anti-Blackness, there is also a nascent political urgency surrounding contemporary discussions of the Partition. At peak relevancy of the Instagram infographic industrial complex, I waded through the sludge of posts from Chai-tea liberals and self-hating diaspora leftists alike, condemning Desis for centering themselves by reheating conversations about “Fair and Lovely” or their aunty’s colorism or even casteism . While reading these posts, I imagined myself getting in arguments with friends about being too performative (or not performative enough), and I instead posted indecipherable (performative) tweets about incommensurability for an audience of none. In reality, these struggles are inextricably intertwined, and I don’t think it’s self-aggrandizing or beside the point to broach conversations with family about anti-Blackness in tandem with conversations about colorism. I take my cue from Equality Labs , who (around the same time) noted, “Before a single South Asian interacted with Europeans, we were already participating in colorism, segregation, and religiously informed slavery through caste apartheid. This violent anti-Dalitness is what informs and feeds South Asian anti-Blackness.”
Given that India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh were sloppily parted by the British, tiptoeing around discussions of Partition reifies and sustains colonialism and its aftermaths, including borders, caste, Islamophobia, nationalism, and anti-Blackness. Even though many of these listed (and unlisted) systemic inequities predate colonialism, I wonder: What kinds of political conversations will processing and excavating Partition with elders allow us to have? Strategic archiving can be politicizing, speculative, transformative, and soothing. Conversations around Partition are a strategy for solidarity, allowing us to unpack the false binary between Muslims and Hindus, Pakistanis and Indians, then and now, here and there. These binaries shape parts of colonialism that never left and prejudices that elders hold (around things like Islamophobia and nationalism), with massive geopolitical implications for homeland and local politics.
But maybe I’m idealizing oral history. Although many scholars (and perhaps myself) think of interviews like talk therapy or transformative-justice circles, there is nothing inherently reparative about the genre of The Interview . Decolonial autoethnographer and second-generation Partition refugee Devika Chawla finds researchers’ reliance on narrative theory to be limiting, arbitrary, and prescriptive.“I don’t think that telling all stories are healing,” she notes; “that’s a very Western way of thinking about the way trauma is managed, handled, negotiated, lived through.”
There are alternatives to oral history, like the Oxford University–based “Project Dastaan,” which uses VR technology to digitally reconnect Partition survivors with their old-growth, premigration homelands. Project Dastaan focuses on the urban sensorium, claiming to showcase “the chaotic sounds of a long forgotten Lahori bazaar, the serenity of a pind in Punjab, the distinct taste of ladoos at a century-old Delhi halwai.” Engaging with the imponderabilia of Partition in this way feels generative, rather than an extractive interview.
At the same time, it feels intentionally apolitical: a seductive reimagining of a pre-Partition past devoid of existing political and religious divides, instead full of florid and twee multiculturalism and togetherness. Does strategically obfuscating tensions (between India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim) help to heal wounds and forge affective ties between community members, or will glazing over our current reality obscure inequities, meaningful change, and future healing?
Acknowledging these rifts might actually help elders reconcile with prejudices like Islamophobia. Indira Chowdhury, in her essay “Speaking of the Past: Perspectives on Oral History,” argues, “Sites of memory are artificially created in order to eradicate memory and create and organize history.” I would argue that VR technology, like Project Dastaan, runs counter to the goal of oral histories and acts as a revisionist site of memory, like a museum or sculpture garden.
Maybe it’s unnatural to approach talking to my grandparents about Partition like an anthropologist rather than a granddaughter. There is value in casual discussions over treacly Diwali mithai or mooli roti. Perhaps it is irresponsible to treat delicate conversations like an academic experiment, because shared pain transcends the interview format; how we talk to loved ones about the pain that necessarily permeates everyday life does not, and perhaps should not, have to be confined.
Getting irritated with your parents is confirmed to be methodological praxis.
At the same time, embedding formality and strategic interview practices into conversations about trauma might provide thin cushioning to ease the conversation. The last chapter of Chawla’s book, Home, Uprooted , is a deliciously self-reflexive glimpse into her father’s role as her research assistant, coconspirator, and eventual interviewee. Despite subjectivity’s central role in the anthropological project, Chawla notes that “there’s a level of objectivity that the ethnographer brings to the interview that allows participants to speak about trauma that they wouldn’t share with their families.” On interviewing her own father, she observed, “As a daughter, I might not have been able to, but as an ethnographer, I could.” Interviewing her dad “was comfortable, but irritating, because I know my dad digresses; you can get irritated with your dad, you can’t get irritated with participants.” Getting irritated with your parents is confirmed to be methodological praxis.
Maybe my “role” as ethnographer can provide some cushioning for my grandparents and for myself. Learning how to conduct a semi-structured or structured interview has taught me how to be a better listener, to embrace nuance and contradiction, to prod conversation thoughtfully, and to tolerate discursiveness.
The day after we visited my grandfather’s younger sister, we drove two hours north to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple. To avoid long lines, Navneet sprinted across the white-marble floors, past carved walls, and between other less-focused visitors. My mom chased after him, and I complained the whole way about the value of meandering (like this essay). After a stop for thick Amritsari kulchas, we ran through the old town to the Partition Museum. Containing multiple floors, prerecorded oral histories conducted by strangers, wedding saris, newspapers, old sketches, colonial history, detailed timelines, letters never mailed: The public museum was dense (also like this essay). Navneet waited outside for two hours.
Adjacent to the Partition Museum is the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. India’s Prime Minister recently renovated the memorial site, fully equipped with a light and sound show. Fascist states will dredge up trauma and give it a makeover to justify nationalism and exclusionary rhetoric: from desecrating Jallianwala Bagh to staging “Closing Ceremonies” at the India-Pakistan border to celebrating Independence Day on the anniversary of Partition. Zadie Smith might describe this as “the violent inscription of myth over truth, a form of ‘over-writing’—one story overlaid and thus obscuring another.”
Interviewing your grandparents is one way of resisting this painful over-writing. But maybe it doesn’t have to be so rushed: Sorting through the trash is a good place to start.