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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Parallel histories

A couple of weeks ago, I attended an interesting talk by Nonica Datta (Visiting Professor at the Centre for South Asian Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs; Associate Professor of History, University of Delhi) at the Munk Centre.

Datta’s lecture Crafting a Parallel History of India's Partition was based on her book Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony published last year.

It is story of a daughter Subhashini and her father Bhagatji developed based on the daughter's oral testimonies. During the course of the interviews, Subhashini (1914-2003) was the head of an Arya Samaj institution for women's education in Haryana.

The book is an attempt at recording histories of the non-elites -- people whose lives were irreversibly changed by the trauma of Partition. The study of the subalterns in the post-colonial South Asian context has taken many forms with equally interesting results, especially in the context of Partition, this approach has acquired considerable significance, acceptance and respectability, with many interesting results.

As Datta succinctly summarised: “Subhashini is absent from history, but history is not absent from her.” She read from the book and discussed several nuances of recording the memories of her subject. 

Datta spoke of the challenges of having to deal with “memory, narrative and event,” and “memory being more than an event,” and the “difficulty of finding an academic language to combine memory and history.”

Perhaps the toughest challenge she may have faced was to keep her ideology in check as she embarked on a journey of discovery with her subject who had a strong opposing worldview.

Datta said she adopted an approach more suited to fiction writing than academic writing to capture the nuances of the narrative and to move away from familiar and easy categorisations and notions of the victim and the victimiser.

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