Museum of Memory

By Kishwar Desai 0

The Partition Museum will soon open in Amritsar. Finally, a space to remember, heal and learn

Amritsar museum

Partition has long been an invisible member of our family. We constantly speak about it: a crazed creature that arrived suddenly, shockingly, entirely uninvited—and never left. So much of our world, not just that of my family’s, was shaped by its presence. I wasn’t there, I was born after the maniac arrived and cracked the earth, burning homes and looting caravans. Yet I was intimately acquainted with it, I knew the insecurity after it arrived and knew the nostalgia for life before Partition.

My mother still says, “We were lucky, we are alive, nothing happened to us.” Yet something did happen, to “them” and to “us”. And everyone—the millions who suffered and those who escaped physical suffering—chose to forget.

But it’s time to bring out the stories. While the white-haired, frail generation today which was sturdy and young in 1947 can still narrate the reality they have hidden from the world these last 70 years. Why have they been silent about their pain? Is it because no one asked: “Did it hurt, when your house was burnt? Or, when your baby sister died in a refugee camp? Or, when your mother disappeared? When you had to say goodbye to all your friends?” No one asked. And they hid their wounds behind a proudly worn veil of nationalist feeling—and a shroud of collective amnesia. They quietly rebuilt their lives, and the lives of their families.

Which is precisely why we need now to remember this painful birth of two nations. We need to remember the good things. Remember again the richness of life, the syncretic culture of my parents and their generation. Remember the Punjab of the Sufi faith, of the five rivers and the Gurbani. Remember the Bengal that Tagore knew.

In August 1947, my father, Padam Rosha, was completing his PhD at Government College in Lahore. My mother, who was just 13, was also in Lahore. Her father was the Advocate General, and life for both was full of music and song. My grandmother played the sitar and on balmy evenings gathered her children around her. And yes, there was also adventure, as my mother’s brother was a freedom fighter playing hide and seek with the law.

My paternal grandfather was in Multan, a doctor. So both branches of the family were spread out—in Amritsar, Jalandhar, Delhi, Lahore, Multan. How could families like that ever believe the country would be divided? My maternal grandfather scoffed at the idea of a permanent division. When they finally left for Amritsar on August 14, 1947, four children and a suitcase cramped into a car, it was meant to be for an overnight stay. Instead, it lasted a lifetime. My grandmother never saw her home in Lahore again. Her sitar, her saris, her books, were all left behind. But no one saw her shed a single tear.

They say the older you grow the more vivid your childhood becomes. This is the harvest that we are reaping for the Partition Museum. This will be a museum of memories, love, loss and reconciliation. Young people urging us to make this museum are concerned that an important part of the birth of the two nations has been hidden from them all these years. They know this is not about hatred, the museum is about peace. It is not about disruption, it is about harmony.

Thus the museum had to be in Punjab—in Amritsar where the trains arrived, bearing refugees. It had to be near the scar that remains at Wagah, and near the balm that emanates from the Golden Temple. The museum has been allotted a home in the beautiful colonial structure of Town Hall, five minutes from the Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh, and 30 minutes from Wagah. It will be part of a rich heritage zone, a fitting tribute to those who lost their homes, their loved ones and even their lives, for an independent India. The museum will open this year—the 70th year of Partition. Fortunately, our team has been able to weave the narrative into the existing structure of the building. Apart from adding a lift and a staircase, hardly any structural changes are being made.

Not only will the museum house stories and memories, it will also have documents from private and public archives, art, cinema, artefacts. We hope it will become the largest resource centre for the study of Partition—a moment that created two nations. A house of memory and healing for the older generation and an immersive, experiential and educative space for the younger one.

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