Urvashi Butalia brings tales of Partition to Indian Summer festival in Vancouver

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      Tonight at 7:30 p.m., Vancouverites will get a chance to hear from one of India's most intriguing publishers and writers.

      I know this because I just spent nearly an hour chatting with Urvashi Butalia, who will speak at the SFU Woodward's in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (149 West Hastings Street) as part of the Indian Summer festival (tickets are $15 at the door).

      Butalia, author of The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India (Penguin, 1998), can be described as the South Asian equivalent to Studs Terkel. She quips that she is becoming known as the "Partition lady" because of her ongoing fascination with collecting personal stories on this topic.

      Rather than writing an "official history" of the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, Butalia decided to talk to ordinary people about their experiences.

      The result is a riveting book about one of the most significant events of the 20th century, which still reverberates around the world.

      More than 12 million people were displaced and an estimated million people died, mostly in the state of Punjab. According to The Other Side of Silence, somewhere around 100,000 women may have been raped after taking into account the atrocities in Kashmir.

      Butalia pays particular attention to the stories of the women, who are often marginalized in official histories of that era.

      Her own family was separated at Partition when her uncle chose to remain in the family home in Lahore and convert to Islam, while her mother crossed the border into India.

      They remained separated for decades until Butalia's curiosity led her to reunite them in a tale full of emotion and pathos.

      I'll be moderating tonight's event, and I hope to explore with Butalia some of the long-lasting effects of Partition.

      I sometimes wonder if the decision to split the subcontinent into two countries has been a significant contributor to the rise of Islamic extremism in the world.

      As a result of reading Butalia's book, I now also wonder what role Partition may have played in the attacks on Sikhs in Delhi and other Indian cities in 1984. And can the Gujurat riots of 2002, which led to the slaughter of Muslims, be traced in any way to Partition?

      Here in Canada, families have been devastated by the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight, which killed 329 people. Planned and executed in the Lower Mainland, this act of aviation terrorism was another example of religious communalism, which was given sustenance by the decision to divide India.

      One thing is pretty clear. It's hard to imagine that religious extremists in Saudi Arabia could be having nearly as much influence on South Asia today had India remained united.

      These are issues that are often ignored in the western media. It's a credit to the festival's organizers— Sirish Rao, Laura Byspalko, and Sanjoy Roy, among others—that they have decided to shine a light on this topic.

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.