“Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory” by Aanchal Malhotra


For fifty years after the independence, Indian scholars looked at 1947 as a year of “triumph and tragedy”. Freedom from the British rule was the triumph of the nationalist movement and the Partition of the subcontinent into India, East Pakistan and West Pakistan was the tragic co-effect of the independence. It took about half a century for Indians to realize that there has been an uncanny silence around the riots that affected millions of people trying to escape to a land of a safer religion or to hold on to the place they felt they had always belonged.

There are several accounts of the Partition—historical, imaginative (films and literary writings) and narrative (oral narratives). In 2017, what has since come to known as “Partition Studies” saw a new turn, including an interest in objects that people carried with them on their journeys. The Partition Museum in Amritsar (Punjab, India) hosts a remarkable range of artifacts that have survived from the turbulent times and journeys into India. Historical studies and oral narratives are only now being supplemented with attention to the objects that survive from the exodus caused by the drawing of boundaries.

Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory by Aanchal Malhotra is another instance of revisiting the Partition through the things that remain. The revised edition, published August 2018, has twenty-one individuals from India, Pakistan and England remembering their families, journeys and historical events. All of them, except one, use at least one object to recount their lives. They speak to the author about the tangible things that remain from their pasts, about what they remember, and about the nature of memory itself.


Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, Aanchal Malhotra (HarperCollins India, September 2017)
Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, Aanchal Malhotra (HarperCollins India, September 2017)

Perhaps Aanchal Malhotra’s training in art gives her easy access to the objects themselves. She says, “You extract an object from the past and deposit it where it doesn’t belong, and decades later, it well tell a story.” She comes across several heirlooms: a pair of scissors, a shawl, books, documents, a plaque, utensils and kitchenware, to name a few. Quite a few people she meets agree with her on the importance of the things that still remain. They hold on to the things that they do because these things still mean something to them. One of them says,


Objects have a way of inspiring the mind to remember things it might have forgotten. I had put this away at the back of my closet and nearly forgotten about it! But when I look at it closely now, I see this edge has been hemmed in. This is where the shawl was cut in half… it was so wide that my mother cut it down the centre. One half she gave me and the other to my sister.


These objects are also crucial because in the vandalism that happened during the days of the Partition, these were not spared either. Along with rape, killing and mutilation, things too were looted. These objects carry the history they have suffered. One man recalls what he saw as a child:


The family was rounded up and pushed outside, though now one was harmed. Then the mob went around inside the house, breaking the furniture and setting rooms on fire… that day, the mob took away many things – the musical instruments that my mother owned, objects and artifacts of importance and value, and… the books. They destroyed all the books. My grandfather’s great library, his collection of English, French and Bengali books, my mother’s collections of poetry – they were all mostly destroyed. When they realized that they didn’t have enough time to tear or set all the books on fire, they filled the grand bathtubs with water and immersed the books.


The objects are interesting also because they have appropriated for other uses. A woman shows a knife to Malhotra. It was meant to be used as a weapon to kill herself in the event of a possible assault. She now uses it to cut the stems of an aloe vera plant. The author observes:


I stared at her, struck by the knife’s fall from grace. How could something once used to protect one’s honour at the most crucial moment of subcontinent’s modern history be reduced to such a mundane existence. This was the way of the world: all things have a time and place in our lives; they occupy exactly that period and purpose for which they are created. After that they may continue to live, if at all, in the shadow of their once-indispensable existence, appropriated for whatever use seems fit.


However, not everything that happened can be studied from the point of view of what remains. Someone tells the author that these are just material possessions. Or that there are several other things that do not need objects to be remembered by. Or that for everything people managed to carry, there were several that they could not. Malhotra knows that this project is doomed in the face of such contentions and she acknowledges the limitations of her method. To someone else, she asks for any such remnants and finds that he has nothing:


I felt small and insignificant for obsessing over the tangible. Though the purpose I had come for hadn’t been fulfilled, I found myself feeling fuller, more satisfied. Little by little, every part of me felt renewed. It had come, as it appeared, to listen, to learn and hopefully to inculcate. His family had taken nothing with them except clothes when they left their house. In a way, he had had no say in the matter. But, seen another way, it was his choice to keep nothing that would serve as a reminder of what had happened to the country.


In the process of remembering, these people talk to the author about remembering itself. Some of them are happy they are being asked about the past because the younger generation must know what happened and because knowing the past also means taking on the responsibility to take care of it. The author feels guilty for not knowing about her grandparents before she began this project. What she unearths with other people who go through the same act with her is the relevance of remembering. The last of the generation that witnessed the Partition firsthand are dying, or are in the fragile state of old age and forgetting. A wife tells Malhotra about her husband:


This is what happens with age: your memory begins to fade little by little. First the edges soften, eroding away the most recent years, and then slowly age gnaws its way till it reaches even the seemingly impenetrable, the nucleus of our lives – our oldest and dearest memories.


Often, the individuals narrate their lives in presence of other family members. The act of telling, and remembering, becomes a collective experience in these situations. In one such situation, the author realizes:


The story of a family could never completely be narrated as an undeviating account. It was, in some ways, exactly like one’s memory: perforated, additive, subtractive and a cohesive amalgamation of everything that came during and before one’s existence. The story of a family was, after spun from the memories of many. It explored its tangents dug its tributaries and flowed into the various veins where its history took it.


Just as she realizes the limitations of doing history through the objects, the author is aware of the dangers of the business of remembering. She listens carefully to another wife talk about her husband’s memory and the necessity to forget:


The human mind is a fascinating organ, with the ability to both assist and deceive us. Sometimes I think it’s a good thing he no longer remembers. You can’t hold on to everything, that just not possible. One has to learn to sift, weigh and then maybe forget. In his case, the forgetting has happened for unavoidable medial reasons, but maybe that’s not the worst thing. 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. Like his used to be before … weighted and overcast with longing.


About what had happened and why, different people have different things to say. For some, the Partition is inexplicable. Apart from a few isolated incidents of riots, they do not recall anything that could explain the enormity of migration and the trains carrying “a cargo of the dead”. Most people talk to the author about the kinship among the communities. One of them talks to her about the differences that were always there in plain sight. Material memory adds another dimension to such angles of agreement and disagreement among the people who witnessed and suffered, and now remember.


Remnants of a Separation is full of grueling accounts of pain and hardship that do not make for an ideal continuous reading. These constitute some very dense material: along with the history of the objects, they are peppered with reflections on how problematic remembering is. These stories are also further complicated by the author’s presence and her notes on what she is hearing and looking at. At the beginning of a story, Malhotra writes:


In the bright light of the chandelier, Narjis Khatun’s cloudy eyes, looking straight into mine, resembled a storm brewing in an overcast sky, which was exactly how she began her story.


Though the book is classified as history and Malhotra calls herself an oral historian, her style of writing, and her presence itself makes the reader very conscious of the fact that it is not quite history in the conventional sense. What kind of history makes space for the historian thus?


The two paintings hung side by side on the wall facing the window. Walking loser to them, I saw my own reflection in the fitted glass of the uniquely oval wooden frames.


There is a consistency in the kind of observations the author makes: someone is dreamily moving her fingers on the rim of a cup, someone’s graceful gestures, someone else’s skin. Malhotra spends a lot of time noting the physicality of the time and place she is sitting in while listening.


There was something in her voice that evoked the uncomplicated calm I associated with one’s childhood. It reminded me of my grandmother’s voice as she told us stories when we were young. It was one that wove history and memory together into magic. I leaned my back against the coffee table in the centre of the room, eager to explore her India. And as she began narrating, what I felt unfurl before me was a tapestry of royalty and resplendence, a story embroidered with gold and infused with the perfume of the past.


In this non-fictional context, these observations can overpower the voices and stories of the individuals talking about their past, dwelling on the appearance of the speakers, the tone, heaviness or accent of their speech or her own thoughts as she is listening to them, and the ways in which she is brought back to the “setting” by the people she is listening to. The objects themselves can appear secondary.

This relegation of the objects into the background is inevitable. That is why—when objects are a primary concern—one goes to a museum. But in the medium that uses words as a means to communicate about the objects, such a project visibly begins to fail. The authorial interventions at two levels—that of the speakers, and then that of Malhotra—flood the space that might have been reserved for the objects. Remnants of a Separation thus rests on a contradiction Malhotra promised new method, that of approaching a historical event using things as agents, is in the end only accessible through the text.

Partition Studies continue to be haunted by words. Remembering continues to be tied to language. There is no escape from the narratorial or writerly paradigm that has dominated the study of the past, especially in an event like the Partition.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.