My Family, Partition and Me review – like Who Do You Think You Are? but better

The cataclysmic event is retold through the stories and families of those who escaped. Plus: Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Assad has gone back to see his childhood home and he’s not finding the experience easy. “I can’t help crying,” he says. I know, Assad: I can’t drive past my old house. Too many ghosts, voices and smells from the past. Plus the new owners are bound to have done something wrong, like cut down my favourite tree or something.

But, really, I don’t know. Because it’s a much bigger deal than that for Assad, now in his 80s and living in Sheffield. It’s about who he is and where he’s from. His old home is in Punjab in India. His family left because they had to, at the time of partition in 1947. His father, a Muslim doctor, snuck out the family in the middle of the night, because the British-drawn line had left them in India. If they hadn’t gone to Pakistan, they would have been killed, says an old man who used to be a patient of Assad’s father.

So it’s hardly surprising that he’s finding it difficult. I’m glad he has his grandson Sameer there, too, for comfort and support. “I don’t belong here,” the old man says, sadly.

Assad’s is one of the four stories in My Family, Partition and Me: India 1947 (BBC1), Anita Rani’s exploration of that momentous event 70 years ago. Then there’s Bim, a Hindu, who now lives in Cheshire, but for the first 10 years of his life lived in rural Bengal. He doesn’t go back (maybe Assad shouldn’t have, either), but his daughter Binita makes the journey to the village where her father lived until they had to leave.

In a moving scene, she meets an old Muslim man who, as a boy, helped smuggle out her father and his family by boat. They crept along the side of the river, hiding when they came across people. “Thank you so much,” she says, hugging him – for saving the life of her father, and so saving her own life, and her children’s.

The old empire is represented, too, by Mandy, whose grandad Arthur was an official in Kolkata. A bit of dude, it turns out – he didn’t skedaddle at the first sign of trouble. After packing off his family to Britain, he stayed. Not only did he film Direct Action Day – a brutal riot in August 1946 between Hindus and Muslims in Kolkata that left thousands dead – with his cine camera, but he also tried to broker peace between the warring religions; he even sat down with Gandhi to try to work things out.

This affecting doc has a lot of Who Do You Think You Are? about it – tearful climbing up the family tree into the past. In fact, it’s made by the same people and came about through Rani’s own WDYTYA? in 2014. But this is better than most WDYTYAs (apart from Danny Dyer discovering that he should be on the throne; nothing is better than that). It’s not just celebrities weeping because great-to-the-power-of-eight-so-and-so was in a workhouse. It’s an examination – through a few of the people involved and their descendants – of an extraordinary historical event. What Does Partition Think It Is?. The word partition sounds too orderly and straight. It was more like a cataclysmic explosion that killed more than a million people.

There will be more about Anita and her family in the second episode. In this one, she’s mainly presenting, threading the stories together, providing historical glue, plus some local colour: the ridiculous displays of nationalism on both sides of the India-Pakistan border crossing at Wagah. I have been there and seen that, but not in any meaningful way.


You might not think that 90 minutes on urban planning, which is what Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (BBC4) is, would make thrilling television. You would be wrong. It’s a brilliant, meticulous account of how, in postwar Manhattan, New York, a writer called Jane Jacobs took on a powerful public official called Robert Moses, whose ideas about how cities work she disagreed with. Crudely, he was a big fan of demolition and moving people out of the way for projects and highways, while she was concerned with those people and saw cities as living things. It was a biblical battle between Moses and Jacobs for the promised land of Manhattan – and one in which she had considerable success.

The story is not over, though. Many disastrous housing projects in New York – and elsewhere in the US – have since been pulled down, but the lessons haven’t been learned everywhere. “China today is Moses on steroids,” says one of the many interesting contributors. Quick, where are you, Citizen Xi’an?


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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