How Nations Confront Their History

The gates itself were intimidating.
We were led through a Jewish prisoners arrival & life at Dachau.
First the rail wagons on which the prisoners arrived packed like cattle, clutching their scant belongings.
The barking dogs & guards who separated families & pushed them into different areas.
Shaving of heads, the fumigation of people who were till last week doctors, lawyers, teachers, bakers, bus drivers …..
The barracks, the work houses, the kitchens all leading to each other via gravel paths.
The crunch crunch of gravel, the barbed wire fencing, the tower guards, the walls & huge seven feet tall pictures of life at Dachau bore down on us. Healthy men & women turned into skeletons beaten down by work, batons & starved on gruel.
Dogs tearing into & eating prisoners in full view of others, children with dead eyes, that basic concentration camp striped uniform & sabots.

The other visitors were European & American Jews.
Some hard faced & others sobbing unbearably.
Members of a French Book Club and an Austrian school trip.
The Germans were there too, taking their young children around showing them what two generations before them had done.
Perhaps some had grandparents or grand aunts & uncles who had been guards at Dachau or train drivers bringing the cattle containers with Jews or just administration staff weighing the hair of gassed prisoners , their gold teeth or making an inventory of the bones for tea sets & cutlery handles.

The guide then moved back as we walked into a large room.
Behind us the doors slammed. There was a moment of terrified silence.
From behind a glass panel she asked us to look up & through hundreds of nozzles we were told DDT was sprayed on the prisoners who, because of the lice in their hair & mites on their body, were grateful for it.

Next they were led to the ovens.

These were all men & women who were no longer able to contribute to the Nazi industrial machinery, sweat shops & factories.
Hence were disposed off. Simple. Easy. Cruel beyond imagination.

From the chimneys dark smoke emanated & the village of Erlangen an hours drive away, never once questioned the smoke & why were the chimneys letting it off day in and day out.

Today we know 31951 Jews were killed at Dachau & the Germans see it, hear of it & confront their past every day while driving through or living in Erlangen.

700-900,000 were killed in Treblinka
11,00,000 in Auschwitz
50,000 in Bergen-Belsen
600,000 in Belzec
200-250,000 in Sobibor.

All of them are museums open for viewing.

The visitors ran their hands over names they recognized …or was it over their carcasses ?
Feeling each bony rib, each emaciated arm & leg, the spiky hair over brutally shaved heads. The pain was piercing & real.

In the oven room we recognized one single Indian name – Noor Inayat Khan.

For me, a 15 year old girl from India in the 70s, Dachau was my first life changing moment. There were two others much later but Dachau….
The girl who walked in was an entirely different person from the one who walked out three hours later.

It was an epiphany -a peek into a world of grown ups & what horrors they were capable of.
It seemed judges, teachers, doctors & ordinary folk all contributed in the murder of 6 million Jews & 14 million other nationalities because they believed it to be justified & mostly they liked it – quietly.
O yes there was the silent majority. But that majority was worth zilch because it was silent.

I returned to school in Paris & discovered the Cine Club of which I was a member & where I only watched French heart throb Alain Delon or the beauteous Catherine Deneuve films, had an archive on the Holocaust.

With an awakened interest, I watched over two years more than three hundred films.

Heyy Hindoo ! Were you a Jew in your last life ? Who knows ? Who knows ?
(All Indians were known as Hindoo in French & for some reason only Red Indians were called Indians)

Polish Hungarian Romanian German French American…. films from a Jewish child’s point of view, a Jewish music conductor, prostitute, seamstress or a Kapo, a Jew prison functionary.

Then there were films of the German side. The commandant & his wife living a genteel life of culture in the midst of a death camp, of camp female guards, of young girls caught up with the latest fashion, crushes, war, hunger & the mystifying smoke from a camp.

Two members of in our club were Jewish. One had lost her entire family at Treblinka & the other’s grandmother still bore the tattoo of Auschwitz.
As per club rules because we were a group of eight plus we could invite guests & the grandmother with the Auschwitz tattoo came to give us a talk.

In those days the French Education Minister Simone Veil proudly wore her prisoner number on her arm & was not shy of talking about what some believed was France’s dishonorable role during WWII & Marshal Petain acquiescence to the Nazis.

There were open secrets too.
How collaborators had been whitewashed & found their way to the highest echelons of government machinery & society.

The uncle of our school book shop owner had been a member of the French Resistance. He volunteered to take us through the streets on cycles weaving a path from safe houses to Gestapo offices & meeting points along the Seine.
Can we wear a trench coat & beret, please ? After all 15 year olds can only be 15 year old…
He had guffawed – And Ladies don’t forget the red lipstick !

Lesser known directors and actors from the films we watched spoke to us on the subject, the emotions, the demons & the catharsis.
This wasn’t even an institute of film making. A mere school cinema club of teenagers.

This was history out there in the open. For us to see, feel & deal with.

Then on Friday night from what looked like a beautiful study with plump sofas and winged chairs, in a manner so French, Bernard Pivot with a glass of wine in hand, conducted Apostrophes.
Pivot ran this very successful program for 15 years, watched weekly by 6 million viewers, occasionally visibly drunk.
An hour devoted to books, authors and literature. World famous personalities were invited to an open discussion which was interesting, exciting and often volatile.
On Monday afternoons in school we had a class to discuss the topics Pivot had taken up earlier.
Legal abortion was big, WW2, what it meant to be French, antisemitism & ….the Holocaust.

By eighteen I was back in India.

One summer evening sitting in the garden after Krishi Darshan at 6:30 pm and before Chitrahaar at 8pm, I was telling my grandfather about my school & the subjects I had enjoyed & why I wished to pursue History in university.

He watched me animatedly speak of films & the subjects that interested me.
He was shocked at how history was discussed & taught in France.
But that’s keeping hate alive he said.
Look at us. How we suffered Partition. How we were left penniless.
What we left behind. That fear & that panic for the safety of our women still engulfs me on days.
But we have buried it deep. We don’t talk about it. We must not.

This- Must Not – was all over.

My university’s history under graduate syllabus didn’t cover Partition.
When I asked why isn’t an event that claimed millions of lives, the largest displacement of population in recent history not taught? It was met with a stoniness that led me to fear that my professor had already judged & slotted me.

Getting into the National Archives was like having the temerity to ask for Indo-Pak war plans.
Requests for entrance were met with the same encouragement the Indian State excels in. Attested copies of this & that. Proof of research etc etc.
JNU Library was then the most wondrous place to be and many hours were spent reading, searching …. quite unaware then of the Left’s Great Silence & their criminal role in sanitizing history.

Book stores had a single half empty shelf of that period. Kushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan being the most popular. Certainly there must have been books in other languages but I was handicapped by not being proficient in them.

Till 9 years later, we watched Tamas on TV.
That evening, the drink was nursed & dinner somber unlike others. That night in a single air conditioned room where the beds were laid out, my grandfather dredged out from deep within him an experience that could only be spoken of with the lights switched off. The five people in that room changed forever – one film, the images, the characters & a desperate journey had prised open a chest filled with pain.

He then slowly became open to speaking about the Partition.
For a stoic soldier of WW2 vintage having fought the Japanese in Burma, witnessed his country torn asunder, having left his beloved malta orchard in Sargodha, it took some doing.

By the time we watched Train to Pakistan in 1998 I was recording his stories.
He had taken to inviting fellow travelers from that time for drinks, dinner & conversation so that young people could learn their history.
We learnt of people we knew & how they had coped or succumbed.
Of that journey.
A beloved uncle, a mustachioed much decorated soldier, orphaned during a terrifying train journey ended up rolling out rotis in a refugee camp.
We heard shameful tales of well known pillars of our society. The compromises & the betrayals.
We met people who were completely forgiving & others who still carried a dagger in their heart.
And no he wasn’t that sort of Punjabi who yearned to see Sargodha, Lahore or Quetta. He wanted it out, out of his system. Cleansed forever.

Urvashi Butalia ‘s The Other Side Of Silence & Shauna Singh Baldwin’s What The Body Remembers were published years later & are simply superb. testimonies of those turbulent times.
There must have been several wonderfully researched books & documents available for scholars but very little for the pedestrian reader & viewer. And if there was so little to read at my age what was being taught in school ? The project it seemed was to bury deep like shame.

Kirron Kher’s Pakistani film Khamosh Pani was released much after my grandfather’s passing.
That story would have torn his heart out or perhaps his spirit would have been freed if he had known earlier that there were deep wells in other people’s lives too.

Art, culture, history taught & spoken are soothing balms for wretched souls savaged by violence.
Our leaders, historians & thinkers in their wisdom never utilized these means to assuage a new country & it’s trauma. They were blind to how other nations handled their demons and attempted healing.

So with maybe four films & a handful of books dedicated to the Partition, we watched an Englishman’s version of Gandhi.
We couldn’t trust ourselves to make a film on him. A Sanjay Leela Bhansali or a Ashutosh Gowrikar would have left us cringing or perhaps even more damaged.

The unforgivable tragedy is that we were deprived of National Therapy, a collective conversation to reveal, speak, discover others equally wounded and above all question.

To make it worse we continue to repeat our errors by obfuscating the truth. And in obfuscating the truth we refuse to name & recognize the gangrenous nature of what was once our limb.

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44 thoughts on “How Nations Confront Their History

  1. Vikram Karve

    Hi Nandini,
    Fascinating, Thought-Provoking and Insightful Article
    Your writing is very powerful – straight from the heart.
    Keep writing such excellent articles

  2. Dara Cooper

    “The unforgivable tragedy is that we were deprived of National Therapy, a collective conversation to reveal, speak, discover others equally wounded and above all question.”

    Absorbing reading.
    No, we don’t discuss partition because it has political connotations for those who brought it about due to political considerations, disguised under that multi-purpose passport of “secularism”. Yet for the same reason we now discuss human rights of terrorists & criminals. Thus making sure we never will cleanse the rot partition brought about in our souls.

    After seven decades we are paying for the mistake of living in denial of our own holocaust, not letting go of the anger, mistrust and religious bigotry.

    I keep repating just one request – please write more often.

    1. NBD Post author

      Thank you so much for your kind words. Yes we pay for our cowardice everyday with pettiness anger & poison. We will not heal till we confront the past and worse we will pass on this legacy to our children.

  3. Sandip Ghose

    Very powerful piece. The intensity of your emotions come through every word. But, I wonder if there’s also something cultural about it. In general, I have noticed that we Indians do not like to bring up the unpleasant past. While you hear everyone talk of past ancestral glory – we tend to shove the unhappy memories beneath the carpet. May be there is a psychological angle to it – an innate inferiority complex and inability to own up the past.

    1. NBD Post author

      Thank you ! And yes I agree for all our noise chatter & social interactions we keep deep the things that need to be brought out & discussed. Is it mistrust, fear of social ostracization….or as you said a lack of confidence ?

  4. Renuka Dhar

    Such a well-written piece, the imagery is so vivid it makes the reader relive your experiences. From the genocide of Jews to the Partition of India, the human race has gone through such bone-chilling attempts to wipe out ethnicities and yet, survived! We were taught to keep the injustice and the horror within till years later it all tumbled out, I know that feeling so well! Do keep writing!

  5. Sc

    Excellent piece. Why not write and record those stories you heard? In a few more generations we will have forgotten them – ready to repeat our mistakes all over again. Sad.

    1. NBD Post author

      Thank you & yes its true these stories will be lost forever. Perhaps one day I just might sit down to do it

  6. Kanchan Dwivedi

    You write so well ! Yes, we are escapists by denying the truth of past to ourselves and next generation.
    While we have been cheated by not being taught the true history, we would be equally guilty if truth is not told and not formally documented/taught.
    Please do write more often. You have a very fluid style of story telling which most would like. Thanks for penning your thoughts and sharing.

  7. Jayanti Naju Seth

    Wonderfully written, very evocative, thought provoking and an absolutely original response. Given that you did not actually experience partition, here is a response of one who understands the trauma by proxy. The museum that is dedicated to the partition that is in the process of being set up in amritsar comes the closest to answering the questions you pose.

  8. Satish Bahri

    A wake up call by Nandini- India too, like the Jews, has been through a number of holocausts over the centuries by various invaders, because of our riches. We seem to be shy of even discussing them lest we ruffle feathers.
    Like the Jews, we suffered them without uniting. As they were a minority in alien countries they bore regular pogroms silently. Now that they have a nation of their own they don’t brook any nonsense from any belligerent nation. When will we learn our lesson?

    1. NBD Post author

      Guess lessons will be learnt the day we recognise & name what ails us. Till then it will be band aid & papering over.


      Brilliant! Bravo, lady. The pain is deep for those who have lived through it, catharsis, hard to come by. No ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions’ here. But the reason no one brings it up is that the Victim was as guilty as the Perpetrator. Just ask the senior citizens who have lived through it, on the other side of the border too. I have visited the Arts Centre in Islamabad. Amongst the hundreds of paintings that I saw there was only one that showed the partition in a frame of two columns of displaced people moving in opposite directions with sad, shocked expressions on their faces, their precious belongings clutched to their chests, on their heads or on animal carts as they wearily make their way to the ‘other side’, displaced from the only homes they knew. With many neighbours and friends turning against them, the pain of betrayal perhaps was more shocking than the personal loss. Of what avail then the recalling of history after all that? Will it help any Hindu, Muslim or Sikh? IMHO, burying the past was the only option for the displaced unlike in the case of the Jews who were the victims and the Nazi, the perpetrators.

      1. NBD Post author

        In history there are victors & vanquished, victims & perpetrators. Depends who is writing it. In my opinion – Neither side should discount their experiences, their stories no matter how blurred the lines.

  9. Mani Mamik

    Moving forthright and rightfully conveying similarities between the trauma of the Hindoos and Jews both in the 1940’s. Yes the lifeless trains that arrived in India, the refugee camps and even my own father left with no clothes , this history has been forcibly wiped out from one side of the equation while the other side continues to unbalance it.
    All this coz history was blanked and three generations have been deprived and other non relevant agendas have taken over.
    This piece delightfully makes an attempt to recall factually without jingoism and hubris.

  10. Kavita Verma

    The Germans are still trying to overcome their guilt and find it difficult to talk about their role in the holocaust – I had stayed in Erlangen for almost 3 months and could see the visible pain on their face as they talked about it, in low voices, that also took ownership.
    In the Indian context, the painful chapter has been obliterated by our left-leaning historians, and I hope the horrors are talked about so that those responsible are recognised.
    A brilliant piece, Nandini .

  11. G Vasudevan

    Very well told with emotion bundled in.The striking fact was we are afraid of talking history,putting under carpet ,who taught us to be this way ? Not Githa it talks Dharma and adharma, but some made us to fear truth ,atleast I can figure out !

  12. Renu Chaurasia

    These are very cogent and relevant ideas. They make one pause and think, reassess and reflect. Indeed if we do not know our past and understand how, what and why things happened as they did- we will remain quagmired in it, and are condemned to live it repeatedly.
    The Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, our partition are some of the cataclysms of the last century we need to study , explore and discuss -how we as an ‘intelligent’ species could bring on ourselves such gruesome tragedies, death, suffering and waste!
    And in the ever-changing hologram of our ideas, technology and geography in this century, we need to chart the course correction for our collective future.
    One step, as you have enumerated, is the education and confrontation of our children and future generations with our history- faithfully researched and included in all mediums- education, art and culture.
    On a personal level, we need to think and grow beyond partisan boundaries -religious, cultural and national. Let us get back to being humans first- and I hope being ‘human’ implies kindness, respect and tolerance . ‘Amputation of gangrenous limbs’ should never be an outcome- the answer is to prevent the poisoning, and never allowing it to spread.

  13. Raj Dutta

    Hi Nandini,
    When you write of Sargoda, I’m reminded of Sylhet – the town my father left behind. I’m reminded of how, as a 15 year old and alone in Calcutta, he worked in the day, attended night classes and shared room with other ‘refugee boys’ (yes, that’s how they were referred to). But what I am reminded most is when years later, he would reminisce the days in Sylhet and Calcutta, other ‘more educated’ people (friends and relatives, with leftist leanings) would urge him to ‘let-go’ of the past, as if it was something to be ashamed of.
    Sanitizing history is the biggest disservice (amongst the many disservices) the leftist/ establishment historians have done to our nation

    1. NBD Post author

      Agree. There are so many such stories & experiences that have been lost & forgotten….and worse so many carried the burden till their end. We must do something to change that by encouraging films, books, talks & of course, closer home, story telling & passing on oral history in families.

  14. gurdjieff

    The shadow of the great game – the untold story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila is good for reading

  15. Parag S

    Superb read. Your example of Germany is spot on! Having lived in Germany and seen/read about their history, particularly​ WW2, I am convinced about their philosophy about history – Learn from history and keep it afresh in your minds, so that you never ever dare repeat it again!

    Wish we Indians, both government and people, looked at history in a scholarly manner instead of selectively suppressing and/or twisting it for vested interests.

  16. Arpita Bhattacharjee

    These stories are not told, cause a sense of shame and helplessness runs deep. The land of one’s roots left forever. The people, one’s very own, who were left behind. Those murdered before your very eyes, the women humiliated. And the millions who left all they knew as life to restart it again as ‘refugees’, belonging neither here nor there. The assimilation never took care of healing the trauma of loss. A beaten lot of people, having a living to eche out in a land called theirs but marked with losses which were only theirs and nobody else’s. And a state machinery who knew their narrative won’t be helped once these stories come out.
    My ancestors had to flee the place that was home due to partition. The pain changed their lifes. You are right, there was no collective healing. After an entire generation of struggle, they could rebuild roofs over their heads. But homeland was a scarred, mostly avoided topic. Thank you for this piece.

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  18. Anu Aneja

    So beautiful and evocative, Nandini. The images are as powerful and haunting as must have been the experiences for those who lived through them, or died, in such different parts of the world. You knit these together seamlessly. Keep writing!

  19. Sharat Chopra

    Obviously we share similar pain-laden experiences in our respective ancestries. I was brought up listening to to some of the crimes perpetrated by both sides on each other, during the partition, which, as you rightly pointed out is never discussed in our text books. I have an 80year old uncle whose mother’s body came from Lahore in one of those ‘carcass-trains’. In Hardwar there is a record of our ancestors with names and dates – in scripts that range from Gurmukhi to Urdu to Hindi and English. Each time someone from our family visited Hardwar, for whatever reason, they’d take the time to jot down a few words in that book. The book is about 6” wide and a metre long, with a red cloth cover. One of hundreds stacked in a mud hut with a hard-earth floor. Looks like the metaphorical Indra’s Khaata. I actually ‘felt’ my roots only when I was escorted there by my seniors after my dad’s demise in the early 80’s. I have still kept the card of that pundit whom we located through sheer word of mouth by giving only our surname and the original home of my grandfather which was in Gujranwala, now on the other side. If you haven’t yet located your family’s history, recorded by them in first person, in Hardwar, do go and try to. The experience is breathtakingly powerful.

    Your style of writing has finesse and encapsulates your thoughts beautifully and in a structured, menthodical manner. Interwoven with your personal experiences it makes a gripping read. Easy to empathise. Stay blessed and stay lucid.

    1. NBD Post author

      Thank you so much, Sharat
      Yes I’ve heard about the Hardwar experience from several people. Our system of keeping family records is indeed unique.

  20. Sathya

    Very well written. Dont know what else to say.
    Yes we are paying for burying our history.
    I didnt know so many things till I started reading out of school texts.
    And sadly I realise we will pay for this sin of burying our history, which is very depressing , angushing.


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