It was some time before I could convince him to sit down with me for a formal interview about his experiences during the 1930s and 1940s in Aligarh. He was very skeptical of the methodology of my research, being as he is, a historian of medieval India and deeply invested in the investigation of documentary sources. Interviews, he reminded me, would only catch a person’s “bias,” and not “The Truth.”
S.M. Mehdi was surprised to see me, but agreed to answer my questions though he cautioned he could not be considered an expert on Aligarh. He told me, instead, of his experiences during partition as a Communist in Bombay. He worked for thirty years in the Soviet Embassy in New Delhi and has been a lifelong Communist.
In 2009, I spent five months living at the Aligarh Muslim University in the town of Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, India. I was there to research the role and experience of Aligarh students in the movement for Pakistan during the 1940s. As part of this research, I actively sought out university employees and former students of the university from that period. I was referred to S.M. Mehdi through a chance encounter with a university official and arrived at his home without an appointment.
My own family hails from Aligarh, a city about 90 miles southeast of New Delhi and, as Muslims, opted to move to Pakistan. I was aware of this as a child, but because I grew up outside Pakistan, it was not until I began my research and had enough comfort speaking Urdu that I persuaded some of my elderly relatives to tell me their stories of the time of independence and partition.
I remember when we were in our old house, it was a big house, which is a big house with a big courtyard inside and a big garden outside. It was a big area. And we used to all sleep inside in the courtyard with all the beds laid out and mosquito nets and everything and one table fan for all of us because we used to be in a row, all the beds laid out.
In the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguard, the citizens of Delhi unleashed a murderous campaign of violence on the Sikh community as a whole. Delhi-ites were horrified to discover both the inaction of the local authorities to provide safety and security for citizens, and the failure of the media to report the atrocities taking place.