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`Unlearning and relearning the history of partition`

Anam Zakaria is the author of `The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians`. She is also part of the education sector, and is now working on a second book on the implications of life inconflict zones, through interviews with families for whom conflict has become a daily reality. Dawn caught up with Ms Zakaria at the launch of Footprints in Islamabad, to learn more about her first book.Q: What was your inspiration for Footprints? A: I was leading the Citizen`s Archive of Pakistan`s Oral History Project when, for the first time, I was exposed to narratives of partition that until then I had been largely unfamiliar with. The interviews with partition survivors made me realise that there is a significant disconnect between the partition generation and the young children in India and Pakistan today.

History is taught in a very black and white and linear fashion. It has also been manipulated and distorted over the years. As a result, the varied experiences, the nuances, the anecdotes, the less violent stories, seem to have been lost along the way. Animosity, distrust and suspicion thus become the way forward for most people.

I thought [these stories] had to be recorded; for as we lose this generation, we may also lose their voices and be left with a myopic, misinformed understanding of our own history and our relationship with the so called `other`.

Q: Did your perceptions of Pakistan change as you wrote the book? A: Yes, there has been significant unlearning andrelearning throughout the process. I have been fortunate to get a glimpse into a more holistic history of Pakistan. I have learnt about Sikhs and Hindus rescuing Muslims at the risk to their own safety and Muslims doing the same. I have learnt about the chaotic violence of partition and its consequences, not only in terms of lost lives and homes, but also in terms of an aching pain that doesn`t seem to leave the survivors even today.

And I have learnt about experiences of those survivors who have been able to go back and revisit their homes on the other side, drinking water from their wells, seeing the playgrounds and lanes they grew up in and meeting with friends and neighbours who never really left their heart. It is these stories that never made it to our history books, which presented partition as nothing but a violent episode that rid us of the enemy.

Q: What was the one anecdote that had a lasting impact on you? A: One of the most fascinating ones came up during an interview I was conducting near the India-Pakistan border in Kasur. An elderly gentleman said that his father had been adopted by a Sikh family before parti-tion. As a third generation Pakistani, it was difficult to understand that religious identities were not always so crystallised and a Sikh family could take in a Muslim child as their own.

Later, when violence erupted at the time of partition, the Sikh family safely transported their adopted son to this side of the border, which was meant to be a safe haven for Muslims like him. It was many years later that he reconnected with his family at a mela that takes place every year during the month of sawan and Indians and Pakistanis both attend to seek blessings at a shrine located on the zero line.

-By Syeda Shehrbano Kazim