Guest post by ARCHIT GUHA
By this point, every Indian, Pakistani, and their grandfathers has watched the Google Partition ad, tears welled up in their eyes. For the uninitiated, Google’s recent advertisement tugs at heartstrings, telling the tale of two chaddi buddies, separated by Partition, and reunited by their grandchildren nearly seventy years later. When the ad went viral via Facebook, sitting thousands of miles away in America, I bawled as I watched the granddaughter listening to her grandfather’s nostalgic retelling of the idyllic life he led in Lahore, eating jhajhariya, with his buddy Yusuf, and his granddaughter’s instant Google fixes to reunite him with Yusuf in Delhi.
Even the coldest of hearts would be warmed, no doubt—the post-Partition bonhomie finally coming to life, nearly seventy years later and crossing the monumental hurdles of cross-border visas and travel. I suspect Google’s audience was India and Pakistan’s millennial kids like myself who stand two generations removed from the historical moment(s) we have now come to define as Partition, and have bare connections to the mass violence and exoduses, we have now come to associate with it. Memory, inter-generational bonding, and even partitions and reunifications have been tropes used in advertising for eons (for example, AT&T’s ad post the fall of the Berlin Wall), but we ought to be asking ourselves as young South Asians whether past the emotional manipulation orchestrated by corporations, we think of Partition as part of our regional consciousness, and if we do, are we ready for a Partition reunion party, Google style?
Indian Express reports that Ogilvy, the agency behind the ad, was given a free hand in coming up with the plot for Google, as long as they saw “how meaningful the search engine is in real life”. It is no secret that getting visas to India as a Pakistani and vice versa has been a near impossibility for much of recent history, so Google’s technological fixes to trenchant political divides comes off as not only simplistic, but also plain insensitive. Abhijit Avasthi, the head of Ogilvy India, says “the whole point” was to “tell people that those memories are in the past, that there is a way to revive your connections with your loved ones”. We can brush off advertising as innocuous beyond its short life on screen, but the fact that corporations like Google now find remedies to Partition in “real life” makes me feel like those of us who are two generations removed from Partition need to understand it in all of its complexity and reality, continuing to examine what it does indeed mean in our real lives beyond Google’s quick fixes.
It is only in the past two decades that we have been able to come to see Partition as a process rather than an event dictated purely by male driven political machinations, through the likes of Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi, Patel, and the colonial enterprise. Urvashi Butalia, in uncovering The Other Side of Silence showed us that Partition within families and outside of it, is not a “closed chapter of history”, but rather it lives on, across borders, in its “divisions and contradictions”. She began delving into personal histories post the 1984 riots, seeing it as a way to make sense of how deeply Partition impacted Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs across the India-Pakistan divide for many decades after. As we stand at the cusp of elections, with Narendra Modi and the BJP threatening to centre-stage again, it becomes imperative that we do not forget 1992-3 and 2002 as isolated, random moments of hysteric violence. Partition does indeed continue to have ramifications, and I fear as a generation, growing up in brusque neoliberal India, we are forgetting the fractured, fragmented histories of our region, and accepting the Hindu-Muslim divide as primordially rooted, blinded by the ‘development models’ and projected GDP growth rates that we see us our destined path to capitalist modernity and national security, framing communal and gender violence as collateral damage. Corporations like Google’s depiction of Partition as a simply an artifact of history in “our past” can similarly lead to gross ignorance of how Partition continues to be in our present. School textbooks (at least in India) teach us to celebrate Independence, but often forget Partition, and with ads like Google’s circulating in the diaspora where knowledge of regional history is even scarcer to come by, thinking of ourselves as post-Partition might be easy. The political complexities of thinking of ourselves as post-Partition notwithstanding, Google does well to underscore that Partition is as much a people’s history as it is a political one, especially since more recent popular cultural visitations of Partition through Bollywood like Gadar and Veer Zara vilified the Pakistani state only to pander to the anti-Pakistan sentiments rife in the country. The India-Pakistan divide, has, in fact, ostensibly become the only way for us to reflect on Partition and its afterlives.
As someone whose grandparents’ families migrated from what is today Bangladesh to India circa 1947, I am often surprised at how little knowledge there is of the Partition on the Eastern border, and the impact continues to have till today. After watching the ad, I wished Google had done a Calcutta/Dhaka rendition to represent the other side, but that would have hardly helped remedy the simplistic spin. It also makes sense that advertisers do not engage with it because it presents a far more complicated narrative than of two enemies (India-Pakistan) reuniting. The protracted effects of Partition on the increased securitization of the India-Bangladesh border, and the precariousness of several Bengali Muslims who continue to be suspected to be “illegal”/”Bangladeshi” bear testimony to how even over half a century later, Partition is not a settled deal that can simply be forgotten or transcended. Take for example, the case of Felani Khatun in 2011, a teenage girl who was returning to Bangladesh, shot dead by a Border Security Force guard whom the courts later acquitted. The mass violence around 1947 cost many women and men their lives and homes, but to delude ourselves into thinking that we have moved beyond that—that those are simply memories narrated to us by our grandparents’ generation, which we have moved far beyond is a dangerous myth to live by. Whether we believe it or not, corporations are now co-opting Partition into a party that can further their market share in South Asia: not an entirely benign colonization, especially if we take the mythologies propagated by these corporates into account.
A Coke ad earlier in the year attempted to do what Google did, bringing young Indians and Pakistanis together through ‘small-world machines’. The conquest of Partition and the poetic possibility of reunions by American corporations is not entirely new as we have been subject to several Indian and Pakistani players beef up their bank accounts parading for cola companies together reifying nationalistic fervor—watching two old men relive their childhoods as they revel in the rain has a different cadence than the plain jingoism of yore, however. The consensus world over has moved towards applauding Google for bringing to life the human face to Partition with its technological solutions to the greatest human exodus our region has ever faced. Veteran filmmaker, MS Sathyu who gave us the Partition classic, Garam Hawa, and plays Yusuf in the ad, said to Indian Express, “I don’t work on a computer and I have no idea what Google is. But I am glad to be part of what I thought was a very sentimental story.” We may rely on Google for our daily technological needs as well as inducing our lachrymal glands into thinking about ourselves in a post-Partition party, but we also need to work towards complicating that narrative, understanding the process in all of its complexity and indeed sentimentality.
Now that sometime has passed since the ad first came out, and public memory of the ad, let alone Partition is ebbing, it would be worth taking better stock of Partition’s deep historical roots and pushing for a more complete, complicated picture than Google provides us, rather than simply celebrating a fictive reunion that shows far from a complete version of our real past or present.