A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

In this Sept. 1947, file photo, hundreds of Muslim refugees crowd on top of a train leaving New Delhi for Pakistan. (AP)
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Updated 22 January 2020

A tale of two cities: Project aims to retell lost stories from Lahore, Delhi

  • Will give migrants a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes torn apart by partition of 1947

NEW DELHI: Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak grew up listening to their grandparents narrate stories of the partition from 1947.
Ahuja’s grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, was 7 years old when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two by the British, creating India and Pakistan. 
More than 14 million people were displaced at the time, and about one million perished in the fighting that followed.
Arora moved from a Pakistani village, named Bela, to Delhi after living in several refugee camps and escaping the violence.
Meanwhile, Malak’s grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, moved from the Indian city of Hoshiarpur to Pakistan’s Lahore.
Now in their 70s, both the grandparents yearn to go back home and see the places where they were born and spent their childhoods. 
However, the constant uncertainty in the relationship between India and Pakistan and their old age has made the task of visiting their respective birthplaces extremely difficult.
To fulfill the wishes of their grandparents, and several others who yearn to visit their ancestral homelands, Ahuja and Malak decided to launch Project Dastaan (story).
“What started as an idea for a student project last year at Oxford University became a larger peace-building venture,” Ahuja, the director of the project, said.
Project Dastaan is a university-backed virtual reality (VR) peace-building initiative reconnecting displaced survivors of partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences.
Backed by the South Asia Programme at Oxford, it uses VR headsets to give these migrants, who are often over 80 years old, a virtual tour of their childhood towns and homes. It shows them the people and places they most want to see again by finding the exact locations and memories that the survivors seek to revisit, and recreates them.
“It is a creative effort to start a new kind of conversation based on the direct experience of a now-foreign country in the present, rather than relying upon records and memories from the past,” Ahuja told Arab News.
He added that Pakistan-based Khalid Bashir Rai “teared up after his VR experience, and told us we had transported him back” to his childhood.
“At its heart, the project is a poignant commentary on its own absurdity. By taking these refugees back we are trying to highlight the cultural impact of decades of divisive foreign policy and sectarian conflict on the subcontinent. This is a task for policymakers, not university students. In an ideal world, a project like this shouldn’t exist,” Ahuja said.
Other members of Project Dastaan — Saadia Gardezi and Sam Dalrymple — have a connection with partition, too. Gardezi grew up with partition stories; her grandmother volunteered at refugee camps in Lahore, and her grandfather witnessed terrible violence as a young man.
Dalrymple’s grandfather had been a British officer in India during the twilight years of the British Empire. So scarred was he by the partition that he never visited Dalrymple’s family in Delhi, even after 30 years of them living there.
“I think Dastaan is ultimately about stripping away the layers of politics and trying to solve a very simple problem: That children forced to leave their homes, have never been able to go back again,” Dalrymple told Arab News.
Ahuja added: “The partition projects are a peace offering in the heart of hostility. It is an attempt at creating a wider cultural dialogue between citizens and policymakers of the three countries.”
The project aims to reconnect 75 survivors of the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh with their childhood memories, when the subcontinent observes 75 years of partition in 2022.
Project Dastaan is also producing a documentary called “Child of Empire” that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 partition migrant, and will be shown at film festivals and museums.


Pakistan Hindus rally in Islamabad over India migrant deaths

Updated 4 min 54 sec ago

Pakistan Hindus rally in Islamabad over India migrant deaths

  • The dead migrants’ relatives have held small rallies in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province but this was the first time they had taken their demonstration to the country’s capital
  • The protesters accuse India’s secret service of poisoning the 11 Hindus

ISLAMABAD : Pakistan’s minority Hindus rallied late on Thursday in Islamabad, briefly clashing with the police, to protest the deaths of 11 members of a Hindu migrant family who died in India last month under mysterious circumstances.
Since then, the dead migrants’ relatives have held small rallies in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province but this was the first time they had taken their demonstration to the country’s capital, vowing to stage a sit-in near the Indian Embassy.
The protesters accuse India’s secret service of poisoning the 11 Hindus, who were found dead at a farmhouse in India’s Jodhpur district in Rajasthan state. The demonstrators arrived in Islamabad around midnight, chanting, “We want justice.” They briefly skirmished with officers who prevented them from reaching the embassy site.
After the Aug. 9 deaths, Indian media reports suggested the Hindu family members, originally from Pakistan, had taken their own lives. Official Islamabad says New Delhi had not shared any reports of the case.
Thursday’s rally was an unusual move for Pakistan’s Hindus, who have mostly lived without conflict with the country’s predominantly Muslim majority. Earlier this year under pressure from radical Muslims, Pakistani authorities halted construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad.
Ramesh Kumar, a top leader of the Hindu community who led Thursday’s protest, met on Wednesday with Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, seeking his help in pressuring India to release results of the initial police probe into the case.
Pakistan has also asked for access to a Hindu worker who was at the Jodhpur farm at the time of the deaths, according to government officials.
In his meeting with Qureshi, Kumar said Shrimati Mukhi, the daughter of the head of the family that died, had levelled the poisoning accusations. She earlier this month told local media that India allegedly pressured the family to issue a statement denouncing Pakistan’s government. There was no official comment from India on the allegations.
Last week, Pakistan summoned an Indian diplomat to convey concerns over the “Jodhpur incident.” A subsequent ministry statement said India had “failed to share any substantive details regarding the cause and circumstances of the deaths” of the Hindus and asked for a comprehensive investigation.
Nuclear armed rivals Pakistan and India have a history of bitter relations. Pakistan’s military said Wednesday that two of its soldiers were killed by Indian fire in a cease-fire violation in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. The region is split between the two countries but claimed by both in its entirety. India and Pakistan have fought two out of their three wars over Kashmir since gaining independence in 1947.