While celebrations kicked off in August to mark 75 years of Indian and Pakistani independence, a second more somber anniversary also took place, remembering the largest human displacement in history, an event which has shaped and defined the sub-continents past, present and future: Partition.
While there are a myriad of books on the history of Partition, ranging from reportage to political analysis, yet as Aanchal Malhotra writes in In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition, the “politics of partition had overshadowed the individuality of the survivors, their particular stories, their extraordinary losses.” Personal memories shape how we understand Partition, but this process of remembering is often misunderstood or disregarded. An attempt to correct this has fuelled Malhotra’s research and it is this process of remembering that Malhotra examines in her new book, a take on the fractured history of the subcontinent that is rooted in the individual and on memory.
A series of remarkable stories from Partition survivors is arranged in a collection of thematically arranged interviews, spread out in 24 powerful chapters including; loss, pain, discovery, belonging, migration, silence and returning. These stories include families holding funerals for their children, fearing them dead in the violence, only for them to turn up safely weeks later. There are accounts of the harrowing choices survivors had to make, with mere minutes to decide which scant belongings they could take and of the memories of what they left behind. There are moving portraits of partition survivors spending hours on Google Maps, looking at satellite photos of streets they grew up in, in a country they can no longer visit. We hear from Malhotra what it’s like for people to tell their stories of Partition for the first time, after keeping their trauma hidden for over seven decades.
Throughout these interviews, we hear how memories of Partition collided and intersected with memories of the 1971 creation of Bangladesh, border wars between Pakistan and India, the destruction of Babri mosque, the Bongal Kheda movement, Nellie massacre and more recent political issues such the citizenship amendment act. Malhotra guides us to see how partition affects and impacts every aspect of political and daily life in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Yet the book doesn’t just focus just on partition survivors, but also on Partition’s impact on their descendants and how these memories are passed down through the generations. This analysis of what she terms the passage of memory, explains how second-hand memory and trauma affect generations that weren’t yet born at the time of Partition. Malhotra supports this point by providing stories of grandchildren discovering their families experience of partition for the first time and how this discovery affected them.
This immensely important book transcends seeing Partition as a mass phenomenon of communal violence but delves into personal sentiments of loss, identity and individual trauma.
The book remains readable and engaging throughout its almost 700 pages. This is a highly personal book, as Malhotra interviews her own family about their own experiences in partition. We also hear how Malhotra is affected during the various interviews and how these interviews challenge her own preconceptions of partition. Due in part to how Malhotra puts herself in the story, the book never feels like a mere compilation of interviews.
While political ramifications of Partition continue to be felt, this is an important reminder of the personal in the political and how in her own words the “imagined landscape of the past doesn’t match up to the present.”