A PIECE OF HISTORY
Mallika Ahluwalia speaks about starting world’s only Partition Museum in Amritsar and writing the book Divided by Partition, United by Resilience – 21 stories of those who saw the India’s darkest time yet fought hard to rebuild not just themselves but also the country.
Mallika Ahluwalia speaks about starting world’s only Partition Museum in Amritsar and writing the book Divided by Partition, United by Resilience –21 stories of those who saw the India’s darkest time yet fought hard to rebuild not just themselves but also the country.
Some memories stay with you for generations. The partition is one such memory that has stayed in every Indian’s heart even after 71 years of independence. Every Indian has been affected by it, directly or indirectly. Countless movies, books and more have spoken about this dark memory that took place on the Indian sub-continent. Joining the repertoire is Mallika Ahluwalia whose book Divided by Partition, United by Resilience has been published by Rupa Publications. The book speaks about those individuals who faced losses of every kind during partition but rebuild not just themselves but also the country. The book is about their sheer resilience after being caught in a whirlpool beyond their control. You will read 21 such stories of those affected by the partition, who went on to achieve success in independent India. You can also witness their insight into what others went through courtesy the migration, camps and struggles to start afresh. You have tales of the likes of Manmohan Singh, LK Advani, Madan Lal Khurana, MS Kohli, Dharampal Gulati, Faqir Chand Kohli, Manoranjan Byapari, Gulzar, Hamida Habibullah, Krishen Khanna, Kuldip Nayar, Brijmohan Lall Munjal, Govind Nihalani, Anjolie Ela Menon, Milkha Singh, Ram Jethmalani, Satish Gujral and Ved Marwah, etc. Mallika, the powerhouse behind the book, is an interesting person herself. She is the CEO, curator, and co-founder of the world’s first Partition Museum located in Amritsar and this museum has been listed in the ‘Best of India: 18 Places to Visit in 2018’ list by National Geographic Traveller India. She recently received the Excellence Award by Conde Nast Traveller and an ASEAN-India Youth Achiever Award for her work. Before this, she was involved in the field of health and education with leading international development organizations. A management graduate from Harvard Business School, an MPA/ID from Harvard Kennedy School and an A.B. cum laude from Princeton University in public policy, she has 3 of her 4 grandparents affected by the tragic partition. Mallika feels her book is for those seeking inspiration. “It contains the first-hand life stories of 21 extraordinary individuals who lived through the devastation of Partition, and were deeply affected by it, but then went on to achieve greatness in independent India. It is based on first-hand interviews with them so you hear their stories in their own words. These stories are a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit that bounces back even after facing great adversity.” As spoken earlier, a lot has been written, spoken and shown (via shows and movies) regarding the partition. There is always the
fear that this book will become just another addition. One would also feel that it can be written in some way which makes it still relevant for the younger generation. Mallika disagrees on this seond point. “I would contend that, in fact, perhaps not enough has been written about the partition — look at globally how much literature ad film there is on the Holocaust. However, definitely this book is an addition to what already exists — I think it’s different for two reasons. It focuses on the human experience of partition, using people’s first-hand interviews — most of what exists looks at partition at the level of the leaders or nation-states. Importantly the book focuses on the resilience of that generation — this focus on hope is very different from what has already been written. It is a reminder of all the forgotten and unsung heroes who lost their families, friends, and homes — but did not allow that to embitter them. Instead they looked forward and did so much in building our nation.” Mallika opines that this book is quite crucial today as much is being discussed regarding refugees everywhere. “Globally, UNHCR estimates there over 68 million refugees. As these debates take place in Europe, UK, US, India, it is important to remember to experience the refugees from partition, which remains the largest mass migration in human history.” You can be guaranteed that each of these 21 stories are distinct from each other and unique. “They differ in the family background of the individual profiled, their migration and rehabilitation experience at Partition, the opportunities they had access to and the career paths they chose,” relates Mallika. “But the common thread that runs through them is resilience. These stories were extremely difficult to select because we have thousands of stories in the Partition Museum archives and each one is different from the other. This is why history read in this fashion is far more fascinating than the history we learn in schools and colleges. Each story here gives a glimpse into the life of someone who has achieved great things.” Franz Kafka has rightly said — A book should serve as the axe for the frozen sea within us. Books or rather stories have that power over us. And when a book is written on something as heart-breaking as the partition, chances are you will be touched. While writing, Mallika was touched or affected by some of the stories shared, though she feels ‘each story you hear moves you’. “Amongst the stories in the book, both Dr Manmohan Singh and Milkha Singh tragically lost family members to the violence — a devastating loss. But partition affected everyone in so many different ways. Gulzar saab and Satish Gujral recall how viscerally they were impacted by the aftermaths of violence that they saw. Krishen Khanna mourns the friends he left behind. When one recalls that most people we are interviewing now were children when
partition happened. One cannot help feel moved by the stories of the loss of homes, friends, and the only life they had known. Imagine if suddenly as a 10-year old you had to leave everything behind? Each of these stories is powerful.” In some ways, writing these stories was tough for Mallika. Any sensitive soul would be affected. She reveals, “Each of these people went through so much, and yet achieved so much, that it was difficult to distill each of these experiences into a few pages. That was perhaps the toughest part. It was also really hard to hear some of the stories — like Manoranjan Byapari’s story of how he was exploited as a child or the violence that many of these people saw as children. The rest — the collection of information and so on — took time but was possible thanks to generosity of those featured in the book and their families.” It is but obvious that the response to a sensitive book like this would be good. Mallika confirms that. “People who have read it have found the stories very emotive and inspirational. It was chosen as one of the books to ‘look out for’ by a leading newspaper, and we already are finding a great deal of interest in the book, even among those who go to the partition museum.” Mallika’s family has been one of those affected by the partition. For them, the museum must have been touching. She confesses, “My family has always been very supportive of the Partition Museum, as my grandparents were affected by it. So many of their friends have been helping us through contributing their memories and memorabilia to the Museum. They have given me suggestions on people I could speak to — for example, my nana who is today the oldest surviving member of the Indian Police Service (he was in the first batch of IPS after Independence) was the one who told me about Ved Marwah’s partition story and connected me to him as they served in the police together. My grandparents would like me to do more collections like this.” Founding the country’s first Partition Museum is both tough and incredible journey for Mallika. “When we started we didn’t have a building, funding, an organization, or any museum collection— all we had was a dream,” Mallika confides. “We also set ourselves a deadline to open it on the 70th anniversary of the partition — 17th August 2017. This meant that we had a very short time span in which to build the museum. Because we had planned it as a People’s Museum, this meant that the only way we could build the museum was by thousands of Partition families joining us in this journey and sharing their oral histories and objects. We are very grateful that right from the beginning so many people stepped forward to help — people gave their time, funds, objects, and memories. And the rest, as they say, is history.” A place like this is a teaching experience and the response to it will be good. Mallika calls the response overwhelming. “Over 2 lakh people have visited in the short time it has been open. And they have left us warm, heartfelt notes about how the museum has moved them. It has also received critical acclaim from many
sources. It has become a ‘must visit’ place for those who come to Amritsar. And since it is right next to the Golden Temple, it is now an established part of the itinerary for everyone, from tourists to locals, to visiting dignitaries. Dr Manmohan Singh, Justin Trudeau and Hamid Karzai are just some of the leading figures who have visited this year.” The conversation flows towards the challenges of handling something different like this museum. Mallika calls its setting as a complex task. “I tend to think about my work as being in three different areas, first, the content of the museum, the curation, research, design etc., second, the operational aspects, as the museum has to be open and functioning smoothly every day for our visitors, and third, the institutional and financial aspects of it as an organization. Each of these has its challenges. On the content side, the challenge is that we are in a race against time — the partition generation is leaving us, and we have to document and archive their stories and objects as soon as possible before that memory is lost forever. On the financial side, we have to raise funds to continually grow and upgrade the museum. I do hope that the people reading this article will come forward and help us build this People’s Museum by sharing their family memories, objects, or donating funds — as this museum has truly been a collaborative effort of hundreds of people.” On the educational and work front, Mallika’s journey has been quite intriguing too. It is worth a hear. She states, “You might have heard Steve Job’s famous speech in which he says it is not clear in the moment, but looking back the dots do connect. There is no clear line from my MBA at Harvard Business School to working with marginalized women in central India with the Ministry of Rural Development, or from working on maternal health at the Gates Foundation or food aid with the UN in Namibia to the Partition Museum. But, yes, I do think each of these prepared me in one way or the other to bring me here today. They taught me how to get things done in challenging circumstances, to ask the right questions, to build teams and manage people, to manage complex finances, to always be keen to learn — all of these things somehow came together for the museum. I think the main thread connecting all that I have done before with what I am doing now is that I truly believe, in a very deep way, in these projects.” Her belief in their power for positive impact in the world is important for her. Her life mantra to keep on going ahead to do better is quite clichéd, according to her. “I am very driven to make a more egalitarian, just world, especially for women and children. This is what I have wanted to work on since college; it is what drives me to work harder and be better every day.” Next of her agenda is the big exhibition on Jallianwala Bagh which has been set up as part of the centenary commemoration. Mallika reveals, “We will be taking this to different cities in India and the UK, as people do not realize the extent of the atrocities in 1919. Like the Partition Museum, this exhibition is also from a people’s perspective and uses forgotten testimonies of witnesses to give a true picture of what happened before, during and after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. We are, therefore, busy collecting more material on this and curating these exhibitions for next year. I am also working on another book.” Time is a teacher, they say. With a book like Divided by Partition, United by Resilience and the Amritsar-based Partition Museum, Mallika Ahluwalia is making sure that people learn from time and never leave it behind.