The Nostalgia of the Present: An Interview With Srishtee Sethi

Through her doctoral studies, Dr. Srishtee Sethi’s work centers on issues of migration and borderlands, particularly focusing on Pakistani-Hindu refugees at the western frontiers of India and Pakistan. Originally from Dehradun, Uttarakhand, Sethi grew up surrounded by stories of the 1947 Partition. Recounts of past lives from family, neighbors, and friends stayed with her, and that later inspired her to become a collector of memories that she seeks to preserve through interviews and oral histories for generations to come. This commonality led us to each other. With almost eight thousand miles between Los Angeles and Dehradun, Sethi and I have had conversations via email where we’ve discussed her work as a scholar, her active role studying and helping displaced communities who still suffer political repercussions post-1947, her ideas on research dissemination, and the ways that she is engaging with a younger audience through channels inside and outside academia to make her knowledge available. In this interview, she discusses these issues and her recent projects in which she pairs images with text reflecting on the past using nostalgia as a tool to look at some of the very important historical commonalities between India and Pakistan including religion, architecture, everyday spaces, and, most importantly, people.

*This interview has been partially edited and condensed for clarity. All images were provided by Dr. Srishtee Sethi.

Claudia Pretelin: Can you talk briefly about your motivation to do research about the Partition of India and to work with displaced communities in the South Asian region?

Srishtee Sethi: Syncretic spaces and ordinary ethics have kept me curiously motivated throughout my academic research journey. The interplay of it with displaced communities, people who have left their ‘home’, is a spiritual quagmire that I remain in through present times even after a decade of engagement through theory, praxis, field research, as well teaching opportunities.

Quoting from Veena Das, “We certainly judge the rightness of expressions or the truthfulness of our responses but this is done from within a form of life and the meaning of even a moment can take a lifetime to decipher and come to terms with” (Das, Ordinary Ethics. A Companion to Moral Anthropology. 2012). The personal has always been political in my immediate surroundings. Curiosities persisted and the quest for an alternate perspective remained with me whether it was my participation in competitive sports in a male-dominated sphere in India, admission to a premier social sciences institute of the country on the basis of sporting performance, not my scores/marks, questioning the side-lining of small-town narratives while in higher education institutes within the country, the inclusivity I experienced at institutes of higher learning in England, Finland, etc., or my constant challenge of the invasion of mainstream identity, limiting creeds, and material realities.

Small towns and villages have impacted my existence immensely, particularly the idea of a ‘hometown’ for displaced communities. Having grown up in a quaint valley town (Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India) I have relished those emotions and experiences immensely. The same town happened to be a default receiving center for several refugee families of the Partition of 1947. The town also remains an aspirational host city for migrants from the Garhwal hills, the Himalayan villages in the North. This meant that a lot of families now residing in my neighborhood and several other neighborhoods of my hometown had arrived from across international borders (a country now labelled as an enemy state) as well as the upper Himalayan belt, contributing to an amalgam of diverse communities with the specific languages, traditions, and identities.

This contributed to my curiosity about where my parents hailed from – the paternal side from Abbottabad, Northwest Frontier Province, Pakistan, and the maternal side from Tehri Garhwal, part of the upper Himalayas. While the prefix Tehri is a corrupted form of the word `Trihari` which signifies a place that washes away three types of sins, namely sins born out of thought (Mansa), word (Vacha), and deed (Karmana), the other part `Garh` means country fort. Both Abbottabad and Tehri are strong in spiritual bearings with distinct identities now residing in a common home. So it was the merging of identities, the politics of displacement, and the unavailability of explanations of a once unified history of the Subcontinent that kept me motivated to research and to study the Partition of India and to work with displaced communities in the South Asian region.

Dr. Srishtee Sethi.

CP: I understand that the studies of, and the school instruction about, the Partition were very limited in India at the time that you decided to pursue this research. Has this changed in recent years?

SS: Even if, eventually, there were sources available in very limited ways, they were never from the common man’s point of view of the Partition. Only a few literary books, such as The Other Side of Silence by Urvashi Butalia; Pinjar by Amrita Pritam; Train to India: Memories of Another Bengal by Maloy Krishna Dhar, to mention just a few, talk about the subject. But, in my opinion, it was always depicted at the nation-state level with a power dynamic at play and beyond the reach of the communities who actually went through the everyday ramifications of the Partition or the actual borderline being drawn. Therefore I had to struggle to create a sense of community and identity; of what it meant to belong to a refugee family in India – to understand it without resources available or community voices to resonate with. What was available was a group of senior citizens who rarely spoke on the issue of Partition as it was full of pathos.

It has changed in recent years, but only intermittently. A handful of resources have been put forth through formal and informal forums such as academic research and the Partition Museum. There are others, mostly limited to independent initiatives of research and knowledge sharing via social media. Public domain discussions and free access is an issue. Even 70 years after the event no institutional set up has been established. No specialized knowledge centers have been set up at a university to study and conduct research on it in India. Therefore the few contemporary discussions that exist have been self-initiated, self-funded, and almost always single handed attempts made to bring forth the narratives through community engagement and volunteer work.

CP: Can you talk about your work with Pakistani-Hindu refugees at the western frontiers of India and Pakistan?

SS: The communities I mostly engage with arrived in India after the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Other community members include refugees of the 1947 Partition of India, the last surviving generation that went through mass migration. My primary aim has always been to go beyond the mainstream discourse. For instance, in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, through community engagement, public hearing sessions, and in-depth interviews carried out at Kali Beri (an informal refugee settlement), I drew a resource map of the field-site which enabled a better understanding of the area. The houses within this area had been constructed by the migrants/refugees themselves which were semi-pucca and/or kuccha in appearance. They appeared and disappeared over the course of my field visits as the local governments would demolish them due to regulations.

Kali Beri, an informal refugee settlement in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

It also enabled me to set up an initial understanding of the location which contributed immensely to my qualitative interviews with refugee families. There was no electricity or water pipelines in the Kali Beri area. There was no evident support from the State to provide assistance to the migrants with their everyday life or livelihood. It was also understood that there was no functional Grampanchayat (village council) or Gram Sabha at the time. For all administrative as well as legal work the migrants had to travel an hour to the high court in Jodhpur. The Kali Beri field site was located on the outskirts of Jodhpur and surrounded by stone quarries and mines. These stone quarries are where most of the migrants work and earn their livelihood. This is another reason why the Pak-Hindu-Bhils want to relocate to Jaisalmer. It is not entirely an arid zone and there is relatively more agricultural land available for them to work on. The resource field site map helped me configure this. My methodologies developed further during my pilot survey and drew on a geographical study (human geography) before the actual qualitative interviews took place.

Kali Beri, an informal refugee settlement in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

Multi-sited ethnography was a key methodological approach during my fieldwork. The refugee campsite at Alcozar Nagar was a location in that respect as well as the high court in Jodhpur to name a few sites. Other locations included a high-security station where ideally only the state/central agency officials and passengers traveling to Pakistan are allowed. Negotiation with the local authorities was crucial. It was only after due permissions as well as several rounds at the North-Western Railways public relations office that I was able to explain the course of my research and the need for access to the BKT railway station premises. It should be noted that the state has its way of regulating and restricting at numerous levels. Although I had received permission from the officials at the North-Western Railways office, the chowki, or the sub-police station at the railway station, restricted my movement and conversation with the passengers of the Thar Express arriving from Munabao or the Zero point station at the Pakistan border. It then became days where I would interact with recently arrived Pak Hindu Bhils on the day of their arrival or on subsequent days when they would be placed outside the premises of the railway platform but within the railway compound.

Early on in my research I met the leader and staff of Pak Visthapith Sangh (PVS), the Border People’s Movement. Through public meetings, demonstrations, lobbying, regular meetings with government officials and leaders of political parties, PVS has highlighted the problems of the refugees, related mainly to citizenship and rehabilitation. This organization became the gatekeeper and resource center for my fieldwork and was a valuable addition to its methodological framework.

CP: How was the process of interviewing your subjects and what were some of the testimonials that you remember the most? Particularly, I’d like to focus on women and their stories.

SS: Vimla ji, who came from Sanghar district in Sindh Pakistan and resided in a kutcha house (mud house) near Dali Bai ka Mandir in Jodhpur with her five children, stated that,

“The border was drawn fifty or sixty years ago. We went there (Pakistan) before that. Much before the border was made, yes. There were camels, horses, and donkeys that we used to cross the border. It was simple. My mother has died and so has my husband. So life is difficult, very difficult. Now we have come to Jodhpur by train. We went to Bhagat ki Khoti station where there were many Hindus. All my small children came with me but the elder one stayed back in Sanghar district in Sindh Pakistan. He has his family there and did not want to come here. He comes here to visit me sometimes using the same train, the Thar Express from Karachi to Jodhpur.” (Dali Bai ka Mandir, Jodhpur October 2015)

Vimla ji, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.

The above field narrative makes apparent the unsettling nature of things that entail the life of the Pak Hindu Bhil migrants in general, but women who cross the border in particular. It strikingly speaks of divided families and the symbolic bridge that the railway line between Karachi (Pakistan) and Jodhpur (India) has become. In a way, the physical border has also taken the shape of a border between the family (in the subcontinental, Indian context this is a monumental change given the tradition-based value systems) and describes the everyday dilemma of living in separation from family members. The Bhil (indigenous/tribal) woman Vimla laments the history of the border drawing and sees it as a constant legislative struggle that they were put through afterward. The idea of a porous border was strong in her imagination and the idea of state a foreign concept. Eventually, it is understood by her that the state governs all actions and they get especially pronounced around the borderlands given the centrality of security concerns. The dilemma of the Pak Hindu Bhils illustrates my argument regarding location and identity conflict through layers of vulnerability in an already historically marginalized community.

CP: If any, which advocacy groups or community leaders are actively working toward better policies to help displaced communities to achieve citizenship rights? What are some specific actions that these groups or leaders are pursuing?

The few organizations that have remained relentless in their efforts towards helping the Pak-Hindu cross border migrants are only a couple of community-based organizations (CBOs). Pak Visthapith Sangh (Border People’s Movement) and Seemant Lok Sangathan (based out of Jodhpur Rajasthan) were the only grassroots organizations working with these communities under the leadership of Mr. HS Sodha. During the time I did fieldwork, between 2012 and 2015 and until this day, PVS and SLS have been the changemakers and the main advocacy groups for the cross border migrants.

CP: What are the plans to call further attention to the issues you address in your research?

SS: In the near future, a project titled ‘Un-Partitioned’ is underway. It is a short film on ‘small town narratives of the Partition” located in Dehradun but it could be any other small town affected by the implications of the divide in 1947. It is an emotional, nostalgic as well experimental deep dive into an everyday understanding of the Partition from the perspective of a generation that didn’t live to tell the tale. Inspired by my research, this short film will focus on the idea of home and therefore leaving or belonging, with an artwork that is produced as a result of the communication during the film. This is a collaborative project directed by Yashasvi Juyal.

I am constantly participating in international and national conferences of Anthropology, Sociology as well as Cultural studies. I will present my research at the Royal Anthropological Institute and SOAS conference in September. I am contributing to several publications in the form of book chapters, journal articles as well as online webinar participation. My academic book manuscript is also underway and it will specifically address the vacuum on anthropological understandings as well as epistemological questions of borderland communities and cross border mobility in the South Asian context. My goal fundamentally remains to bridge the articulations that presently divide and marginalize small-town voices, non-English speaking groups outside higher education institutes in India.

CP: On a daily basis, you’re constantly using social media platforms such as Instagram to talk about your doctoral research, your interests, and to highlight invisibilized groups like the Pak-Hindu Bhils. In your opinion, do you think academia should work towards a more accessible and understandable strategy to reach out to a wider audience using these channels?

SS: Absolutely. The Ivory Tower functions as this imaginary space of academics disconnected from the rest of the world. Speaking from the point of view of the social sciences, although research happens about the world and its people it never reaches them. The information produced in academia is distributed in closed circles like conferences and only among academics. The language academics use, the restricted access to higher education, the way academic positions are advertised and filled, and the lack of genuine efforts to expand knowledge systems of inclusion is seriously problematic. 

Specific to the Indian context, the government needs to change or introduce new policies to encourage a more robust way of engaging with diverse research topics. Funding incentives to support full-time research jobs and providing forums and other platforms that encourage community involvement. Introducing more open channels as well as truly valuable field-based research studies that have a ton of potential to influence policy makers are some of the changes that need to be made. 

CP: On the same note, can you talk about your series “Sentinels of the Border: Lahore, Nostalgia and Home” and your work documenting these memories to share on social media?

SS: The lockdown reminded me of some of the most important things that I was unable to do so far. One of them was writing down about my trip to Lahore, Pakistan from New Delhi, India. Now, it’s not every day that one gets a chance to hop on a bus to Gulberg, Lahore from Delhi Gate in India and that’s what made it even more enthralling, the uncertainty attached to the whole process. Both the countries keep changing their visa issuance protocols, restrictions and cross border travel policies depending on the bilateral relations of the time.

I am trying to write this piece down in parts since emotions don’t exist in whole or all at the same time. It is going to shape into a photo essay/series where there is cross- border locations & space, history, facts, relearning and unlearning of platitudes, revisiting a liminal South Asian identity. It is an attempt to overlap my journey from India to Lahore, Pakistan with my grandparents’ journey from Lahore to India in parts to unravel ordinary occurrences, their significance within the frames of nostalgia. This is also work in progress for an upcoming book proposal and for my ongoing project on small-town narratives of the Partition. The aim is to move beyond the idea of binary when it comes to the two countries India and Pakistan and it’s everyday lived realities. Trying to dismantle it one photograph at a time by focusing on a common shared history of language, space, spirituality, traditions as well as human behavior. I’m calling the series #nostalgiaofthepresent as well.

CP: What’s your favorite instrument of memory?

SS: Plants, verandah (frontyard), chai (tea), the mundanities of everyday life.

It is in the simple pleasures in which complexities of life are understood. Humankind is capable of so much understanding but we keep ourselves restricted from reaching that elevated self. The lockdown represents the astonishment as well as the relief. It gives us the opportunity to understand that mundanity is in fact a gift, a gift that keeps giving! In mundanity one spends time with the self and there lies the essence of human existence. It reminds me of the couplets often mentioned by Sufi poets and now transformed into gazals. We are going through this phase for a reason, a reason that does not need an explanation but in fact living through the hours of silence. Nature mocks us and builds us up, it is for us to stay awake through the building up and sleep during the lull, that is how our soul is enriched. It is this balance that will present peace within, never without.

Thank you, Srishtee!

Dr. Srishtee Sethi largely works within the ambit of Borderlands and Migration. She recently completed her Assistant Professor position at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. Dr. Srishtee has joined the ‘Chatra Aspirational District’ team (Govt of India and TISS knowledge partnership) as a Post-Doctoral Fellow. She has been a Citizen Historian recording oral histories of 1947 Partition witnesses and has organized events such as the Voices of Partition at TISS Mumbai, refugee, and stateless exhibitions as well as hosted events such as the Museum of Memories at the India Culture Lab, Mumbai. She is a TEDx speaker and has elaborated on the ‘idea of home’ for refugee groups and refugee identity traversing through her own extended family history affected by the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan.

If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Srishtee Sethi’s work follow her on social media @srishtee.sethi

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