Q&A with Ms. Anam Zakaria, author of ‘The Footprints of Partition’ & development professional from Pakistan, on the criticality of oral-history narratives

Q. What made you choose a topic like the 1947 Partition? What motivated you to write on this?

A. Well, I hail from Punjab, where the Partition played a significant role. It is almost impossible not to talk about the Partition, even to this day. It still remains a part of everyday life and conversation in many families. But at the same time, there also remains a lot of silence around it.

For me, the topic of Partition became relevant for a combination of personal and professional factors. My father was from Batala, a town north of Amritsar. As an infant, he went through the travails of the division as he migrated to Pakistan in 1947. My grandmother, on the other hand, served as a volunteer in a refugee camp in Lahore. She saw the horrors of the bloodshed from the refugees who were coming across the border from India. In the process, the topic of Partition became a part and parcel of our household conversation for generations. After my graduation, I worked for the Citizens’ Archive of Pakistan where part of my job was to go and speak to people who had lived through the Partition. That was a turning-point for me as I heard many more narratives than I had come across whilst reading books or from my family.

All these narratives brought alive the different perspectives of the incidents related to that event; for instance, narratives about rescues and assistance shown by the people of the other community in both sides of the border. Even Ashish Nandy’s research on Partition highlights many of these rescue stories from real-life experiences. I wanted to know those narratives because one would normally not come across them in the state-run versions, which prefer to show the other community as “other”. As I heard versions of oral-history from the people I interviewed, it also made me go back and discuss them with my family. In the process, more incidents from their own lives came out. For instance, my grandmother’s sister was saved by a Sikh family.

At the end of the day, Partition is not really a static event! It is getting retold and re-narrated with multiple experiences of those who went through it themselves. The state’s version often drowns these other narratives. These could be the openness of the older generation to still revisit the places of one’s childhood, or the incidents of help, rescue and assistance given by the other community on either side of the border that showed humanity still triumphed. I wanted those perspectives to come out as well!

Q. The use of oral-history in your book brought out more than what Indian or Pakistani students would ever read in their textbooks. Do you think that oral-history should be a more-often used study medium?

A. Yes, it should be. In popular Pakistani discourse, the Partition is typically seen as a triumph because it paved the way for the creation of the country, and the sufferings of the Partition are seen as the sacrifices made by the people for that creation. Similarly in popular Indian discourse, it is seen as the break-up of what used to be the motherland, and Partition is often presented in vacuum, leaving children with many unanswered questions as to why Pakistan was created. So the official state-led narratives are at times motivated by their own reasons, and the final image may become a bit varied from the range of experiences the people went through.

More importantly, the younger generation needs to get a balanced view of the event; otherwise they only read the jingoism and biased views that they are exposed to through ‘packaged-history’ versions. They never saw those incidents themselves like the older generation did. So it is easier for the state to feed them its packaged-history versions. This is where the medium of oral-history really helps in bringing all those other versions together and creating a semblance of tolerance and awareness.

In any case, people-to-people contact amongst our countries’ younger generation is low. Travel is made difficult due to onerous visa regimes, and people have their own reasons to dissuade others from visiting. But if ‘physical’ cannot bridge the divide, then ‘digital’ can! Occasionally I run Skype exchanges between school-children from India and Pakistan – just one-hour interactions – and it helps break so much of the stereotyping and biased views the youngsters have about each other. They see and interact with the people of each other’s countries as they really are, not as the state wants to portray them. Children are more receptive to fresh perspectives, and that helps. But unfortunately, our countries only seem to be going the opposite way, and unawareness will always breed preconceived notions.

Even within households, the conversations between the children and their parents or grandparents, which could have been transformative, are reducing due to current lifestyles or digital distractions. That means less discussion about the events that happened in the lives of the elder generations. So we have oral-history narratives right in our own homes, but most of us have not bothered to hear it entirely.

Q. During your interviews within Punjab, did it seem that the families who migrated had different experiences from those who didn’t have to move? Did that impact the tolerance towards cultural plurality?

A. This is a research I want to go back to one day. From my preliminary understanding, I did feel that at times those who migrated were more open to revisiting that past, maintaining their friendships across the border and traveling back to India – they were more nostalgic for they had left behind so much. Many of their parents or family members were buried there, they had grown up there, spent majority of their lives there. Perhaps those who continued staying in the cities and villages that became Pakistan (or India) found it easier to ‘otherize’ for they didn’t have so much at stake across the border (though of course, this must be taken with caution as there are exceptions. Sometimes, people who moved and lost so much couldn’t move beyond the trauma of the bloodshed).

I believe the story would be the same if one explores narratives in different provinces and states of Pakistan and India. I don’t think there is one meta-narrative when it comes to Partition. There are multiple variations, particularly regional ones that need to be explored to understand the complexities of that time-period and its impact on our present.

Q. Both Indians and Pakistanis went head over heels to migrate to Britain  from the 1950s onwards, forgetting violent incidents like Jallianwala Bagh, Cellular Jail, etc. Yet their animosity for each other remains alive. What explains this paradox? Is it to do with religion, skin-colour, politics, etc.?

A. The attitude of Indians and Pakistanis towards Britain probably emanates as a colonial legacy, something that impacted our psyche of how we view them. We probably need to start from there in order to answer why we were happy to forget and forgive the British rulers for the horrors like Jallianwala Bagh massacre or the torture of political dissidents at the infamous Cellular Jail in Andaman’s Port Blair, amongst other violent incidents.

The rift of India and Pakistan, on the other hand, seems more of a political issue fuelled by certain people with vested interests. It has been drilled into us that our show of patriotism is based on the hostility of the other; and that rhetoric is being fed continually. This has unfortunately become so ingrained in our nation-making process, and is very closely linked to our version of what nationalism should mean.

Q. People who underwent the Partition themselves are now in the last stages of their lives. But is there a bigger reason for us to document the other versions at the soonest?

A. Yes, there is an urgent need. The generation which experienced this event directly is slowly dying out, and we will lose most of them in another few years. And then we will be left with the state-led narratives which only show the picture it wants to and which is often one-sided and antagonistic. In order to build a balanced view and transfer that to our later generation, we need to document many of these other narratives as soon as possible. Partition continues to be an ongoing journey, impacting our current identities and the nation-making processes on both sides of the border. So it is important to revisit and understand it more holistically.

Q. How was the response to your book on both sides of the border?

A. The response on both sides was heart-warming, both amongst older and younger generations. That shows the genuine interest of people to know about the event directly from those who went through it themselves. Given the trauma of the bloodshed, many other stories were pushed back and it has created a vacuum in the minds of many. And they wanted to know and get balanced view-points. The generation who went through the Partition are still with us. Some Partition survivors nostalgically relived those experiences through the book. It opened memories for them. The way this generation remembers the event is different from how the younger generation sees it now. The younger generation has been largely fed on the state’s narratives which may not always be a 360o perspective. That gave a reason for the younger generation to also read this book.

Q. What is your learning in terms of rehabilitation of refugees, based on your interviews? After all, the refugee crisis continues globally even today.

A. The main issue is the gulf when it comes to accepting and integrating refugees. For instance, many refugees who migrated from India to Pakistan after the Partition were derided as Hindustanis or Mohajirs. Even the Hindus who migrated from East Bengal faced similar derision by the Bengalis of West Bengal. These only deepen the gulf, and make integration tougher.

So there is a big need to initiate contact between the communities, rather than calling the other as ‘other’ and resorting to stereotyping. That will make the situation more humane for those who have already undergone a life-changing event in their lives that they would never want to relive again.

Anam Zakaria is an author, educationist and development professional with a special interest in oral histories. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians” and “Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir” (releasing July 2018). Read more about ‘The Footprints of Partition’ here for India, the UK & the USA.

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  1. really liked the interview with anam I havn’t read the book though. if both countries have to be in peace then the narrative has to be changed from conflict to co operation. the best eg is western countries which eetr locked in war during the 2nd we are now good neighnours

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hi anam,just now reading your book.sadly your book doesnt give your email id,may be for privacy reasons and i respect that.pl google the story of brig khetarpal(father of shaheed 2/lt arun khetalpal PVC) being so well hosted by the brigadier from pakistan .a very poignant story which should find a way into your next edition of ‘THE FOOTPRINTS OF PARTITION’….

    Liked by 1 person

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