Re-Membering Our Histories, Re-Visioning Our Histories, Re-Writing Our Selves

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Huma Dar, South and South East Asian Studies

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2003

The Head of the SSEAS Department, Professor Vasudha Dalmia, had asked me to design and teach the class, SSEAS 120, Readings in Modern Urdu Prose, for Fall ’02 and Spring ’03, and I was just excitement personified! It was under her able and creative supervision and with much discussion and deliberation that I chose the Partition narratives to be the focus for the two-semester sequence. The Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, with the migration of almost ten million people across the newly formed borders, and the massacre of more than a million people, had been the site of multiple discourses, various gaps, eloquent silences, and political stutterings. It had also been the “enabling violation” à la Gayatri Spivak that had given birth to some of the best in Urdu literature. In face of the March 2002 genocide of Muslims in Gujarat, India, a text that kept recurring to me was the dedication that Sa’adat Hasan Manto penned in his book Siyah Hashye (Black Marginalia) to the man who, in the course of narrating his bloody exploits, conceded: “When I killed an old woman only then did I feel that I had committed murder.”

Except for one graduate student, all other students were young undergraduates, second-generation Pakistanis either through the Partition migration of their ancestors or otherwise. None of them had the major of South Asian Studies, and albeit their love and fascination for Urdu, most of them had minimal knowledge of South Asian History, as well as what I sensed to be a resistance or a detachment from the topic itself. The refrain was “Partition seems so far away” or “We don’t know what happened” or “Our parents haven’t told us anything about it” and finally “How come our parents haven’t told us all this?”

Sensing this disconnect in the very first weeks, I assigned them the homework to continuously engage with their parents and grandparents about their family narratives of the Partition in Urdu. Then onwards I had an absolutely engaged and passionate class. They hung on attentively to each word we shared in this context. They carefully watched the films we saw and the auxiliary lectures we attended to help us detangle some of the complex discourses around the subject. Some of my students hung out on the grass with me for hours after class: reading more texts, discussing the history, historiography and constructions thereof, deconstructing the current political situation all in Urdu, which was improving with each sentence they excitedly articulated. Those who missed a single class session quickly made it up, sitting in the classroom for hours after the regular class, learning the slippery rules of grammar or reading the texts they had missed. They kept bringing in new insights painstakingly gleaned from their families, whom I believe they were calling more regularly than ever before!

The epitome was yet to come. Their final test entailed writing a detailed account in Urdu of the experiences of their families during the Partition. What I read made me re-read each essay and weep afresh at the depth of reflection, pathos, and the stubborn optimism in spite of it all, all in excellent Urdu! One of my students got to know for the first time about her maternal grandmother’s escape in a train from Jallundher to Lahore, hidden between the decapitated bodies of her father and brothers. Another wrote about how his family from Bihar had been homeless for months in Karachi before gradually making it, and the pride inherent in those sacrifices. Yet another wrote about how her grandparents had literally escaped barefoot with a months old baby at the breast. Most of my students in the first semester have not only continued the course this term, but they have also continued to blossom as excellent Urdu students and budding scholars. They are working on their jointly written final paper that encompasses not only the short stories, films, poems, and essays that were assigned, but also their re-membered and re-visioned personal histories. I have an engaged class indeed as it re-writes itself with passion and compassion.