Updated: August 27, 2017 1:19:53 pm
On a winter afternoon in 2015, sitting in a nondescript two-storey apartment in the cramped mohalla of Hauz Rani in south Delhi, Aanchal Malhotra remembers waiting anxiously for an old man to share his memories of Partition with her. She had been working on her dissertation for her final year of MFA at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada — a project to locate one of the largest and most violent mass migrations of modern history through material memorabilia that people had carried with them during the exodus. Nazmuddin Khan, 88, was, however, in no hurry to oblige. He wanted, instead, to tell her the story of his father’s vision of India, the vatan he held so dear that when he was offered safe passage for his family to Pakistan in 1947, he decided to put his trust in his countrymen and stay back. “…ever since we were very young, he made sure that we knew the importance of being loyal to the land,” says Khan.
But his father’s trust would be broken in unimaginable ways in the days of carnage that followed. Houses were torched, properties destroyed, men, once friends and neighbours, killed each other. Under the cover of the night, the family would have to move from their ancestral property in Hauz Rani, then a neighbourhood represented equally by Hindus and Muslims, and take shelter among relatives in what is now Uttar Pradesh. When they returned eventually, the land and their lives would be irrevocably transformed.
Khan would have no memorabilia to share with Malhotra that afternoon, only a son’s conviction in his father and an irrational hope that even adversity could not tame. “Our Hindu brothers are born in Hindustan, they grow up here, live their lives here, they die here. And when they die, they are cremated and their ashes are immersed into holy waters of the river Ganga. Within her tides they flow, even if it is eventually into foreign waters. But look at us Musalmaans…we are born in Hindustan, we grow up here we live here and we die here. And when we die, we are buried deep into the ground, and, eventually, when our bodies decompose, we become one with the land. We become Hindustan,” Khan would tell Malhotra.
“I had gone there in search of an object. Instead, he showed me what he has treasured the most through all these years: hope and a simple, steadfast belief in secularism,” says Malhotra, 27, when we meet in New Delhi’s Khan Market.
What do people take with them when they are forced to flee their land; when they can no longer hold on to what had once been the centre of their universe? For someone two generations removed from the horrors wreaked by the creation of the Radcliffe Line in 1947, Malhotra says she came upon the idea for her dissertation, and, subsequently, her book, Remnants of a Separation (Harper Collins, Rs 799), during the course of a casual conversation with her grand-uncle, who treasures a gaz and a ghara his parents had brought from Lahore when they moved to Delhi just before Partition. “You can live in India your whole life and not be confronted by Partition if you haven’t lived through it. But, for those who have, life is still divided into pre-Partition and post-Partition narratives and they are two completely different worlds,” she says.
Over the course of three years, Malhotra would interview many people, beginning with her family members, including her grandfather, Balraj Bahri Malhotra, who established Bahrisons bookshop in the capital in 1953, and others whom she would come across in India and in Lahore, Pakistan, during her research.
Tracing the bloody legacy of this migration that displaced nearly 15 million and killed around 2 million people was, however, going to be far from easy. Tracing it through material memory — with its assumption of privilege in the darkest of times — even more so. “There was hesitation and uncomfortable silences and a lot of ‘But why do you want to know?’, ‘What is it going to change?’, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’, ‘I don’t want to remember it’, ‘Ghar chod aaye, sab chhod aaye, sab khatam ho gaya’ from the people I spoke to,” says Malhotra.
But once the resistance wore off and the silence wore thin, old memories — bitter, painful and best forgotten — resurfaced. “Sometimes, I felt like it was such an intimate, personal experience that I shouldn’t be privy to it,” says Malhotra. She recalls the story of a woman from Mirpur (now in PoK), who had walked all the way to Delhi from Kashmir and whose story she eventually did not include in the book. “She had walked for days and along the way, most of her family members got abducted, violated and killed. Only her brother, sister-in-law and she made it to Delhi safely. When I asked her about the time, she got very angry.
She told me, ‘Don’t ask me about that. Ask me about what it feels like to grow up like an orphan as a result of that.’ Then she got up abruptly and left to make chai. When she returned, she told me, ‘I want you to know, that even though it was a group of Muslims that abducted my sister, I don’t blame them. It was the halaat.’ Two things dawned on me then: One, how can people who have lived through such traumatic times still be so tolerant of the other? The second thing was the sadness. That night I just couldn’t sleep. How can you make someone so sad because of something you want to know? What right do you have? I wondered if there was an end to this,” says Malhotra, whose next book will tentatively be a novel on an Indian soldier fighting in World War I.
Malhotra says she could only assuage her guilt by focussing on her objective. “The past will always remain elusive to us unless we make a habit of asking uncomfortable questions. How else are we going to remember or engage with it? We are a very insipid generation, I am afraid, but, I still believe that if we infuse history with storytelling, it will encourage people to have a conversation about the past and look beyond the misinformation all around,” she says.
To that end, she agonised over her selection of narratives. “I picked things that were different and were from different geographical locations. We think of material as something valuable, which it’s not, always. There are things that don’t seem overtly valuable but is of incredible value for that time. By focussing on these objects, I wanted to locate the intangible through the physicality of the thing,” she says. From the maang tika that a widowed mother of six, Malhotra’s great-grandmother, managed to smuggle in her belongings as she made the journey from the North-West Frontier Province (now, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan) to Delhi, a Guru Granth Sahib that a fleeing Sikh family carried with them, to a 1909 stone plaque in Urdu outside a house in Jalandhar that found its way back to its rightful owner in Lahore years after Partition, Malhotra weaves in stories of how these objects have kept alive memories of two nations that had once lived as one. In fact, to accommodate her large collection of stories, Malhotra has set up a digital museum called The Museum of Material Memory last week, which, she hopes, will turn into an ethnographic archive of people’s history of that time.
The burden of grief is never an easy one to share. Malhotra says meeting all these people and listening to their stories have changed her in ways she could not have foretold. “The purpose of art, like literature, is to make your viewer feel something. It aims to move the viewer in some way, to change their perspective. How do you move someone with something completely disconnected from them? We can do it by owing it to ourselves to go to the utmost root of the feeling and by listening. During the course of working on the book, I discovered that there’s a huge difference between hearing and listening. I think it taught me to listen,” she says.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines