Reena Kapoor and Anurag Wadehra

Recorded May 7, 2015 Archived May 7, 2015 38:28 minutes
0:00 / 0:00
Id: sfb003213


Anurag Wadehra (52) interviews his wife, Reena Kapoor (49), about her involvement in the 1947 Partition Archive Project. Reena talks about the legend of her grandmother and her experience as a survivor of the Partition. Reena also talks about the importance of history, remembering and healing.

Subject Log / Time Code

R talks about where she grew up and the meaning of 'home.'
R talks about her grandmother and the impact she's had on her.
R tells the story of her grandmother fleeing, returning, and escaping Peshawar during the Partition.
R tells the story of how her grandmother returned from Peshawar with her family's gold.
R talks about the 1947 Partition Archive and its purpose.
R talks about what she gains from interviewing survivors of the Partition.
R talks about what surprises her from the interviews.
R talks about the importance of history.
R talks about what she's most proud of.
R talks about how she wants to be remembered.
A talks about how lucky he feels about creating a home with R and their daughter.


  • Reena Kapoor
  • Anurag Wadehra

Recording Location


Venue / Recording Kit

Partnership Type



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00:03 My name is Andrew. Guidera. I'm 52 and today is May 7th 2015. We are in San Francisco library in San Francisco, and I'm talking to Reena Kapoor. Who is my wife.

00:22 I am Reena Kapoor. And today's date is May 7th. 2015. I'm 49 years old and we are located in the San Francisco Public Library in California. And I am being interviewed by anurag what are also happens to be my husband.

00:45 Serena grew up in different cities tell me about that. Yeah, I did. I actually grew up in India but all over India in different cities because my father was so in the Indian army. He happened to be a doctor in the Indian army. So we would get transferred every two three four years two different places.

01:07 Love tell me how you came to put routes in, California.

01:12 Well, I grew up in India and went to college in New Delhi and I went to engineering college at the at the Indian Institute of Technology. And at some point I decided I wanted to go to the United States for graduate school. And that was not uncommon in in those days. A lot of mycenae has followed a similar path. So, you know when somebody that wanted to go travel the world, but I was wanted to see what America is like and graduate school in the US provided a ticket to do that because one if you had reasonable grades you could qualify for a scholarship and do you know they were good universities. So the education you go out here in the United States would actually hold you in good stead in the future. So I applied at the end of my

02:12 Undergraduate degree and and came to the United States and then have just followed us acutis bath of you know, rad school and working and eventually made my made my way to Silicon Valley and that was about 16 + years ago, I guess and once I came to California, I just stayed. What do you consider this your home?

02:39 Home is a tricky one for me because as I mentioned, I guess I would say home is where my garden is and I guess for now that's where my garden is. So California is my home. Tell me about your Nanny your grandmother.

02:58 My Nani

03:01 She's actually passed away in 1986 when I was an undergrad in college studying engineering and I didn't realize then how much of an impact she actually had on me and how much of an inspiration she would she had been and would continue to be even now. I'm almost 50 and to this day. I I think of and I need inspiration. She was a remarkable woman. She's a legend in our family and a lot of it has to do with who she was and how she came to be game to manifest who she was in the specific context off partition and partition when I see partition. I'm referring to the partition of India in 1947. I think my

04:01 My grandmother was in her thirties at the time. Nobody really knows exactly how old he was. But in 1947 when India won independence from the British as part of their departure, one of the very unfortunate things that happened to India was that it was partitioned into two, you know what to be to create the to create the country of Pakistan which was supposedly the the Homeland for the Muslims of India and and India itself remains a secular country. And in fact even today about 15% of India's population is Muslim, but I guess the powers that be at the time Indian leaders including secular leaders Muslim leaders Hindu leaders and the British got together and divide and divided India into two and Pakistan was created.

05:01 Now the problem was that there were a number of Hindus and Sikhs who lived in the western part of India Punjab Pakistan and similar tragedy occurred on the India side with a lot of Muslims lived in India and and forced to flee a lot of ethnic conflict ensued between the Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs actually for that matter and many other communities minority communities afford as well as a lot of Violence by some estimates of 14 million people were displaced and in that

05:44 In that five-year period during and after partition it is estimated that almost 1% of the population of the world at that time was the space and it just considered the largest migration or displacement of people at the world has ever experienced by some estimates almost two million people were killed in numerable women were raped and mutilated and you know families with devastated people lost their assets and property and all their belongings on both sides and just every community that either witnessed a Survivor audition suffered greatly both in terms of material, but also of loss of life and lemon Insanity in peace and and everything else know. I know you asked me what my grandmother would I wanted to paint the context of how she came to be the legend is she is in our family

06:44 So this is my maternal grandmother talking about is Nani. She was my mother's mother is she was in 1946 due to an unfortunate freak accident. She lost her husband and she lived in Peshawar. And if you look at the map, you'll see if a shower is on the northwest Frontier of Pakistan and it is it is in the region which even to this day. It continues to be very problematic can and difficult and even at that time it was a very conservative region women didn't go out alone. And even when they went out they went out with their heads completely covered and the bail. This was not just a Muslim women, but even the Hindu Punjabi Sikh women are women just didn't step out without their face is completely covered and they didn't appear in front of strangers or other men.

07:44 You know what their faces unveiled by Nani live dead husband. They had five children, they all lived and I'm told they were very wealthy. My grandfather had the very first motor car in the region in that area and Melanie talks about how he would travel abroad and and once he went to Europe and brought back high heel shoes for her which in those days was, you know, very unusual so she would tell us about it when my sister and I were teenagers in India and then of course we would listen to wonder what the big deal was, but now I understand much better, of course, so she had five children in 1946 a husband dies in a freak accident. She is now a young Widow

08:35 A year later The Winds of partition has started blowing and that are rumors everywhere that India is going to be partitioned. And if it does get partition, there is no question that the shower will fall on on in Pakistan, which means that if it does happen that is going to be chaos and they're going to not be able to live where they have lived for Generations. She's a young Widow and as I mentioned her context is that she cannot function independently very easily. She needs a lot of support from the other man, you know in her life whether it be her oldest, son who within a year was fortunately working, but he was working in the Indian army and at the time of flirtation was actually in Hong Kong was working in Hong Kong as a as a military officer and her other children were much younger. So she and when the wind started blowing that would be fires all over.

09:35 She told us about how they would go up on the rooftops and be able to see fires and in the distance where mobs by setting fire to homes or looting and killing and otherwise causing destruction. My mother would tell us how my grandmother would get all the kids together often and tell them that look if something happens at what I want you to do is Flee for Your Life don't at that minute think always my mother. Let me go find her or you know, look for me you have to flee for your life and my mother talks about this even today she can talk about it without tears in her eyes because it was a very fearful time but my grandmother

10:22 Basically realize that it was she was the one who had to do something and and get out of there. So what was remarkable also was that she thought that end in this is not unique to her a lot of the elders at the time thought that partition, you know, these rumors would handle that would be violence and and probably, you know, all sorts of chaos, but once that died down people would be able to return to their homes. So they fully expected. Just like they had lived for centuries with other communities. That one's partition actually took place or you know didn't take place. But whenever the Cable Guy down there all be able to return to the homes So based on that assumption, she collected a few of their belongings because they really you don't want it to get out of there without too much.

11:22 Collected a few of their belongings. I guess a few bits of jewelry because gold was you know, your major asset and source of wealth in those times and money and took her children and and somehow got on a train and the train took them to India and she was a remarkable lady because he was traveling alone. I most I also came to know later that her brother is who lived in the same town actually left with their families on their own beforehand and she was pretty much left in some ways to fend for herself, but with the help of friends and I don't know all the details because not all of the details, you know where we're told me she somehow got on a train with the children and left and in those days train was really the only viable means of Transport that got you out quickly and and the distance between Peshawar and India is quite was quite great friends.

12:22 Who is faster they do today and a picture of a mirror on the Western and North West Frontier. So she she got out and she brought her children to India. And this was before petition to partition asked you to play song August 15th 1947. So she got out. I don't know exactly but probably in like July or something now, once they reach India she had from somebody she knew offered her a house that they had in India in in a small town called her so she took her children and she went bad and you don't start living there and there was some other family members who were nearby and and so they they started living there now with I guess if a short amount of time they realized that partition was a reality and there was no going back. So she realized that she had nothing she had four children to raise.

13:22 One foot in the deep is working and she basically had nothing with which to raise them and she didn't have a husband who worked and she didn't work. She was only educated up to 4th grade. You know, she was a very intelligent and wise woman, but she she don't have any skills that do, you know Bible in terms of order and socially and culturally to do not like she could go out and get a job. So when she realized that I need to go back to Peshawar and collect my gold and come back now that was just a crazy crazy crazy idea everybody around her.

14:05 Basically told her if you're going to go back you never coming back you're basically going to or from your children because the trains in those days which again as I mentioned before was the only viable means were going into Pakistan and coming out of Pakistan into India filled with nothing but dead bodies. So what would happen is a drain filled with refugees would leave Pakistan to come to India and vice-versa train filled with refugees leaving India to go to Pakistan would be stopped on the way by mobs and the entire train Lord would be murdered women would be raped children would be slaughtered. So with the men and those dead bodies would be on the train and those drains filled with blood than and categories would reach the other end. And this was the context in which she was planning to go back to Peshawar to pick up a to basically collect some assets with which she could raise her children because she had no other

15:05 And everyone said well then bid you goodbye and Reba do goodbye to because you're not going to make it and she said well, I'm going to go anyway, so The Story Goes that she got on a train and she went back and she met with a friend of hers in Peshawar who she had communicated to the trees coming back because she needs to look like to gold and they must have been some exchange of information and I don't know the specifics of how that information was reached to her friend, but somehow the friend you to go into the house and get the gold get sufficient amount or whatever was available and she wrapped it up in rotis.

15:51 Physically Indian bread she wrapped it up and she brought it to my grandmother and said to her or I brought food for you to take back for your journey and I guess both friends somehow knew that there was gold in there and my grandmother took that and got back on the train and I believe that on her Journeys back and forth. She if there was no incident or attack. So whatever she would just basically pretend like she she was either dead or part of the massacre and and just somehow managed to survive both Journeys and

16:37 And made it back and

16:40 She came back to India.

16:44 And it was a medical. I mean everyone in the family talks about it to this day how she did it. Nobody knows and she made it back and was then use the gold I guess to raise her children and every child of hers went to college they all grow up to be independent and worked and went on to have education than families and settle down and that was all her doing one woman alone in that Society in that context. So that's the reason she is an inspiration and always will be very close to me. I love. Of course. I also fought with her a lot. But when I was a teenager, but she will always be very close to me and my heart is someone I love but more than love. I just deeply deeply deeply admire her on you and also

17:44 I think of you got some of her spirit and stunk. So tell me about 1947 project and particularly. What's the role of a citizen historian?

17:56 Yasso ization is called the 1947 partition archive and you can go to 19447 1947 partition and learn more about the organization. It was founded by a very bright and Visionary a woman Benita Singh bolla and she's the founder and executive director. The mission of the archive is really to collect and archive and store for posterity and for education and historical research and for creating a public citizen Narrative of partition of India, which happened as I mentioned before 1947. So what is the tragedies amongst the many tragedies of 1947 was that not only did the partition take place and there were so many people lost their lives and livelihoods.

18:56 Family members in and other losses, but the government at the time the government of India, which is who I can speak to really just buried it away and swept it all under the rug know some of the logic behind that was to avoid for the conflict and strife and to keep the communities.

19:20 You know in in relative peace, but I think overall it and it was a mistake because while that might have been the intent of 20 bury the bones, you know, which they didnae never healed. And even today, you know, there is problem. There are ethnic problems in India will end in Pakistan to you. But what I saw a growing up in India was that are textbooks had very little mention of the petition and zero acknowledgement of what people say the word and what the survivors went through and you know Deli and north of India is built on.

20:05 The backs of a lot of the refugees in survivors who made it to partition and you know, it's it's quite incredible what they spit it was because of the partition they all ended up in in a lot of them a vast majority in Delhi, but also various parts of North India and they resettled themselves from scratch and people who were big landowners or if you do, you know families or businessman and very well-to-do went into you know, having to sell balloons or candy or sweets on the streets and you know, just to feed their families. I have interviewed a number of people as part of this project and they said well, my father had to sell vegetables to just feed us because we had nothing nothing at all of these experiences that people have lost they were not acknowledged even today 15th, August 1947 comes around and the government of India and Pakistan for that matter celebrate.

21:05 The fact that we acquired our independence from the British, which is what celebrating no doubt, but there is no mention there is no acknowledgement. There is no Memorial do with people who lost so much and there is no

21:22 I want to see there is no condemnation of the leaders Who let that happen or the leaders who didn't plan this properly or you know, or even an acknowledgement that that mistakes happen. But avoidable or what we have learned for the future what the archive wants to do is to actually collect the stories from survivors from Witnesses from people who saw experienced or heard about what happened to their family members first-hand experiences is a priority and make sure we take them for posterity. So the point hood is to get the citizens Viewpoint and their personal narratives of what they went through your nose similar to what the Jewish Community has done with the with the Holocaust and the Japanese Community has done with Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the issue at hand is one.

22:22 A lot of these accounts simply Golbat would be buried and no one would know except within the family is just like I know about my nanny, but the other issue is that this people who actually can give us first-hand narratives up there or their experiences are fast disappearing. So for example, my own parents were not even teenagers. My father was 12. My mother was 5 when this happened and I've interviewed them and others in that generation are in there, you know seventies and eighties and nineties who have any recall of the time if if at all and they are fast disappearing, so what the archive wants to do is make sure that those experiences are collected and archives.

23:10 So a citizen historian you have Arena interviewed over 50 survival to partition. What do you get out of it?

23:19 So I can get a lot out of it. I have interviewed some 50-plus elders and they have been men and women like I mentioned before in their 70s 80s 90s. I have interviewed people from India and I have also interviewed people from Bangladesh one piece of partition that I should mention is that in 1947. India was divided into India and Pakistan and there was a section on the Eastside of India called East Pakistan, which was created as part of Pakistan but geographically was completely separate later in 1971 that part separated from Pakistan and became what is now Bangladesh. So in fact the effects of partition continued on for 20 plus years and you know that again similar history has repeated. They're coming back to your question though what I get out of it is well.

24:19 About the family history, I grew up listening to stories from my parents my mother specifically my aunts and uncles who would talk about what happened during partition what they saw what they lost what life was like before but they were forced to do later opportunities that they missed because they better not let you know that later in life. They didn't have the kind of money, you know to go on and explore opportunities. They would have perhaps if they did they still financially. All right. So that was a lot of pain in the family. Sometimes I remembered in our summer vacations we would meet with you no other uncles and aunts and and invariably as children we would know that they start talking about partition sooner or later and they were and and they would be a lot of tears and grief, that would be expressed.

25:20 So I guess it's become a part of my identity. So exploding the stories that is a little few things that I get out of it. When is I empathize greatly with the elders will talk about it. I understand, you know that they have experienced the pain that members in my own family did too when I first started doing this I felt it was so important. I think Roman intellectual perspective also have always had a abiding interest in history. I felt this is such an important part of history that will go buried and unexplored and unknown even though when I talked to a number of my friends who grew up here about partition that like really that big the novel and and that's a tragedy that is just no Human Experience was that that should be so impactful and so devastating and and the world doesn't even know about it and when I talked to the elders

26:20 About that experiences. I realized as I started talking to them that they got so much out of it. There was so many of our for our elders men and women who felt and communicated to me that they were just So Satisfied that the story was heard that they were they felt like somebody had heard that story in the number of cases. I've had people I've interviewed with said to me, you know, my children don't know the detail and then they go on and tell me some part of this story like the children may know, you know broadly speaking that the family was displaced and lost a lot but they don't know the exact details of what happened and who was kidnapped and who is smarter than you know, various aspects that would actually hidden from families, and I've had people tell me about those things until you know, my children don't know but I'm telling you.

27:19 I can see that they are feeling hard and that has in itself been such a reward that somebody has failed in their life that I I gave them in your and they said they'd be able to tell me that story. I got a lot of that.

27:37 Is this something that still surprises you in the interviews has been a lot of surprises and one is as I mentioned. I realize going into it, but intellectually why it needed to be done but just had a very visceral and emotional level. I found it very rewarding in that that has been a big learning for me something that's very interesting is how much people have suppressed and kept quiet about this and it was initially then I started interviewing. I had I interviewed a lot of men initially and you know, the interview is really a listening interview. You are just a facilitated facilitated duration. You're letting them do the talking and the men invariably all of them have cried.

28:36 You know what just complete. I don't know guitar says baby too big a word but it's almost like they're letting go or so much and and they all have tried relating their stories remarkably very few of the women actually cried and initially I was a little surprised by this because you know, you know, it doesn't quite fit The Stereotype you'd expect the women to cry and and tell you, you know, all the harder than the man with the feast Aiden and you know, a lot of them are Punjabi man very much of a soda bottle abide by but a lot of the men have cried big tears and it came to me later from just thinking back to my own family the women have talked about in the family they get together they talk and talk and talk about what happened and who was lost and murdered and raped and and all of that and the men have stood by and listened.

29:36 What happens when you she did, you know that since I think the men suffered a lot too and in some ways in Greater emotional baggage that they have carried with them part of the reason is the the whole man thing but I think part of it is that when they were displaced their job number one was to feed the families was doing just get out there and get going and there is no time for self-pity. There is no time to think about who is gone and who to breed for and how to feel sad and and you just get out there and you start making money and you start feeding the family because you're the man so these men have never talked about it and the I realized that is what was going on. And this was probably the first time that somebody was spending

30:25 3 for whatever number of hours with them asking them their story and that was the biggest surprise to me. What lesson historical lesson. Have you gleaned? Are you want to share from having cut all these stories?

30:43 Well, so as I mentioned before my big reason initially for doing this was intellectual and that is the historical lesson. I I strongly feel that the truth no matter how bitter and ugly and and shameful because this is a shameful history should be aired I don't believe that wounds heal when they are buried away. They need lights. They need air and I think

31:17 All the communities behaved very poorly and I was once as part of a panel asked by somebody in the audience that you know, who were these people who were the jobs and who are these people who killed each other and raped and mutilated in devastated each other and I found that question really surprising because there are no people it was us we did it to each other. I mean if it's people like you and me neighbors are back neighbors know that I'm many many many many stories of friends and neighbors of other of different communities who helped each other and saved each other and helped, you know, people's crossover safely. So there are those but at the end of the day of the devastation that occurred it was not

32:06 Organized it was people attacking each other. There was economic and Viet play. There was a religious conflict at play. There is communal Strife that was all sorts of reasons that you can attribute but largely it was us we did it to each other now that I think is what makes this shameful India, I can speak to Indian from India so I can speak to them is a secular country. I hope it will continue to be so but if we allow politics and religion to mix which is what happened to this was this is three classic example of where religion and politics with mixed through horrible consequences. I think this is the result when can I expect and if we then refused to face the facts of what went wrong this is what we can expect and I'm I'm a big believer in you know, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

33:06 And that is probably the number one reason why I do this but also and a very very important truth.

33:16 To me we both are from similar backgrounds you both have grew up in Refugee families or family's tattoo affected by partition that it's Sunday. We have been most office about the Alive's ourselves from one place to another have traveled all the way from India to America call this home. You still talk about Africa. You should talk about travel Pindi. What's that about?

33:45 That's that's about Journey's.

33:51 I can't quite pinpoint. How much of it is just me. And how much of it is my upbringing and perhaps that's not even important anymore. But it all up in the is.

34:06 Is one part of it there's Peshawar which has grateful for me partly because perhaps the woman who inspires me the most was from that I want to go to see what what where she I want to see and touch the soil that made her. I don't know maybe I think it would touch me in some important where Africa is about exploration. I think that perhaps because I see that ethnic identity and fruits can sometimes have horrible consequences when we place too much importance in that maybe there is some element of that. That makes me

34:49 Aspire to ruthlessness because I I I think that may be too much of roots prevents you from being set free and some of it is just a little mad at me that travel all over India Growing Up So how to save energy comes in and takes off. What are you most proud of?

35:14 What am I most proud of?

35:22 I don't know. I don't know if that is specific thing. I guess. I'm very proud of what I have learned from this project. And from this work. I'm proud of the fact that I gave myself permission to explore this even though it was painful and I'm proud of the fact that

35:46 I guess I've created a life for myself where I can call Truth The Way It Is without fear some of a lot of that is just luck and Living in America and in in the specific circumstances that I was blessed with. Some of it is I don't know any other way and I don't know if pride is the word but I just feel blessed. You are a woman of many passions photography poetry gardening cooking. How do you want to be remembered?

36:23 Actually by Ambitions for being remembered a very humble. I just want my daughter to think of me with love. That's all I ask.

36:38 I all I want to say is that I'm driven by 1 tour time. I really don't believe in God or heaven or afterlife for so long. I mean Soul after the body. I don't believe in any of that. What I do believe is in the beautiful accident of life in the universe where non-existence is the norm the fact that I came to be at this part and this time and this accident and that I could know it that I am sentient that I'm aware of that accident and it's impossible Leti and the gift I feel truly truly thankful for that. And I hope that that will continue to and inspire me no matter what so I can continue to enjoy and Dean what I get every day from this existence no matter what happens.

37:34 Sonos speaker the fact that we've been together 27 years and what I am very fortunate about is the fact that we have enough house with our daughter and a country that give adopted and see if I'll submit that an Ariana. So that's why I feel the same way a little Asiana out at home in this I couldn't live life. So I want to just closed off at my two favorite lines from my favorite Punjabi boy that I meet up with you remind me of how I feel about your presents, which is the easiest which HD

38:22 That's beautiful. Thank you. Thank you.