Docs In Sight

Partition Woes: SARAH SINGH with Williams Cole


In the so-called “post-9/11 world,” the stability of India and especially Pakistan have become of paramount geopolitical importance. Yet the vast history of this region—and especially the creation of the Pakistan-India border—is a subject woefully underexamined in American media. Sarah Singh’s The Sky Below is an example of a documentary that explores both the cultural differences and—more important—similarities between Indian and Pakistani history. The film is a combination of intimate interviews and striking aesthetics with an ambitious scope. I sat down with Singh in Brooklyn as she prepared for a show of her photographic work and a September screening of the film at the United Nations.

Stills from The Sky Below.

Williams Cole (Rail): Start with your background and explain your motivation to make the film.

Sarah Singh: I was born in India. My father is Indian and my mother is Caucasian American. She went to India in the Peace Corps, met my father, got married, had children, and, when I was very young, just felt like she really wanted to come back to the United States. Subsequently, we took trips back and I was in some ways the least interested, between my sisters and I, in embracing the culture. As soon as we landed they grew into the clothing, but I was as standoffish as I could be. That changed later on and I felt compelled to want to understand and work with the aesthetics of the place much more. I think many people around the world are familiar with certain images—of India especially—being sort of filled with lush rich bold textures and colors, and that kind of stuff. But they are much less familiar with what is across the border in Pakistan. The driving image from that part of the world is a turbaned man with a gun. And Indians to some extent hold that as their idea of what lays across the border as well.

So, I was interested in making this film in an aesthetic way to try and understand and connect with a part of a world in which I have a large amount of family. But maybe most important of all these reasons was being here in the United States and seeing what has been going on since 2001, knowing that most people here will never travel to that part of the world, will never have a direct connection with what’s going on, or even know the recent history. Yet our government is directly involved in diverting billions of dollars—much of that unaccounted for—out of an economy that we’re struggling with the remains of. Billions of dollars have gone to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, but meanwhile the American public for the last eight years isn’t offered the contemporary historical context. It’s something you can’t get in a sound bite on CNN. I wanted a larger broader context, and so for me part of the structure for the film was really looking at it as broad a scope, with as many layers as possible. But, overall, I was really interested in the border between India and Pakistan.

Rail: The film does present that larger context of the region. I think people forget that the India-Pakistan border is a relatively new creation.

Singh: Relatively speaking for a part of the world, whose civilization goes back many thousands of years, the 1947 border created by partition is very new. So in that context—besides the religious tensions—the cultures are interwoven. It’s been over a thousand years that Islam came into that region. And since Islam came in, other communities have come in. That’s one of the hallmarks of that part of the world is that it’s always been lauded for its ability to embrace different communities who have landed on its shores. At some places the commonality is clear. On the border where there is Punjab in Pakistan and Punjab in India—the common language is Punjabi, and it’s spoken, of course, on both sides. In Pakistan, you have some of the most sacred sights for Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists that lie on that side of the border—and vice versa. Some of the most sacred sites for Muslims are in India. So just from the religious standpoint, whether they like it or not, that’s a common bond that they have. Though what’s interesting now is that the recent economic changes in India are influencing Indians’ dress, culture, and the like in the areas where cultural practices are shared across the border with Pakistan, so that the contrast is becoming more stark, even though a thousand years worth of shared history is still there.

Rail: How do you think the border was viewed during the time it was created?

Singh: In 1947, when partition happened, I think people thought it was going to be a soft border and that it wasn’t going to be something that would create this ongoing crisis and tension all these decades later. That it was almost going to be like another state or another province, not necessarily an enemy. So when the idea for creating a homeland for Muslims was put out there, and then became a reality—for economic reasons, or cultural, historical reasons—not every Muslim in India felt compelled to cross the border and start life a new in this new place. Partly because they felt like it was not going to be this enemy or foreign land.

Rail: What actually happened during partition? I don’t think a lot of people know.

Singh: It was one of the most horrific events of the 20th century and it really didn’t have much attention on the world stage, even though you have upwards of two million people dead from that time period. You have the largest migration of people in recorded history and you have up to fifteen million who had to flee or migrated for one reason or the other. The ripple effect of that action continues to create problems. WWII essentially just dominated 20th century history. But this in terms of scale and ongoing conflict in a larger global context it was incredibly important and the effects are still felt. For example, Kashmir is considered the crux and core of the tensions between Pakistan and India. If you look at what’s happening in Kashmir, something like three times the number of people have died in the conflict since the late 1980s than what happened in Northern Ireland. Yet most people don’t know anything about what’s going on in Kashmir.

Rail: What was your experience trying to research the consequences of partition?

Singh: There has also been a denial with both governments about the extent of the damage from partition and an effort to downplay what happened. When I was doing research, one of the things I had difficulty with was finding archival material. I went to libraries, archives, looking for any imagery. In one library I asked for the albums from that time period, these picture albums that had like 20 images. So I’m going through this album and if this was it, if this was your source of information about that time period, you wouldn’t get a sense of the tragedy. You had images that were basically showing rehabilitation efforts, small little huts of women, 20 or something women with their sons, smiling faces. Clearly, negative imagery had been edited out from the archives.

Rail: What about Pakistan now? What’s your take given your experience there and how tumultuous it has become in the last few years?

Singh: Well, I could never make this film now. It’s too dangerous. I mean many of these places that I went to I couldn’t go now. I was in India and Pakistan off and on in 2006 and 2007. It’s ironic because the Pakistani government had declared 2007 “Visit Pakistan Year.” There was this whole decision on behalf of the government to try and boost tourism. And it was relatively calm. Calm enough that some of the people that I was interviewing actually felt that a real movement was going to start to take place with the relationship with India and especially of course with the issue of Kashmir. And so I traveled extensively and went right up into the Khyber Pass. I didn’t have permission but I managed to get in and I went right up to the border of Afghanistan. People would say, “Taliban are here or Al Qaeda are here,” but it wasn’t a huge thing. Now, because I was just there a year ago in 2008, it’s not just a presence, it’s clear that they own those areas. So it would be impossible for me roaming around with a camera. I was one person, I didn’t have a crew. In some sense it was a little easier, I could put on local dress or something. If I had to hand my camera or something to somebody I could. But in the span of a year or two later it’s become too volatile, too dangerous.

Rail: Talk a little bit more about how the issue of Kashmir and how it directed your journeys there.

Singh: Essentially that area is considered what they call a frozen conflict and actually that’s symbolic in some ways of so much of what I experienced in the process of making this film. I was rather naïve when I set out to make the film and it definitely served me to be a little naïve in some respect because, certainly, some of the things that I know now I certainly wouldn’t have the courage to go out and do [laughs]. Having been naïve about things, my instant reaction to people was not to be suspicious of them instantly. But when I step back away from it and I think about the process, I myself was looked at in a suspicious manner because I was essentially looked at as an Indian coming into Pakistan and therefore, an enemy, and, being an American, a double enemy on top of that. So coming into Pakistan and roaming around with a camera and asking questions makes people ask, “What is she really here for?” I’m on somebody’s roster now, that’s for sure. I definitely felt like I was being followed and I feel like my phone is tapped. Being naïve about the process was good because the intensity of the strands and threads and involvement of the various levels of intelligence operations on both sides is huge. And roaming into Kashmir, roaming up into Pakistan, going up to the boarder of Afghanistan, being an American, coming and hanging out all over India, going up to the border areas in India, which you have to have special permission and that kind of thing—all with a camera—probably looks pretty questionable to them.

Rail: Well, it’s an area of the world where there are a lot of different intelligence agencies that are very active. What do you hope people will understand from the film given the complexities of the region?

Singh: Well, a kind of pinpointed or detailed response to a specific part of the region’s history is ultimately not what I was interested in, that’s why the film has more of a philosophical kind of structure than a historical or political structure. What I was really trying to look at is that if you look over a part of the world that has recorded civilization for a minimum 5000 years and, right now, that part of the world is one of the most dangerous parts of the world—what does that really suggest about society and the ability to live peacefully with each other? I mean it sounds kind of brash but say you resolved the situation in Kashmir. Does that mean 100 years from now or 50 years from now we’re not going to have conflicts? We’re always going to be in this state of percolating. I’m not saying that why bother to try to settle it, obviously, one should work towards that, but I think that on a deeper philosophical level we have to find a way as a society and human beings to really grapple with ourselves on a deeper level. If we look back over 5000 years, sure there’s been progress in a certain fashion, whether in technology or science and these kinds of things, but what about interpersonally, why haven’t we made much progress in that fashion? We are now in a place where interconnecting with all kinds of people and cultures and ways of living is at our fingertips. So our ability to understand and to have direct interaction with one another couldn’t be more instant. That’s why I say that it’s kind of a fascinating time period that we’re in: knowledge, the sharing of knowledge, the ability to interact with things, where a few years ago or decades ago it just wasn’t as simple and as easy. If that was what was holding us back to getting us to be more peaceful or understanding of each other, then great. I’m glad we’re in this time period. But it definitely remains to be seen if it’s really possible for society. Part of making documentary is the intent that you are creating something that is going to reach an audience who will not have the opportunity, or maybe the desire, to have that direct interaction or travel and that it will help them get this window or glimpse into something that hopefully, will add to their ability to be more aware and open. But, of course, that’s rather idealistic.

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Williams Cole