Aanchal Malhotra talks about how the book came to be written, and the aspects involved with recording material memory.
I remember going up to my grandfather after I had finished reading Remnants of a Separation to inquire about his past, about what happened during Partition, and how after all was said and done, he along with his family, decided to live for the rest of their lives, carrying a huge loss in their hearts. And that’s what Aanchal’s book ” Remnants of a Separation” prompted me to do. It has in ways more than one opened room for discussion for not just me but many who’ve read the book but never realized they have family members who were witness to the partition. It has given all those who were thrown into the middle of one of the most important historical events a voice. We all know what happened through innumerable written, oral and visual sources. But the primary source has always been the people who experienced it firsthand. Through interviews, Aanchal has given us an insight into what happened, relying on material memory, and how objects play a powerful role.
It was a pleasure interviewing Aanchal, and listen to her narrate how it all began.
- You’re an artist and Oral historian, how did writing a book on material memory come into the picture?
What I put on my blog were just snippets of information, at least at the beginning. When I was doing these interviews people were telling me things that were never taught to us in schools and they weren’t great things like religious importance or anything. They were just things about Undivided India and I thought everyone should have access to that kind of information, of what life was like beforehand. The thing with putting things online is that it’s accessible and democratic. I didn’t really expect such response from people and I didn’t know if people were interested still about the Partition. I started writing the blog on a whim because when you’re doing such interviews, you hear all this information and it gets heavy in your head. All these things about trauma and loss, and you think to yourself,’ I don’t want to hold all this information in my head’. I mean, factually writing a book is also a catharsis of sorts. So it clearly came from the need of NEEDING to share because I needed other people to know that, ‘hey they’re not so different or hey things were really not so bad all the time’.
- Remnants of a Separation, which was once your thesis project is now a book. How would you describe this journey?
It seemed like a natural progression. It started as a thesis and I am artist, so it was a visual thesis. You know when something takes over you, and you’re not leading it, it’s leading you. Suddenly people started writing to me from different places and I didn’t really expect it to become this big because you’re talking about things. Honestly, I didn’t think that things would make such a big difference because in the larger scheme of life when people are running and freeing for safety, is a THING really that important? But 70 years later, it remains the only way we have access to undivided India’s daily life.
- You’ve interviewed several people in your book, situated on both sides of the border. Do you see any difference in how they have coped post-partition? Or is pain and heartache individualistic?
On one level, a very rudimentary level, there is nostalgia on both sides, and there are emotions on both sides, but when you get up to a state or political level, then the narrative is different. And unfortunately, in Pakistan, the state of the narrative is married into the narrative of identity. So it is difficult to say anything that might hamper that narrative. We have to keep in mind that a Partition is an event of versions. Everybody’s version adds up to what Partition is. It’s not just one kind of narrative; there are hundreds and thousands of different kinds of narratives that people went through for the same event. That’s what amazes me is that even if two people move from the same village and went to the same village, their versions of what happened will be totally different, depending on their experiences.
- Your interviews are more like stories being narrated. What made you choose this form of storytelling?
I think it’s because I’m not trained as a writer. I really think it’s because I am an artist, and when you study art or go to art school or make something in a studio, your primary motive is to create something out of nothing. You’re making imagery; you’re trying to transport the person to a particular place through images. I think personally as a writer that should be your job as well. I started writing based on the images people were creating for me or the imaginary landscape I was making, I think my writing is very visual, it’s sensorial. I don’t know anything about writing, I write because of what I feel which is how I make stuff as well. Maybe it’s like an emotion-driven process but in the case of the book, it also had to be married into facts and academia. So I had to learn a lot of tools on the way; like I had to learn how to be a historian and I had to learn how to be an archaeologist of memory; how do you ask a question? You learn to be an interviewer; you learn to be a researcher. You learn that you can’t spend your day in the studio and you actually have to spend 12 hours in the library. The form of storytelling will always remain visual for me. For me, the texture of every story is very different. The color of every story is different, the landscape of every story is different; it moves. So it’s very important to make distinctness in people that each person stands for a different kind of narrative.
- Most of the younger generation seem to be uninterested when it comes to Partition or they don’t know enough about it. Do you think material memory can be the catalyst in bringing together generations and opening a discussion?
I hope so. I see it happening even on my blog or Instagram. It can be a very simple thing like maybe I’ve posted a photo of a Kadhai or glass, and if a person from India and a person from Pakistan or a person from Bangladesh are all talking about the same thing in the comment section then something is happening. Maybe the object is a very frivolous thing to be talking about but maybe it can also be considered a democratic space for cross-border conversation. It’s just something you connect to.
- You’ve spoken about how the topic of Partition is almost always dealt with hesitation by the very people who were a huge part of it. What do you think is the reason?
I think it depends on people’s perspective or what they went through or their experience. But there’s a certain amount of shame in being driven out of your house, in not being able to do anything, in seeing what people around you are doing. There is anger and I think that many people that lived through it did not have the time and space to comprehend what they had gone through. I always think about this: Imagine if after the partition there had been psychologists or counselors to talk to people, imagine how different an experience it would have been. But you went through this incredibly traumatic event, you were driven out of your house, you had nothing, you were reduced to penury, and then you just had to move on, and start life again in this new place. I can’t even imagine. Would I ever talk about it if I went through it and would I ever be able to unsee the things that people saw? You know what really shocks me, and I always ask this question to people: Do you think it’s weird that something we study as a historical component in textbooks is something that you have lived through? These people are living histories. The other thing is that after Partition no one talked about it, it’s not like the Holocaust where people wrote about it extensively. And it’s also not like the Holocaust where there’s a clear demarcation of who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? There was nothing like this here; everyone was at fault at some point or the other. The boundaries became very blurred as to who did what and who was responsible for what and who started the killing and who started the bombings. It is difficult to say because we weren’t there and I think even the people who lived through it cannot say with certainty and certainly not with an unbiased perspective who started it.
- On reading the book, one also realizes that Partition is as much about people’s kindness towards other communities as it is about hatred and violence. Don’t you think the stories about Partition merely just state facts when it’s much more than that? Why don’t we hear about such stories?
Because those stories don’t sell. Violence sells a lot. There are so many stories about goodness. People don’t talk about it. Virtually everyone person I’ve met in Pakistan has some family in India and growing up in India I didn’t even think about this. Now it’s like such a common thing for me to hear.
- Is there any story that is close to your heart but didn’t make it to the book?
Yes. There’s a particular story I heard in Karachi, just last month. And I want to tell you because it’s a very important story for me, and it really shook me. It really moved me. There was a woman, who was traveling from Delhi to Lahore, and the train got attacked by rioters and so many people died on the train. Her husband was one of the people who was stabbed and was thrown off the train. She was alive but she jumped after him. The train had stopped and the rioters had fled. All the people who had died were just lying on the train. Her husband bled till death. She took off her dupatta and she soaked up all of his blood that she could. She made the train’s attendant promise that he would bury her husband as she couldn’t take the body by herself being pregnant at the time. She soaked up the blood, got on the train by herself and reached Lahore where she didn’t know anyone. She went to the graveyard and bought a plot and buried that blood-soaked dupatta. It was the only thing she had of her husband. And she gave birth to a son whom she would take to the graveyard every week to visit his father. Can you imagine a dupatta standing in for a person? It is just heartbreaking on so many levels. The woman had no regret, no malice for people that had done that. She understood that it was circumstance. But the sheer act of picking up the part of somebody else, that’s also one form of an object I suppose.
- What has been the most difficult part of writing Remnants of a Separation? Finding people to interview or waiting for them to unearth memories they’ve buried deep within?
Talking about it. It’s really hard. You know some people have this skill of being able to extract information in an unobtrusive way, and I’m one of those people. When you get to that conversation with a person, it comes quite naturally because you don’t start with Partition. You never start with Partition. You start with all the other things and eventually you get to Partition. I think for me right now the most challenging thing is constantly talking about it. What happens when you keep talking about something that’s so magnanimous is that the more you talk about it, the more it seems to be reduced to data. It seems like a rehearsed activity that you’re doing all the time. Now the most challenging thing is talking about it again and again. These people are not just people, they are my family. Somebody has opened their life and told me something infinite, you have to respect that. Sometimes journalists have these habits of asking questions and it seems like data.
- Are you working on any other project?
I am working on a novel about an Indian Soldier who fights in World War I in the Western front. It won’t be out for another two years.
(This interview was first published in a monthly newsletter, OfTheNefeli)
About the Author:
Aanchal Malhotra is an artist and oral historian, working with memory and material culture. She was educated in Traditional Printmaking and Art History at OCAD (Ontario College of Art & Design), Toronto and Concordia University, Montréal. She is the author of ‘Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory’ (HarperCollins 2017) and can be found at The Hiatus Project, Instagram and her website.