The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day

An online initiative, Museum of Material Memory, is attempting to tell history through common, everyday objects

(From left) Briefcase and letter belonging to Navdha Malhotra’s grandfather; a letter from Toto, from Nasreen’s collection

In the winter of 1982, when Nasreen Sultana travelled from Karachi to Jodhpur for a wedding, she was afraid of being perceived as the other in those post-Partition days. Fortunately, she found a friend in a tall girl with long hair called Toto. As the girls quickly became a part of the celebrations, they promised to write each other after the wedding was over. They kept the promise for a while but, gradually, lost touch.

Nasreen, 35 years later, still doesn’t know Toto’s real name but hopes to find her again through a website started by Delhi-based artist duo — oral historian Aanchal Malhotra and digital strategist Navdha Malhotra — called Museum of Material Memory.

The Museum of Material Memory, a “digital repository of material culture”, is an extension of Aanchal’s research into the history of Partition through objects that people carried across the border. The founders have pushed the timeline to 1970 and are accepting submissions from before the Partition
up to the ’70s.

Launched on September 16, 2017, the website contains photos and stories of these objects. The stories revolve around making an object, how it came into the possession of the family, its value and journey across the border. They are written by the founders of the website or owners of the objects who have, in turn, heard the anecdotes from the people who brought them.

The founders post these stories and photographs on the website twice a week. Navdha (29), who is also a ceramist, says, “We did not want to lose out on stories because of geography. We needed a medium where people could approach us, so we thought of putting it online.”

She talks about her grandfather’s briefcase, which contained letters (with details such as Indira Gandhi’s star sign) that he wrote to himself every new year’s eve, a handmade family tree and several legal documents. Navdha says, “It’s almost like piecing together a whole person.”

The process also bestows upon mundane objects the value of an artefact. A spoon can emerge as a glorified thing at the end of a conversation, convincing Aanchal that “memory can reside in material objects”.


The duo says that verification of the stories has been difficult. While they cannot call out a story for being false; tracing an object’s origin, its entry into the family and its academic importance has been time-consuming. One of the object are medals awarded to Brigadier Prem Singh, who was commissioned in the British Indian Army, during World War II. The museum has 10 posts till now and is inviting contributions from people from all over the subcontinent.