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Home, Uprooted: Oral Histories of India’s Partition by Devika Chawla

Reviewed by Divya Rajan


‘Home’ as a figurative and emotional entity is a difficult concept to configure, for those who were forced out of their natural homes and then went on to build homes in a different environment, starting out as sharnarthis, or the dreaded term, refugees. In Home, Uprooted, Dr. Devika Chawla, Associate Professor in the School of Communication Studies at Ohio University, collects cross-generational oral histories of ten Hindu and Sikh families who are currently living in Delhi and have been through the ordeal of exodus during Modern India’s partition into two separate states in 1947.

The book is a first person narrative, and it is obvious from the start the subject bears emotional undercurrents for the author, herself a descendent of this segment of forced immigrants. The idea for this project germinates during long walks with her grandmother, and her father is an enthusiastic participant in the project. Chawla’s presence is felt throughout the book even as she interviews the characters, at times interrupting the reader’s attempts at visualizing the events. Although it is customary for the ethnographer to be a participant-observer, one wonders whether a certain distancing of the authorial voice would have carried forth the interlocution more effortlessly. Ultimately, “what constitutes them, them-ness, us, and us-ness?” is the question that will reverberate in the readers’ mind throughout the book.

From a postmodern viewpoint, home need not be a safe sanctuary. It could very easily be an uncomfortable space or even an idea or a thought, a mirror unto one’s past. However, the quest for the perfect home, the desire to create a haven despite inherent uncertainties, remain. The word wahan (there) is therefore, loaded with amorphous connotations and there’s a strong sense of a lost home and a deep longing to be rooted again, as in:

One day she takes me on a tour of the bedrooms; “See this table and this cupboard, and this bed, they are so old, they’re from Lahore, but my daughters- and none of them have even been to Pakistan, they were all born here- they won’t let me throw these away.” She laughs, “These are so old, I don’t know why they like them.” Nostalgia seeps into generations. And stays. You can miss home, even when it was not home.”

And so is the concept of ‘Other’ with textual references that ambivalence between the ‘friend’ and the ‘enemy’.

Perhaps humanizing the Other is a kind of (re)homing. Or perhaps it is I, the ethnographer, who wants this to be a kind of homing? Perhaps it is easier to believe that humanizing is a gendered habit- more feminine than masculine. It is quite possible that this is a fiction I have created and want desperately to believe. To allow the Other to become the story, to give the Other the story, is an “act of identity,” a performance of self that one can live with.

The range of bloodcurdling violence is pictured with admirable deftness by the interviewees. The sameness within the cultures peeks out of the exchanges although the participants see differences. For instance, the tradition of honor; honor of the house being implicitly tied to that of the womenfolk. The Hindu women were instructed to consume poison, rather than fall into the hands of Muslim mobs. Although not mentioned explicitly, the same could have been said about the other side too.

Another intriguing aspect is the familial code of secrecy, generally recognized by Partition scholars as remnants of post traumatic stress disorder, where members of the same family don’t share traumatic experiences with one another, or with younger generations, fearing that any revelation of their weaknesses might be used against them or worse, would not be given the consideration it deserves. There is a culture of distrust, shame and helplessness and the author honors this by not sharing the notes amongst the different family members, although a lot of them were eager to know what the other said.

Veeranji: We changed with times. We became more progressive, you see, because I was working outside. Because of us (me and my sister, who also worked), the younger girls in the family are all educated, they all work. There is now not a single girl in the family who does not have a job. I retired from the US Embassy. I get my pension. My husband is no more, but I also get his pension. I have no financial worries because I worked and he worked. And we built this life. Before Partition, we were nothing, there was nothing. We became something, we got all this, we have this life because of the Partition. Otherwise we would have just spent our poori zindagi (entire lifetime) there in the same old street in Rawalpindi.

The narratives of migration and estrangement have a candid, compelling quality to them. The compilation contains stories of helplessness, and then there are stories of hope, like that of Veeranji. The commentary is rather fragmentary, with lengthy details about the nature of preparatory work, interspersed with ethnographic jargon and quotes from various socio- psychologists that obstruct the accessibility of the topic. Chawla is very enthusiastic about layering facts and provides detailed descriptions of various interactions. However, the inclusion of terms and mention of experts, perhaps known exclusively to qualitative data scientists and fellow practitioners of ethnographic methods, weigh the text down. In all, this book is a concise study on the complicated intersections of time, narrative and experience.

DivyaRajan Divya Rajan is a writer/ chemist who lives in Chicago. She was first published in Femina India in 1991. Since then, she has had publications in various journals and anthologies, including Jaggery, Four Quarters, Berfrois, Burnt Bridge and Missouri Review tumblr. She has served on the editorial boards of The Furnace Review, Best of the Net anthologies and Cha, an Asian literary journal. Her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.