South Asian diaspora brings 1947 partition to Western pop culture

Toronto, Canada – Shireen Shamsi, a Chicago-based children’s book author, vividly remembers when the fifth episode of the Ms. Marvel television series aired on the video streaming platform Disney+.

Similar to Shamsi’s upcoming book, the episode Time and Again depicts the last train journey from independent India to the newly formed Pakistan.

“I was an emotional wreck because it really hit home,” the 62-year-old writer told Al Jazeera. “All I have heard is from my mother’s own personal experience. It was very, very moving and powerful.”

Pakistani-Canadian Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan in Ms. Marvel [Courtesy of Marvel Studios]

Ms. Marvel’s depiction of India’s 1947 partition was the first time many South Asians – and others – saw this chapter of history on screen and on a platform as big as Disney.

In the episode, Kamala Khan, played by Pakistani-Canadian actress Iman Vellani, uses her superpowers to teleport to a terrifying night in 1947, where she saves her grandmother and reunites her with her family before the last train leaves for Karachi, Pakistan.

Tears flowed for some like Shamsi, while others longed for a home they never knew.

After the British Empire withdrew its colonial rule over the subcontinent in 1947, it transferred power and drew arbitrary borders along religious lines between Hindu-majority India and predominantly Muslim Pakistan, which included modern-day Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan.

The decision led to sectarian violence and mass exodus that killed around two million people and displaced around 15 million.

Fatima Asghar, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker, co-creator of Miss Marvel and writer of the fifth episode, says that Partition-related searches on Google spiked after the episode aired on July 6.

“Many viewers were saying: ‘I never thought I would see our history in the Western media’ or ‘I never knew about this tumultuous event and it made me ask my family about Partition,'” Asghar, 32, said. Al Jazeera.

Fatima Asghar
Filmmaker Fatima Asghar who co-created Ms. Marvel [Courtesy of Mercedes Zapata]

Asghar and Bisha Ali, head writers of Ms Marvel, then compiled a list of resources viewers can refer to if they’re interested in learning more about a period of history that’s been missing from mainstream media and Western education.

While on many accounts a first for a Disney series to feature a positive, nuanced representation of South Asian Muslim superheroes and Muslim American communities, this particular episode is widely regarded as the blueprint for an authentic portrayal of minority community history.

‘Stories of Human Resilience’

Besides Ms Marvel, there are other creatives who are bringing much-needed narrative and representation to mainstream Western culture.

Shamsi’s The Moon from Dehradun is a picture book in which six-year-old Azra leaves her doll behind and hurries on the last train from Dehradun in northern India to Lahore, Pakistan’s second largest city, just 24 km (15 mi) from India. border

Partition of India
The cover of the children’s picture book The Moon from Dehradun by Shireen Shamsi [Al Jazeera]

Similarly, Houston-based Sadia Faruqi’s upcoming middle-grade novel, The Partition Project, features a 12-year-old Maha, who is estranged from her heritage and reconnects with her family’s history of partition through a school project.

As a nod to the erasure or removal of people of color from history, the book seeks to make Maha’s American friends understand why an event that took place in a different place and time is so important to her.

“Partition stories are about being proud of your heritage, but they are also stories of human resilience,” Farooqui, 46, told Al Jazeera.

“They are stories of bravery and determination; Stories we can all be inspired by. Hopefully, they will help the youth to make better choices in the national and international spheres and the next generation will live in a better world,” she said.

Some of the violence we see today is reminiscent of 1947. This makes people want to know and talk about today’s events.

through Fatima Asghar, Los Angeles-based filmmaker

Similarly, Lost Migrations is a three-part animated anthology that explores the memory and trauma of the 1947 Partition. Far from dominant narratives, the project aims to highlight the stories of lesser-known communities traditionally excluded from the history of partition.

“We wanted to increase the segmentation so that a wider audience and those who are not aware of the program can access it in an engaging way,” said Sadia Gardezi, Co-Founder and Head of Pakistan Animation.

Lost Migration is an initiative that reconnects post-Partition refugees with their childhood homes through virtual reality.

The project is a cross-border production between the United Kingdom, India and Pakistan. It is currently premiering in museums and cultural institutions in the UK and will soon be available to view in South Asia.

The first episode deals with the plight of refugees and their sense of statelessness.

Reminiscent of famous Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s iconic story of Toba Tek Singh, the protagonist in Lost Migrations, lacking proper documents to stay in his country, is deported and ultimately loses his sense of belonging and identity.

In the second animation, eight-year-old Nitya learns about her family’s escape from Burma (modern Myanmar) during World War II while cooking with her grandmother—Chettinad cuisine is the only one in their story of intergenerational loss.

Partition of India
A still from an episode of the animated anthology, Lost Migrations [Animation by Puffball Studios, Pakistan]

Drawing on the works of historians Rokeya Sakhwat and Urvashi Butalia, the final animation features an elderly woman in the present-day city of Kolkata in eastern India reflecting on the violence and trauma faced by women during Partition.

“[The partition narrative] It is about the decisions made by such larger-than-life rulers [Mahatma] Gandhi, [Jawaharlal] Nehru and [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah,” Gardezi told Al Jazeera.

Nehru was the first Prime Minister of independent India, while Gandhi and Jinnah are considered the “fathers” of their nations, India and Pakistan respectively.

The animated anthology challenges the popular narratives of nation-building that most Indians and Pakistanis grew up hearing, claiming a balanced approach through personal stories by the authors.

Religious and regional tensions

The anthology is one of a handful of cross-border collaborations that make it particularly relevant in these turbulent times when relations between the two nuclear power-neighbors remain tense.

“We live in a time where it’s hard to talk about diversity and difference,” Sandhya Viswanathan, a Bengaluru-based animator on the project, told Al Jazeera.

“In today’s political climate of hate, the exchange of ideas and knowledge, an unbiased understanding of events and empathy are important,” she said.

Partition of India Pakistan 1947
In this September 1947 photo, hundreds of Muslim refugees crowd aboard a train bound for Pakistan from New Delhi. [File: AP Photo/Getty Images]

Gardezi believes that the trauma of partition never left the popular discourse or the diaspora in South Asia.

“I don’t think it has disappeared from mainstream culture. It crosses over into our culture and literature,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We are drawing and standing on the shoulders of giants like Manto. We’re just bringing it back – in a new iteration. “

Citing the example of Project Dastan, she says: “This generation is rediscovering these stories in a different and engaging way thanks to social media and other new media.”

Asked why there has been an increase in dialogue and work centered on Partition in recent years, filmmaker Asghar said, “After spending so much time in silence,” artists are trying to ensure that history is not lost.

As this year marks the 75th anniversary of the cataclysmic event, many want to honor the stories of the generation that survived the partition and, just as importantly, avoid erasing it from history.

Asghar told Al Jazeera, “People are looking at the confluence of different factors that make the division very relevant today.”

“South Asia has been plagued by religious and ethnic violence, as well as divisions within the diaspora. And a natural response is: ‘What is this reminiscent of?’

“Some of the violence we see today is reminiscent of 1947. It makes people want to know and talk about what happened today.”

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