The British Empire' was the largest ever known legacy worldwide and today as it appears to be on the brink of collapsing, the debate around immigration has been reinforced into the spotlight once again. Against this backdrop whilst India moves ahead to celebrate its 72nd Independence Day, Kavita Puri's Partition Voices time travels through decades to record testimonies of individuals who have survived 1947 and lived to narrate their experiences to the younger generations of South Asian British community.
“Born in Lahore, Pakistan, an adult life lived in England, he now rests somewhere along the most sacred and blessed river [Ganges] in India,” Puri, a BBC journalist, chronicles about her father's demise in Partition Voices.
Many historians have attempted to document The Empire's role in dividing India and Pakistan, casting a light on the political upheaval caused in the region and the shadows of which continue to contour relationships within the diaspora communities settled here in Britain. But Puri distances herself from the politics plaguing history and instead poignantly paints the cultural and spiritual heritage of South Asia that many in the community, especially the youngsters, are caught unaware of. Speaking of her personal experience, she discussed her father's 70 years of silence and the significance of teaching about The Empire in British schools today,
“The knowledge of the Empire is still not very well known in the UK. I know that because people from across the community would reach out to me on my Radio programme and tell me about how they were unaware of the detail around Partition and the UK's shambolic exit,” she said.
As a child, Puri would bury her nose in history books to educate herself about the Empire at a time when there was an “institutional silence” around the subject both in schools, communities, and families. In her attempt to invoke that conversation, Puri embarks on an eight-month research journey and documents stories of 40 individuals from across religions- Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Parsi, Christian and engages in a dialogue with interviewees of different origins- India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and England to provide a comprehensive narration of their perception of Partition.
“There was a complex reason behind why some of these memories were shrouded in silence in Britain. And, I believe that understanding the Empire is essential to understand the reason behind migration- the explanation behind Britain's diverse face today and the kind of influence that South Asia has had on the UK's culture today,” she explains.
Divided into three parts: End of Empire, Partition and Legacy, the book sheds light into the united front demonstrated at the Indian Workers' Association where immigrants “lumped together as Asians” fought to “improve their working lives” and combat racism. Puri dedicates each chapter of her book to individual stories and helps them understand “where and what is home today”. At an increasingly divisive time with complex identities where individuals are labelled as British Bangladeshis or British Indians, Puri documents the humane relationships and support systems that bind the community even today.
“People may have shared fragments of their Partition stories. But there were also quite a lot of contradictory stories. People would gather and talk about “home”. But home may not be a place on the Indian subcontinent where all the extended family lived. My father and their friends would talk about Lahore but I didn't know of anyone who lives in Lahore. That was very confusing. And for some home can be a place in Pakistan but it was also a place in India,” she says.
“Dotted across homes in Britain are some of those who, like my father, witnessed the traumatic birth of two nations and who subsequently migrated to post-war Britain. Yet their partition story is barely known.”
Through Partition Voices, Puri discusses the human cost of division and brings to the forefront the unheard voices of South Asia that are imperative in understanding the national British history.