Aanchal Malhotra

Photograph: Gorkey Patwal

Aanchal Malhotra

When I enter Aanchal’s house, the first thing that strikes me is that there are books all over the place, yet, they are ordered. Her space is well organized, and she emphasizes that she’s an aesthete who takes an interest in cleanliness. She recognizes the irony of working with objects but being wary of hoarding too many things. The author of Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, Aanchal takes notes meticulously. On the wall opposite to her desk, she has sticky notes almost revealing information to conceal it. The geography of her house is marked by the corners of books. There is a separate corner for books she uses for research. The books closer to her heart and the ones she calls her favorites find a place on a shelf in her bedroom. While taking me through her house, she tells me she wouldn’t mind parting with some of her belongings, but that she can never part with her books. Aanchal has worked on tracing a history of the Partition through the material objects people carried with them as they fled their homes. She has documented these stories in her book, and is attempting to build a living narrative of objects through an initiative (run along with her friend, Navdha Malhotra) called Museum of Material Memory. Her book has been shortlisted for British Academy’s Nayef Al Rodhan Prize. The Prize rewards works of non-fiction that contribute towards a global cultural understanding. This week, Platform talks to Aanchal about all that it means for her to write a personalized version of history. 


Remnants of a Separation started as your MFA thesis. How did the idea evolve from what you conceived initially to what you finally penned down on paper?
Well, I did my thesis in the Fine Arts, so it was a visual thesis. When I was doing my research, although I was interviewing people very much, but the focus was on what I could show in a gallery, what could be seen on the walls by people. So, it was very much based on imagery, the sensual-ness of objects, the tactility that things have. I wanted to show someone how someone feels about something. That was the focus when it began. After I defended the thesis I realized that I had collected so much material in doing the interviews that it really wasn’t enough sometimes to say, “Oh, this person carried this! This is what it looked like.” It was very important to know how and why they carried it and why they chose to carry it and what it meant to be able to carry something, you know? The object is not just a proof of someone having existed in some place. But it is also a mark of someone’s status, someone’s identity in society. If you knew Partition was going to happen what did you take with you, how much did you take. So, I think in the transformation it just became a lot more informationally rich. All of a sudden it wasn’t just an image. It was an actual person’s voice. It was situating them in a historical instance. It was supplementing their interview with academic rigor and further scholarship. It was also to show people things easy, to make them enter into a text. That was really the challenge – how would you show someone who has never witnessed something as magnanimous and violent and confusing as Partition? Only few historical instances are comparative. So, how do you show someone who has never been there what it felt like? That too, through an object. 

You grew up with books around you, often traversing between fiction and non-fiction. How did this shape you as a reader and a writer?
I would say that for most of my life I only read fiction. And then I started writing, and then I only read non-fiction. And it is quite difficult to shift from one to the other. I don’t enjoy all fiction anymore. When I was a child, I used to read everything. But now, I am very selective about only reading historical fiction. That also might be because that is the closest now to what I feel, or how I relate. I think it’s a bit sad that now I only turn to non-fiction. My most recent read that really gripped me was Janice Pariat’s Nine Chambered Heart. Anuradha Roy is a novelist I love. And so is Amitabha Bagchi. But I think both these authors again come from a very strong grasp of history. 

Aanchal Malhotra

While you were listening to people’s stories, how did you find yourself understanding personal narratives while weaving them into the larger context of history?  
I think it is obvious for there to be a gap between the stories I heard and the “official” history. And it is obvious because the way our textbooks were written when I was studying in school, the Partition was just distilled. It was reduced. The history just never kept the person in mind. As if history could have happened without people! So that’s I think why when I was a child, and I was in school and I was learning this, I didn’t connect that all four of my grandparents witnessed it. Because it just wasn’t taught from the aspect of people. It was very much an umbrella term to show that a subcontinent had been divided. But, somehow, people were completely absent. And not just that, they had amassed into numbers. Like people had become data. How did my grandparents become data? So, I think it is very important for us to understand that grand historical moments happen using the smaller historical nuances of people. I think that is when I realized that I was very hungry to find as grand a variety of stories that I could – from different kinds of people, genders, ages, and of course geographic areas. 

How is the process of listening to a story of trauma different from listening to a story of comfort and joy? Did you often find yourself in a difficult position while listening to a story? If yes, how did you cope with it?
Ideally, I would like to bring the same sense of attention to both kinds of story. If we think it is easy to tell a story of joy vis-à-vis trauma, it might not be the case because the pathway to joy might be laid in trauma. Also, you have to understand that the event of trauma, or the event of joy is not limited to that emotion. It wasn’t as if the month of August of 1947 was just Partition, and then the rest of life was so easy. Things lead up to the event, and things cool down after the event. Similarly, if there’s an incredible moment of joy or an incredible act of courage that someone has committed, then the challenges that they have to get through to get to that are just as painful to hear as writing about the elation of joy itself. Similarly, with trauma, I don’t think I need to explain this but to hear about historic trauma, to feel historic trauma and to do justice to historic trauma are three very different things. It is very easy to romanticize unhappiness and trauma (especially when it is aged) in a way that not many people who lived through it will do it for you. They will either tell you very quickly or they’ll either tell it very animatedly. We feel this need to make this punctum kind of a moment. And sometimes it is so much about the moments that lead up to something, and the moments that climb down from that thing that also need to be given importance. If someone saved twenty Hindu patients during Partition, that’s excellent! But, the same person also didn’t stand up during God Save the King, and the same person also ripped off union jacks, and the same person also did a bunch of what would have been considered anti-national activities at the time, and the same person went missing for an X amount of time after. So, I think what I try to do in every story is to balance out. No story will have pure happiness, constant happiness. But some stories will have constant violence and trauma. And there need to be breathing spaces. This we can do with almost silly things like –I ask questions like what were you wearing at that time? Were you wearing a dress? Were you wearing a suit? Were you wearing a chooridar? How did you do your hair? And the person thinks – what do you mean what was I wearing? These questions might seem a little stupid, but what you’re trying to do is to situate the person within a historical environment. And this means you need to build the environment. I think this is something a lot of people do not really understand. We keep on thinking the story of the Partition is a story of the Partition in isolation. But something led to the occurrence of the Partition as an event. I think I always try and maintain a balance, if I can.

“It is so essential to see a clear duplication of what happened during Partition in subsequent events since. We don’t learn. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, it is so clear!”

In the process of your research for your book, did you ever feel lost about giving a narrative to all the stories you had heard? How did the process impact you personally? 
For the narrative in the book I chose to follow an alphabetical order because I was really concerned about not favoring Indians over Pakistanis, Muslims over Hindus, Sikhs over Muslims, women over men. In that way, I don’t make any decision. I kept it quite varied. 

Personally, it was very overwhelming. It is overwhelming to read something like that, but then it is overwhelming to listen. Voice is powerful. And how we say certain things reflects how we feel. I was unprepared. I don’t think anyone can be completely prepared for this because you don’t know what you’re going to find. I was 22 years old. I was exceedingly unprepared. It impacted me personally because I had to grow up really fast. There was no choice in the matter. If you’re sitting in somebody’s house and they’re telling you about how their family gave them cyanide pills to swallow as a five-year-old child, your mind would immediately go - “What would I do?” and “How can I comfort this person?” Even if this person is seven decades older than me. You’re 22, they must be 95. The degree of separation between you and your interviewee become very intimate in that moment, to a point where you cannot take their loss upon you but you can certainly feel it, and you can feel it only in the way they’re telling it. I didn’t really realize what the work was doing to me until last year. If every week you do 4 to 5 interviews, it becomes like “Gotta do it! Gotta do it! Transcribe!” I hate to say it but it becomes routine. But what would happen sometimes is that I would wake up in the middle of the night and I just would have no idea where I was. Because in my mind there was a small child’s mother stuffing a cloth into their mouth so they don’t scream, a family rolling up their belongings and putting it inside the floor, Diwali crackers bursting, someone talking about a roof, someone throwing stones. This happened a few times. I just had no idea where it was, and I found it so difficult to situate myself. I just kept thinking – is it possible for us to slip into the traumatic landscape of the past? I can’t go back in time. But am I so intrinsically embedded in the stories of historical violence? I don’t think I gave it the importance it deserved. All this was happening, and like a true Punjabi, I kept brushing it aside and decided to focus on what was there in front of me. 

The other thing that you’re doing is recording people’s stories and you have the responsibility to do justice to the stories. So, it is really not about you. It is about the person’s voice, and how they feel and what they’re saying and what we can learn from what they’re saying. It is so essential to see a clear duplication of what happened during Partition in subsequent events since. We don’t learn. We haven’t learned from our mistakes, it is so clear! Every time something communal happens, you think to yourself – “Just look back in time! People have already suffered!” 

“In this subcontinent, particularly with material culture, the real beauty is in seeing how objects of age are still used in houses.”

Interviewing someone must have later involved hours and hours of transcribing. Did you find yourself conflicted about what parts of their story to keep, and what parts to let go? How did you make these choices? 
I don’t think I cut out many things to be honest. I might have crunched them down, might have edited a little bit, but if the part of the story was directly related to my area of scholarship, I didn’t cut it down. Yes, there were huge chunks of conversations where you’re just talking about biscuits, and kebabs and tambola and dogs. In a six-hour interview, there were easily two hours of chit chat to connect. But apart from this, I did not cut out many things at all. 

I also had certain rules for myself. For instance, I wouldn’t go to someone multiple times to interview them. It would just be a single interview because if I went multiple times, then they knew what I wanted to know, and they knew how I wanted to know it. So, my rule was I would spend six hours, seven hours or even the whole day with them, but I was not going to come back to ask you questions. I might later confirm things. 

While you were traveling to know more stories, you must have come across stories that came from different regions of British India. How did this regional variation reflect itself in these stories? Did you come across rituals, practices or dialects that altered meaning in some way?
I think one thing we can say for certain is that everyone faced some kind of loss. How they dealt with that loss, perhaps, is a bit different. It is impossible to lay a blanket and say “Sabnay aisay dekha tha.” You cannot say that. You will always have differences. But I can say that in general, Punjabis are the kind of people that a) they’re very entrepreneurial b) they’re very forward-thinking c) they virtually came with nothing. So, they mostly managed to sweep everything under the rug quite well until some element disturbs that and seeks out the truth – whatever the truth might be. What was really interesting for me was the language in which people talked about the Partition. For example, when I interviewed a Sindhi family, they said they only call it Partition, we might call it judaai too – and that is like a division of hearts. Then there was a Kahsmiri family who said someone in their family had died. And I will never forget how they talked about their death. She said that she had died on a train coming to Patna Sahib in Bihar, and we had to “dispose off” the body. In my head, I just couldn’t believe that a body had to be “disposed off” - like garbage. In my head, the only thing that I could think of was those big black trashbags – jaisay usko dispose karna tha, dispose karna hai, kahaan rakhengay? I just couldn’t stop thinking about that.  Then there was an interview I did in Lahore with a woman who came from Samana in Patiala, and now migrated to Pakistan. She and her samdhan, both their families came from Samana. They used samanayshai to talk to each other. Samanayshai is a mixture of Hindi and Punjabi. And their granddaughter used to think that they didn’t understand Urdu. Bano, who is a pure Urdu speaker, didn’t understand why both her grandmothers were speaking this different language. And as a child she related it to the fact that they must be so uneducated that they made this secret language to talk to one another. And language, that is so dear to us, and it is literally voice that comes from inside us can now be relegated to something like not being educated enough. You know, how children think is really sweet and naïve as well, but you can’t blame Bano for thinking that way. But at the same time, your language can really become an identifying factor of who you are. I tried to interview as many people from as many different areas as possible. But still I think there is more to do. I have barely touched any of Rajasthan or Gujarat. I would love to do some more interviews in Bengal. Stories from Kashmir are so different from anyone’s else’s stories. Such horrific acts of violence happened there that are still, till this date, footnotes. There’s still a lot to do. There’s a community of people from Karachi who settled in Kerala.

Aanchal Malhotra

Oral History Interview_Savitri Mirchandani_2016

Your book, and your project, Museum of Material Memory breathes life into objects. Do you find yourself thinking about the objects you have in your own life that are now replete with meaning? Could you take us through some anecdotes around these objects? 
I am actually very minimalist. It’s a bit strange to be writing about objects and to be so conscious of your Indian hoarding abilities. But I have certain connections to things. For instance, my grandfather’s sister named me. She was an incredible woman. She was also from Lahore and the reason why I am bringing up this intimate detail is because I have her watch. It is a manual wind up watch. I don’t wear a watch but if I would, that would be the one. She was incredible because she was married to someone and then she didn’t agree with how he treated her in terms of the person she was. And she just wouldn’t have any of it! She left him and she came back to her house, but they didn’t take her back. So, she became a teacher and she lived so fiercely independently throughout her whole life. It was such an example! She did not live on anyone else’s terms but hers. They might have been wrong, but they were her terms! And she named me, and I now have her watch, so this is one thing I hold very dear. I also have my grandfather’s really old magnifying glass that he used to read the newspaper with. 

But I am not a very cluttered person. I can’t think if there’s clutter. Everything has to be clean, everything has to be neat, everything has to be in its place. The thing about other people’s objects is that I never ask for them of course. They keep them, and they talk about them. And in some ways the conversations that we have about the object breathes new life and purpose into that object. For the most part if the object is incredibly mundane like a dupatta or a pen, they don’t really care about it until a person asks them – “Oh achha, ye aisay hai! Achha aapki Ammi ne banaya tha? How nice!” And then they say, “Achha achha ye toh humara hai” So the really sad thing about mundane objects with age is that they’re not celebrated for their serendipitous survival, for their technical virtuosity, the fact that they might be heirloom and have been passed down from multiple generations just because they’re mundane and not obviously monetarily valuable. But if something, as small as a notebook or a pen has survived a 100 years, 70 years or 80 years, been carried across the border – can you imagine the stories that are embedded in it? It is impregnated with voices and air and all kinds of incredible things! And it is very important for me to let the person know – “Hey, this a treasure! I don’t want it from you but I want you to pass on the story.” I think this is one of the things that we’re missing in how our subsequent generations are being raised. It’s that we are just not asking questions and we’re not being told stories. My grandparents spoke Punjabi to one another, they spoke Punjabi to my parents but my parents never spoke Punjabi to me. Now as a Punjabi who has never lived in Punjab, and doesn’t speak Punjabi, what is my entry into my Punjabiness? Is it just Bhangra? Is it rababi music? What is my entry into my culture? I feel Punjabi, but why do I feel Punjabi? What is it that connects me to a land I’ve never lived in? I would be the first person to relegate our generation as a generation with a lack of interest just because of the sheer pace of life. But at the same time, it is not that simple because it obviously means that the stories are not being passed on either. And what we really need is this organic archive so that a scholar doesn’t have to come and make a big deal about your personal stories.  In this subcontinent, particularly with material culture, you’re not going to find all this stuff in a museum. The real beauty is in seeing how objects of age are still used in houses. Aaj bhi kalai hoti hai, kalai kyun hoti thi? Kalai ki history kya hai? So much of us is embedded within our traditions and culture. And we have to find ways to retain that. 


Was there any incident while writing the book that particularly stayed with you?
Five years ago in Pakistan, I recorded a story of this woman who invited me to her house to talk about bartan. But she didn’t really want to talk about the bartan. She wanted to talk about this photograph of this house that her father had built in Dalhousie. And I didn’t really understand what she wanted to talk about because they left the house in ’47 and she didn’t really have any details, but she just told me that – “You know, two Sikh brothers live there and I don’t know anything else!” So, I didn’t really know what she wanted me to do with that information. But the book got published in 2017 and this Sikh man found me and told me that the house I’d mentioned in this chapter is the house he lived in right now. It was given to then after Partition. I swear, I just broke down and started crying. I called the lady in Lahore and said, “Aapka ghar mil gaya hai”. And she was so sweet, she said, “I hope they send us some photographs of the house.” So, I invited myself over to this house in Dalhousie and I went there and I spent a week there. In the Municipal Office of Dalhousie, I went through every single document that existed of the house to send photographs back to this woman. I kept thinking about how I am going to return the past to this woman who is not my family, not from the same religion as me, not even the same place as me - but I am working to restore her history to her. And at the end if my visit, I made them Skype. I made the Sikh family give her a tour of the house over Skype. The really important thing that stuck me then was – “Why am I working towards giving back history to so many people who are not my family and who are not the same as me?” It really dawned upon me then, that of course they are the same as me, and of course they are my family. So, what I feel really strongly about is the fact that through this work I have constructed a strange amalgamated cross border family comprising of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Bangladeshis, Kashmiris. It just doesn’t matter who someone is because that moment when they’re sharing their story with you the only thing you can do is feel the responsibility to do justice to it. I think that’s one thing that is really important to me that maybe, just maybe, through these gentle conversations we’re having about the past, some form of empathy can arise for people of my generation so that we don’t grow up with prejudice and hate for who we perceive as the other. There are many reasons why prejudice happens, and sometimes unknowingly we build it. The media portrays both our neighbors in a light that is less than favorable. If through my interviews and my very simple questions about the past, if someone can see the other in a different light, in a new light, in a light that is inviting – then we’re doing something right. The purpose of empathy through conversation is really important to me. Only by talking will we have understanding, only by understanding will we feel empathy. And in that, it feels like this border is not so definite. It feels almost like water sometimes. 

Text Muskan Nagpal