“My grandfather was struck by a sword once,” says senior and Queens native Aakaash Varma, as he recounts his family’s experience during the conflicts surrounding the 1947 split of India and Pakistan. “Riots were breaking out and people from a neighboring village raided Manak, and attempted to abduct my grandfather’s daughters.” With the support of stipends from the Rosen Fellowship Program and the Magner Career Center, Varma was able to travel to India and Pakistan to research this chapter of his family’s history, and the history of these two nations.

Varma’s ancestral village, Manak, lay a few miles into the West Pakistan border. In the 1940s, his grandfather worked in New Delhi, India, but decided to move his family back to Manak in 1947. The evening after the attempted abduction of his daughters, Varma’s grandfather gathered his family and fled with the other nearby Hindu and Sikh families in a great kaafila, or caravan. As they traveled, Varma’s grandmother gave birth, but the infant quickly died of malnutrition. The family would eventually resettle in New Delhi.

Fascinated by this piece of his family’s history, Varma wanted to journey to the places where these events took place, to not only retrace the steps, but also to document these experiences through interviews with witnesses who still live there. Varma also plans to eventually weave these findings into a novel.

“Going to Pakistan was a big risk,” said the William E. Macaulay Honors College student, who is also enrolled in the Coordinated B.A.–M.D. Program and majoring in history with a minor in English. “It isn’t something that is necessarily easy to do for someone of Indian descent. My parents were very against it; they really didn’t want me to go. But I wanted to go there to interview people there and overcome the stigma of the Indo-Pak divide.”

It took a while before Varma was granted a Pakistani visa. He was already in India for a full two months and had not received any word on when he might receive it. In the meantime, he visited Kashmir, a region in the northwestern area of South Asia where Indian/Pakistani tensions remain high.

“I got to see how something that happened nearly 70 years ago can still inform present-day relationships,” says Varma. Kashmir is probably the most beautiful place in the world. I noticed how the people there weren’t quite sure of their identities. It’s a Muslim state in India. There’s a huge concern that if it’s 99% Muslim, it should be a part of Pakistan. And the residents asked me if I was from India or Pakistan, as though they considered themselves neither.”

When Varma finally arrived in Pakistan, he worked with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, a non-governmental organization that seeks to promote the oral histories of Pakistan and foster Indo-Pak unity. With their help, he interviewed 12 people, including 91-year-old Azra Haq, who had previously worked for British intelligence and served in the Pakistani Women’s National Guard. She recalled many horrors of the conflict that have left her with unwanted memories of widespread violence.

“The Indo-Pak division is something that has left people on both sides with traumatic experiences that are difficult to overcome,” says Varma.

Before leaving Pakistan, Varma did make it to Manak, his family’s home village. “All I had was a few names and I sought to recover history,” he said. There, he met with the oldest surviving resident of the village who, as it turns out, remembered Varma’s great-grandmother. “He said, ‘Of course I remember her. She was once the leader of Manak.'”

Varma did not want to leave without some sort of memento, something that would, in his mind, preserve a piece of his personal history, something that could be shared with his family upon his return to the states.

“I took a brick from the house in which my family once lived, which, unbelievably, was still there, still standing, and had a new family living within,” Varma says. “I also took a splinter from the door.”

Varma is eager to get started on a novel based on his family history. He seems certain that he will be able to do so even with his part-time job as a photographer’s assistant, and while serving as president of the Brooklyn College Speech and Debate Team. Varma will attend medical school at State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center’s College of Medicine next fall.

To see photographs and artifacts from Varma’s travels, as well as hear more about Varma’s remarkable journey, visit the “My Global Experience Abroad” exhibit in the lobby of the Brooklyn College Library. And be sure to follow Brooklyn College on Facebook and search the hashtag #BCGlobal2015, which celebrates the research of Varma and other students for International Education Month, the entire month of November.