Pippa Virdee’s book From Ashes of 1947: Reimagining Punjab deals with every theme a Punjabi is often concerned with when it comes to the 1947 partition and the ensuing migration, refugee crisis and resettlement. The book also deals with the Punjabi language’s decline, the miscarriage of the partition plan and the innumerable women that suffered in silence. The subsequent fractures that appeared in the post-partition societies were unusual and have never been scrutinised properly. The explores the linguistic evolution, intensifying of religious identities on both the sides and new nationalistic narratives on both sides of the Punjab. These are all issues that are still relevant but unexplored. One reason for this neglect is that both India and Pakistan have been interpreting their histories through their nationalistic narratives or the prevalent political discourse. Another reason is that the scale of the tragedy and trauma prevented those who suffered it from re-examining it. However, seven decades have passed and there is indeed a need to for “reimagining” Punjab in the light of the partition. “While it is often referred to a transfer of power, this was not a smooth process by any means,” says Virdee. “The transfer of power was initially planned for June 1948, the date changed to August 1947, which effectively left no time to prepare a smooth transfer of power and even less time to consider how the country would be divided. Cyril Radcliffe the barrister in charge was given six weeks to draw a line, which incidentally was only made public on 17 August. Thus, millions of people woke up to a new dawn not knowing which country they belonged to. The violence in Punjab, and elsewhere in India, also ended the hopes of restoring the May 1946 Cabinet Mission’s proposals for a united India. To a large extent, the British administration was keen to exit as soon as possible to avoid being embroiled in a prolonged civil conflict. On the other hand, the long road to freedom had exhausted many and so they were too focused on the end game to foresee the repercussions of this partition, especially in terms of the forced migration.” Most of the popular notions and images of the Indian partition are misinformed. The mass violence and sex crimes committed against women need to be examined through the witness accounts of the survivors. This will add to our understanding of the complexity of the event. There were women who escaped, survived, returned to their families of origins, sometimes unwillingly, forced to stay with new families, fought their way to safety or were eventually forced to separate from their children. There are so many stories and destinies that are a part of the subcontinent’s history yet completely neglected. However, Virdee asks the deeper, more nuanced and modern questions of identities, both personal and national, the influence of migration, violence, national politics and oral history on it. As a researcher, Virdee is on the people’s side, she explores “micro-history” to help us discover the “meta-history”. “I have spent the last seventeen years collecting accounts of people who experienced this first-hand themselves, in both India and Pakistan,” she says. “Despite religious differences, there is a common thread of the human tragedy that unites them.” Virdee travelled to both the Indian and Pakistani sides of Punjab and traced the history of the people and towns she writes about. Not being able to explore Punjab on both the sides is a limitation of many South Asian researchers. And those who can travel to both sides often don’t understand the historical and linguistic ethos of Punjab. However, Virdee has no such baggage. She even sheds the academic jargon that must have been initially a part of her research and adopts a more candid expression. She explores the past of women survivors, the histories of smaller towns like Ludhiana and Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) on both sides of Punjab and the eventual resettlement of refugees, not just literally but also emotionally – the “cleansing” of “hearts and minds.” Virdee also visited Malerkotla, a Muslim majority municipal in the pre-partition east Punjab that experienced no communal violence in 1947. She meets the people and carves out an intimate portrait of the multi-religious community that withstood the onslaught of partition. Though Virdee focuses on the narratives of people, she doesn’t lose sight of history or the bigger picture. She does place everything in its historical perspective. And this makes this book an effective read for those willing to introduce themselves to the history of Punjab and partition. The chapters in the book are stitched together with an iconic poem. Some of these poems are adopted from English, for example, W.H. Auden’s poem Partition written in 1966. But others are English translations of poetic gems in Punjabi. Ahmed Rahi, Baba Farid, Firoz Din Sharaf, Bulleh Shah, Ramanand Sagar, Ahmad Salim and Mian Muhammad Baksh are unlikely names to be found in a history book. But no so unusual if you are dealing with the history of Punjab, the land of five rives and many poets. After all, what is Punjabi without its oral history and poetic tradition? Virdee is a senior faculty member of the Modern South Asian History at the De Montfort University in England. This book is thoroughly researched. In fact, when it comes to the impact of partition on Punjab, Virdee has left no stone unturned. But the book is thoroughly readable and highly recommended. It is reader-friendly despite being exhaustive and a labor of love. She had infused the photos she took, the narratives, maps, texts worth quoting, poems that were relevant and almost every thinkable issue related to the topic together in this book. Unlike other scholars, Virdee acknowledges the measures taken by authors, particularly fiction writers like Manto and poets like Amrita Pritam, to fill the gaps in narratives. Virdee rightly acknowledges that these voices broke the silence over the trauma decades before the actual survivors did. She also appreciates the work of visual artists like Amar Kanwar and Nalini Malani in improving our understanding of the Indian partition. Despite the grimness and gravity of the topic, Virdee has retained the optimism. Her attempt to “reimagine” and rehash the story of Punjab’s from the ashes is genuine. “Despite religious differences, there is a common thread of the human tragedy that unites them,” says Virdee. “They have all lost their ancestral homes and lands and they all suffered from this forced migration of people. While we unearth these accounts, we should also keep in mind how can these histories help heal the wounds of people permanently divided. How do India and Pakistan reconcile this traumatic history going forward?” No province had the kind of history as Punjab does in both India and Pakistan. The sheer scale of violence in Punjab during 1947 was unprecedented in India and perhaps the rest of the world too. There is a need for “new history” as Virdee mentions in her book, and this history has to be more sensitive to the people it deals with. In my opinion, the first step should begin with reading her comprehensive book and allowing it to help us in “reimagining” Punjab as well as the partition. The second step should be savoring the poetry she has collected in this volume. And the last step should be to recommend this book and its translation to other readers. Just like I am going to now… The writer is based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her work is available on www.ammaraahmad.com Published in Daily Times, August 9th 2018.