‘Kuch nahi laaye the. We brought nothing. We came with nothing, was an inevitable first response that oral historian Aanchal Malhotra was meted out with when she asked own family about their belongings from 1947. The partition of India, had displaced an estimated 10-12 million people. Soon enough, she discovered her great grandmother’s maang tika. A foldable knife her dadi had carried across the newly-instated borders and utensils with her great-grandfather’s initials so that even in a camp, the family would have some means to cook with.
Malhotra’s book Remnants Of A Separation delves into the history of partition through material memory. Featuring over a dozen interviews and family possessions from photographs to pearls and kitchenware to poems, she says the book’s purpose is to “try and understand migratory memory in a visceral way”.
Tell us a bit about your childhood. Did you grow up listening to stories of partition or they only came up during certain moments of nostalgia and maybe dismay?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a bookshop, my family owns Bahrisons Booksellers in the Capital and so every day was full of some story or another, as we were all voracious readers. The stories from my grandparents though were not necessarily of Partition, but certainly of their childhood. They were anecdotes of fields and childhood homes and fruit orchards, but interestingly, the words religion, Partition, or Pakistan were never mentioned. They talked about Malakwal and Lahore and Dera Ismail Khan. I never knew that these places were not-India or across some border. The memories were not of the horrors of Partition, or the pain and nostalgia they might have felt right after it, but rather, of a time before Partition. They were stories of life in Undivided India.
Scores of books have been written about the partition. But none have attempted to look at it the way you have through material possessions. Why do you think that is the case?
“Objects, their surfaces, the fragments of fear and materiality help us to understand a certain moment in time.”
Material ethnography has always proven to be an incredible resource into understanding culture. Objects, their surfaces, the fragments of fear and materiality help us to understand a certain moment in time. This methodology of unearthing history has always been prevalent and a very rich terrain to understand belonging, whether it be through Neil Macgregor’s more formal ‘History of the World in 100 Objects’ at the British Museum, or the more recent photo projects involving Syrian Refugees and the belongings they fled with.
But it’s true, there has been little written about such a material ethnography from the lens of Partition. It is strange, considering how we, as people of the subcontinent, are so attached to our material possessions. However, the objects that I unearthed through my conversations with people were not overtly valuable, per se, they were not things to be considered of monetary value (apart from perhaps antiques or jewellery). They were things of very mundane nature- like utensils and shawls and books and stone plaques. Perhaps this is the reason that they have been overlooked for so long. But these are tangible elements of the past and these objects, however mundane, must be celebrated for their survival.
Do you think material memory helps us hold on to the past or let go of it?
I firmly believe that an object from a certain moment helps us to remember and regain that moment. And if we allow it to, then the object also has the ability to absorb the pain of that moment, no matter how traumatic. In the case of my study, I would say that the object helps to remember the past; it can be considered a catalyst for remembrance.
How did you research for this book? Was it difficult to get people to share stories about such a traumatic time in their lives?
Our conversations would neither begin nor end with the word Partition. It was difficult for me to ask the question of Partition straight on. Partition memory is particularly pliable, where the act of remembering is as important as forgetting. But focusing on the object certainly helped. Through the stories of bangles and books and teapots and other mundane paraphernalia, I was able to draw out the story. One’s life before Partition and subsequently, lead that conversation to their migration and resettlement.
Were there any other challenges in writing this book?
“Many times, I felt I was too young or too inexperienced to handle their memories with the care and delicacy their deserved. Then there were other times where I was certain that only someone so young, from this current generation, could be the one to bring these experiences from the past into the present and make them relevant.”
I guess the biggest challenge for me was to understand that my subject matter was living history. The Partition has been entombed within textbooks in a number of renditions and versions. But the people that I was speaking to were proof that such a history occurred and they had lived through. It was always strange for me to wrap my head around the fact that what I had studied in a book, people I knew had lived through. Because I was no longer looking at it objectively from an academic’s point of view, but had become absolutely and intimately involved with the details of their life- some details that too traumatic to imagine or comprehend.
In the acknowledgment section, you mention how people connected with you on social media and followed your project. Do you think that the internet, can help bridge the gap between two divided nations and its people?
I really do believe that. I have seen it first hand from my own work. It has begun to create a fascinating cross-border dialogue about objects and traditions and customs and household habits. I think that this conversation has the ability to extend into the realm of compassion, kindness and friendships cultivated across the border.
What have you personally learned on your journey with this book?
“Memory can reside in the most unlikely places, if only we search for it.”
I have learned that memory can reside in the most unlikely places, if only we search for it. Objects of age and antiquity hold all kinds of stories within their cracks and crevasses. But for the most part, I have learned to listen, learned to handle memory with care and delicacy. I am lucky enough to have archived.
Tell us about the responses you’re getting on the book. Anything that has particularly stayed with you?
The response till now has been overwhelmingly positive. But what really stays with me is how some children and grandchildren have been buying and reading the book out to their parents and grandparents who actually lived through the Partition.
Recently, someone sent me a heartwarming message on Instagram, which was like a gift to receive. “Today, I found my dad tearing up while reading your book,” it read, “when I asked him if it made him sad, he said that these weren’t tears of sadness, but of remembering.”
I received this and didn’t know what to say. Except for being so thankful that the book was somehow finding its way to all kinds of people. Those who witnessed the Partition, and those who have quietly and generationally inherited the memories of it. To know that we have the ability to heal someone’s pain by listening to their memories and experiences is a responsibility we must never take lightly. I have learned to value any stories or recollections that are offered to me. Also, I hope my effort encourages other people to initiate these conversations within their homes and families.
What is the road ahead from here, are you planning to write another book anytime soon?
I have already begun research for what I hope will be my next book. As of now, it is a book about an Indian soldier who is sent to France to fight in World War I. How one digressed action on his part determines the fate of the subsequent generations of his family. The story will travel between India, Pakistan, and France.
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