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What makes a thing precious

In a new book, 'Remnants Of A Separation', Aanchal Malhotra looks at Partition through the objects people carried with them across the border

Aanchal Malhotra with her grandmother’s ‘maang tika’. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint.
Aanchal Malhotra with her grandmother’s ‘maang tika’. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint.

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Do the memories of Partition matter? It’s been 70 years, and many of the generation that survived Partition are no longer alive. Aanchal Malhotra, who has authored the book Remnants Of A Separation (HarperCollins), which released this week, believes that the silence of those who witnessed the trauma of a nation sliced in two may have fomented the violence in the sentiments between the countries now.

It all started in 2013 as her master of fine arts (MFA) thesis. Malhotra started photographing the objects that people had carried with them when they crossed the newly formed border, from things of value, such as pearls, to those that were precious for other reasons—a poem that led to a soldier falling in love with a woman he had never met. Malhotra interviewed people to unearth memories that many had tried to shut out of their minds. In an emotionally charged book, she tells 19 stories that people living in India and Pakistan narrated to her. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Remnants Of A Separation: By Aanchal Malhotra, HarperCollins, 400pages, Rs799.
Remnants Of A Separation: By Aanchal Malhotra, HarperCollins, 400pages, Rs799.

On reading your book, one realizes how, even though 70 years have passed, Partition continues to be an emotional subject.

(The emotion) exists if you allow it to exist. My motivation in doing’s amazing to know that something tactile that exists now can take you back to another place. Can we look at trauma through mundane things? I think in India we are different from Pakistan in the sense that we can separate ourselves from talking about Partition every day. We were not born as a consequence of it. When I was in Pakistan, it was impossible to ignore that fact.

If the creation of nationhood is bound to a traumatic event, that event will not be forgotten. You emerged victorious from it and you gained a land. The third generation in India now, my generation, is not so interested in Partition or pre-Partition things because they don’t have a fear of losing it, because they didn’t gain it, it was just there, they just inherited it. In Pakistan, the efforts to nurture culture are so much more because they gained it, and they have this fear of losing it. I worked with The Citizens Archive of Pakistan for this project. They’re speaking to people, archiving not just memories but photographs, piecing together what it means to be Pakistani.

How did the project start?

It began quite slowly. I didn’t even know that my family had anything until I started asking. My grandfather was always reluctant to talk about Partition. He would say there’s no need to remember because they can’t go back there. So, many of our conversations were like he had taken something very, very precious to him and said here, now you take care of it. It was always very upsetting for my grandparents, emotional for them. When I was working on the book, I had this strange sense of guilt. Who am I to ask them to remember these things? I am causing pain to them because I am asking them to remember again and again. My grandfather, when he started remembering, told me all these things about how his father was separated from them. It was very difficult for him because he had to become the patriarch at 19. He didn’t know anything about earning money. He did a lot of things that would have been considered beyond their stature as Pathans.

All these (memories) were difficult for him to remember, mostly because he had shut them out for so long. When he did, it was better for him. After that he began to think of his home town in his dreams. Finally, it was something that gave him joy and no longer pain.

The scissors Prof. Sat Pal Kohli’s mother would use while making their clothes. Photo: Courtesy Remnants Of A Separation.

How did this transform from an MFA project into a book?

In 2013, I started research for the project that became my MFA (thesis): photographs of objects and a little bit of text to contextualize them. But I didn’t think I was doing justice to them. Also, so many things I heard in interviews related to or unrelated to the objects were things that other people needed to hear. We live in intolerant times. Some of these things that people had experienced because of the violence of Partition made me think that everybody in the world must hear this. Despite how many people they lost and how many people were killed, they held no grudge against anybody. People who survived Partition don’t hate “the other”.

Subsequent generations do not have enough knowledge; that is something we have to change. The need for collating memory is important now, because in 10 years everyone from that generation will be dead.

Sumitra Kapur’s ‘Guru Granth Sahib’, which a Muslim family living in her family’s erstwhile house kept safe for them. Photo: Courtesy Remnants Of A Separation.

What were the most intriguing stories you heard?

There are stories of violence, but also of courage and hope and friendship. There’s the story of a Guru Granth Sahib . A family came to vacation in Mashobra from Rawalpindi. Partition happened, and they couldn’t go back. One month after Partition, their neighbour from Rawalpindi knocked on their door and said, I’m going back to retrieve my gold. Do you want anything from your house? They asked for their Guru Granth Sahib. When he went to Pakistan, and knocked on the door, the people staying there said, we didn’t touch it; we have kept the room (with the Guru Granth Sahib) locked all this time.

There’s the story of a stone plaque in Jalandhar, it belonged to an affluent Muslim family, and was placed in front of their house. A poetic plaque, with Urdu, Farsi and Arabic verses on it. They left the house during Partition. Twenty-five years later, the man I interviewed went back to Jalandhar to see the house. He spoke to residents, and the first thing the woman who lived in this house said was, what took you so long to come? The man said he couldn’t contain himself. Years later, his niece visited the house, which had been demolished. The name plaque was kept on the side. She carried it back across Wagah to her uncle, it’s now in his house. I used to grieve about Jalandhar all the time, but now Jalandhar is with me, he said. It was so heart-warming to listen to.

My favourite chapter is the last one. It was about this man in Bangladesh who had suffered three brain haemorrhages and lost his memory. He used to tell his wife everything about his life before, and what dawned on me was that she had become the keeper of his memories.

There is one chapter that has no objects. The man I interviewed said the most poignant thing to me. There’s been nothing that’s been more important and nothing that I’ve taken more to heart. His father used to work at Viceroy House (now Rashtrapati Bhavan) as head of security. He was told Pakistan will happen, you should go there as (Muhammad Ali) Jinnah’s guard. His father said, when all the Muslims go, I will go. He told me, when Hindus are born, they live and die here, you cremate them, their ashes go into the Ganga, and flow with it. When Muslims die, you put them into the land and eventually they decompose and become India. They are the soil you are standing on. Can you still say they don’t belong in this country? After I heard that, I have never seen things the same way. He had no objects but he was holding on to something that was rare to find, some form of communal harmony. I thought that was an important enough object to talk about.

Narjis Khatun’s ‘khaas daan’, a part of her trousseau. Photo: Courtesy Remnants Of A Separation .

How did you find the people?

When I began, it was haphazard. It began with my family. My parents would also ask people who walked into the bookshop (Bahrisons, in New Delhi, which her family owns). Remember, at that time, I was looking for objects. Those are very difficult to find.

The Sahitya Akademi poet I wrote about, Prabjot Kaur, her elder daughter came to the shop and said her mother has some jewellery. But she didn’t know that she had these amazing notebooks in which she wrote these poems. When her mother started reading, it’s as if I was not even in the room. She was, I suppose, rediscovering what she had written, and parts of herself in that.

The other key thing is that the object was not always important at the beginning of the conversation. If it was something of obvious monetary importance, then yes. During the conversation, the more I infused importance into that object, the more importance they placed on it. A woman told me of this big shawl that her mother tore in half, one for her, and one for her sister. At the end of the conversation, when I said main pehenkar dekh lu (may I try it?), then she said, nahi nahi, yeh toh meri hain (no, no, these are mine). This possessiveness came in because I had infused importance into that object.

Material study is not a big thing in India. I have started a digital archive of Partition where people can submit their photos of objects ( I’m telling people that their mundane little things hold memories. Before this project on objects, there was no in-depth study of objects of Partition.

Will you continue with the project?

For sure. Objects can connect people to their past selves. What this book has done is begun a cross-border dialogue with the second and third generation, which is really important. I am collecting the shadows, the stories, of the objects.

What next?

I have started work on a novel. It’s about World War I, World War II, Partition—a love story. I will start writing in September. That will maybe take another two years to write.

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