The Precious Past
Object memories undo the partition of our minds
“Kuch nahi laaye the. We brought nothing. We came with nothing,” was the first response from whomever she asked, about the belongings they brought over from the 1947 partition of India and creation of Pakistan. “But then things would eventually crawl out of the backs of closets, suitcases and trunks, sheathed in dust and infused with dormant memories.”
Aanchal Malhotra – an artist and oral historian, working with memory and material culture – published Remnants of a Separation: A History of Partition through Material Memory in 2017 and Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided earlier this year. Both works focus on the objects that refugees carried with them to either side of the newly minted border in 1947.
Malhotra’s journey past this work began in 2013, when she was doing her Masters in Fine Arts at Concordia University. She encountered two seemingly mundane objects at her maternal grandfather’s home in north Delhi – a ghara (pot) and a gaz (yardstick) – her grandparents had brought these to the city during Partition.
She later unearthed the stories of the objects from different parts of India and later from Pakistan. “The idea was not just to record people’s stories but to record them in such a way that the object was the most important thing in the story. I was not just recording the stories of the people − not that that’s any easier – I was also asking them for the objects about 60-70 years later.
“It was like somebody had brought with them something that’s obviously not valuable, like a piece of jewellery or a very big item. They might not even remember that they carried it. I’m talking about small things like knives, books and handkerchiefs, really kind of personal, intimate items that people don’t think are important,” she says.
A ghara which belonged to Malhotra’s great-grandmother, which was used to churn lassi (Courtesy: Remnants of a Separation, Harper Collins India)
In the early stages of her research work, Malhotra didn’t know anyone apart from her own family who had come from Pakistan. She proceeded by asking people if they knew someone who had also come from there and had brought something with them.
“It was literally just through word of mouth, and then I would always be connected to the person in this strange chain of people. I interviewed people who were my father’s second cousins, or my cousin’s music teacher’s father. It was always like degrees of separation from the person,” she says.
The maang-tikka of Bhag Malhotra given to her during her wedding in 1919 that she managed to carry as she made the journey from the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to Delhi. (Courtesy: Remnants of a Separation, Harper Collins India)
Malhotra’s voyage took her to Pakistan. She was taken on board as a researcher by the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, who helped her to get in touch with people who had migrated from India and had carried objects. “The purpose is to write history from a new perspective. History for the generation that I belong to and history that is everyone’s. It is wholesome, it is encompassing, it is inclusive,” Malhotra tells The Citizen.
“My father used to say to us — Hindustan is our vatan, our land. It didn't matter that we are Musalmaan; what mattered was that we were born here and here is where we would die. We didn't belong anywhere else except on this soil. And ever since we were very young, he made sure that we knew the importance of being loyal to the land.” (From Remnants of a Separation, Harper Collins India)
She recalls one of her favorite stories from her most recent book, the story of Nazmuddin Khan, whom she interviewed in the Hauz Rani area of Delhi. Khan’s father was a security officer at the Viceroy’s House at the time.
“He didn’t have anything but what he had was a feeling of secularism. He was really sad to see the change from what they once were, with all the religions living together, even him. Now, we’ve become even more divisive and more differentiating in our relationships with one another,” says Malhotra.
“He taught me so much. He taught me how to shed one’s bias if one has a bias towards people. How to empathise. He wasn’t trying to give me some gyan or anything. It was just that people didn’t think like that anymore.”
She never felt any difference when she was working in Pakistan. “Like I would go to a market and if someone found out that I was from Delhi, they would never charge me any money. It was never like ‘Oh! Yeh Hindustan se aai hain!’ It was always like, ‘Achha, aap Hindustan se aai hain? Achhha, vahan pyaaz kitne ka milta hai, vahan aloo kitne ka milta hai? Kya karte hain aap? Kaise kapde pehente hain?’ It was always a sense of curiosity on a very basic, humane level.
“Of course, on the level of governments, there is a tremendous amount of difference between us. But one thing is for certain that there is a lot of curiosity on both the sides and I see it.”
Malhotra has witnessed a lot of sadness in people who are actually not able to travel to this side or that, because of the visa restrictions. “In Pakistan, I didn’t ever feel like I was different. I don’t know whether it’s because I had heard a lot of stories from people who had been born there, like older people that had said ‘yahan jana hai ya vahan jana hai, aisa hai, vaisa hai’. I don’t know whether that made me very comfortable with the place, but there was never a point when I thought that I’m standing out, or I feel unsafe.”
Malhotra is also co-founder of the Museum of Material Memory, a digital repository platform of material culture from the subcontinent which traces family histories and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity.
“I don’t think that my working with these objects and the people will ever change, though. There’s so much shared culture. I don’t know if we historians and scholars can write books about early 18th, 19th century up to the 20th century of undivided India without including the people of Pakistan. We can’t and we shouldn’t. I don’t think my association with the other side will end so quickly.”
To connect to something that’s slowly receding into the past is to first ask about it. “If the Partition is something that happened to your family members, you can begin by talking to them because there are so many people who have never spoken to their families about what happened. Though I think that’s changing now. I think people are asking questions and grandparents and parents are actually talking about what happened,” Malhotra says.
“The world is becoming smaller and smaller. There is so much information available about what happened during Partition. There are so many scholars and researchers actually doing fieldwork. There are excellent archives like The 1947 Partition Archive and The Citizens Archive of India that are doing work on not just Partition, but the times before and after it. We have access to this information in a way that really no one else had before,” she adds.
On a final note: “One thing that I would urge people to do is to be broad-minded enough to understand that if Partition and its consequences happened to us in India, then they also happened to the other side. If we lost something, then so did they, and that’s why I think we fall short a little bit in being empathetic with our neighbour. That’s one thing I hope works like mine will change.”
Cover photo: Gorkey Photowala, @gorkey_photowala