73 years later, partition victims find their way back in virtual reality

The story of Project Dastaan, and of people yearning to go back home.
Photo Collage: Zarif Faiaz

Rabin Sengupta was only 16 years old when he was forced to move from a quaint village in Jamalpur, East Bengal to the bustling city of Kolkata, in August of 1947. A student of paintingcoming from an affluent familyRabin would find himself hit hard by poverty in the years that followed, and the painter would resort to selling hand-made dolls to support his family in a strange and unknown city, at a strange and chaotic time in history.

Seventy-three years later, Kolkata has made Rabin one of its own, but memories of his lost homeland still haunt him. "You could see the Brahmaputra river, and beyond that, you could see the Garo hills from faraway. Once we had crossed it, we didn't realise it was too late to return," he fondly recalls.

Rabin Sengupta, who is the grandfather of Jayosmita Ganguly, Volunteer Coordinator and Bengal (India) lead of Project Dastaan, moved from Jamalpur to Kolkata in 1947 when he was only 15-16 years old. He has never returned since. Photo: Project Dastaan

Rabin Sengupta is one among the fourteen million people displaced in Punjab and Bengal during the partition of 1947. At the stroke of midnight on 14th August 1947, India saw itself divided along the Radcliffe line. And communal riots pushed fourteen million to uproot their entire lives—almost overnight—and head for bleak futures in the newly created countries, in what's now known as the largest mass migration in human history. 

After seven decades, many of them are getting a chance to get a glimpse of their ancestral lands once again, thanks to a virtual reality project by a team of tech and history enthusiasts from Oxford University. Here's the story of Project Dastaan, and of people yearning to go back home.

Project Dastaan

The idea for Project Dastaan was conceived in 2018, when two of its co-founders, Oxford go-er Sparsh Ahuja and Ameena Malak, sat down over a cup of coffee one fine day and exchanged their grandparents' stories of partition.

They realised that their grandparents had travelled almost identical journeys, but in the opposite direction. And they both yearned to go back home. But old age, political tension between countries and the traumatic experience of the past made it difficult for them to go back to their ancestral lands.

Ishar Das Arora, Sparsh Ahuja’s grandfather, was born in Bela, a small village in West Punjab in 1940. Ishar was 7 years old at the time of Partition. He would walk every day to and from school in the nearby village Ziarat. He eventually moved to Delhi, India after living in many refugee camps. Photo: Project Dastaan

Sparsh and Ameena decided to embark upon a perilous—but an equally passionate—journey of preserving these stories before they fade out with a generation. A difficult mission of making sure that every partition survivor they could find, would go back home. Through virtual reality, video calls to locals who still remember them, or even an actual physical return, however difficult.

They brought in their friends, Sam Dalrymple and Saadia Gardezi, both experts on South Asian history and politics from Oxford, and thus began the flight of Project Dastaan.

Behind the scenes

Sam Dalrymple, Co-founder and Project Lead of Project Dastaan, explains what really goes into recreating the experiences in VR.

"We begin by interviewing the partition witnesses. We then use our volunteer networks [in India and Pakistan] to track down these locations and try to find any areas which may have survived. 72 years later, a lot of these places have changed. Both countries have industrialised massively since 1947. And yet, there's always something that remains in each of these villages or towns. A mosque, a well, a Mandir, maybe the neighbour's house survives. After this, we send our filming team out to recapture the areas which still survives," he says.

“We begin by interviewing the partition witnesses." Photo: Project Dastaan

"We then edit it and turn it into a full 6 minutes [360 VR] experience of those places as they exist today. This is then taken back to the original partition witness, shown to them, and then, later on, exhibited more broadly in order to educate the general public about partition." 

Illustration: Project Dastaan

Sparsh Ahuja, CEO and Founder, sheds light on how the project has evolved to focus more on outreach and education surrounding partition.

"In order to educate people, we can't just show them these spaces; we got to contextualise the whole experience. So, we came up with Child of Empire. Child of Empire isn't just a 360 experience of these places. Instead, it's an interactive, animated journey through the partition as if you were a child actually migrating. So, you're not just watching the experience of migration; you are the migrant. Any action you take along the journey will influence the narrative," he adds.

"72 years later, a lot of these places have changed. Both countries have industrialised massively since 1947. And yet, there’s always something that remains in each of these villages or towns. A mosque, a well, a Mandir, maybe the neighbour’s house survives." Photo: Project Dastaan

"In a second area of work, we explore the diversity of the experiences of 1947 Partition across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in a series of 5 animated episodes. In this exploration of communal and geographical diversity, we explore issues that are pertinent in 1947 and today, i.e. caste, class, religion, language, and gender. The series brings forth lesser-known stories from South Asia."

"We send our filming team out to recapture the areas which still survives.” Photo: Project Dastaan

"Partition is often misperceived as just something that concerns India and Pakistan, rather than a mass event that impacted everyone in the region. As an event, it is often thought of as limited to the 1940s, but migrations continued into the 1960s and the borders of India and Pakistan only became more solid in the 1960s. The story of Partition is not understood or told in a way that includes diverse communities of the region and predominantly remains an academic today. Yet it is a subject and reality that has impacted everyone in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh since decolonisation," says Sparsh.

The Bangladesh chapter

In Bangladesh, discourses regarding partition and its displaced communities are often painfully absent under the shadow of our liberation war in 1971. Quite similarly, in the general context of partition, the partition of Bengal hardly receives the spotlight in comparison with the partition of Punjab. The team of Project Dastaan thinks there are three key factors at play here.

"The first one is that since the 1970s, Bangladesh has not really attached its identity to 1947, and does not celebrate an anniversary of independence from the British Empire. Thus academic study, and literary works of the region, also don't touch upon 1947 or come to the topic as a secondary afterthought to 1971. Establishing the field of Partition studies in Bangladesh is secondary to understanding the "other Partition" of the country when it gained its independence/liberation from Pakistan in 1971," says Saadia Gardezi, co-founder and Pakistan lead of Project Dastaan.

Tracking down and reconnecting old friends through video calls in Phambra, Punjab of India. Photo: Project Dastaan

"The other issue is that of the intense violence that the partition of Punjab saw, leading to it becoming a greater part of the oral history of Partition, as well as constant tensions between India and Pakistan along the border over Kashmir. This is not to say there was no violence in Bengal, but given the political dominance of Punjabis in India and Pakistan (and the relative short-sightedness towards regional identities outside of the Hindi belt in the case of the former), it does not play into international politics of the region in the same way.

The third reason may be the language barrier. Where the histories of North India are easily shared orally, the same region has not really dealt with the history of Bangladesh and East Pakistan. To some extent, this neglect is a political decision that was taken and has led to a gap in academia and arts. It is incredibly important we tell these stories," adds Sparsh Ahuja over an email.

One of the partition survivors, Saida, takes the VR experience to pay a visit to her lost home. Photo: Project Dastaan

"The plan is to ride out the pandemic and then interview a few elderly witnesses in Bangladesh who came from West Bengal or India's North-Eastern states to take them back virtually. We're also going to be producing an animated episode on the untold history of Bengal's Partition as part of the Nat-geo funded mini-doc series," he adds when talking about the Project's scopes in Bangladesh.

The way back

"We are being driven by someone in power. We are like the pawns of a checkboard. Partition was forced onto us," as Tarapada Dey puts it. Tarapada, now 87, is a retired Assistant Commissioner of Income Tax in Kolkata. He moved to Kolkata from Dhaka in 1947 with his family and was left without a permanent residence for almost a decade.

Like Tarapada, Manjari Dasgupta, who migrated to Kolkata from Jamalpur, also recounts the partition days. "We stayed by the temple for seven days, you know. So many houses were burnt. The thought still gives me goosebumps," she says.

Diary of memoirs from one of the survivors of partition, Bashir Rai. Photo: Project Dastaan

Project Dastaan's VR experience might whisk Tarapada, Manjari and Rabin to their ancestral lands for six minutes, but it can never give back what they lost. The memories, however, might be the only things left to salvage now.

The partition of India in 1947 has left irreparable damages in the lives of its victims. But maybe, in the process, the thread of past roots has tied each of us in an invisible bond across borders. As the generation that migrated tells us their forgotten stories, the lands across the guarded fences feel like home, now more than ever. And as Sparsh Ahuja eloquently puts it, "In an ideal world, a project like this should not exist."


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