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Insider India: Meeting Mallika Ahluwalia, Co-Founder of the Partition Museum, Amritsar

Insider India: Meeting Mallika Ahluwalia, Co-Founder of the Partition Museum, Amritsar

‘The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers’, so begins Khushwant Singh’s book ‘A train to Pakistan’. This poignant novel captured some of the indescribable events of the partition of India following independence from Britain. Earl Mountbatten, the last viceroy, was charged with overseeing the inevitable splintering of the subcontinent into Hindu majority India and Muslim-led Pakistan. No-one could have foreseen the immense and catastrophic effects of the arbitrary drawing up of a border divided by religion. Villages and communities which co-existed with relative peace for centuries were suddenly split apart and tensions erupted into mass scale killings on all sides. The largest migration ever seen in human history began as Muslims undertook long journeys east towards the infant nation of Pakistan (‘Land of the Pure’). Sikhs, Hindus and other minorities left the cities of Lahore and Karachi and the idyllic fields of the Punjab for a new life across the border. An estimated 10 million people moved across the new border and faced the dangers of murder, looting and atrocities. The perilous journey left hundreds of thousands killed and missing.

The scale of devastation, loss and of collective trauma left few families untouched. Singh himself was a Sikh refugee to Delhi from Lahore. He hauntingly described returning many years later to his former home in this passage: “I am back in my beloved city. The scene of desolation fills my eyes with tears... I cannot recognize houses or landmarks I once knew well. Of the former inhabitants, there is no trace. Everywhere there is a terrible emptiness. All at once I find myself in the quarter where I once resided. I recall the life I used to live: meeting friends in the evening, reciting poetry, making love, spending sleepless nights pining for beautiful women and writing verses on their long tresses which held me captive. That was life! What is there left of it? Nothing.’

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The last fifty years have seen many books, films and poetry centred on the events of 1947. But, perhaps due to the sheer magnitude of the painful legacy, it has taken until this year to see the establishing of a permanent physical memorial to the victims and survivors of partition.

The Partition Museum, housed in the magnificent (and formerly derelict) town hall of Amritsar in North India’s Punjab, is the vision of noted writer Lady Kishore Desai, child of partition survivors who fled Lahore. Desai has worked tirelessly to bring her dream to life.

Located steps away from the sights of Jallianwala Bagh and the Golden Temple, the Partition Museum, which is partly opened and will be fully unveiled this September, is set to be another reason to visit the beautiful city of Amritsar, just a 30-minute drive from Wagah, the boundary between India and Pakistan.

The landmark collection aims to be a ‘people’s museum’, with painstakingly recorded oral histories and narratives of migration, along with documents, art, music, photographs and other memorabilia being gathered from around the world. Universities, institutions and individuals are taking part in the building of this special memorial to a never-to-be forgotten chapter in India’s history. One of the most moving elements is the ‘tree of life’ – we will leave you to discover it for yourself...

Ampersand Travel met Museum co-founder and guiding spirit, Mallika Ahluwalia, who previously worked with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Delhi, to find out more about the vision of the new museum.

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What first inspired the creation of the Partition Museum?
All four founding trustees, of which I am one, come from partition families. The museum idea came about from the very stark realization that we were losing the generation that had witnessed partition. We also realised that 70 years after the event there was no memorial anywhere in the world to an event that shaped so many millions.

The museum's mission is to showcase the human stories of the difficulties of the greatest migration in the earth's history. What have been your main tools to do so?
Our main objective is to tell the stories of those millions of people who were impacted. We are using people's own voices through oral histories, their personal artefacts, their letters, photographs and documents to tell history. For example, many galleries contain objects that refugees carried with them when they travelled; some items that have been donated to us include a phulkari coat that someone carried because it was their most prized possession to a water pot that helped family gather water during their time at a camp. Each of these objects tells the experience of the family more poignantly and fully than any history textbook ever could. 

Where has your greatest support come from in the forming of the museum?
The Partition Museum has received a real outpouring of support from all directions, including from partition families in India and abroad, major national and international museums and universities, researchers and authors, the media. Of these, we are most grateful to the support from families who directly suffered from events. 

What would you like visitors to gain from experiencing the museum?
Our museum is a testament of love, loss and longing... we want the sacrifice of this generation remembered and acknowledged. At the same time, their grit and resilience should be paid tribute to - how despite losing so much and witnessing so much, these millions pulled themselves up and re-built their lives in a new land. Our final gallery is the Gallery of Hope - where we invite visitors to co-create the central installation with us by writing their messages of hope for the future, and of love... that is ultimately what our museum is about.

How are you hoping the collection will evolve in the future?
We want our museum to become an important archive on partition. Therefore, we would like to continue to collect and conserve all relevant material - personal or official including photographs, letters, oral histories and objects. We want not just the current generation, but future generations, to come to the museum and remember our shared history and pain, whether scholars, creatives or individuals. We embrace all who would like to come, to learn, to grieve and ultimately to hope. 

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