The Lost Heer Project: Paying Homage to Unsung Matriarchs
Can you please introduce yourself and the work you’re doing through The Lost Heer Project.
I’m a researcher based in Toronto, Canada, and have been working on a women’s history project called The Lost Heer Project for the last four years. The Lost Heer Project aims to document the voices of women from colonial Punjab roughly from 1849 ( and even earlier in East Punjab) to 1947 ,the infamous Partition. I’m collecting stories, anecdotes, recipes, folk songs and anything that helps me understand the women’s popular culture in colonial Punjab. This approach of utilizing these materials is so necessary as women’s voices have a disproportionate lack of representation in our ‘official histories’, and are only found in these indispensable cultural objects- both tangible and intangible.
Why did you feel the need to start The Lost Heer Project? How’s the journey been so far?
Back in the summer of 2014, I spent four months in India where I began interviewing witnesses of the 1947 Partition. In the next three years of collecting Partition testimonies, I realized that while mainstream history of Partition is dominated by narratives of men, there are myriad stories of women whose naaratives have long been ignored. Hence, I thought of starting a project where I can document these narratives that can help us understand Punjab's history through the eyes of women.
The journey has been humbling as well as challenging at the same time. Humbling because I came across so many matriarchs and strong female role models from our past whom I believe the present generation of our women are missing in their history and story books. Challenging because as a man this was a journey of learning and a lot of unlearning. It was very hard to confront certain ideas that while growing up as a male child, one never really encounters. There was a lot of questioning over privileges and norms which had empowered me, without my knowledge. Most importantly, I’ve learnt to acknowledge that as a man doing a project on women, I have a huge responsibility to not take away the agency from the women I’m documenting. It is their story after all. I just happened to be the right person at the right time and space to start propagating them.
Can you cite an instance which reassured you that it was worth creating The Lost Heer Project?
I received instant recognition when I launched the Lost Heer Project in Fall of 2018 on my social media, but it wasn’t until I received a special message from a respected scholar and historian two days later that I was reassured that I was on the right path. Three months later, I even got a bigger surprise when I was invited to speak about the Project at an event in Manitoba, a province much farther from where I lived. It was the first time I witnessed the enthusiasm and passion people harboured for the subject which made me realize the importance of the work that I had started. It just made me more serious about my project and encouraged me to consult more resources to do justice to my work.
What’s the message you would like to give people as we mark 75 years of independence of India, Pakistan, and the Partition.
As someone whose both sets of grandparents were Partition refugees, 15th August was a surreal day with bitter-sweet memories. There was a hint of happiness because of the involvement of my grandmother’s side of the family in the freedom struggle, but deep below also lurked sadness and emptiness- a sense of grief, almost mourning for a lost homeland. I grew up in that environment of trying to understand what my roots really were, also constantly juggling between the Rawalpindi dialect of Punjabi spoken by my grandmother to a typical Delhi Hinglish. I met some of the best people in the world during my University and they were Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis- one can’t tell the difference when they are much more similar to us than anything.
My message to all the people of the subcontinent is that we are all the children of this amazing landmass and we all equally share our love for chai, masala and ‘filmi’ choreographed dance. Everyone from Quetta to Cochin and Dhaka, do not let the politics divide us and cause all the problems that it has in the last 75 years. We can choose our friends but we can’t choose our neighbors. We have to live together for long as we live, and why not do it with love and respect?
In conversation with Harleen Singh, Founder - The Lost Heer Project