Conversations with a Citizen Historian - Guest post by Reena Kapoor
What I learned about myself by listening to my people’s history
Reena Kapoor is a fellow writer, playwright and traveler. In 2020, Reena published a book, Arrivals & Departures, which includes her moving poetry, and mesmerizing photographs. I got to know Reena, a fellow Substacker, through our mutual interest in conversation. With her Indian heritage, she brings not only a soulful touch to the nature of deep listening, she highlights a very difficult topic in the form of the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. Reena is not afraid to tackle sensitive topics and her story below is a testament to her great storytelling abilities. I hope you’ll relish her account and enjoy her takeaways. Reena can be found at her blog
I don’t pretend to be any kind of gifted listener but my mother was a great storyteller and I’ve always loved listening to people’s stories. One of my great desires is to get out of my silicon valley/coastal elite bubble, travel through the US and talk to people from different walks of life. This hunger for stories is perhaps what’s saved me in some of the most important conversations I've had in my life -- listening to accounts of journeys that friends and acquaintances have honored me with and fraught ones with strangers that I’ve had the privilege of recording as a citizen historian!
This latter gift has involved collecting hours-long witness accounts from survivors of the Partition of India (more on this history here) as a volunteer “citizen historian” for The 1947 Partition Archive for over a decade. In reality these turned out to be conversations I'd been preparing for all my life. Volunteering as a citizen historian allowed me to honor a great heritage and shoulder a responsibility that’s deeply personal to my people’s history i.e., interviewing people of my parents’ background and generation who were born in/before the 1940s in undivided India, and who witnessed some of what happened and/or directly experienced the trauma of Partition. In most cases they and their families were forced to flee multi-generational homes, land and a way of life in fear for their life and limb.
As a citizen historian, our work mainly is to ask questions about the past, listen and record. In that sense, the listening is built into the role. Training and strict rules of engagement, following international guidelines for recording “oral histories”, are observed. While listening closely, I must probe and dig deeper to get at the detailed reality of each and every Partition witness’ individual story. What the witnesses recount, relate, feel and conclude from the events surrounding Partition is part of a whole constituting the people’s history. The citizen historian’s personal view or evaluation of the interviewee’s point of view is not important. In fact, in some ways the citizen historian is merely a facilitator who fades into the background, while enabling the interviewee to tell as much of their story as possible. This is not merely a mechanical or process point. There’s a deeper truth here. But first some context.
When I walked into this volunteer opportunity, I was armed with a litany of questions, fairly confident in my training as a citizen historian. I’ve never been afraid of talking to people in almost any situation. And I knew from the training that the interviews were not about me but that I had to be the enabler of a meaningful conversation about a time that was often deeply traumatic for the interviewees. I got the mechanics and I was prepared for emotional conversations. After all I’d been raised in India in a Punjabi family where both my parents were refugee children of the Partition. I’d learned about Partition growing up, from the elders in my extended family amid expressions of grief, loss and trauma.
Besides, there were other advantages I had as a citizen historian: being Indian, raised in India, speaking multiple languages such as English, Hindi, Punjabi and even some Urdu. Many interviewees visibly relax when they meet me, see I’m Indian and especially when I tell them they can speak to me in any language and even switch back and forth if they like. That allows them to forget about how they speak as they recount perhaps the darkest period in their lives, trauma that has shaped them, their lives and even their kids, often without their children even realizing the forces at play.
One of the first few conversations I had as a citizen historian was with an older gentleman nearly my father's age. Within 20 minutes of a several hours long interview he was sobbing. When he started to cry, I kept the camera rolling and we continued the conversation while he composed himself. I wasn’t surprised by this reaction. He talked about how some of his family members were murdered, and what happened to some of the women of the family, and how so much remained a dark secret that the family never talked about. I listened and recorded without issue feeling satisfied at the “success” of many such interviews. Little did I know that the real learning and my own journey was yet to reveal itself.
Our goal and mandate at The 1947 Partition Archive has been to record histories on ALL sides, not just of Hindus and Sikhs fleeing what then became Pakistan but also Muslims fleeing the Indian side to go west to the new Pakistan, the creation of East Pakistan, which then went on to become Bangladesh and Hindu Bengalis fleeing that part of the world coming into India, and Muslim Begaliss going the other way. And the many other ethnic groups - including Jewish people who left for Israel! - that went one way or another as a result of this terrible chasm.
Not surprisingly (in hindsight) the conversation often went in directions that I was not comfortable with. I should have seen this coming given my own personal history, and given I was talking to people about trauma created out of some of the most divisive and violent politics of religion. This history evokes terrible pain, and hate-filled passion in the region even today. And as a citizen historian, I often run into people with strong opinions about what happened, what went down, what history demonstrated and what it demands. As expected, many interviewees had things to say about the politics and political leaders of the time, and about how the various religious and ethnic groups - Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs or whoever - were wronged, or how the different or every single group was at fault.
I was once talking to a woman who asked me if we were recording what “they had done to us”. I think her assumption was that being of a Hindu background, she and I would automatically have a negative view of Muslims. I didn’t share that view but my job was to record her history and not argue her point of view.
It’s important to note that this stance is not one of neutral or obtuse listening! Instead I learned that if I judge and reject my interviewees I can’t listen to them with genuine curiosity or empathy. I stop hearing them and the interview feels shallow. At one level my job was simple - to record my interviewee’s reality, her history, her accounting of her life, and what she saw, experienced and went through. I could do that mechanically and all boxes would be checked off.
However, if I made an effort to understand her truth - not condone her views but accept her reality, her truth as exactly that - “HER TRUTH” - and seek to understand where and how her perceptions were shaped, perhaps I could reach a deeper level of trust with her. That's important to do -- and it’s hard! It calls for a recognition of the human being over the opinion; of not saying “I agree with you” but instead “Tell me more about where you’re coming from…” Yet this is where I needed to grow.
Furthermore I realized that this was and is a journey even outside of my work as a citizen historian.
In our modern times - at least in our Divided States of America - I’ve been just as guilty of being owned by my political opinions and my need to convince and call out, and worse, condemn people whose opinions I don't agree with. But my work as a citizen historian has tempered this slide in showing me how important it is to first have a conversation as a human being and respect the other person's reality.
This is crucial for recording the people’s history of a subcontinent that still festers with these wounds because these grievances were never heard, let alone lent an empathetic ear. There are generations of people in the subcontinent who still feel what they went through, how they suffered, and even what they've learned from the trauma was never given its due.
This kind of handling and recording of truth is essential if we are to ever have any kind of reconciliation in the region, which unfortunately seems like a pipe dream these days. But for those of us who dream, it’s imperative to get this people’s history down because too many historians and governments have done a piss poor job of giving people a voice, let alone acknowledging with any kind of empathy, their citizens’ pain.
Unfortunately we're fast losing the art of listening, and social media has made us worse. Social media has trained us to think that there are these disembodied opinions and voices we have to shut down. And that listening is somehow a capitulation to those we disagree with. What we forget is that there are human beings at the other end of every opinion.
Interestingly, my own growth as a citizen historian forced me to rethink who I was becoming on social media. A few years ago I realized I was wasting a lot of time, and energy engaging in politics on social media -- and becoming a person I didn't really like. And worse, in these engagements, I was learning nothing. Nor was I convincing, nor helping anyone. All the highly intellectualized debates were changing zero minds. And, I was beginning to reject people based on their opinions on isolated topics. It’s a battle I still fight. But I know now where my work lies.
Being a citizen historian taught me to listen in an authentic way and forced me to record thoughts, opinions, histories, people's reality, people's perceptions, and seek truth in their stories regardless of my own conclusions. In more ways than one, recording my people’s history has been a life-altering experience for me. Yet it’s only been 11 years. I hope to continue to contribute in this area if only to become a better person.
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About the author: Reena Kapoor
Reena Kapoor grew up all over India as an “army brat” and that wandering sensibility is reflected in her debut poetry collection Arrivals & Departures. Reena’s poetry and fiction has been published in The Bluebird Word, Discretionary Love, Potato Soup, Ariel Chart, 433 Magazine, Literary Yard, Tiny Seed, Visible, and India Currents. Four plays by Reena were produced by EnActe Arts in 2021. Reena has also been a Citizen Historian with The 1947 Partition Archive collecting oral histories from witnesses of India’s Partition, for over a decade. Reena can be found at her blog.