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Virtual reality brings Indian and Pakistani residents back home

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Seventy-five years ago, British colonial India was partitioned into two independent nations, India and Pakistan. Millions of Muslims traveled to Pakistan and millions of Hindus to India. It's one of the biggest mass migrations on record, and it was extremely bloody. Today, India and Pakistan remain enemies. Travel between them can be difficult. But the grandson of a man born in Pakistan and raised in India found a way to take his grandfather back to his birthplace, virtually. NPR's Lauren Frayer has this report from New Delhi.

ISHAR DAS ARORA: School certificate.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Does it have a date? 1947.

An elementary school certificate from the 1940s is all that Ishar Das Arora has left from his hometown in what is now Pakistan. He's from a Hindu family. They were minorities in a Muslim area, and at the time of Partition in 1947, they came under attack. They decided to flee to Hindu-majority India, and they left with only what they could carry, he recalls.

DAS ARORA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "As we fled, I saw our village go up in flames. All the Hindu houses were set on fire," he says.

DAS ARORA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: They hid in a cattle shed. Ishar was 8 years old. He remembers his father had a cough, and they worried it would give away their hiding place. But a kind Muslim neighbor, the village chief, protected them.

DAS ARORA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: He sat atop the roof to fend off mobs of attackers, Ishar explains. They survived the night and the next day crossed into India. That was the last Ishar saw of his hometown called Bela, a village surrounded by green hills.

DAS ARORA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "We used to stand on a hill and shout," he says, "and the last word would echo back." That was 75 years ago. Ishar never returned to Pakistan. He couldn't. The two countries are still on a war footing. His family spent time in a refugee camp and later moved to Delhi. Ishar became a civil engineer. He got married, had children and then grandchildren.

SPARSH AHUJA: We actually went to a wedding in Amritsar, and that's when he started talking that there was a camp here.

FRAYER: That's Ishar's grandson Sparsh Ahuja. He recalls how a few years ago they went to a family wedding near the Pakistan border, and his grandfather suddenly opened up and started talking about this beautiful village called Bela. Sparsh, the grandson, had been studying in the U.K., where he met Saadia Gardezi, a Pakistani, and they got to talking.

SAADIA GARDEZI: It's difficult, for example, for me to visit India. It's hard for them to visit Pakistan. So how can we collaborate to kind of show former refugees their ancestral homes again?

FRAYER: Together with a third friend, Sparsh and Saadia launched a virtual reality project. One of them would go to Pakistan, the other would go to India, and they'd make 3D films for elderly survivors of Partition and for the public.

GARDEZI: When you've grown up in India or Pakistan, you have a very one-sided official history. And projects like ours basically help fill the gaps. And we often joke that, you know, if you put together the national curriculums of India and Pakistan, maybe we can have kind of a story of what actually happened and what our actual histories are.

FRAYER: So they applied for grant money, got sensitivity training to deal with trauma survivors, and pulled out a map of the subcontinent.

AHUJA: All I knew was, like, Bela, Jhand...

FRAYER: Sparsh was able to visit his ancestral village himself because he has an Australian passport. He brought a video camera and a handwritten map from his grandfather.

AHUJA: He had, like, drawn a little map of the village.

FRAYER: A scribbled map that's a recollection from when he was 8 years old.

AHUJA: Yeah, that's all we had. The village...

FRAYER: You took the piece of paper with you?

AHUJA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

FRAYER: Somehow he found Bela, just a cluster of mud houses and a mosque. Sparsh wanted to find the family of the village chief, the man who guarded his grandfather atop that roof. So he goes up to a woman in the street.

AHUJA: I've come from India. This is what I'm looking for. I show her the scribble. And she's like, OK, well, I don't know if it's the same guy, but, like, that's his house over there.

FRAYER: That's his house right there, she says. Sparsh knocks on the door. A man answers. Sparsh tells his story, and the man says, that was my grandfather who saved yours.

AHUJA: And then the whole village suddenly came out from...

FRAYER: He recorded messages from villagers and scenes of what Bela looks like now - the site of old Hindu homes, the school where his grandfather got that certificate.

AHUJA: Then I mentioned the story about the hill that echoed, and his son - so the great-grandson - was like, I know where that hill is. Like, we call it the speaking hill. And so they took me to that area.

FRAYER: He filmed that, too. The result is a 3D video immersion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: Into the Pakistani village of Bela, viewed through a virtual reality device...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: It's, like, glasses with a thing on the front, and it's got a strap that goes around your head, and you're about to strap this on your grandad's head.

...Allowing 83-year-old Ishar, in his living room in Delhi, to be transported back to his boyhood.

DAS ARORA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: He's in the world of his village right now...

AHUJA: Yeah.

FRAYER: ...Hearing music, and he's seeing...

AHUJA: The music I've edited 'cause this is a very - song he sings all the time.

FRAYER: And there's some voices now.

AHUJA: The village chief's son, who I recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: When the video ends and Ishar takes off the headset, he says Bela is as beautiful as he remembered.

DAS ARORA: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "My school is still there," he says. "And the hills where my voice used to echo." Sparsh and Saadia have made dozens of videos like this for survivors and also for the societies they live in because in Sparsh's grandfather's case...

AHUJA: He was attacked by Muslims and also saved by Muslims. It's not something that fits neatly into the boxes of either Indian or Pakistani, like, national history. And so the more of these stories we cover, the more blurred lines that we create.

FRAYER: Blurred lines and borders across this subcontinent. Some of these videos will be on display in museums in India, Pakistan, the U.S. and the U.K. this summer to mark the 75th anniversary of Partition.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.