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Virtual reality reconnects casualties of Partition with ancestral homes

Digital project comes out of Oxford University initiative

Sayyed Abrar, one of the 75 participants in Project Dastaan, watches a 3D simulation of his childhood from his home in Fresno, U.S. He and his wife, Musarrat, migrated from Pakistan in 1947 and have not been able to visit since. (Courtesy of Project Dastaan)

NEW DELHI -- Seated on a sofa in her home in London, an elderly Pakistani woman is quietly absorbed in the digital world unfolding inside a cutting-edge virtual reality device placed over her eyes.

More than 70 years after the most dramatic episode of her life -- her flight from India to Pakistan on the eve of the Partition of British India in August 1947 -- Saida Siddiqui is watching a computer-generated simulation of her childhood in an interactive, 3D VR environment.

Siddiqui is one of 75 participants in the events of 1947 who are working with Project Dastaan, an Oxford University-backed VR peace-building initiative that is reconnecting displaced survivors of Partition with their childhood through bespoke 360-degree digital experiences. Dastaan means "tale" or "story" in many Indian and Central Asian languages.

All the survivors involved with Project Dastaan were among the millions of residents of British India displaced by the partition of the colonial state into independent India and Pakistan, whose eastern territories became the separate state of Bangladesh in 1971. Amid intercommunal violence, many Hindus fled east to independent India, while many Muslims fled west to Pakistan -- including Siddiqui, who crossed from Lucknow, now the capital of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to Karachi.

Project Dastaan grew directly out of family memories of Partition. "A year ago, I and [co-founder] Ameena Malak sat down over a coffee and exchanged our grandparents' stories of Partition," said Sparsh Ahuja, an Oxford University student who directs the project. Ahuja's grandfather, Ishar Das Arora, who was 7 at the time of Partition, lived in a village called Bela in what is now Pakistan. He eventually moved to Delhi, "after living in many refugee camps and escaping mass-scale communal violence," Ahuja told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Top: Saida Siddiqui, who fled from India to Pakistan on the eve of Partition, holds a portrait of herself at a younger age in her London home. Bottom: Siddiqui reconnects with her past with the help of wearable technology. (Courtesy of Project Dastaan)

Malak's grandfather, Ahmed Rafiq, migrated in the opposite direction, from Hoshiarpur in what is now India to Lahore in Pakistan. Both grandparents yearned to go back home, but never realized their dreams because of advancing age, the traumatic aftermath of their experiences and the impact of subsequent wars between India and Pakistan. Seven decades after Partition it remains difficult to cross the India-Pakistan border. But the two grandchildren realized that, even if their grandparents could not physically return to their homes, they could be brought back via VR.

Other Project Dastaan team members share these family links to Partition. Saadia Gardezi grew up listening to her mother's stories about refugees she had helped in Lahore, while Sam Dalrymple is a grandchild of the late Sir Hew Fleetwood Hamilton-Dalrymple, a British officer stationed in India during the last years of British rule. Dalrymple, whose father is the British historian William Dalrymple, said his grandfather was so disturbed by the events of Partition that he never wanted to visit family in Delhi.

The team connects to Partition survivors through social media, although witnesses can also submit their stories through the project's website. "One refugee we have shown the VR experience to 'teared up' and told us we had transported him back into his childhood," said Dalrymple. "We are still editing the remaining eight [sessions] that we filmed last month. It's a deeply emotional experience. Sometimes we have even called the refugees from their hometowns, and they get very emotional."

Top: Ishar Das Arora, grandfather of Project Dastaan director Sparsh Ahuja, was 7 at the time of Partition. Ahuja, below, said his grandfather moved to Delhi "after living in many refugee camps and escaping mass-scale communal violence." (Courtesy of Project Dastaan)

Despite being only just over a year old, Project Dastaan has earned support from Oxford University's Global Area Studies Department, Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, and influential figures in the VR world such as Gabo Arora, a former creative director of the United Nations. The project has also earned funding of $30,000 from the CatchLight Fellowship, a San Francisco-based nongovernmental organization, and the team was invited to speak at the U.K. Parliament.

Besides the 360-degree VR experiences, Project Dastaan is also at work on "Child of Empire," a documentary that will put viewers in the shoes of a 1947 Partition migrant, and will be presented at film festivals.

Dalrymple said Project Dastaan also aims to map contrasting experiences of Partition in various parts of India and Pakistan. "In Indian Punjab and Calcutta, for example, virtually every Partition witness we have spoken to has lamented leaving their homes, and expressed a wish for the two countries to be friends again," he said. "By contrast, the Rajasthani Partition witnesses that we interviewed were more critical of Pakistan and seemed less interested in returning to their ancestral lands. As a result of this, one of our main aims in the project has become to highlight the geographical variety of Partition experiences."

Top: Through a video call, a villager from Phambra, in the Indian state of Punjab, reconnects with a project participant from the same village who now lives in London. Bottom: Ahuja, kneeling, and other team members film 360-degree shots at the Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi. (Courtesy of Project Dastaan) 

But the most important aspect of Project Dastaan is probably that it is driven by Indians, Pakistanis and Britons who are trying to make sense of how the history of Partition affects the present. It is hoped that the project will keep inspiring young Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis to reflect on the strife between their countries and to try to change opinions for the benefit of future generations.

"Given how viciously the hatreds unleashed by Partition still divide India and Pakistan today, it's critical that new generations come to grips with what happened and why," said Nisid Hajari, author of "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition," an award-winning history of Partition and the ensuing violence.

"We've received very positive reactions from millennials," said Ahuja, who thinks that second- or third-generation descendants of the survivors are probably the most committed and enthusiastic supporters of Project Dastaan. "We surprisingly find a lot of our leads through Instagram," he added. "These young people know modern media and use it to help survivors who are not tech-savvy enough to tell their life experiences. They often send in stories of their grandparents for us to track down."

Hajari added: "Any technology that can help Indians and Pakistanis better appreciate the experience of their forefathers, on both sides of the border, is to be welcomed. With luck, these virtual trips will be just the precursor to physical journeys across the border, in both directions, so the two sides can see firsthand how much more unites them than divides them."

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