Recording the Objects of a Separation: in conversation with author Aanchal Malhotra
Radhika Shah (RS): I sit with Aanchal Malhotra in a crowded Prét à Manger across from the British Library in London, where she is doing research for her next book. Between us, our respective salads and the ‘Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory’: her recent book, a series of conversations and interviews with survivors of the Partition of India, now in present-day India, Pakistan and, in one case, England. It is a take on the historical memory of the Partition of India, told through the objects people carried with them while crossing borders: a string of pearls twisted into a dupatta, a scarf, or a cubic inch-sized Guru Grant Sahib hidden within the folds of a dastaar, a turban. What Aanchal writes about, however, is not just these objects. She uncovers layers of material memory, finding nostalgia, trauma, and both personal and national identity within them— a process of documenting and archiving historical memory through material memory.
Aanchal tells me unequivocally of her ability to put her subject at ease, to allow her to ask for often traumatic answers to deeply intimate questions— a quality I also recognize in her as she begins to unravel the many knots that arise when speaking of Partition. It is this informal, but the direct conversation that pushes to the front the mode in which she has originally conducted her meetings with Partition survivors, the informal sharing of decade-old objects, rooting historical memory beyond the verbal, characterized by the expression, touch, and emotion. In conversations about historical memory, by personalizing it, we also see issues of subjective meaning-making, wherein personal historical memory is changed, or highlighted; survivors find that their experiences of the Partition cannot be separated from the objects they carried. The materiality of historical memory is also expressed in the people themselves; Malhotra’s book brings up nuances of dialectic language, of intimate violence, of age-old notions of national and religious identity, all of which define, to some extent, the people themselves.
RS: Your book ‘Remnants of a Separation’ was published last year, 2017: it is a process of historical archival and recording that is not entirely known as a method to unravel the Partition of India. Using material memory to describe a migration process— How would you exactly describe the form of historical method of material memory you have carried out with the book?
Aanchal Malhotra (AM): Material ethnography as a form of archiving exist in museology, of course, that’s what we do — we archive artifacts. Whether those artifacts are of personal importance or not, that’s irrelevant— but this archiving for a material culture has been happening for a long time and in terms of piecing together traumatic history, it’s been done outside of India for a number on a occasions. Say, for the Holocaust, or South African genocides… look at places that build museums based on community stories. They use objects to piece it together. But in terms of partition it had never been done before. It’s surprising, because we as Indians, Pakistanis, people of the subcontinent hold our material culture so close to ourselves. We are so attached to things yet we don’t see the relevance of objects that have serendipitously survived seven decades and a partition. I think, in that, it was a novel approach for sure. Objects are also catalysts. We use them to access memory. It’s very difficult to go to someone and say, “You lived through Partition—tell me all about it, I heard it was awful.” But it’s a completely different thing to say “This dupatta came from across the border, can you put it on, can you tell me how you feel when you wear it? Who gave it to you? Who made it? Where did it come from? Why did you carry this? How did you hear of Partition?” You know, through the object, you can enter a landscape that might otherwise be quite traumatic. So, it’s a tool.
RS: In this specific context, do you feel that material ethnography has been severely underrated as a form of archiving?
AM: No, not at all. I just think that it was not used as a tool to look at Partition. I don’t think that it is otherwise rare as an archaeological framework. The rarity is to apply that concept to a moment in history. For instance, how else do you learn about the Holocaust through the objects that people took with them?
RS: Do you imagine your project beyond cases of migration?
AM: Of course it was— like with my Museum of Material History—that’s where it has gone beyond it, beyond Partition to other things. I think, also using an object makes the past more tangible for a generation that might not have been there. It’s one thing to say ‘Hum waha se aaye the, aur woh bahut door hain’ (We came from there and its very far away) but it’s another thing to say ‘ye jo dupatta hain, yeh yaha se aya hain…’ (This dupatta, it comes from there)… The moment you connect it to something tangible, a child or a grandchild has a way to say, ‘Oh, this thing here, I associate this with this object.’ In this world that we’re living in, of jingoism and nationalist rhetoric, these kinds of associations are the ones that really bring people together, from both parts of the border.
RS: It is about heritage also— more familiar, more domestic maybe, but something like Partition allows an individual focus of heritage to be comprehensible at a national level. But I wanted to ask, where did this project begin? I know there’s a history behind that as well.
AM: In 2013, when I was a master’s student, I encountered two objects that my own family had carried with them from Lahore to Amritsar. They were very mundane objects, but despite the fact that they were so mundane, I had never seen them before. But when my grandfather’s elder brother was talking about these objects, he was completely transported to another place, because these were things that were from his past, from undivided India. There were a ghara and a gaz (round-bottomed metal pitcher for drinking, and a fabric-measuring yard-stick) and he started doing the action of making lassi in the ghara, and it was like an 80-something-year-old man had become a five-year-old boy again. And I didn’t understand then that objects of a certain age can take you to another place if you allow them. And I started thinking, if one person can be affected like this, then surely other people can be affected by it in similar ways. It’s worth doing an exercise in this kind of excavation of memory. So, it began just for myself, to see if there are any more objects, what people think of them, what kind of objects… and it grew into something much larger.
RS: How did your own experiences with working in art history and print-making help you?
AM: I think it’s just that when you work in a studio you become very conscious of the material. So you’re touching things, smelling things, looking at things. So, with art objects as well, your level of scrutiny becomes a little heightened. That helped a lot. The way the book is written, it’s both visual and evokes the tactile.
RS: Yes, the book is very sensual. I think that the fact that every chapter is preceded by a photograph of the object, shows a lot a value given to how the person, and how you, as well, reacted to the object. Could you tell me more about ‘The Hiatus Project’ and ‘The Museum of Material Memory’?
AM: When I came to India in 2013, I had no idea what I was doing. I was on sabbatical from my Master’s degree, because I had no idea about anything. I was totally saturated, and I came to India and started this blog called ‘The Hiatus Project,’ which is like a hiatus from life, really— and then it became about what I saw, who I spoke to, whether they were Partition interviews or not, I just started blogging. And the reason for that was the moment I started doing the Partition interviews, there was a sense of heaviness that came with it. You’re recording things that are heavy because these are other people’s lives, but then they also become public memory. I needed a place to vacate myself. You’re absorbing these details, and some of them are very traumatic. And you can’t just hold on to all of them, because at some point it’s all going to accumulate. So I started putting out little excerpts of ‘The Hiatus Project’ on Instagram. That’s why I started using Instagram, because I realized that people of our generation don’t know enough, or haven’t been privy to this kind of memory. So on another level, it was also about awareness, using social media for this cause. If you see what I post on Instagram and what I post on the blog, it’s almost the same. And they’re both such visual media as well.
The Museum was quite late— it began only last year. The inception of the project began before the book. When I started doing this work, when I started writing, a lot of people began to write to me from different parts of the world, saying ‘We have this object, can you come and archive it?’ Or ‘I live in Ranchi, Jharkhand, I live in Pune, Jammu, I have these things— can I send you pictures?’ And I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you have this public digital forum where people can submit stories that their families had… not necessarily to do with Partition, but something to do with the collective history of the subcontinent. So that maybe ten or twenty years from now, someone says, ‘How did people live in the 20th century, how did people live in the 19th century, what did they eat, what were the utensils, the clothes… we will have had some source of information from the people themselves.
RS: A historical database, of sorts?
AM: I want to say historical, but you can’t… I mean, this is based on hearsay and memory. But what you can have is a semi-academic, semi-sourced database that looks at how life was. Say, you have this old dagger in your house, and you have no idea where it’s from. It encourages you to ask questions about the dagger, ask your ancestors, spend time with them. But my partner and I were very conscious of the need for additional research. It is very important not to have the story just be about the memory and the physicality but also be about place, time, materiality, history, social ethnography, material ethnography, placing it in some kind of timely domain and dimension so that it can be an archival resource for someone. And then there is the visual. The visuals are very important. Not just because the world is becoming more visual, but also because we are thinking of the future—what if we have to set up exhibitions of these objects, what if an archivist in Ireland is looking for at some miniature painting that is in someone’s house in Bhopal? We want a high-resolution image so that it can be used as resource material.
RS: Do tell me more about the book and the project itself— how long did the entire process take, in finding survivors, speaking with them, photographing the objects— as well as the editorial process?
AM: Four years. I never started the project with the intention of writing a book. It happened very late. I was doing all this research originally as part of the research project, but it was a visual thesis, in the studio art program. So it was the images that really mattered. I was asking questions because it became important to me, ‘why would you bring this thing? Tell me its story.’ It was only after I defended my thesis that I thought that it would be a great narrative project.
The project has a life even after the book is out. The moment you limit any research to one form, it limits your own scope immediately.
RS: Your work doesn’t adhere to a specific categorizable form. It’s not—and I am assuming here—making the claim of being academic. But it is somewhere along the way performing that role.
AM: Yes, it’s semi-academic. For instance, there was no need for me to live here [in London] for a month when I was working through all these archives but if you’re writing something targeted towards the general public, one needs to know what Radcliffe’s files looked like. I know that they’re khaki green and thick and crossed over but you need to describe it exactly like that and unpack it. Because someone sitting in Jharkhand will have no idea what they look like. And that’s the other reason why I share all my research, even what I am doing now, online. You want people invested in it. If I am looking at a map from 1945, I want people to see it. It isn’t just my research, I am not going to keep it with me— I have no claim to that. If the [British] library and museum have public access, then how can I restrict it? Academia often encourages very little public engagement. I would say that half my readership is under the age of 30, easily. Because they find this subject relevant to them now because somebody their age is telling them, ‘This is important.’ It explains why we are the way we are.
RS: Even in the book’s Introduction, you often refer to what the younger generations of these families have said. It’s almost as though by your asking them about this, that consciousness was awakened.
AM: I have seen that happen. I think sometimes that we as people of the subcontinent forget our own history is important. Do we need someone to tell us, ‘your history is important?’ I found this with the objects as well— if the object was really mundane, the person who owned it would not necessarily think it was important. ‘Why was a book from 1928 so important? The same book somebody studied from, your economics class in college, why was it important? So why did you bring along that book in the first place? If you don’t think its important why have you kept it all these years?’ Through our conversations, the notion of the precious also evolved and shifted. So for example, if at the beginning, if I said, ‘Tell me about this object,’ and they’d just initially treat it as is, ‘this is a notebook, a shawl’ but at the end, if I asked to borrow the object, keep it, study it, they would claim ownership, possession, heritage. ‘It belonged to my mother.’ You need a third part introspection to remind you that this is an important part of your family legacy. It’s really sad, but it’s true.
RS: The lady with the bagh (hand block printed woven cloth), Hansla Chowdhary— she asked if she could make you wear it, and you too were taken aback, because it was such a personal, intimate moment for her to offer it to you.
AM: Yes, because she had told me that the bagh had been passed down to her by her grandmother, who gave it to her mother, and so on. And then she put it on my shoulders! I said no. It’s not mine. I was intruding.
But there are so many instances like that. And even after the book, the work is still continuing. I am still doing interviews. Because you can’t stop this kind of work.
The paperback of the book is coming out in August 2018, and I have to add new material to it, so it’s still going on. I have to add a couple of chapters, and I’m looking at adding chapters from Bengal and Punjab now, as well as Rajasthan, Gujarat. The border exists everywhere, right?
RS: You used the word ‘interviews’… would you call them interviews or maybe conversations? They feel more like conversations than formal interviews.
AM: Yes, they would ask me so many questions! I would definitely call them ‘conversations,’ not formal interviews. Of course, the process is an interview, but the questions that I asked produced conversations more than anything else. I wish I could make public my actual interviews but they’re of terrible quality. At the time I wasn’t thinking of these things, but I might change that.
We would talk of such random things, you know, and the fact that I am not affiliated to any organization or anything helps because I can absolutely random questions. I did an interview in Kolkata a couple of months ago, where a woman was telling me to the potential bombing of Kolkata by the Japanese, and moved from Kolkata to England in ’42. And there was no need for her to tell me this information, but she told me how in 1942, when there were bombs, raids because of World War II, children—she was seven at the time—were taught how to put on gas masks. There was no need, but that additional information helped—because was is no specific structure to this interview format, it allowed for little bits of information to slip in. And so she told me ki “aisa hota tha, waise hota tha”—‘that it was like this and that’—and it is fascinating, so interesting to me.
RS: In re-telling their stories, you often reference the languages the survivors speak in, the particular phrases they use and their linguistic idiosyncrasies — do you find a connection between the memories and the ways in which they choose to describe it? For example, with Narjis Khatun, you unknowingly understood the dialect she was speaking—samanishahi, I think— understood the connotations of the phrases— in a way, they took up space and had physical significance. We see that with Prabhjot Kaur’s poetry, and Mian Faiz Rabbani.
AM: To include specific phrases I think was a very conscious decision because translation dilutes things. At some level, translation is phenomenal to understand things we don’t have access to but you will never really get the true essence of what is being said. Take Narjis Khatun as an example. Yes, she spoke in Samanishahi, but she said this thing when she was trying to explain to me that she never realized where India stopped and Pakistan began. Now I remember her words really clearly, she said ke “hum train ke dibbe mein baithe hue the, air mujhe samajh hi nahi aaya ki Hindustan fab khatam hua aur Pakistan kab shuru hua, aur train ke dibbe mein baithe-baithe hum Pakistani ban gaye.” We were sitting in the carriage of the train, she said, and I never even realized where Hindustan ended and where Pakistan began. And while sitting in the carriage of the train, we became Pakistani. Right? It doesn’t have the same weight as it does in English. And she said, “Mein ‘taksim-e-hind kabhi bhula nahi paaongi,” which is not the same as ‘I will never be able to forget the Partition of India.’
Then Nazeer Adhami. He also uses very special phrases. He said to me, when I met him in Lahore in February, something that cannot be translated to English properly. He said, “Humne ab isko apne zindagi ke dor mein baand liya hain.” The best way I can translate that is to say that, ‘We have woven this into the fabric of our lives,’ but woh zindagi ki dor jo hoti hain, woh ehem jo ek dor hoti hain, usko hum translate nahi kar sakte hain. But the string of life, the essence of that string, we can’t translate that. Rooh jo hoti hain language ki, the essence of a language, is only in that language. The other thing is that sometimes the way people say things, geographically situate where they come from, which is such an important thing. ‘Agar aap is tarah ki Punjabi bol rahe ho, toh aap Punjab se yaha se ho,’ which is a form of belonging. But I also think, that in terms of giving a kind of a flavor.
RS: This also means you would have to have the necessary knowledge, to some extent, to pick up on these things.
AM: Yes, I had to study this so much! Working with Bengali translators, I don’t speak any Bangla. Which is where, you know, the gap was, because this couple would speak in Bangla for five minutes, but I would get a one minute translation. And I would just say, ‘well no, I want more.’ Because I know what happens in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, I know things get lost. Intonation, bodily gestures… that’s also what you’re trying to archive.
These are idiosyncrasies of communities. We need to archive these things. Linguistic traits and other such lingering elements… I really looked at those a lot.
RS: But in your introduction, you also speak to the sense of belonging you felt while in Lahore, ‘sarhad ke uss par’. If you don’t mind me asking—how was your personal experience, coming to terms with the history of migration of your own family? How have you dealt with the personal aspect of your research?
AM: Everything is personal in this book. I try to be unbiased. But the doesn’t mean I am disconnected. These people I interviewed, on both sides of the border, all over the world—they’re family. They’ve trusted me with very important, intimate details from their lives, some of which had never been uttered before. We need to treat that with respect, and also do it justice in a way that is relevant to them. For example, a lot of things from the chapters in Pakistan dealt with things I need not have formally agreed with. Because I have encountered a different version of history here—yet in the book, these stories have been written exactly as they were told because that’s their memory. Not to color other people’s memory to adhere to what you assume historical memory should be like, but find a way to provide people with a collective view of things. Because Partition at one level is a combination of many perspectives. Threads are woven together. The more you loosen one thread, the more you come across more, and the understanding of multiple experiences help us put together any knowledge we have of Partition, whether that experience is academic, social or political, ethnographic or some kind of unspoken experience… And of course, people from different communities, not just the major Hindu, Muslim, Sikh… We have Christian, Parsi, Dalit… With Lahore, coming back to your question, I don’t know what it is about the place, but maybe because I had done so many interviews with people about what pre-Partition Lahore was like, I just felt that this city speaks to me in a way that Delhi speaks to me. I spent a lot of time there, interviewed a lot of people there. Till now, I remember the streets, remember how to get from one place to another. Some cities just talk to you. I also went there with an open mind, untainted by Indian media. So, I was able to experience it in a way that maybe others might not have? Also, my family was so excited about me going.
My grandmother lived in the Old City. Lahore’s walled city is maybe three times as big as Shahjahanabad. So the more you go inside, the more Hindu the mohalla (the neighborhood) became. It was such a maze, lane after lane. I was trying to find old houses there, in Hindu mohallas, but I didn’t find the house. I am going to look for it again. My grandmother now lives in Canada, so I was sending her pictures of any 3-story house that I saw, because all she really remembers is that. She did tell me other things like there was a water reservoir next to it, but I couldn’t find any, and she was very young back then. In those days I guess it wasn’t so important to know the number of your house and the name of your house. It was more, “Iss galli se yaha jao, uss galli se waha jao, aur ghar aa jayega.” “From this lane, go here, from that lane, go there and that’s the house.” I did go to her school though, Sacred Heart Convent School - and it’s still there. Thriving. I told the Mother Superior that my grandmother studied there and she was very happy to show me around.
RS: I guess the process of recording the Partition has more value if done somewhat holistically. The visual aspect is so important for your book. I’m trying to imagine your book without photographs, and if the book wasn’t photographically conceived, so to say… I wonder how effective it would be otherwise.
AM: The book came from art and evolved into writing… it can never be the other way around. Even the fact that Narjis Khatun—I was asking her questions again and again—she put her hand over her heart and said, “Ab bas. Ab bas. Aur nahi.” She said, “That’s enough. That’s enough, no more.” Without that action, it would have been so different. Even in the chapter with Savitri Mirchandani, I’m badgering her, “Did you miss your home? Did you miss your husband?” I was aggressively asking her questions. I remember at one point, she says “I’m answering this not because of the questions you’re asking, but because of the reasons you’re asking the questions. Yes. I did miss my husband. Nothing else.” It got to a point where I had to ask, “Why are you not more emotional?” But people are different, she wasn’t nostalgic about this. This whole excavation of memory was also an exercise in multiplicity, to understand that there are so many different kinds of experiences, but you cannot associate only one type of experience with the whole of Partition, because that one type doesn’t exist. Not everyone will fit into that category.
RS: You’re also investigating the ways in which people deal with trauma. That’s where psychology comes into play because they aren’t just reacting and responding to the objects, but to some form of original trauma.
AM: Yes. Nazeer Adhami, the man who said I’m Hindu and thus different from him— when the book came out I sent him a copy. And he called me up and said, “I read your book. It’s a very unbiased account, especially of Muslims in Pakistan.” I said, “That’s great, I’m very happy with that.” I remember this really clearly, and he tells me, “If you recall, I had told you that you and I are very different people, and the work you’re doing won’t make much of a difference in fixing communities. I want to rephrase that and say, after reading your book, the little things you’re talking about, ki jo iss paar aur uss paar jo cheezay phasi hui hain, cheezay, aur yaadein aur baatein jo tum baar baar nikaal rahi ho, sirf yahi antar mitaaingi.” He said, “The things that are stuck between this side and that side of the border, the objects and memories and things that were said, the things that you’re repeatedly extracting, only they will bridge that gap, the difference.” It was a huge compliment from someone that who told me that we’re so different. And then of course, he’s the one who told me, this February, that we’ve tied this up in the fabric of our lives. This is the way that the border is blurred, through experiences like this that we can cross the border, in a way, by reading and interviewing people I crossed the border every day. Ek baar Gulzar-saab ne apne book ke release par kaha that ki, “Main har roz aankhein band karke sarhad paar karta hoon.” Gulzar-saab (Indian poet, songwriter, and director), at one of his book releases, said that “Everyday, I close my eyes and cross the border.”
RS: I’m sure there wasn’t any emphasis on mental health – such as PTSD - related to the trauma.
AM: I doubt that term was ever even considered or existed at that time. Prabhjot Kaur, the poet, told me she had to sit on corpses in the train. And she described this—and she’s a writer, so she describes things in that way—she told me how her shawl was black, and through that black shawl the blood from the corpse filtered through the shawl and how she saw a dark stain on that black shawl. She paints this image for you.
RS: Where do you go from here? What are you currently working on?
AM: I’m working on something about Indian soldiers in World War I, serving on the Western Front. And I’m realizing being here, in London, how much documentation there is.
RS: But that representation is rather lost in popular culture, films like Dunkirk, for example.
AM: The colored landscape of the wars is really under-researched. In the UK, however, there is a large capacity of independent scholars, and organizations that are working on this, that are sadly not in India or anywhere else in the world. Mostly because all these important archives are here, in the UK. My new book should be out, hopefully, sometime next year.
RS: In terms of the research you had to do for your book— I wanted to ask, how much did caste play a role?
AM: Yes! That’s something I could not really look at because the fact that you can carry an object across the border at all is a point of privilege. I did work with people who were disenfranchised, who had experienced this, such as Nazmuddin Khan who lives in Hauz Rani in Delhi, who was able to get nothing across. His father worked as a security guard in the Viceroy House. Caste was not the lens I was looking through, which has been the main criticism for the book. As my lens is material ethnography, which implies a degree of privilege because it presumes that you can get some object across, and preserve it - which is the premise of the book.
RS: What would you call yourself?
AM: Writer and historian, or artist and writer.
RS: Like your book, do you evade categorization?
AM: I think it helps being accessible to a younger demographic. Being approachable and not on an academic pedestal. And this book isn’t just limited to Partition either, it goes beyond that.
Aanchal Malhotra is an artist and writer living in New Delhi, India. Her interest in and knowledge of print-making and studio art—which is deeply connected to the material world—has often informed her historical writing. She is interested in banality, acts of recollection and the malleability of our memory. Being of the third generation of Bahrisons booksellers—the beloved bookselling Dilli institution—she has grown up surrounded by the written word. Aanchal can also be found at her photo-blog, The Hiatus Project, which chronicles her love affair with the city of Delhi, its history and magic. The thesis project for her MFA in Studio Art from Concordia University, Montréal (2015) was entitled ‘Remnants of a Separation,’ and is the the first and only study of the material remains of the Partition of India in 1947. It led her into her first book of the same title. The UK edition of the book will be out in March 2019 with Hurst under a new title Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided. She is currently on a research sabbatical, working towards her next book, concerning an Indian soldier who fought in World War I on the Western Front.
Radhika Shah is a senior at Barnard College. She is an English major with a concentration in Creative Writing, and a minor in (South Asian) History, and often wonders if it should have been the other way around. She is a writer for the Barnard Bulletin, as well as being a writer and reading panelist for the literary magazine Echoes. After transferring colleges, and studying abroad at the University of Cambridge, UK, she has found a resting place in New York. She is deeply interested in material history, writing poetry about the various ways in which history and literature meet, and is committed to the long process of unlearning that is required for South Asian history and literature. She is currently interning at a publishing house that specializes in international and translated literature in Brooklyn. She lives in Bombay, India when away from college.
All images provided by Aanchal Malhotra.