THE BLOG

On Comfort Blankets And War

11/10/2016 16:02

Once again, it seems, India and Pakistan are at the brink of war. Once again, as seems to happen so often, partition is used to explain and justify the enmity between these two countries.

For me, this is all very personal. Over the last five years as part of my research I've been collecting oral history testimonies of the 1947 India/Pakistan partition. I've spoken to more than a 150 people - survivors of partition and their descendants, in order to collect and preserve as many memories as possible. Watching the subject of one's research being used to justify warfare is an odd, and deeply unpleasant experience.

Recently, I was speaking about partition at the Southbank Centre in London. Behind me, through the glass windows, one could clearly see the Houses of Parliament, with the British flag fluttering overhead. So much of the horrors of partition can be traced back to that building, but, almost 70 years on, it seems the nation represented by that flag has yet to come to terms with its own historic sins. A recent poll has suggested that 44% of Britain are proud of its imperial history.

Empire. Partition. Colonialism. Independence. All very big words, containing within them histories of whole nations. There is a library of scholarship about these words - dissecting their meanings, trying to measure numbers, seeking to apportion blame. The long shadow of empire still makes itself felt every day in the ways in which nations define themselves, and relate to each other.

My mind however, goes to much smaller things - apparently inconsequential stories of apparently insignificant memories. Stories of people who no one ever listens to, stories about objects which have no value. Sabiha was forced to leave India in 1947, after partition. On their way to Pakistan, they stopped in Delhi, trying to find a way across the border. They had kept all their possessions in a warehouse for safekeeping, except someone came and burnt the warehouse down. Almost seventy years later, describing this loss, she singles out the memory of the blanket that she could not sleep without. Kamal, whose family made the journey in the opposite direction, describes the house that he used to live in, and, especially, the swing in the courtyard where all the children used to play. Tiny, trivial details that matter to no one except these people. What does it matter who lost a comfort blanket or a treasured toy, in the face of these great big concepts? What do the national flags flying oh-so-proudly in London, or Delhi or Islamabad care for these stories?

A week before I spoke at the Southbank Centre, armed terrorists, perhaps working for the Pakistani government, perhaps not, attacked an Indian army brigade headquarters in Uri, in the Indian administered state of Jammu & Kashmir. 19 Indian soldiers were killed. In response, India has just conducted a series of cross-border "surgical-attacks" - a deceptively clinical metaphor that tries desperately to make us forget the hideous brutality of war. Since then the rhetoric of war has resurfaced on both sides of the border. Far to the east, just outside the Indian city of Kolkata, the town where I grew up witnessed "patriotic" marches through Muslim neighbourhoods, calling for the downfall of Pakistan. Social media has been full of scathing attacks - an ugly, war-mongering, jingoistic nationalism that I have become all-too used to, even as I can barely comprehend it. There are ridiculous calls to send Pakistani Bollywood actors "back to where they came from" - one's national identity clearly becomes a threat in times such as these. As the people of both countries insist on seeing one another only as enemies, the two nations slide closer and closer to open war. A war that could result in 21 million lives being lost, thanks to these great nuclear weapons everyone is so very proud of.

Meanwhile, border villages are evacuated as the metropolitan elite continue baying for blood. People living along the border in both countries live with the threat of war on a daily basis. Though of course, when the bombs explode, it is unlikely to be limited to the borderlands.

And I keep thinking of Sabiha's comfort blanket and Kamal's swing - How many more children will lose everything they hold dear before this latest round of blood-letting will stop?

Maybe, just maybe, if we stopped worshipping national flags, stopped considering dying in the name of a flag as anything other than a shameful waste - maybe if we instead valued a child's comfort blanket or toy a little bit more - we might finally move beyond the curse of partition.

Until then, I, for one, desperately need a comfort blanket of my own.

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