She’s Bringing Alive Dying Memories of the India-Pakistan Partition

She’s Bringing Alive Dying Memories of the India-Pakistan Partition

Mallika Ahluwalia at the Partition Museum in India.

Why you should care

Mallika Ahluwalia runs a first-of-its kind museum memorializing the India-Pakistan split, but it only tells part of the story.

A few months after Mallika Ahluwalia began realizing how deep the silence on the Partition went, she realized the silence was part of her own family too. Her paternal grandmother was in Lahore, Pakistan, during that period in 1947 and fled across to India in the locked goods compartment of a train. She had never breathed a word of it to Ahluwalia’s father.

Now, 71 years later, Ahluwalia is testing whether and how people want to talk about the rupture. She is the CEO and curator of the first-of-its-kind Partition Museum, in the northern Indian state of Punjab. It memorializes possibly the largest human migration in the 20th century, when India and Pakistan (also Bangladesh, then east Pakistan) were split across the Radcliffe Line after gaining independence from the British.

Amritsar, where the museum is housed, is only 30 miles from Lahore, the closest main train hubs on either side of the border. Because of the cities’ proximity, and owing to the Radcliffe Line being published late, the confusion was exacerbated here. Partition was the site of communal killings, violence, arson and mass rapes, with the image of trains laden with bodies later becoming a familiar sight in popular culture through films like 1947 Earth. It remains an incredibly sensitive topic, with firsthand recollections dwindling by the day. “It is difficult to tell a story that does not accuse, condemn,” says Kevin Greenbank, an archivist at Cambridge University’s Center of South Asian Studies who provided amateur pre-and postindependence films and photographs to the museum.

External image 2 (1)

Partition Museum in Amritsar, India.

Cue Ahluwalia, 35, who isn’t trained as a historian and had, prior to managing the museum, worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on health care. Her new mission comes back to mental health. “It is trauma that has not had space to be acknowledged,” she says. When the mass of refugees landed, they were unable to grieve as they rebuilt their lives.

Among the ways she tells this story at the museum is through objects that they held dear during the journey: a broken rusted box, kitchen utensils, a wedding saree, a Phulkari coat, a diary. A letter written by a soldier reveals how Muslim and Sikh brothers-in-arms who fought together in World War II found themselves on opposing sides, their armies in disarray.

Other objects could be metaphors for the ripping apart of a culture. Like a necklace from Mohenjo-daro, a site of the 4,500-year-old Indus Valley civilization. It was split bead by bead between India and Pakistan, into two necklaces. The necklaces are not there, but the museum shows government correspondence on how giving either country an extra bead had to be disclosed on file and an odd number of beads tallied up. “It was tragic-comedy,” says Ahluwalia, then correcting herself, “comic-tragedy,” to emphasize the latter word.

Ahluwalia came to managing the museum through a circuitous route. She grew up in Delhi, moved to the U.S. to study physics at Princeton, but decided to ditch that path while she was trying to solve a problem involving subatomic particles called neutrinos. “It was too ivory tower for me,” she says, “I wanted something real-world, social-impact-driven.”

Introduction gallery

The introduction gallery to the Partition Museum.

Phulkari coat & briefcase, and water pot

Exhibited here is a Phulkari coat, briefcase and water pot.

She switched over to public policy and international affairs, spending summers at an NGO in Moradabad, India, looking at issues of child labor in the brass industry and then in microfinance. Her ethics professor, Peter Singer, was particularly impressed by an essay she wrote analyzing the validity of his own arguments with game theory, a pithy eight pages titled “The Fair Share of Responsibility.”

In conversation, Ahluwalia is fluent in American consultant-speak. She had to get “very smart on a whole range of aspects,” she wants to create “social impact,” and she was “drinking from the firehose” ahead of a reopening deadline last year. Indeed, Ahluwalia has worked with the consultancy McKinsey & Company and has an MBA from Harvard Business School. The academic Ian Talbot, who conferred on the museum, says Ahluwalia came across as “enthusiastic and most certainly businesslike. … I got the impression that she was feeling her way.”

The museum had been mostly volunteer-driven, albeit supported by powerful connections, when Ahluwalia joined full time at the end of 2016. Since first opening in October 2016, it has seen visits from poets and world leaders. “A poignant reminder that dividing people up is never the answer; we must learn to live together and love our differences,” the looping handwriting of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reads on a green paper leaf from an installation called the Tree of Hope.

More circumspect is India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a Partition refugee himself. “The museum is a sad reminder of a very painful chapter in the history of India and Pakistan,” he writes. “One hopes this sad chapter is never repeated in future.” Other visitors write of how one of their parents escaped being killed by sheer happenstance during the Partition, and about leaving “home to make a new home.”

Ahluwalia sees the museum as becoming a recognized global site of conscience. “It pushes you to reflect,” she says. But given the enormity of the event, it doesn’t seem enough, and certainly the governments of both India and Pakistan continue to largely ignore what happened.

Churnjeet Mahn, an academic at the University of Strathclyde who visited the museum in December 2017 and earlier when it was a four-room curation, is glad that there finally is a museum to remember the Partition. But she is concerned that unless academics and volunteers take it further, it will become a “tick-box exercise,” a static archive rather than one creating a dialogue. While the installations strive to present both sides, the video testimonials lean toward Indians. “Sometimes we don’t have the desire to think beyond borders,” Mahn says. She wishes there was a counterpart in Lahore, to see if “the two mirror images match up or didn’t match up.” The process of reconciliation is still missing. No Pakistani leaders have visited, but assistant curator Ganeev Dhillon points out no Pakistani leaders have visited India at all since the museum opened.

On my recent visit on a rain-swept afternoon, my ears and eyes are gradually eased into another time with Hindustani and Bengali music, train whistles, newspaper clippings and beautiful period clothes. Lining most rooms are video testimonies, with headphones to listen to tales that can be numbing. It is hard to not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the violence several of the photographs show. At the room where material on the Radcliffe boundary commission lies, it becomes clear how farcical the Partition was. In another room where a tent is set up to show refugee camp conditions, the loudspeaker blares with instructions.

The museum ends on an upbeat note, with testimonies from people like the runner Milkha Singh and businessman Mahashay Dharam Pal Gulati, who survived and became successes in their fields, as well as the Tree of Hope. But the overwhelming emotion I feel is not of hope, precisely, but relief at leaving the unsettling parts behind.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption incorrectly stated that the museum is in Pakistan.

OZY’s 5 Questions With Mallika Ahluwalia

  1. What was the last book you finished? A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
  2. What do you worry about? Since we’re still in startup mode, how to create a truly strong institution with a great culture. More broadly: continuing low human development indicators in India and many parts of the world.
  3. What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Chocolate ice cream.
  4. Who’s your hero? My grandfather, because he lives his values.
  5. What’s one item on your bucket list? Doing a road trip across the width and breadth of India.

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