Going back home through virtual reality

Updated: 30 September, 2018 10:23 IST | Dalreen Ramos | Mumbai

Historian William Dalrymple's son Sam on working on a new project that hopes to take Partition witnesses to the land of their birth, through virtual reality

A page from the diary of Bashir Rai
A page from the diary of Bashir Rai

Over 70 years ago, British lawyer Lord Cyril Radcliffe was asked to draw a line that ultimately divided the nation, but only those whose lives were impacted by it knew of its far-reaching effects. This never found mention in history textbooks. Now, Sam Dalrymple, 21, a second-year student of Sanskrit and Persian at Oxford University, along with five others, has set out to document the more human aspect of the Partition, through Project Dastaan.

The project, lauded by Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and writer Mohsin Hamid, was first conceived by Sparsh Ahuja, also a second-year student of politics and economics at Oxford, around four months ago. "The idea is to meet Partition witnesses, track down their location pre-Partition, and using virtual reality (VR) gear, help them revisit their childhood memories," Dalrymple explains.

Sam Dalrymple (left), with Project Dastaan team members Saadia Gardezi and Sparsh Ahuja and Khalid Bashir Rai (second from right), one of the first Partition witnesses interviewed by Project Dastaan
Sam Dalrymple (left), with Project Dastaan team members Saadia Gardezi and Sparsh Ahuja and Khalid Bashir Rai (second from right), one of the first Partition witnesses interviewed by Project Dastaan

As the India coordinator at Project Dastaan, he first became acquainted with Partition through his grandfather, Sir Hew Hamilton-Dalrymple. "My grandfather was in India during that time. He even witnessed the flag-raising ceremony in Pakistan. He was quite harrowed by the upheaval caused through the separation, and he never returned to India,"
he shares.

While Sam grew up in Delhi — a city of Partition refugees, where his father, award-winning writer and historian William Dalrymple has lived for 30 years — he got interested in history after his schooling years, when he travelled across South Asia. The group is currently training in VR technology and is being mentored by Oxford VR and AR Hub. Witnesses can contact the team through their website (projectdastaan.org). The interviewing process has already taken off, starting with their own grandparents — Ishwar Das Arora and Khalid Bashir Rai, grandfathers of Ahuja and team member Saadia Gardezi respectively. While Arora settled in Delhi from Bela, a small village near Attock, Pakistan, Rai moved to Lahore from Kasba Bhural, Punjab.

The fact that people want to visit their hometowns, is what surprised Dalrymple. "I wasn't expecting this kind of interest. Learning about the personal stories of these people massively humanises the whole notion of Partition," he says, while adding that Partition narratives are largely different across countries.

"In India, we rarely hear about the role of the Muslim League in securing independence and we demonise characters like Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Whereas in Pakistan, one doesn't hear about the sacrifices made by Mahatma Gandhi or revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh. Each community blames the other and these old enmities are perpetuated by the political system or local historiographies." Dalrymple thinks there is a need to expand the political narrative, so that real stories are not lost.

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First Published: 30 September, 2018 10:18 IST

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