I stumbled into the museum almost by accident on a cool November morning, as I wandered through the Town Hall in Amritsar, en route to the Golden Temple. There were no hoardings, no queues; only a white board that read ‘Partition Museum’ under a brick archway.
Though my own family was not directly affected by the Partition, no Indian can be fully inured to its effects. I had been living in Bangladesh for the past three years and have friends on both sides of the border. It seemed difficult to believe sometimes that we did not belong to the same place or share the same culture. There was a connection that a boundary line could not erase yet it was burdened by past events and present politics. Curious to know more, I entered the museum with a sense of anticipation but without high expectations.
The Partition Museum opened in August 2017 and has seven galleries. We started with a map of undivided India. Through newspaper clippings, grainy black-and-white photographs and extracts from fading letters, I learnt more about the events that led to the Partition. A letter from Choudhary Rahmat Ali, a student in Britain in 1933, urged support for the recognition of national status for the five Northern Units of India: Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan; this was the first demand for a separate nation of Pakistan. Twelve years later, the 15 August edition of Morning News announced that India and Pakistan had become sovereign nations.
The museum has TVs in almost every alcove showing stories of people directly impacted by the Partition. I slipped on the headphones and heard veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar recounting his meeting with Cyril Radcliffe, the barrister responsible for deciding the boundary lines at the time of partition. He related the time Radcliffe said, ‘There were no maps, no data, no records. There was no time. I was unfair to India on the Punjab side but I was unfair to Pakistan on the east.” For the first time, I saw Radcliffe not as a butcher who had cut up a nation but a hapless lawyer tasked with an impossible assignment.
In the next room, an installation showed a gigantic saw jutting out from a brick wall. On 17 August 1947, the borders were announced. The Partition saw the largest human migration across two countries. I put on the headphones once again, and heard more stories that brought alive the gravity of the event.
“My aunt’s family was caught by them. Her one-year-old daughter was thrown up in the air and speared in front of her eyes.”
“We were lucky we reached safely. The train that arrived the next day came with dead bodies.”
“My father was almost killed. They realised that he was the same doctor who performed the cataract operation for their parents. They let him go.”
“We put everything we had in two steel trunks. In the old one, we put our valuables because we thought no one would steal an old trunk.”
“We lost everything. I did not realise that we would never come back to our home.”
Amar Kapur shared the story of Asaf Khwaja, his best friend. They lost touch after the Partition but found each other years later. They continued writing letters: a testimony to the fact that friendship can transcend borders. Sudershana Kumari sang about her beloved broken Punjab. There were objects that had crossed the border—an old Singer sewing machine, a vase, a phulkari coat, a labelled black trunk. There was nostalgia for a life left behind, pain of being a victim of meaningless violence and the confusion of an abrupt transition from citizen to refugee.
From horror, we moved on to hope. The last exhibit, the Gallery of Hope, held a large tree made of barbed wire. Hanging on it were green paper leaves, each fluttering with a message of positivity. There were stories too, of refugees who had not just survived but thrived like Mahashay Dharmpal of MDH masalas, who went from being a spice trader in Sialkot to a penniless refugee to a multimillionaire in India.
What had started as an intellectual exercise in history became a vivid, visceral experience. This is not a museum as much as it is a storehouse of memories. The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, said writer Milan Kundera. Even though we think of the Partition as a dark spot in our history, we cannot allow the obliteration of its memory. The Partition Museum is perhaps one way of ensuring that we mourn the struggles and celebrate the survival of people who have been forgotten by history books.
(www.partitionmuseum.org; open Tue-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; entry adults (Indians) Rs10).