Violence beyond borders: What the Partition narrative has taught me

By Priyam Moonka

The trains taking refugees across the newly created borders in 1947

For those of us who read extensively about the Partition of India and Pakistan, the pain that it comes with becomes a part of us. This pain, which is usually considered a thing of the past, has an overwhelming presence in all our days, and rightly so. It reflects in our choice of movies, books, conversations, and thoughts. This is how we attract more pain, knowingly and unknowingly, and before we know it, the pain that belonged to someone else becomes ours. But do we stop? We don’t. We cannot; letting go of what’s our own has never been easy. So everything that comes with this ownership continues to linger. As writers, we often romanticise pain, but let’s just say it is because we feel too much.

The series of events that led to, followed, and continue to follow the vivisection of the Indian Subcontinent evoke a sense of pain that feels very personal. It is this personal nature of my pain that has led me on a journey of documenting the stories of the survivors of the Partition in 1947 and their families. Violence in the name of religion has been common to all the Partition narratives that I have documented to date. Throughout this ongoing documentation process, I have seen myself transforming- new opinions, emotions, and perceptions of everything around me. It took an awfully ugly dream for me to realise the impact that the horrifying memories I was now privy to were having on me. In this dream, I find myself in the shoes of a victim of the terrors of communal violence. All of us have so many dreams, but we forget about most of them as soon as we wake up. But there are a few that stay with us forever. Allow me to take you through all that I saw, heard, and felt.

In that nasty, imaginary space in my head, I find myself in a room full of people. I know two of them. They are my friends from college. We are in my hometown. A discussion is on one between my friends and me and the other between everyone else. The three of us are like that. We’re always talking, giggling, and sometimes we forget about everything around us. This is one such case. We are in our own world. Suddenly, I feel a strange tension in the air. A split second later, I hear an unfamiliar voice. ‘RUN!’ Someone pushes me towards one of the two exits of the building in which we are stuck. My friends are nowhere to be seen. I do not think I’ll be able to make my way out alive. But somehow, I do. My house is around a hundred metres away on the same street. But I can not take this straight route; it is all but safe. There is no time to think. I take another route- longer but safer, and I run for my life. While I’m still running breathlessly, I realise that I’ve lost my way. I have come far from home. I am panting; I can’t do this anymore, but I want to live and so I keep going. I take a rickshaw. I am petrified; I want to be invisible. I ask the rickshaw-wala to hurry, to take me away from my horrifying surroundings. I pass by a street where fruit-sellers have their stalls lined up on both sides. I see a few ruffians approaching. They have knives in their hands; some of them have guns. One of them goes up to a fruit-seller, lifts his brawny arm to slit the poor man’s throat. The man dies with his eyes wide open. My heart hurts; I stretch my hand towards them as if trying to stop this, but in vain. I pull it back immediately. I do not want to be noticed. There were no questions asked, nothing was said. The soorma in his eyes had spoken for itself. The other goons follow suit, and in a heartbeat, they’re all gone-those innocent men who will never know what their fault was. As far as the human eye can see, I cannot spot a single man with a soorma and a skullcap. Not one of them was excused. I cry with my hands covering my mouth; I don’t want to be heard. This is unfair. They did not deserve to die. By now, I have understood that this is about religion.

 A Sikh being attacked by the mobs in 1984

On reflection, I recall an episode similar to this one. My grandfather had once told me about the communal riots that had happened in our hometown many years back. Hindus had been subjected to violence in Pakistan, and that had infuriated the Hindus in India. Hindu fundamentalists had burned down the houses and stores belonging to Indian Muslims, who were innocent and had nothing to do with what had happened in Pakistan. But the feeling of vengeance had taken over, erasing the line between right and wrong, good and bad. My grandfather had also mentioned going to a refugee camp that was set up for a community of Muslim fruit-sellers who had lost their homes. The contents of the dream were now making sense. 

The rickshaw keeps moving. My eyes witnessed a sight, ghastly and barbaric beyond measure. A middle-aged Sikh is being forced to cut his hair. His eyes are full of tears, his heart is full of misery; he seems lifeless. In losing his Kesh-symbolic of his devotion to God, he is losing himself. The world stops making sense. Is this what religion is for? Does religion decide who lives and who does not? This world, devoid of humanity, should cease to exist. All these men with hearts of stone should cease to exist.

It took little thinking to comprehend why something like this was a part of the nightmare. In 1984, reason had lost its way when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her bodyguards, both Sardars. The Sikh community in the rest of the country had nothing to do with it, and yet thousands of them were mercilessly burnt alive, killed, raped, murdered. The world calls it the 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots. Riot is not the right word, massacre and genocide are. A few of my interviewee’s families had lived through both- the Partition and the 1984 Sikh Massacre. Their stories, and so many others that I have heard, read and watched, have stayed with me and continue to make my heartache and my blood boil.

Victims of the violence in 1948

What happens to me, a Hindu, in the dream? I am still alive. I feel like all of a sudden, ‘A Hindu’ has become my new identity, and it has started to seem like my only identity. Should I thank my stars because being a Hindu would probably save my life, or curse myself for being a mere spectator while there is so much suffering around? Before I can decide, I hear a loud thud. A few of those wicked, bloodthirsty men stopped my rickshaw. They get in. I tremble in fear. I try to explain that I am a Hindu. How do I prove it? I show them my Durga locket. They pay no heed. These inhuman creatures do not wait to ask one’s religion, only destruction quenches their thirst. This cannot be the end. I am so young. My entire life is ahead of me. I want to go home. I cry; I scream. But in the end, violence and hatred spare no one. Not a Muslim;not a Sikh; not a Hindu. Where there is hatred, extremism and the motive of destruction, no one is safe, whichever religion they may belong to. 

Another interviewee reading to me a few lines from his book in Urdu

As I think about the relevance of the dream, and how accurately it connects various events from the past and the present and gives them an order that makes sense, I am not surprised. It is a perfect example of how what we consume, in any form, constantly shapes our subconscious mind. Every time I listened to someone share their story with me, I remember being in two different time zones at the same time-the 1920s/30s/40s and the present. Selective memory plays a significant role here. My interviewees would not remember what they’d had for breakfast that morning, but would still go on for hours about an incident that took place seventy years back. Tears would roll down their cheeks for the nth time, because of the same poignant memory of an event, decades old. Similarly, out of everything that I have heard, read, and seen over the years, my subconscious mind has chosen to become the permanent home to a few elements that I now believe will stay with me forever, and that is evident in the experience that I have shared. Memory is fascinating; I am constantly learning and unlearning, remembering and forgetting, forming new ideas and discarding old ones.I find myself destroying the borders that once existed in my mind, and that is the most I may do. If only destroying ‘actual’ borders was this easy. But these borders are temporary, unlike memories, which are borderless and become permanent once passed down. 

Each time someone shares with me their story, which has stayed in the depths of their heart forever, my heart becomes fuller. It becomes heavier with gratitude for the gift of memory, the most prized possession of all. And what do I have to offer in return? The promise of safekeeping. 

Author bio:

Priyam is an independent researcher and an aspiring writer. She documents narratives of the Partition diaspora. Through her writing, she condemns violence in the name of religion. She is a history buff who loves to read and study South Asian history and culture. She believes that there are umpteen stories around each of us, waiting to be found and told. Her work is an attempt to find these stories that were always around, yet unheard or forgotten.

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The Palmystery of Homecoming

By Ayesha Begum

The rehearsal of loss is almost always accompanied by an unanticipated turn of events; it catches you unaware, and you may find yourself chronicling the different stages of grief. Stage 1 is denial, where you reckon the futility of a seeming sense of wariness in the face of the cataclysmic turn of events. Stage 2 is more visceral where almost everyone experiencing loss resorts to nostalgia after bouts of melancholia and copious shedding of tears. And then there’s stage 3, of (bargained) serendipity when you recognise the bitter-sweet taste of memory and how life-will-always-go-on. 

Earlier this year, losing my grandmother after prolonged months of illness, I realised how almost involuntarily, I had begun to partake in collective grief, when India was grappling with the crisis of the second wave of the pandemic. My nani, fortunately, didn’t die of covid, but her demise was still tragic on the personal front. Coupled with this loss, was an unforeseeable event, which made me return back home to Siliguri (a small but bustling town in North Bengal) after almost a decade. 

For me, whenever I talk about leaving a city behind, I always run the risk of sounding a little too sentimental as if losing a loved one. But my story begins with the third stage of grief, when the bitter-sweetness of memory had amalgamated; turned tangible one evening as the intoxicating whiff of the bitter fruit, or the ripe Palm fruit entered my nostrils and enveloped my senses.

It was just the day before Janmasthami when my father had got hold of a pulpy football-sized Palm fruit or what is known as Taal in this part of the country. Ma raised a hysteric outcry of disbelief at the alarming price (she almost always does this) at which Baba got home the Taal. But given the cultural association of the food with the festival of Janmasthami, the increased rates were expected. It is quite amusing to see how certain foods have a special cultural and religious connotation. While growing up, I remember how many of my Hindu-Bengali friends used to get Taal-er-bora or sweet fritters in their Tiffin, post the day of Janmasthami. It was then I realised how this fruit is almost sacrosanct when it comes to the festival of Janmasthami. The sweet delicacies, however, have had a strong connection with the public memory of Bengalis at large, irrespective of their religious identity. Growing up in a Bengali-Muslim household, mine was no exception.

The ripe fruit in particular has a special association with my childhood. And when I say that, I recount there have many seasons left behind when I tasted the innumerable variety of sweet delicacies made out of Taal, like the Taal- er –pithaTaal- er- ruti, and my personal favourite, Taal-er-bora. I still gloat over the fact that the boras(sweet fritters) in my home are the tastiest because it’s the softest kind that I have ever had; that it retains its softness even after some days. The Palm in its ripe form has always been a seasonal variety fruit, found in abundance during the Bhadro-Ashin months corresponding to the Bengali calendar. But now with the large-scale availability of fridges in almost all middle-class households, the pulp, if properly refrigerated, retains a longer shelf-life.

The Taal, in its ripe form, unlike most other common fruits cannot be eaten in its natural form, but interestingly its pulp can be used to make a variety of dishes. The way the pulp is transformed is an alchemy of sorts. First, the outer covering is removed with hands, and inside this socket are the seeds with a large fibrous covering. The fruit is washed thoroughly and then it goes through a rigorous labour-intensive deseeding process by grating it against a wire mesh sieving utensil and the pulp is slowly extracted. The pulp is then poured in another utensil, mixed with generous spoons of sugar, and put on a low flame while stirring it continuously. This ritual of cooking the pulp over low heat as it thickens and changes its colour to a tint of brickish-orange is a rite-of-passage in itself and requires the labour of love. The viscous pulp is then used to make the sweet offering by mixing it with flour or milk. Sadly, despite its popularity in Bengali households, its demand is increasingly fading. You will almost always never find these dishes served along with the more popular sweets even in the local sweetshops but you may perhaps sight it during the Melas or some Pujo.

Moving back to my story, returning back home after a chequered journey of changing cities and moving out to a 1BHK rented apartment, finding myself suddenly, in the heady-presence of the strong aroma-filled palm fruit was a subtle but deeply moving experience. It was as if somehow, my olfactory nerve had transported me to yesteryears but my memory somehow seemed to turn into a cul-de-sac, opening to that one particular scene before my eyes. I would like to believe that this is not a redacted memory but the scene somehow shifts to that one evening in my maternal grandmother’s house, where a large part of my childhood was spent. Seated in the dining room were my two aunts filling the palm dough with grated coconut, folding the edges of the pitha with precision, under the guided supervision of my hawk-eyed NaniNani,though embodying the figure of the matriarch, had by then almost partially retired from the kitchen but retained her pernickety attitude about food and its flavour. She was particularly fond of Taal and would always nudge my uncle to get it, often to the displeasure of my aunts. Belonging originally to a small village in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, she married at a very early age and mothered 8 children, before Nana migrated to Kolkata with his entire family. Nani in the last few years began to miss her village but given her health and other circumstances, she returned back to her village only with her death where she rests peacefully under the shade of many palm trees.

Ma, quite like her own mother has always had a soft corner for Taal and with time her hands uncannily resemble Nani’s. She retains the deftness she inherited from her genes making magic that we savour even today. Tasting the sweet delicacies after so many years evoked the absent presence of Nani but strangely it wasn’t the nostalgia-instilled moping sadness, but the fortuity of life where we stumble upon a silver lining or end up inventing it. Reflecting on myself and the kind of fast-paced lifestyle I am accustomed to, often surviving on Maggi or sometimes skipping a meal, thinking of taking the ordeal of making those dishes someday would require a leap of faith. Writing about it is easier. Or perhaps not.

Author Bio

Ayesha Begum: She is a part-time reader and full-time dreamer, always thinking about the grand possibility of the third story while wading through the second. Originally based out of Kolkata, her migratory experiences since a very early age have enabled her to make a home out of everywhere she has been. She is also a mom to two sassy cats and is currently an English educator at Vedantu.

Exploring Identity and Belonging through my Ancestral Home

By Akshita Ajitsariya

I live in a house that is about 80 years old. It was built by my ancestors when they shifted to Guwahati from Rajasthan. As bhaiya (brother) and I stroll in our very fast pacing 20s, my family (who have adapted to the growing needs of the modern world) have started their planning for our settled lives. With this planning comes the inherent realisation that our beloved home is not enough. Dear readers, please note the irony in this statement and the situation. The home that became the foundation of my family lineage, the home that withstood the perils of time, the home that sustained all experiences—that home is not enough!

And as the conversations about the comfort of a modern, tech-friendly home picked a serious tone in my household, I was irked to do something to save my heritage. It’s a funny feeling—while I am aware it is preposterous to assemble the memories lived in this home within the ambit of mere words, I feel doing the exact thing is needed. For someone who has a memory span of a six-year-old, these limited words will be carved in my soul, till the end of time. After all, what are words but fuel to life.

For someone who leaves bits of her heart in places and things that touch her, my home was a mirror that reflected my desire to be rooted as a person. It became a reservoir of pieces of my identity; bits that people witnessed as well as the ones unknown to any. On challenging moments during my time in Delhi, I relied on a journey to the cocoon I lived in for some comfort. Maya Angelou said “The ache for home lives in all of us.” I guess, this very ache for home pushed me to make a home for myself wherever I was, while still feeling rooted to my origin.

Papa and his friends posing in front of our shop

Ancestors: Going back to the roots

I have learnt all I know about my great grandparents and their parents from maa (grandmother). She loves sharing backstories, be it about an antique object I am curious about or a contrasting lifestyle that prevailed before me. In efforts to keep her roots alive, she weaves history in a motion of the pendulum—connecting our present with our past and vice versa. On one such storytelling evening, we navigated through our old photo albums. The black-and-white photographs recorded some of the many moments that were created back in the day. I see the younger portraits of my great grandmother and maa smiling into a camera. Maa tells me how great grandma taught her all that she knows about stitching. I find a childhood photo of my aunt, using the typewriter maa bought. Maa tells me how she saved every penny to purchase the typewriter in 400 rupees; an amount that is no longer of equivalent value. Dadaji looks young in one photo, as he is captured brushing. I have learnt he was a reserved person and did not hold onto belongings. In another photo, my father stands with his friends in front of our shop, giggling away. Papa has come a long way from then; he runs the business now.

Maa in her twenties

Amidst the changes our home went under, things remained as they were. The old, ugly-looking fan remains fixed in a very spottable location. We still use some of the furniture and objects that are more than 50 years old. They have stood strong over time and are reminders for my family of the bygone days. And as for me, they enable me to experience my heritage and create new memories in the present.


Childhood: innocence across generations

From what I can recall, I remember having a woven swing at the entrance of my house as a kid. My cousins and I spent hours swinging, playing and falling from it. My home became our playground when we were kids—toys everywhere, having tiny bicycles with support, mumma running after me in attempts to feed me. This house also bore papa’s childhood: his playfulness as a kid, his fondness for cricket and kite flying. It is wonderful to note how generations spend their childhood in one place and have so different experiences. With newer inventions, so much of my childhood was spelt out in playing with toys and dolls. Papa, on the other hand, collected pebbles with his friends and played evergreen games like pithu and gatta

Me as a kid in my woven swing

The model of my house withstood the minor yet constant changes that it underwent throughout my childhood. Despite shifting to an LCD TV from the box-shaped one, the essence of our family was carried in the passed down toys and clothes. One was never too old enough to celebrate birthdays the traditional way—maa puts a tilak on the forehead, lighting a dia (which can’t be blown), everybody singing ridiculous yet funny versions of “happy birthday”. There are patent spots within our home that are meant for various occasions. If we do not sit in that one room to celebrate Raksha Bandhan, the festival will be incomplete. My old-built home personalised the sanctity of the traditions and customs and made it ever so more valuable.


Maturity: of homes and humans

The thing with an old-built home is that, like older times, it seeks to keep everyone closer. The architecture—shared washrooms in one corner of the house, big rooms to accommodate all—reflected and propagated this emotion. Ideas of singularity such as privacy, nuclear families or just eating alone never crossed its mind. It always made sure someone is around at all times—to love, to care, to fight with, to tease, to laugh at and with. And this is why I felt something was missing whenever I was not here. Whenever I was away for either a vacation or graduation, a constant yearning to get back home filled my heart. It made me homesick on difficult days and appreciate the heritage on the bright ones. All the needs of the current times are imbibed on the strong backbone that this home has proved to be. At the risk of exaggerating I’d say, this home grew with us. This physical location became the core of our family heritage and values. It taught us humility by not giving us all at once; it was gentle to us when we fell and hurt during silly activities; it was homely when everyone gathered at the dining table and laughed our hearts off. While writing this essay, it whispered to me “it’s okay to not remember everything as long as you remember how you felt”. I remember, dear old-built home.

Author Bio:

Akshita Ajitsariya is an English graduate from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She is a firm believer that words heal, change and inspire people. A dreamer and an observer, Akshita loves to escape reality by following her train of thoughts and landing on the Notes app. Her life moves by the force of To-Do lists and aesthetic organisation. Her ideal hangout places are coffee shops, stationery and book shops. Akshita finds comfort in hot beverages, books, TV shows and words.

Social Media Handle: @sunflowerhues_ (Instagram)

How The Young in India Read: From Paper to Cyberspace

By Prachi Sharma

I often wonder if I would have been the person that I am today had it not been for the books that I read in my most impressionable young years. Is it not true that what we consume, whether it is literature, television, or cinema, has an overbearing effect on our psyche, often unbeknown to us? Our generation, particularly, has grown up alongside the internet. How has this influenced our reading habits and preferences? How do we combat the threat of fake news and misinformation which we face so often? How do we prevent or deal with this sense of utter confusion in times of propaganda? I propose that the answer lies in fostering a habit of patience and close reading. Even more so, in our children.

Reading as adults is a great deal different from reading as kids. Books help us find answers which adults wouldn’t give us. As a kid, I didn’t find my way into the book world very easily and I suspect that it is this unfulfilled longing that makes me present my little nieces with books very often. They can’t help but wonder why I won’t give them something else, like toys! We negotiate. 

Through the pandemic, my dear nieces have been my most frequent visitors. The other day, when this 10-year old dropped by, seeing a map of the subcontinent on my desk, she flaunted, “This is Himachal… Gujarat…” her fingers traversing through the India-Pakistan border, “and this is our enemy!” 

Looking at her, surprised, I asked why she thought this was the enemy. Her young mind had picked up this narrative from television, news, movies, and adults. This made me wonder what we put the minds of our young innocent kids through by feeding into their heads irrational hate and a sense of division. I went on a reflection of my own. When did I start questioning these metanarratives? It didn’t happen overnight but my journey as a reader led me to ask questions. Reading good literature, it seems, helps us think. 

My tryst with books: 

My home did not have bookshelves. We were a family of cinema-goers, not readers. Most schools in India barely inculcate a culture of reading. Forty minutes a week, we would be ‘allowed’ to take a round in the library. Pick only one book and sit with it. When the little me picked a huge Dan Brown title, I was attracted to the cover. Comprehending nothing, distraught, I stared into space and the bell rang. 

My explorations truly began when I was jealous of another kid who was a voracious reader. One time, I saw him carrying a book. The uncovered part of the spine read: ‘The Famous F’. After desperate googling on my family computer, I figured that someone called Enid Blyton was really popular among the kids. I got all editions of The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. The summer was swamped!

While transiting into a young adult, when stories about a bunch of kids and their shenanigans did not interest me anymore, I started thirsting for more books. 

The year is 2013. The world has entered the age of e-commerce and apparently, Amazon sells everything. In the books section, the likes of Robin Sharma, Chetan Bhagat, Preeti Shenoy are the bestsellers. The next few years are spent reading relatable stories written in simple language without the literary mumbo-jumbo. Bhagat’s characters are forming friendships, getting into relationships, and making sense of their lives. Preeti Shenoy’s protagonist is struggling with mental health and I have a window to her mind. Eventually, these titles occupy the hands of school-goers. Timid girls, hoping that college life would bring them freedom and find comfort in familiar-looking characters. Besides, we are reading a handful of classics from our syllabus. It is like sinking in a literary whirlpool where all kinds of books exist together. 

Only later when I went to college, books started existing in a hierarchy of ‘classic’ and ‘popular’. What I read decided how much of an intellectual I became. Popular titles, from an obsession, turned into a bitter taste on the tip of our highly civilized tongues.

But we must ask, why do we hate the non-classic so much? Don’t their characters look like us? The privileged urban elite. Our relationships are like theirs. Our everyday problems (which are really non-problems) are like theirs. Do we really just hate ourselves? Beyond the sphere of valid literary critique, isn’t our superficial disdain for the ‘popular’ just a way of masking our own lives from the expectations that we have of it? We all want to be classics, aesthetic sepia portraits of a moment in time but we are not. Perhaps, our distaste of the ‘cheap, easy, simple-looking’ literature is an escape from some aspect of our reality. 

The advent of digital age and reading habits:

While this hierarchy strengthened, it was also during college that for us, the ‘literary’ met with the ‘social’ and the ‘political’. From offline to online, the urban kids had become the literal ‘digital natives’. Line between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ further faded with the onset of the pandemic. 

Our reading habits in the Internet age have been an odd mix of paper and pixel. While the paper was my first introduction to the written word, the internet played a huge role in fuelling my access to diverse literature. We came to know of many ‘writer-sensations’ and ‘celebrity-authors’ before their books. We got Bookstagram, free PDFs, and eBooks. Publishers, authors, and bookshops started coming online. There was something for everyone.

Social media flourished as a space for activism. Voices of activists from the ground were now being amplified. They were listing essential reads which should have been in our school curriculums. We got access to alternative, violent histories hidden behind overriding narratives and rediscovered writers who were long forgotten. 

The internet, I believe, gave my reading a way forward and side-by-side, the (slowly) decolonizing literature departments embarked on interdisciplinary studies. Eventually, I started identifying problems with books that I had once enjoyed – most bestseller titles on Amazon told only the stories of the privileged and the elite, reinforcing problematic stereotypes. Hence, I started to see problems with myself and began a process of reformation.

Azra Haq’s hands for my niece

When my niece called Pakistan “the enemy!” It was a book that came to our rescue and carried us through a difficult conversation. I picked up a brand new copy of Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation from my shelf and invited her to look at it with me. When she saw Azra Haq’s hands (which looked very much like her own grandmother’s) holding a set of pearls, she couldn’t believe that Azra was a Pakistani. Who did she even think a ‘Pakistani’ was? If anything, a Pakistani was suddenly familiar. Familiar and alike. “So the country changed?” To her young mind, it was unfathomable that borders could move. I had probably given her too much to think and it was fine for now. She keeps coming back to my shelf to look at another one of Remnants’ people, every now and then. The seed has been sown, right?

It is safe to say that books made me who I am, as much as people and experiences. Although other forms of mass media like cinema and television enjoy their own place, it is only through reading that we learn to patiently spend time with information. In a movie, for instance, the music and the visuals among other elements rule above all else, leaving our thoughts at the moment unacknowledged. Reading is like having a one-on-one conversation with the author. It gives us time to reflect, to agree, or disagree and it allows us to sit on one sentence for as long as we want. 

Prachi Sharma is a writer based in Delhi. She is currently pursuing her postgraduate degree in Literature and exploring the publishing industry on the side. Her academic work has recently appeared in an anthology by Routledge. Previously, she has also written for Feminism in India and Livewire about issues of social justice and ramblings on everyday life. Reach out to her on Instagram where she is her most candid self. 

The Queen of the Hills

by Snigdha Manna

CW: Anxiety/Depression

Every day I wake up with a longing in my heart – a strong urge to escape the labyrinth of daily life. These days, waking up feels like an exhausting task in itself. Then comes the excruciatingly painful part – surviving the day. Another day with nothing to do, but to wait for things to get better. Even hope has its limits. As a person who relishes working, two years of unwinding pushed me off a cliff and I fell into a spiral. 

In school, I was known for being socially active. I loved interacting with as many people as possible. Cracking jokes was an integral part of it. People would laugh and their laughter would fill my heart with happiness. The serotonin secretion in my body was catalysed by the beautiful curve on their lips. ‘She is our sunflower girl’, they would say. Little did they know it was just a selfish deed to content myself. Things changed quite drastically. In the last year of school life, I felt like mucky confetti scattered on the ground from last night’s celebrations. Sitting at home in front of a black mirror for hours drained me out both mentally and physically. Solitude took power over me. Succouring others didn’t matter anymore. Texting ‘hi’ to a person became a scary task. Every time I managed to fathom some courage; I fell back. Meeting and talking to someone became a distant dream. Hence, I embraced my loneliness. 

In my solitude, I craved one thing – Darjeeling. It is a small hill town in the northern part of the state of West Bengal. To everyone, she is the ‘Queen of the Hills’. To me, she is a therapist, a provider of solace. Standing tall in her queenly demeanour amidst the Himalayas, the Queen knows me better than anyone else. She wears a gigantic emerald green blanket. In that very blanket, she produces the finest quality of tea available to mankind. Tea from her plantation is devoured by people around the globe. She keeps little for herself. After all, she is a queen, and her job is to fulfil the needs of her people before satisfying her own. She managed to grant herself the title of a UNESCO World Heritage site – The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – where the century-old steam engine still manages to chug its way down the lofty slopes of the hills.

I met her first when I was ten years old. She welcomed me with open arms. There was warmth in her embrace even at an altitude of 2,042 metres above sea level. She has been a source of comfort ever since. Whenever there was an opportunity to sneak out of the hectic schedule, I would ask my father to plan a trip to Darjeeling. I didn’t mind the monotony of my journeys. No matter how many times I visit the Queen, it will never be enough. The thirst is unquenchable. During one of my vacations, I couldn’t go to Darjeeling because my father had some work. There was a niggling itch in my throat. Not a cough. A vexatious itch which is worse than a cough. At first, I wasn’t able to figure out why it was bothering me massively. Later, I realised, the sunflower girl was nothing without the Queen. I was able to keep it all together without breaking into pieces because she was there to hold me, console me. Under the façade of the bubbly girl was a worn-out and terrified soul. Without my knowledge, Darjeeling was taking care of my deranged mind. 

It has been three years since the last time I paid a visit to my therapist. Inside my head, there’s a war going on. Sleeping hours are the worst. I’m wide awake in the middle of the night with my heart pounding inside my chest. In the silence of the night, I can hear screams and my head aches in pain. With much difficulty, I manage to fall asleep and when I do, I don’t feel like leaving the bed in the morning. It pulls me in and refuses to let go.

The only thing I wish for more than a lovely cup of tea in the morning made by my mother is a walk down the streets of Darjeeling. I want to wake up at 4 am to watch the majestic Kangchenjunga bathed in gold as the sun rises in the east. I want to feel the cold breeze to caress my hair. My ears yearn for the sound of children playing in the lap of the lush green hills. A cosy breakfast at Glenary’s while I devour the view of the mountains from my table. I want to play with the clouds at Batasia Loop. A train ride to Ghoom station. A visit to the Oxford Bookstore to get myself something to read while I enjoy the heavenly taste of Darjeeling tea in the evening. One cone of chocolate softy ice cream from Keventer’s to end the day. Most of all, I need assurance from the Queen. I need her to remind me that if happiness is fleeting, then so is sadness. Even the worst storm will pass and I will survive them all. 

Like many others, I tend to escape from the hectic, monotonous life. To travel, is to find myself anew. It works like a mojito on a hot summer day. Reality can be harsh at times. Packing bags and booking tickets are ways of evading the harshness, and to experience, to create a world of our own – a fictional escape. Often, it is misapprehended as ignorance. One can never elude reality, no matter how hard they try. But they can, most certainly, find ways to conquer every bit of it. That is what Darjeeling helps me with – a source of courage, wisdom and strength. COVID-19 has surely made it difficult for us to travel. With so many restrictions and the fear of catching the heinous virus, escapist travelling has become impossible, especially when it is needed the most. Confined to the four walls for more than a year is not a pleasant treat. Sometimes, it feels as if the walls are caving in and suffocating me. I am stuck in the wheel of life which continues to run without any disruption. 

Right now, life is irritating. The uncertainty of tomorrow is constantly looming over my head. Life feels like a fancy, ill-fitting garment that I was forced to wear. I can’t rip it off because the party is not over yet. And I certainly can’t meet the Queen in homely, casual clothes. But she stretches out her hand gently and tells me that one day, I will be able to meet her without fancy, uncomfortable clothes clinging onto my skin. One day, I will be cured of my misery. One day, I will become a healer just like her. Every day I hope for that one day. 

Snigdha Manna is a Literature student at Calcutta University. She is a vehement dreamer who finds peace in writing. Her work mainly focuses on art, culture, politics, mental health, history and personal narratives. She reads a lot of books and drinks a lot of tea. She enjoys painting, sketching and photography. Snigdha despises plastic bags and loves Jake Peralta.

Social media: instagram – @sniku_piku 

Rooh Afza, a drink of rosy nostalgia

by Saman Jawaid

I never really liked using memories as the only source for my essays. The thing with memories is that they are in constant flux. To me, memories are not stationary; they keep getting created, modified, and destroyed with time. 

For instance, I always thought that the red blanket I used to wrap myself in as a child was mine. I treated it as one of my prized possessions. It stayed like that in my mind for several years. But, after some time I got to know that it belonged to my cousin, then it was passed on to my sister. Turns out, I was the third and the last person to use the red blanket. It wasn’t specifically made for me, after all.

Now, when I see the red blanket again, I think of six-year-old Saman wishing someone made a blanket for her. The memory is morphed in my head now. I can no longer  imagine myself as the sole owner of the blanket. I often find  myself wishing that it wouldn’t have been a hand me down. As the second child, my shelf is full of hand-me-downs – elder sister’s textbooks, cousin’s clothes, brother’s toys; for once, I wanted to have something that only belonged to me. 

For me, writing on the basis of memories is like collecting old sepia-tinted photographs and trying to weave a story out of them. The story is bound to be different from what actually happened.


As I sit to write this essay, I have various thoughts running in my mind. Should I stick to the narrative and write about my rose-tinted memories of a rosy drink? Should I play with time and make a contrast? Should I just go with the flow and write whatever comes to my mind?

When you write a piece based solely on your memories, you lose the element of reliability. I do not want to be an unreliable narrator; I’ve always wanted people to trust me and I like not breaking their trust.

You must be wondering the reason for my digression. It’s an attempt to somehow facilitate myself going against my opinions. I’m going to write an essay, constructed out of memories. And I want my readers to trust me. For that to happen, first I have to have trust in myself.


Rooh Afza literally means soul refresher. I’ve always liked its name for not only its poetic quality but its vitality too. Red being the colour of vigour, vitality, and josh has always suited this summery fresh drink. 

In popular discourse, Rooh Afza has been associated with Islamic culture and the tradition of Ramadan in particular. I feel like my earliest memories of Rooh Afza are intricately linked to Ramadan. The king of our dastarkhwān, and the refresher of our parched throats — Rooh Afza used to be a staple of Ramadan.

Conversations used to start around Rooh Afza. I remember going to my khala’s place and befriending only that cousin who drank Rooh Afza. It was a silly thing you do in childhood — making groups out of one odd similarity but when you look into it, it does make a lot of sense. Don’t all of our present relationships revolve around shared interests? Most of the friends that I have now are there because I found a similarity with them — they loved Jane Austen as I do or they listen to Taylor Swift on loop or they like watching video essays on YouTube.


Relationships used to be built around Rooh Afza.

Countless marriages in India are arranged over a cup of chai. ‘Going out for coffee’ still means going on a date. Beverages do play an important role in the formation of a relationship.

My earliest memories of Rishta and Shaadi are associated with the red glass of Rooh Afza. The colour red, again playing a prominent role signifying the red of henna, the red of the bride’s outfit, and the red of the wedding flowers.

As a child, I totally bought into the idea that if you look at someone through the rose-coloured glass of Rooh Afza, you fall in love with them. Now, when I revisit the memory, I think how this notion is eerily similar to looking at someone through rose-tinted glasses and eventually ignoring all of their red flags; back then I just used to think of it as a romantic thought.

My Khala introduced me to a new pastel pink drink, which was, as I came to know later, just a mix of Rooh Afza and milk. I, a passionate hater of milk, finished the drink in one go because it reminded me of some of my favourite things like cotton candies and pastel pink skies.


Rooh Afza is not just a drink, it’s a concoction of childhood nostalgia.

Its smell is registered in my limbic system where it is stored with all of the other long-term memories – some happy, most embarrassing. 

It reminds me of summers when I drank Rooh Afza with a dash of lemon in it. It reminds me of festivals, family dinners, and cousin camaraderie. It reminds me of the formation of new relationships. It reminds me of something beautiful and innocent that is forever lost. 


Nobody really drinks Rooh Afza nowadays. It has become an exquisite Old Delhi drink or a Ramadan sharbat. My cousins have probably forgotten its taste and none of my friends knows that such a drink exists.

Now, in 2021, as I take a sip of Rooh Afza, I try to think what does the red signify now? Red is the colour of revolution. Red, now denotes my burgeoning interest in communism and Marxist philosophy. Red reminds me of the hardcover copy of Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels that I saw on Instagram but couldn’t buy as it was too expensive. Red now denotes the vigour, vitality, and josh of a different kind. It’s no more about happy summers and energising drinks; it’s about standing up to a cause you’re passionate about. It’s about demanding a space for yourself and your peers in a system that is made to oppress people like you. 

I’ve never really stopped drinking Rooh Afza. There was a phase when I tried to move on to supposedly “trendy” drinks but that didn’t last long. 

Rooh Afza remains in conversations but only as a distant memory. It has occupied a place in that ‘in our time’ discourse. It has a place in people’s minds but not a place in their kitchens. Perhaps people have grown out of it; they don’t like its taste now. Or perhaps they don’t drink Rooh Afza because they don’t want to get the taste of the past on their tongues. Their present is so remarkably distinct from their past that if they’ll try to remember the past, they will forget the present.  

Somehow my relationship with Rooh Afza is still intact. It’s funny to think that all of my childhood friends have become strangers to me but my childhood drink still occupies the topmost place in my kitchen cabinet.  

I always come back to Rooh Afza for safety, nostalgia, and for refreshing my soul.

Saman Jawaid is currently studying English at Delhi University. Like all English majors, Saman loves reading, writing, and trying their best to find homoerotic undertones in all of the academic texts. They refuse to be defined by anything else than Lorde’s lyrics. Their goal in life is to become someone’s muse. Their poems have been published in Live Wire and The Monograph magazine. Most of their works deal with the themes of grief, longing, the process of growing up, and the power of memories.

Instagram: samfrom_anotherland 

Pronouns: they/she 

A few moments before death

by Srividhya Suresh

I have always wondered about the last seven minutes of a person’s life. It is believed that their entire life’s memories dance before their eyes in transient glimpses. All memories from their childhood until their final breath. Every breath of human life seems like a tiny, insignificant blip in the Universe’s time. That is what I thought too until I saw my grandfather battling for the same, insignificant breath as his lungs were befriending the Oxygen cylinders which were also sinking with every second. I held his hand and watched him struggle when I realized that those were the last seven minutes of his life. In an attempt to immortalize his Eighty-Five years of life in seven minutes, I wrote “A few moments before Death”. It’s a brief account of his complete life in transitory moments, from age to age and from memories to memories. Writing even a word about his life is akin to tampering with the freshest of my wounds but his existence stays eternalized through these very words. 

It was 1952. I was 14 years old. My classroom had a long wooden bench for the mathematics teacher to keep his briefcase on while my friends and I sat down, gaping at the blackboard. I was exceptionally good at Mathematics. Halfway through looking at an equation, I would solve it in my head and raise my hand to answer the question. My teacher’s name was Devarajan; he wore a loose beige cotton shirt with a dhoti to class and he adored me so much that he used to wait for me to solve all problems in class alongside him. I often heard my family say I was their Einstein. My friends, Ranga and Anand, were bailed out of answering questions because of my spontaneity. After school, we would take out time to go around our town’s biggest park where stray dogs were always looming around in crowds. Ranga’s father soon transferred to Madras and he left. But, I heard Ranga died of old age 4 years ago. I’m as old as him, in fact, I’m four years older than him now. I guess it’s just the way it is. Ranga’s father was directly involved in many events pre-independence. I had barely seen him six times since he was always working in Bombay. Ranga would have stories about how his father had seen Mahatma Gandhi render his speeches to warm hundreds of people’s lives with purpose. 

I was only 9 years old when India got independence but my father recalled that he took me to a public speech in Kakinada on his bullock cart when I was 5. Naturally, I had seen Gandhi but I don’t remember it. When I told you for the first time that I had seen Gandhi when I was your age, you were baffled. As you grew up, you told me you were reading about him in your history classes and that it shocked you that I met a man so old that he was being taught to you about. 

On bright days full of various delicacies and relatives jamming into the house, I would lay gently on my mother’s lap. Even if her leg hurt, she would caress my hair, graze her calloused fingers from the heat through my hair. It felt like the safest place to be on Earth, when she would slowly rub my ear lobe with her index and thumb, I was induced into the softest sleep. She slowly moved my head from her lap to a pile of her sarees near the steel cupboard. When I woke up, I would find her outside the house blowing into a pipe to heat the sticky brass cooking pot. Pattamal, Amma. 

It feels like my life is an ocean now; with every wave, there’s a new memory but it disappears before I can live through it. Some waves are so big, some so small. Every wave takes me to a different age and to different people. 

The year is 1968. My wife, Saranya, is the most beautiful woman on the planet for me. People tend to never know if their partners truly love them, but my wife, she loved me. She loved me more than anything or anybody she had ever laid eyes on. I would come home late at night, sometimes drunk and she would sit me down, not to feed me her food that our neighbors swooned over but to pour buckets of the coldest water straight from the borewell onto my head. I loved her, sometimes out of fear, but I truly loved her. She would wait for me to return home at night, however late it took. On certain days, she would fight with me and not cook or eat for a day and a half in a row. Those days meant she needed me to stay with her, talk to her, give her the attention that she deserved. What more of a connection could two people share? She’s loved me now for fifty years and not once has she eaten without me by her. She could die right in my arms and I know she would be happy. 

Back when I was 35 years old, I wasn’t a happy man, I had terrible debts that I could never clear and two children to fend for by now. I brought two girls unto the face of the earth while I had meager money to raise them at all and very meager money to raise them happily. There were small-time loan sharks by the end of the streets and I borrowed money from all of them. It would feel as though bitterness flowed through my veins every time I borrowed money, tripling the amount I had to repay.

A few hateful nights, these men from whom I borrowed hundreds would walk fiercely towards our house demanding a return. When we spotted them from across the street through our small broken window, we switched our lights off and pretended like nobody was home. I couldn’t repay the baleful debt that I had plundered myself into when I had no money for next month’s survival. But even on these nights, Saranya never complained. We would just occasionally laugh at how we named our second daughter after our favorite character from a soap back in the day. Those felt like the days of my lives, the days I had some purpose to live for. What purpose do I have now? Your parents take care of me, they feed me medicines every morning, afternoon, and night and spend extensive amounts of money to keep me sound. My mind is in complete turmoil now; I’m budged around so many different parts of my life and although I never stay in the memory long enough to relish it completely, it feels peaceful.

I wasn’t rich enough to provide for my family, I wasn’t capable of giving them the best of their lives but the days I felt I hit rock-bottom were also the happiest days of my life. Do you remember how I said I worked at the theatre? As a manager. Devi Theatre. A simpleton like me, from a small town, fled all the way to Madras and led a life as a manager at the most pristine cinemas of the day then. I had immense pride and was respected by everyone. I worked there for so many years, it was always bustling with an excited crowd, regardless of day or night. I’ve seen all of your favorite actors there; they would stop by on the first day of their releases and sign tissues and t-shirts of men cheering. 

I turned 45 even before I knew it. I realized as a 38-year-old man with threatening debts that if I could survive a week without losing anything, I could survive the next week too. I grew old taking one week at a time like that, never realizing I had lost so many years of my life. I lived the same day for almost ten years. I paid for your mom’s and aunt’s school and college. Sometimes, one of them would want to watch a film with their friends and it would make me the happiest man on Earth to be able to book seats for as many ever and give them everything they needed for those three hours inside the cinema. Before I saw it, they had to get married and they did. You know the rest. Your mom has kept me with her all her life. 

Half of my life seemed to be over at the sight of your mom and aunt growing up. When your children grow up, you’re so engrossed with their compelling adulting and growing that you overlook how old you’re turning yourself. Nights were harder to stay up and you started to feel the strain your body was undertaking to get you through a few days. 

I know this is all a dream, fragments of my imagination weaving a story out of my life. I can hear you outside these dreams, calling me out loud but I don’t seem to be able to move. I’m really trying to. I want to see your faces pat you on the head once more but I cannot move. I always thought dying would be painful, but this feels comfortable. 

When I’ve been with your mom, I don’t think I ever had to work for myself. That’s why I always jokingly said I was going to help you get ready for school so I could pay your mom back for everything she’s done for me. 

I turned 60 and then I turned 70 and then I turned 80. I lived all my years loving only your brothers and you. I lived all these years wanting to wrap your school notebooks with brown sheets, make you cereal when you returned from school, walk you to your music classes, and occasionally buy you a packet of chips secretly. Sometimes, I would forget my purpose too, but then you would come in the room and ask me what 753 subtracted from 1921 is. That was my purpose; coffees, brown sheets, and stories. Sometimes, a little mathematics. 

I have been standing at the shore of the sea all my life, watching my life and its reminiscences roll over in waves to gently moisten my legs ephemerally. I’m inside the vast, blue Sea now; I’m not drowning, I’m not suffocating but I’m living under the waters of my own life – my own memories.

What awaits me after these few moments is not non-existence but a sea that is calm; a sea that is astoundingly still. 

Author: Srividhya Suresh (she/her) is a young writer based out of Chennai. As of 2021, she is pursuing her Bachelors in English Literature and Communications from Stella Maris College. Her passion has always been abundant in Fiction, Films, and music. She grew up in a household always filled with people and an overwhelming number of memories to save. Although her taste and proficiency have improved with time, she believes she is still more of a reader than a writer. Srividhya is especially attached to simplistic stories that reveal the every day unnoticed rather than unfold different dimensions. She had a blog for herself as an early teenager and desisted from writing there as she stepped into adolescence for reasons she thinks are obvious. She doesn’t have her entire life mapped yet, but she is wholly sure that it will always revolve around books, writing, and literature. Also, maybe dogs.

Of Memory, History, and Itinerant Museums

By Shruti Lakhtakia

“There’s no escape from the shadows that mount, inexorably, in this darkening season. Nor can we escape the shadows our families cast. That said, there are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.”

We live our lives in the shades and shadows of personal histories. Histories constructed by memories.

Sipping the chai that I’d become accustomed to over the past eleven months of moving back home, I turned the last page of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts in July. I remember being left with an unsettled feeling and lingering remnants of the lyrical, descriptive prose that she excels at. In a year marked by fear and difficult decisions regarding health, livelihood, and border limitations, the free-flowing movements of migrants’ lives prior to the pandemic seemed to be an entirely different world. 

A friend had remarked a week before that as a migrant, I would relate to Whereabouts. But after staying at home for so many months, my senses were perhaps not alive to unfamiliarity in the same way that they would be in a new place – a railway platform in a foreign city or an unexplored neighbourhood. I just couldn’t immediately bring myself to appreciate the novel.

Walking through the streets of Oxford

And then a week later, I returned to the UK, where I am deep in the weeds of my PhD research in Public Policy. There, in being attenuated to the smallest of shifts in my surroundings, in conversations with baristas, in airport lounges with strangers, snatches from Whereabouts sneaked up on me. In the London tube journey from Victoria to Charing Cross, observing a young mother and daughter pair lost in the world of their own conversations. At the Old Bodleian Library in Oxford, where the silence felt comforting, the lack of a fan in the heat- overwhelming. On a boat that floated back at dusk into the Cherwell boathouse, gleaming with fairy lights. At the Ashmolean, Britain’s first public museum, founded in 1683, where a special exhibition commemorated the arrival of the Windrush generation, rendering in ceramic the intersections of tea, trade, and transatlantic slavery. 

The chapters in Whereabouts all refer to places. ‘At the Stationer’s. ‘By the Sea’. ‘In My Head,’ a place more real than any other. But more than that, they captured the narrator in those places. They referred to how those places constructed the narrator’s sense of self.

I spent most of the flight from Delhi to London reading Home in the World, Amartya Sen’s memoir, which I picked up after Whereabouts. As a development economist, Sen’s journey resonates and inspires endlessly. But more than that, his recounting of personal history and how it intertwined with India’s freedom struggle and the partition, made me think of how our personal histories interact and intersect with others’ histories. Family histories, to be sure. But also national histories, which somehow being in a foreign land underlines in a way that being at home, surrounded by those stories, similar ones never made salient, somehow did not.

Cherwell Boathouse Oxford

On my second weekend in the UK, I visited a friend from India in Cambridge, doing his own PhD in Law. As we spoke about social science research and its relationship with policymaking back home, I brought up the complicated feelings that Sen’s memoir engendered. I soon found myself in the middle of a rant, and as with rants, it took a life of its own. “If we can’t learn from our history, then what’s the point, even? If in seventy years we’re still fighting about the same stuff, what did we learn? They might as well just shut the History Department and go home.” What, I thought, was the point of all this scholarship in history, if human beings are unwilling, or unable to learn from the mistakes of the generations past? What is the purpose of all those personal and national stories beyond the point of indulgence and narrative? How could such lessons be made more germane to policy?

Four days later, I caught up with a friend from Kashmir in London. A PhD candidate in History, I might have pored over some of my frustrations to her but felt sufficiently mortified by my previous rant to not take the matter further. In a cosy tea room in London, over cups of black tea infused with citrus orange peel, blue cornflower petals, and the scent of lemongrass, we exchanged and repeated stories from our days in Delhi, Oxford, London, and the toils of the previous year. Stories that defined our here and now, and determined whether we would take the flight home next week, or visit a sibling far away in the winter. We made hopeful plans to visit new neighbourhoods and museums together and commiserated about not doing so in the past. As South Asians do, we paid obeisance to our history in British museums. And yet, as we acknowledged the fact that most of those artefacts in the museums should never have been there in the first place, we appreciated the nuance that our record back home in preserving records, archives, and artefacts in national and state museums was less than stellar. Her work in the archives had been enough to establish that.

When I returned to Oxford and mentioned this to the friends I was staying with, an Irish and American couple, they empathized. The Library of Congress in Washington DC was destroyed by British troops in 1814. In 1922, when the British left Ireland, vengeful armed action at the start of the civil war led to the Public Records Office being destroyed, wiping out hundreds of years of Irish history. As per the list of destroyed libraries on Wikipedia, more have been destroyed by human action than by earthquakes, floods or fires. 

As debates about statues and artefacts, colonial power and cancel culture rage on in the UK, and indeed in the rest of the world, it is worth acknowledging that the country has put an immense amount of resources in preserving and displaying objects of history, making them freely accessible to visitors. Free admission to national museums, once a highly contested public issue, is now a fact of British cultural life. About 40 percent of all visitors are foreigners.

And yet, how many people from the rest of the world can access central London? From visas to the affordability of travel, the barriers run high. Part of creating access means thinking outside these boundaries. Making artefacts available to larger swathes of humanity, especially those who are owed access to their own history. Perhaps museums should no longer be grand buildings in central London, but mobile institutions setting up camps for weeks at a time in the small towns and large cities of Romania, Botswana, and Bangladesh. If such itinerant museums could mean that younger generations of people across the world can see with their own eyes the treasures and lessons of the past, then perhaps larger cultural histories could intersect with personal ones in unimaginable ways. Such access to history would ensure that the lessons of history are not relegated to hardbound volumes in archives and libraries, to inaccessible corners of museums and scholarship, but live on in a way where Sen’s history converges in physical places with the history of the narrator in Whereabouts.

Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra, author of Remnants of a Separation, describes families’ journeys during the partition by encapsulating that time in the material objects that people chose to carry with them, physical reminders of family, home, and soil. Objects of the past embodying personal but also national history. In mobile museums, we could find an entire world, made accessible irrespective of literacy and wealth. 

“We’re enfolded by the wide-open space, enclosed by all that emptiness.”

Personal history is not about finding a home, but constructing it, just as memories over a lifetime are constructed by what we choose to remember and what we choose to omit. It is the alternating forces of push and pulls, centre and periphery, home and world, that define us and our ability for appreciation. Whereabouts grounds the places we visit in the context of places we come from. And it is in this process of meaning-making that it excels. In the personal histories that we carry within ourselves, and in the way these histories choose to link up with those of others, in the way that shared meaning emerges when that connection takes place. In doing so, we find home and community in people we never knew, we never thought we would know, and never imagined knowing. If history can help build that shared meaning with people in countries that your own may have once colonized, or warred against, or just never known, then there is a lot that we can yet learn from it. 

It is an understanding that Lahiri brings to life in an intimate and yet open way, probably given her own experiences of choosing to live in foreign places and own them. Daughter of Indian immigrants to the US, she moved to Italy in 2012 to learn and write in Italian. If you read Whereabouts, prepare to be unmoored and lost, and in that losing, find a new manner of looking at your personal past, and that of those around you.

Shruti Lakhtakia is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at the University of Oxford working on development economics and governance. She loves the magic of words and walks. Instagram: @shruti.lakhtakia 

Of History and Forgetfulness

By Manu Dubey

The year is 2019. In the warm embrace of familial relationships, winters are spent sharing stories under the sun. My father, now in his early sixties, gets exhilarated when he talks of his school days, just as a child would be excited about when talking about a prank. He reminisces about the first time he got to wear slippers in 6th std. ‘Oh, the joy!’, he says, ‘it was incomparable’. ‘And what before that?’, I question. ‘Nothing. Barefoot’, his voice now filled with a sense of pride. A particular scene from my grandfather’s village house flashes in my mind. A big mud house with freezing insides sits beside the Rapti river in Uttar Pradesh, with numerous mango, lychee and mulberry trees on its banks. Effortlessly flowing through Nepal, the river bends south-east to enter Uttar Pradesh and through our backyard. So when like all desi fathers Papa said he crossed a river to attend school, I easily believed him. In hindsight, it’s funny that I played by the same river that was once a struggle for him (which he totally denies, just as fathers do!).  

With nothing but each other’s company, Papa tells me about his surgery. The year is 1975. His first visit to Bombay and the relatives who sent dabbas to the hospital throughout his stay. ‘I would never forget the food, it was tasteless yet delicious’. A scar resembling a giant lizard rests on his arm now; almost like a whitish silicone mould just emptied of ice cream. As a kid, I believed, one day the lizard would crawl through Papa’s arm and slither away into nothing. Instead, it stayed with him, with us as a family and occupied space like any of us. The scar(y) lizard is unhealable. The year is 2020. I imagine the hospital bed; small and dull, comforting my father in pain, trying to map the faces of those relatives I never met but will always have gratitude for. I imagine a young boy with a moustache that my mother would later fall for, roaming on the streets of Bombay having no idea he’ll be back after 3 years and then not for another 42. 

The year is 1981. In the chilly winters of North India, a girls’ choir is singing while the mesmerized onlookers clap to the beats. The moment is captured and later produced to a 4 by 5 inches photo souvenir. The year is 2021. While rummaging through family albums, I find pictures of waterfalls and hilltops. Four small images, precisely 2 by 3 inches, tucked inside cheap plastic pockets of the long red photo album. I try to take them out, struggle with the photos stuck to the plastic, and find another photograph carefully kept behind the black and white sunset. It’s a picture of my mother and her friends (singing) on their Rover Ranger Scout trip to Panchmarhi. Inheriting music and trauma in equal parts, my mother is many things but hugely the most lively person in the room. 

The year is 1997. My mother keeps getting ill. Word of mouth, papa took charge of things and shuffled between the office and home. The year is 2021. Outside home, an egalitarian society still exists in only hopes. But inside, we wish papa too on mother’s day for instinctively, and naturally, breaking stereotypes of a patriarchal society. Living with progressive parents, it scares me to think that life could be lived any other way.   

In the digital universe, our social media feeds are structured in a way that the most recent things float to the top and everything is in reverse chronology which conditions us to believe, rather falsely, that the most recent is the most important or that the older events matter less or just exist less. 

We are compelled to believe that things that are not on Google or on the news channels never happened or never existed or just don’t matter, whereas, I think probably 99% of the record of human evolution is off the internet. It suggests, what is urgent right now always holds much more value than what is important in the grand scheme of things.

But do historical events lose sentimental value with time? Will my father’s first slippers and last visit to Bombay ever mean any less to me when I turn 62? Will the details of the first house my parents moved into after marriage ever fade in my imagination? I fear this sort of time bias. My forgetfulness scares me. In the time of screenshots and archived posts, I fear losing the bits of details my parents hold so close to. I have this urge to claim history, of my mother’s wonderful college life and my father’s shoe-less childhood, of the places they inhabited in their early days, of the moments of love fabricated with the time that I can only feel now, like when I hold the photograph which my father made; Mumma getting dressed up in front of the mirror, not knowing of being the subject of his frame. 

I can only play those simpler times in my head by never really being a part of it and trying to leech onto it for some belonging. Just like a cuttlefish can remember every meal it has eaten even in old age, I yearn to never forget some things.

In the past couple of years, I realised my forgetfulness isn’t just a careless habit but something I have unconsciously developed over the years as a defence mechanism. It’s called motivated forgetting. In 1894, it was Friedrich Nietzsche who brought the idea of motivated forgetting. He wrote that man must forget in order to advance and stated that it is an active process, in the sense that we forget specific events as a defence mechanism and Sigmund Freud agreed on the idea of repression of memories as a form of self-preservation. Which is to say, if something reminds my mind of an unpleasant event, my mind may automatically switch to unrelated topics to distract itself. This in turn induces forgetting, unintentionally, making it a motivated action. 

A very simple example being, while writing about these memories, my mind struggled to put the bits and pieces in place. What started with avoiding the unpleasant memories sometimes takes over the pleasant ones too.

In the order of things, archiving and memorialisation always comes last. It is almost always done as an afterthought. So if there was a museum of memories, I would intricately weave a garland of all my happy-sad remembrances into a wreath and exhibit it for the world to see how beautiful life can be. 

The idea of presentism is calming yet a little scary. To say that things once never existed or would not do eternally is to say we would one day lose our existence to nothing, that the universe would go back to where it once began, a mere speck of dust.

Manu Dubey is an independent photographer and writer. Her practice revolves around subjects of art, culture, personal narratives, familial history and relationships. She loves reading books and dislikes artspeak.

Instagram: @kuchtasveers

Sari – Of Memories, Rebellion & Femininity

By Maliha Khan

My mother in a pink Banarasi sari with my father.

The politicization of clothing for women is often observed in the South Asian region, particularly, in my home country Pakistan. As women in Pakistan continue their fight against the deeply-entrenched patriarchy, one of their struggles is to reclaim their right to wear whatever their hearts desire. The Sari is one such item of clothing that has drawn constant criticism being considered by many in Pakistan an “Indian” or “Hindu” garment. By designating shalwar kameez as the national dress of Pakistan, the alienation of sari became a political move in order to cut ties with anything that came from the pre-Partitioned India and forge a new distinct national identity different from that of India and Bangladesh, where sari is still worn by many women on a daily basis.

In 1977, when General Zia seized power in Pakistan in a military coup, his regime launched an extensive campaign to control what women wore which extended to the sari as well, writes Khawar Mumtaz in his book Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (1987). Although the right-wing’s attempts to ban the sari failed as many women in the higher ranks of government continued to wear saris, including women officers on non-combat duty in the Pakistani Army, this certainly created a dichotomy between what was considered national and what was Islamic. 

Islamization has a long history in Pakistan since the 1950s, however, it became the “centerpiece” of General Zia’s administration, as Owen Bennet Jones writes in his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (2002). Zia introduced Islamic laws leading to the Islamization of the legal system, Islamized the educational curriculums by making teaching of the Quran and Islamiat (Islamic studies) compulsory in schools and generally promoted the observance of Islamic moral standards. Thus, by categorising the sari as “unislamic”, Zia’s regime began to police women’s clothing choices too, in order to ensure they dressed modestly, consistent with the Islamic way of living. 

Growing up in Karachi, watching Indian TV serials and Bollywood films, I noticed that sari was an essential part of Indian women’s wardrobe. I often wondered why most women in Pakistan didn’t wear saris as part of their everyday clothing anymore even though it was very much a part of Pakistani culture up until the 1970s. Recently I learned that during Zia’s regime in1981, female news anchors were barred from wearing the sari, as part of the ‘Islamisation’ campaign. Even though Zia has been long dead, the everyday-sari-wearing culture is almost non-existent in Pakistan.

My first memory of a sari is from the time my nani’s older sister who we call babu-wali nani, owing to the fact that she refers to us kids as babu, came to visit us when I was about five. She is a short, lean woman, about 4 feet and 8 inches. Her cotton saris, soft as mulmul draped her petite lean figure beautifully creating soft waves through the fabric. Even after moving to Pakistan after the partition, she is the only woman in my family who continued to wear a sari every day. 

My mother’s aunt and married cousin both wearing saris on her wedding reception.

Both my mother and father’s families originally hail from Bihar in India and lived in East Pakistan for several years before finally coming to Karachi. While I have seen pictures of my nani wearing a sari, I can’t recall ever seeing her wearing one. I learned from ammi that nani used to wear saris everyday, even after coming to Pakistan up until I was born. I do remember my dadi wearing saris though even after I was born well into my early teens. After that, for some reason she stopped wearing them too and started wearing shalwar-kameez instead. My mother, on the other hand, only wore saris at close family weddings, and that too she stopped once she gained some weight in the past decade or so. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was difficult to carry a sari when my brothers and I were toddlers and shalwar kameez was much more comfortable to wear at weddings after she had us. Despite that, for some reason, we both knew she would wear a sari at my wedding reception and she did. 

Through the women in my family, I came to know about the different types of saris, each with its own unique fabric and design. From babu-wali nani, I learned about the effervescent cotton saris which, when new, can be crisp yet malleable and when washed and worn over time, can soften like pure mulmul. From nani and dadi, I came to appreciate georgette saris – plain cream and gold ones through nani and printed ones through dadi. From ammi, I found out about the ‘fancy’ saris which were worn at weddings and were, as Saba Imtiaz writes, “a customary part of a bride’s trousseau” – both bari as well as jahez. 

My Nani and Nana with my parents on their wedding reception. My nani is wearing a georgette printed sari.

Growing up, I used to look forward to the shopping trips my mother would make with my aunts and/or grown-up cousins to Jama Cloth Market before a wedding in the family. As a woman of style herself, known for her excellent taste in clothes, my mamoos and chachoos had delegated the responsibility of preparing the bari of their soon-to-be bride to my mother. A wholesale fabric market in Karachi established even before Independence, Jama Cloth is famous for ‘fancy’ bridal dresses and saris. Upon reaching the market, we would scour each shop for nice and affordable bridal shararas, one for the wedding and one for the reception along with other items for the trousseau including saris. While ammi’s bari and jahez (from back in 1991 when she got married) had consisted of mostly Banarasi saris and georgette ones with delicate golden threads, the ones we bought for my future aunts were more ‘fancy’ – most of them embroidered with heavy zari and dabka work. Banarasi saris had apparently become a thing of the past in my family, except when they were adorned by some of my extended aunts from Orangi Town (who lived near Banaras Colony – the home of Banarasi fabric in Pakistan) at some family wedding. 

My family was amongst those who had maintained the idea that saris are only appropriate after marriage, although my mother told me that both she and khala-ammi  (her older sister) used to wear them in Bangladesh even before they got married. Surprisingly, this unusual custom crept in our family once they came to Pakistan, despite it being ‘normal’ for unmarried girls to wear saris when they lived in Bangladesh. She did say, though, that girls of upper/middle stratum ‘good’ families (whether Bengali or Bihari) that went to school wore shalwar kameez usually and only wore saris sometimes for example, on school picnics. On the other hand, girls from the lower strata who didn’t go to school wore saris on a daily basis instead of shalwar kameez. Married women, be it from upper or lower stratum, always wore saris there. I found this distinction of wearing saris between social classes in Bangladesh interesting, further contributing to the discussion on the dress code among women in East Pakistan back in the day. 

My mother in a beautiful sari with zari work from back in the day when she got married.

Since I had subconsciously accepted that only married women could wear saris, I was surprised to learn about the tradition of wearing saris at school and college ‘farewell’ parties. The idea of me wearing a sari before I was married was a new one, both for me and my mother, albeit more exciting for me. Although my mother didn’t exactly say no to it, I could tell that she was a bit unsettled with the idea. I was, of course, the first one in my family from my generation to wear a sari before marriage. Even cousins older than me who are still unmarried have never worn one simply because they are still single. 

My nani wearing a black sari with gold border on my mother’s mehendi while all the unmarried women beside her are in shalwar kameez.

At the time of my university farewell, I wanted to look sexy in my sari attire. The sexiest sari look in Bollywood around that time was that of Deepika Padukone in the famous song Badtameez Dil from the film, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Obviously, mine could never be as sexy as hers living in Pakistan, yet I took some inspiration from her look and got a royal blue chiffon sari stitched from one of the tailors in our neighbourhood. Something I can’t quite forget is the discussion with my tailor about the length of my blouse. While I wasn’t particularly too enthusiastic about showing off my midriff, my mother and tailor wanted me to show little to no skin. We negotiated and settled at 15 inches. 

My tryst with unstitched sarees began in India in 2016 when I came to pursue the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University. We were celebrating Onam – an annual harvest festival from Kerala and all the women in my fellowship were planning on wearing what they were calling Kerala saris – which I later found out were off-white/cream coloured saris with gold zari thread on the borders. Some of the girls were going to Delhi to get one so I tagged along. We went to the INA Market here, famous for cotton saris amongst other things and those amongst the group who were familiar with Delhi and the market helped us get one. I was shocked at the prices of the Kerala saris, starting from 300 Indian Rupees (around PKR 600 at the time). The broader the gold zari border and the better the fabric, the more expensive the sari. My friends and I settled for one which cost us around INR 450 after some bargaining. 

Over the course of my fellowship, I would see women in my university wear saris as a daily affair and carry them so effortlessly. Although I lost my first Kerala sari while moving rooms after the Fellowship ended, I love them so much I bought another one for my first Diwali with my husband, Arman in India – this one with beautiful trees and elephants embroidered with gold thread on a cream coloured silk fabric. In fact, I wore this sari to a wedding in Arman’s family which was effectively my debut as his future wife in front of the entire extended family and even their biradari. I knew it was a bold move at my part which probably screamed that I am not a typical Muslim girl since in most Muslim families here in India as well, women would only wear saris after getting married. 

Saris, in my case, became a symbol for not only a rebellion from accepted customs but also a way to explore my femininity and my own identity. With enough practice, I can now drape a sari without anyone’s help and recently, I even draped one on a friend. Over my last few years living in India, my sari collection has gradually increased although it is nowhere near what I’d like it to be. I was fortunate enough to receive two khadi cotton saris in my bari which my late mother-in-law, Sadia Dehlvi bought for me. I was also gifted a black and white newspaper print Satya Paul original sari with a beautiful pallu – my favourite till date. Another sari I dearly cherish is one gifted to me by Namita Gokhale, who I like to think of as my Indian godmother. I have even thrifted a sari worn by a woman who had been an inspiring figure to me at the time. 

When my mother-in-law, unfortunately, passed on last year, we moved into her home in Delhi. At some point, I had to go through all the clothes she had left behind in a special storage space underneath her bed. I can only imagine her in the beautiful chiffon saris I found amongst many others, as I never got to see her wearing them. I feel blessed to have inherited some of the wardrobes of a woman so loved and celebrated by many.

Although I must admit that I still do not wear saris in my everyday life, the conversations around wearing sari in Pakistan have inspired me to start doing so. It has reminded me of how sexy and confident I feel every time I wear one and I would like to feel that way more on a regular basis. I know that it would probably go unnoticed where I live as compared to in Pakistan, but perhaps when I visit home in Karachi, I could wear a cotton sari in a casual meeting with my relatives and observe their reactions. Maybe it would open up a discussion about wearing saris in my family and perhaps my younger cousins may grow up to wear them, even before they get married. I hope I am around to see that day when it comes.

Maliha is a writer and academic from Karachi. She moved to India to pursue the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in 2016 and has been living in Delhi since. She writes about South Asian society and culture as well as food. She is currently working on her first book on the diverse food culture of Karachi. 
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