She taught us Narrative non-fiction for 6 weeks at Ambedkar University, Delhi. I remember, when asked about her book- The Other Side of Silence, she mentioned beginning her journey from Gurudwaras and going to people's homes, even crossing the border to talk about partition in an unconventional way.
When thinking of a historical retelling, people seldom think of oral narratives or memory as the starting point. We look for documents, facts, numbers. Humans and humanely narrative is often left out of academic and historical take of such events.
Before reading this book, I had read numbers of people killed and raped- after reading this book, I know stories of Shakuntala, Rajinder Singh, Rana and many other named-unnamed people.
Urvashi Butalia's account of the partition is non-linear and often has gaps. Just like memory does. For the first 67 pages, I couldn't wait for her to stop telling us what she did with the book and start doing it, but as the story (ies) progress, we know why the commentary of the writer is as important as the stories. This book is not a direct account of partition, but fragments of memory that resurface in the voice of those closest to the fateful set of events we now call- Partition of India.
As the title suggests, Butalia has attempted to elevate the voices of people who experienced partition first hand or those who witnessed direct effects of that brutal smudge of modern Indian history. Most chapters have voices of people such as her mother, social activists, refugees and those who barely escaped partition. Families have spoken and hidden stories, women are interrupted new narratives ensue, erasing their voice.
In reading the book, one can see how stories do not just lie in what is being shared, but what is being hidden and what is being crossed-off as nonsense talk.
I tell what I am told. Who is the speaker?
If it is memory, then why does it sometimes whisper, sometimes shout, often chatter, and mostly remain in sullen silence?
- Erwin Chargaff
In many of Butalia's conversations, the stories unfold as a collective iteration, feeding off of each other's memories, lending support where words cease to convey power to the experience. Detailing the struggle of retelling stories of violence from the victims and perpetrators (which was family at many occasion) she states- ''In order to be meaningful, memories have to be shared but if you are alone , if that memory is shameful, if there is no one to allow it as legitimate, how do you remember?''
Work of art such as this book becomes crucial for a country like ours where the blurred understanding of our current past is strengthening propaganda hatred and erasing the real lived experience of people to give way to stories that are biased at best.
Read this book to gain a multi-layered understanding of violence that took place during Indian partition, and also to read stories from Dalit communities who were left out of the fight because they were ''untouchables''.
Urvashi Butalia's book is exceptional in the way it treats history, like a kaleidoscope- every time you juggle a new pattern emerges and you are are mesmerized (with pain).