Of Longing and Belongings

In Remnants of A Separation, Aanchal Malhotra examines the Partition by weaving an elegant narrative of the objects that people chose to carry with them.

How intimately is your understanding of who you are wound up with the land you were born on, the soil of your ancestors? What would happen if you were compelled to flee your home in the middle of the night, with hardly any time to pack your precious belongings, and no promise of return? How would you rebuild your life from scratch in a new country, probably in a refugee camp with scarce resources and too many mouths to feed? These are some of the questions that will haunt your mind as you read Aanchal Malhotra’s book, Remnants of A Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory.

When the sun eventually did set over the British empire in the Indian subcontinent, the power play among the political elite set into motion the creation of two independent nation-states. Pakistan was championed as a homeland for Muslims because India would be inhabited by a majority Hindu majority population and governed by leaders who were regarded as unsympathetic to the welfare of minorities. It was not a happy separation blessed by a farewell dinner and a lavish housewarming party.

Almost one million people died — not only Hindus and Muslims but people of various other faiths, and those who built their identity around language, race and geography rather than religion. Close to 14 million people were displaced, and found themselves paying too heavy a price for this new-found freedom from the British Raj. “If you uproot a sapling from its natural habitat and try to transplant it elsewhere, the chances of it growing and thriving are slim — and perhaps it may not live at all,” writes Malhotra, translating the words of Mian Faiz Rabbani who migrated from Jullundur (now Jalandhar) to Lahore.

The author has painstakingly assembled an archive of oral history interviews that are embellished by her narrative voice. Though the book is peppered with research from official documents and a survey of scholarship in the field, the lifeblood of her work is the people she met and nurtured relationships with. She makes you feel like someone listening in to a conversation — not vicariously — but as a friend invited to join a special ceremony. She is interested in “distilling an enormous event down to something that is graspable: the experience of the individual.”

While the subject matter is filled with gore, as interviewees recount the carnage of communal violence in 1947, Malhotra’s prose remains elegant. Her training as an artist is evident in how she romances the tactile, and lingers over the sounds of words. She delves into stories of what was lost by focusing on what remains of the past — kitchen utensils, heirlooms, stone plaques, photographs, garments, diaries, certificates, wedding gifts and various other objects that Partition survivors and their families have preserved.

It is fascinating to learn what people brought along with them, the reasons behind their choice, and the ingenious ways in which they transported these. You will read about currency notes being tied into a ponytail, pearls hidden between the folds of clothes, furniture thrown off trucks to make room for people, and a publisher carrying books hoping to set up a press after settling down in his new country. Many of the objects these refugees took with them were stolen along the way, or had to be sold in order to buy food.

The things that did last hold a heightened significance, for these are often the only connection these Partition survivors have with their childhoods and adolescence, most importantly their ‘land’ and their ‘soil’ — two words in this book that will surprise you with their recurrence across stories from Quetta, Muryali, Dera Ismail Khan, Delhi, Karachi, Lyallpur, Dhaka, Ludhiana, Malakwal, Bombay, Patiala, and elsewhere. It is objects like these that rekindle recollections of rituals and traditions, fruit orchards, ancestral homes, summers spent with cousins, the smell of wet earth after the first rains, and an affluence that was snatched away.

Whether she is talking to Indian or to Pakistani interviewees, Malhotra’s manner carries all the curiosity of an anthropologist, and all the emotion of a doting grand daughter. She comes across as respectful but persuasive. Her musings, reflections, questions, and asides bring forth valuable information locked away in the deep, dark dungeons of people’s memories. Most of her interviewees and their families seem grateful for this catharsis. The quality of listening she brings to each interaction is remarkable.

However, on one occasion, Malhotra is told, “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about what I saw. I’m sorry, I cannot repeat those things. I cannot bring them to life again. I don’t want to remember them.” On another occasion, she is reminded, “Forgetting is as important as remembering. We must clear some space, let in some light. Otherwise, the world would be too heavy, our hearts would be too heavy.”

This is a truth that Malhotra is acutely aware of since she too is a descendant of migrants. Her paternal grandfather, Balraj Bahri, is the one who set up the famous Bahrisons bookshop at Khan Market in Delhi. This plush neighbourhood that is now filled with expensive restaurants was established in 1951, and named after Khan Abdul Jabbar Khan — brother to Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Pashtun leader who was a key figure in the freedom struggle. Shops were being allotted to refugees from the North West Frontier Province, so Bahri chased the opportunity and acquired the shop with money that came from selling a gold bangle belonging to his mother and a contribution made by a friend.

Malhotra’s book does a fine job of saluting the entrepreneurial spirit of Partition survivors, and celebrating the generosity of individuals who honoured long-standing friendships over the violent identity politics of that time. What it might leave you thinking about is the gaps and silences in the stories. What are the objects that lie buried in the closets of people who looted, murdered and raped with impunity? What are the stories they have told or not told their children and grandchildren? Where is the soil that they long for?

About the author

Chintan Girish Modi

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher. He holds an M.Phil in English Language Education, and has worked with several academic institutions including the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development, the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange.