The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas: A story of love, art & loss in the midst of political turmoil.

Art connects. Art brings you back from the depths of the earth, shakes you and makes you step outside of your little world, and create something you didn’t think you were capable of. The beauty & power of art is infinite, it’s capacity limitless. It transforms and recreates and gives birth to revolution, to freedom, the ability to defy. Art is all encompassing. 

The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas takes us through Pakistan’s tumultuous political scenario between 1969-1979 where power and state sanctioned brutality displaced, killed and tortured thousands of people. While the prolonged civil war and formation of Bangladesh as an independent country took shape, we see the union of two separate individuals belonging to wealthy Karachi family unfold, and how the societal demands and expectations are loaded on Tahira, who ultimately surrenders but finds solace in art; her precious paintings.

From the start, you can feel the bitterness, the uncalled criticism meted out to Tahira by her husband and in-laws. Tahira, a young, educated girl withers away under constant jarbs and marital expectations, realizing with growing contempt that her life has been snatched away, reduced to dust. The only solace given to her by her in-laws was the freedom to paint only because it would add to their status obsessed image. It was infuriating to see Tahira undergo so much trauma, injustice and disrespect at the hands of her in-laws. 

The beauty of this book lies in the creation of other characters who I was equally fond of. We have Tahira’s childhood friend, Andaleep, who encourages her to take up painting with renewed gusto. Always looking after his sister, Waseem, defines masculinity in a new light. He considers himself a socialist distressed by the unfortunate path his country was heading towards. Both Waseem and Andaleep grappled and disappointed by Tahira’s submissiveness distance themselves for fear of losing her completely. 

It’s commendable how Sadia Abbas has encapsulated the internal and external activities of Pakistan and its people, delving into the political and social constraints, of personal and private lives being uprooted, and has brilliantly captured the intimate and most vulnerable of human emotions. 

Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra: If you could read just one book, let it be this one.

Digging into the past, through material objects carried by people at the time of Partition.

There have been countless books, articles, documentaries and journals written and published about the Partition that shook millions, and uprooted the very foundation of the people, its government and the country. But none comes closer to tracing the lives and emotions of the people present at the time of partition like Aanchal Malhotra’s book, Remnants of a Separation does. The novel in its entirety consists of 19 stories about people who were severely affected by the Divide that took place in 1947, and the aftermath of which, can still be felt by the people who were witness to the mass displacement. Aanchal through her book has presented a unique way of preserving and storing the memory of people from both sides of the border through objects carried by them at the time of Partition. Who would have imagined that a maang tikka, a ghaz, a set of kitchen utensils, a shawl or a peacock-shaped bracelet would be a testimony of a life that existed in an Undivided India? How a tangible object had the power to survive through years and years of dust, struggle, and loss? It’s unreal how the memory works. And it’s even more baffling how simple objects hold so much history in them.

Aanchal Malhotra in the introduction to her book writes, ’what is important and what I have attempted to do through each chapter, is to weave together a cohesive narrative of personal experiences vis-a-vis the past as well as the present. Memorialization is not a passive practice but an active conversation. By studying the evolution of personal histories from that period, we allow ourselves to unravel further and understand better the legacy of the Partition”.  After reading the novel, you understand the history and the real scenario of the Partition. We all know, how the seed of partition was planted, and how it was finally implemented but little do we know about the lives of the people caught in either side of the border. Mass killings that led to dead bodies being strewn across the floor like carpet, religious intolerance, loots, rapes, heavy displacement of people and property and the emotional upheaval faced by many have been articulately described in the book. The author herself encountered objects that had been carried by her grandmother over the years since partition and that lead to the unraveling of stories that were hidden in the minds of the people. She then searched for other migrants with similar stories and objects to share which then led to the making of this book; a first of its kind that uses material memory and objects as testaments to the lives of the people who owned them.

Remnants of a Separation is like a treasure-trove of stories, each unique and painful in its own. Aanchal’s writing is lyrical, woven delicately and carefully, lest the effect is lost.  The interviewees are all people belonging to India or Pakistan, their history of who they are and how they re-shaped their lives in the event of the Partition will make you realize the struggle and hardships of the refugees and how painstakingly they survived with little or no money in a country they couldn’t recognize as their own.

An oral historian and artist herself, Aanchal, has evoked deep rooted sentiments and emotions about one of the greatest tragedies to hit mankind and has portrayed it in a beautiful storytelling format that demands attention and recognition.

Aanchal says, “I realized that the Partition wasn’t just about those who crossed the border, but also about those who remained behind. It affected even those who never moved and never had to. It consumed even their lives, because they had remained amidst the chaos. They too had seen the riots, the violence, the disorder, but from a different perspective.

The events described by the people are extremely powerful and strong. The atmosphere at the time of Partition was that of uncertainty, fear, anger and of course hate of a different kind.  But amidst the rage and vengeance, are also heroic stories of Hindus putting their lives in danger for their fellow neighbors and Muslims ready to save their Hindu friends in times of need. In one of the stories named, ‘The Maang Tikka of Bhag Malhotra’, the author’s grandmother, narrates how at a time when the air was filled with intolerance, her Muslim helpers, would accompany them to school, even if that meant putting their life in danger. It’s just one of the many instances where humans defied religion and nationalism to put humanity first. Most of the refugees experienced horrific circumstances, which left a deep scar, one that never really fades but chooses to be a reminder of what was and will never be.  The Partition affected all those who had to flee in the dead of the night as much as it affected those who stayed.  As Mian Faiz Rabbani puts it, ‘Aap agar ek paudhe ko apni zameen se nikal kar kisi aur zameen mein daalenge, toh panapne mein samay toh lagega na? (If you uproot a sapling from its natural habitat and try to transplant it elsewhere, the chances of it growing and thriving are slim–and perhaps it may not live at all.)

 

Final Thoughts:

I think writing a review is narrowing down Aanchal’s years of painstaking research and hard work, and the only way to do justice to it is by reading the book and then re-reading it all over again. I had finished reading the book a few days back but was short of words to pen down a review. With a new perspective on the history of Partition, unique storytelling, and emotionally packed stories, Remnants of a Separation, is a book that you MUST read.

Human memory is fragile. We mentally store our experiences as memories. However, it is important to understand that our memory is not a recording device. It cannot be assumed that whatever one experiences will be stored as an exact and precise mnemonic trace of that moment, especially when time gradually begins to wear it down.

 

 

 


Author: Aanchal Malhotra

Publisher: HarperCollins India

Pages: 366

Rating: 5/5

Format: Hardcover