Many people who were forced to cross the borders from either side, following the partition of India in 1947, and were unable to connect with their ancestral homeland, now find renewed hope. The reason? Project Dastaan, which has let them connect with the people and places they left behind.
Manjari Dasgupta (née Sengupta), who lived in Jamalpur (now in Bangladesh) in her childhood, recalls the volatile situation around her home back then. They had to leave their home and take shelter in a nearby Kali temple for safety. Soon, they left for Calcutta (now Kolkata).
Cousins Iqbaluddin and Badaruddin Ahmed, along with their families, migrated from Chak Karman in Ropar (now Rupnagar) and Messa Tibba (now in Himachal Pradesh), respectively, to Pakistan in 1947. The migration was not easy. Scarcity of water and food and sickness took a heavy toll as they moved from one camp to another.
Kamala Devi, a Sindhi Hindu, migrated from Chachro in Pakistan to Barmer in India when she was 13 or 14. She speaks fondly of the temple in her village square, and the Gujarati folk prayers which her elders would sing in the desert. Members of her family still remain in Pakistan.
Zarina Akram Chaudhry was 13 at the time of the 1947 partition, when her family migrated from Ferozepur in India to Bahawalnagar in Pakistan. It was a terrifying journey, but she still believes that it was the blessing of having a house (in India) located between two mosques which probably protected them.
But, stories such as these – harrowing tales harking back to the time when people across the borders were uprooted from their homes and families – could have been lost if it was not for Project Dastaan. As their website mentions, Project Dastaan’s aim is to “reconnect partition survivors with their childhood homes across the border, to find the exact locations and memories that these survivors seek to revisit and recreate them through bespoke 360VR experiences”.
The seeds of this virtual-reality (VR) and oral-history venture were planted by Sparsh Ahuja who was intrigued by the reminiscences of his grandfather Ishar Das Arora about the partition of India. Ahuja, who graduated from University of Oxford in 2019, and is now an award-winning multimedia producer and filmmaker working between Delhi, Melbourne and London, founded this ‘peace-building initiative’ with like-minded people. Cofounders of Project Dastaan include Sam Dalrymple, who graduated as a Sanskrit and Persian scholar from the University of Oxford and is the Operations Lead, and Saadia Gardezi, journalist and cartoonist, who is the Pakistan Lead of Project Dastaan.
Gardezi explains the genesis of the project. “It started in 2018. We were looking for ways to create better connections between India and Pakistan, especially since some of our grandparents had migrated and had not been able to ever go back, even to visit their ancestral towns. Thus came up the idea of a virtual return, using a headset and 360 footage. We started off as a social impact program that took partition witnesses ‘back home’ virtually.”
Through a network of volunteers, Project Dastaan has been using VR to transport the migrants to their ancestral villages or towns, neighbourhoods, their homes, and even connect them to neighbours or friends.
Dalrymple sheds some light into the logistics of the project. “In the interview might help us identify the area. Then it’s a matter of tracking down as much as we can on Google Maps. When the filming team goes in, it’s rare that we have a complete idea of where everything is, but we should ensure that we are in the right general location. Then it’s just a matter of finding old people in the area who might be able to help us identify how the town has changed, and where the locations we are looking for are, today.”
“The key difficulty is the cost, but beyond that it’s often quite easy. People are often keen to help us when we arrive on site. It’s a very rewarding experience,” he adds.
Gardezi narrates an experience which shows how people react to their efforts. “In 2018, we interviewed Khalid Rai, who at the age of six, migrated from the village of Kasba Bhural, India, to Lahore, Pakistan,” she says. “His family is descended from a branch of Jaisal Rajputs. As soon as his family left their house, his mother gave birth to his younger brother at their doorstep. Khalid recounts how, within days, his family decided to migrate as the riots and mobs grew. The Sikh community around his village released the Muslims as they could not be kept safe. Yet, he said that, even today, the people of Kasba Bhural remember his family. He believes that if he were to go back, the people there would welcome him. We were able to show him his home again. His family saw the footage too, through laughter and tears.”
But, what happens if the place the migrants had left behind has been erased? Dalrymple considers this to be an unavoidable eventuality. “In some cases, we have been unable to capture any historical place, whatsoever, for the migrant to remember. That is always very sad. However, in such cases, we try to find people they might remember. I can recall that in the case of Saida Siddiqui, although her house had been demolished, the pandit who lived opposite her old house was still there.”
Dr Saida Siddiqui left Lucknow for Karachi in 1957. Saida, who thinks of Lucknow as her home but has not been able to return ever since, talks fondly of her house, and the pandit who distributed sweets to children. “Rather than making a 360 experience for her, we decided it would be better to just put them in touch, and instead organised a video call between the two long-lost friends. It was sad that we couldn’t capture her house, but it was still a beautiful experience,” Dalrymple recalls.
So, how is the VR project organised?
Gardezi explains, “On VR headsets, we show these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes, showing them the people and places they most want to see again after so many decades. Select stories from the project are combined with animation to form Child of Empire, an interactive VR docu-fiction experience which puts you in the shoes of a migrant in 1947. Our feature documentary, The Lost Migration, will physically take a partition refugee back to their childhood home, combining documentary-style storytelling with verité art film elements, whilst recounting various migrations and the socio-religious politics which caused them.”
In 2018, the team interviewed Iqbaluddin Ahmed, who had left Ropar at the age of seven in 1947 during the riots. Yet, true friendship persists between Indians and Pakistanis. He showed the VR team a photograph of the mosque of Chak Kamran village near Ropar, East Punjab, built in 1946. Sent in 1950 by a Sikh friend of his elder brother, it serves as a reminder of their ancestral home. Ahmed asked if Project Dastaan could find this friend who had sent the photograph. In 2019, Ahuja and Dalrymple found Rajinder’s family. Rajinder, the friend, had passed away but his wife happily spoke to Iqbaluddin.
Many of the stories, such as that of Sayyed and Mussarat Abrar, are available on the Project Dastaan website. Now Pakistani Americans, they had made the journey from Jalandhar and Gurdaspur, respectively, to Lahore, in 1947. Neither of them have been able to visit their hometowns since. Sayyed, now in his early 90s, had been studying in college at the time the riots began. He remembers watching from his dorm window as a Sikh man was pelted with stones on the street. The man ran away, and in 30 minutes, brought back a mob of angered villagers. Within hours, entire villages perished in flames. Mussarat was younger, perhaps 15 or 16, at the time of the partition. To escape the violence in her neighbourhood, she had jumped from the roof of her house into her neighbour’s backyard.
Project Dastaan’s activities, though, were hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Says Ahuja, “We have interviewed many witnesses from West Bengal who came from what is now Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan). Due to the pandemic, we were unable to track down many of the stories, and we weren’t able to record any first-hand witnesses who made the opposite journey across the Bengal border.”
However, this does not imply that Project Dastaan was completely inactive over the past two or three years. Ahuja mentions that while they were unable to travel, they did work on animated stories from the Bengal region. “One of the animations in Lost Migrations, our upcoming three-part animated trilogy, is Sultana’s Dream. Traversing through a series of dreamscapes, and inspired by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s feminist magic-realism, Sultana’s Dream depicts the various experiences and traumas incurred by women during partition. The episode begins with an elderly woman based in present-day Kolkata, and through flashbacks to her migration, explores themes of forced conversion, abuses, abduction, and others. The art style blends dreamy blues and blatant hues, alongside Kolkata, and artistic depictions of women inspired by Abanindranath Tagore and Raja Ravi Verma,” he says. “We now also make films about partition in VR and traditional formats,” Gardezi adds.
This year, India and Pakistan witness 75 years of their independence. Noting the significance of the occasion, Gardezi observes, “Since we are slowly losing the generation that saw 1947, it is important to keep alive their experiences in art and film. Our work today has become that of connecting not just the migrants to their long-lost homes, but also linking the young to the old.”
She also makes a point about the need to continue the efforts. “We want to make sure the histories we have recorded can be used to teach younger generations about colonialism, migration and shared cultural heritage. We are thus developing material that can be used in classrooms and other spaces of learning, that can spark interest and a debate that is long-lasting.”