‘Partition’ is still a sore word for those who endured its ravages, but a group of Oxford University students is trying to meld technology and memory to heal the hurt. “The Partition resulted in the stripping away of the fundamental identity of those who bore the brunt of it,” says Sparsh Ahuja, a philosophy, politics and economics student and the founder and director of Project Dastaan. “We need to explore how we can undo some of that erasure.”
The virtual reality initiative, which aims to reconnect people displaced during the Partition with their ancestral villages and neighbourhoods in India and Pakistan, was sparked by 21-year-old Ahuja’s family history. “Each time I met my maternal and paternal grandfathers, they’d unfailingly recount their childhood in Bela and Dera Ghazi Khan in Pakistan,” he says, “and the gilli-danda they played in the streets, their slangs, and their seasonal rituals.” Ahuja would always find himself moved by the longing in their voices.
But it was only when he and his Pakistani friend and Oxford colleague Ameena Malak, 20, got talking about their countries—and she told him about her grandfather’s memories of his childhood in Hoshiarpur in India—that the project began to take shape. Malak came on board as co-founder and education lead, and they were soon joined by another colleague Sam Dalrymple, 21, a Sanskrit and Persian scholar, whose grandfather had served as a British officer in India in the 1940s. While Dalrymple handles operations, Pakistani journalist Saadia Gardezi, 31, is the project lead across the border. Her grandfather Bashir Rai was one of the first people to share their accounts of Partition.
The team, under the mentorship of award-winning immersive VR artist, film-maker and creative director at the United Nations, Gabo Arora—is currently working to build a pool of budding film-makers and editors in India, Pakistan and the UK, who will film the streets in laborious detail. The immersive VR experience, which will draw on the oral accounts of 25 survivors and be narrated in their voices, will be created in collaboration with the Oxford VR and AR Hub.
Talks are also underway to install the footage at the National History Museum, Lahore, and the Partition Museum in Amritsar. And in February 2019, Ahuja and his team will go to British Parliament to discuss how Project Dastaan can be a part of the UK-based National Partition Commemoration Project and be included in the National Curriculum’s Partition history lessons. Perhaps remembering is the only way to forget the pain.