The 1947 Partition was an event that left its mark on people for generations. Millions of people were displaced from their homes as the tensions and fears heightened between Indians and Muslims, and the onset of endless communal riots and massacres took place. From the survivors of the actual holocaust to their descendants, the harrowing stories continue to live on even today, albeit silently. However, for many of us, these stories are lost in numbers, textbook knowledge, or politics years after the great divide. At IKKIVI Zine, we had an insightful conversation with writer and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra, who delves deep into these stories and sheds light on the legacy of Partition through historical and everyday objects in her renowned works, the Remnants of a Separation and In the Language of Remembering.
We’d love to begin with when and how you were inspired to look back on the legacy of the Indian Partition through Remnants of a Separation?
My work on Partition began in 2013, when I was introduced to two mundane objects that had been carried across the border from Amritsar to Lahore and further to Delhi. They were ordinary items – a medium-sized ghara, used to make lassi at home, and a yardstick or gaz, used to measure fabric at my maternal family’s shop in pre-Partition Anarkali Bazaar. But when they were picked up, caressed, and talked out, they brought a landscape separated from us by a border, to life. It was through their lens that I first began to think of the millions of migrations and the rupture of everyday life that had taken place during Partition. Migratory objects – textiles, jewellery, journals, religious idols and prayer books, utensils, paintings, photographs, ID cards, certificates, carried from India to Pakistan and Pakistan to India – became my catalysts to unearth the memories of a time unmarked by borders, and this work eventually grew into my first book, Remnants of a Separation.
There are many heart-wrenching stories from that time recalled today by the survivors and their descendants. How do you feel these stories are still an essential part of our present and future?
For a very long time, Partition was understood either through numbers and statistics of migrations, or through official archives that focused mostly on politics and politicians. The stories of common individuals, their families, their communities – all who were displaced, forced to migrate to new lands, learn new languages and embrace new occupations, and start life again from scratch – seemed mostly absent. Their particular losses and extraordinary sacrifices had not been recorded or shared. The decisions taken in the corridors of British capitals most directly affected the common people, yet it was those very testimonies that were missing from our understanding of Partition.
Seventy-five years later, the politics of partitioning a subcontinent still dominates the relationships of the three countries of the erstwhile Empire, and yet when we speak with survivors, of course, they mention the horror and trauma of that time, but they also mention a way of life where they co-existed with those who we now consider ‘the other’. They recall stories of friendship, courage, sacrifice, even love, which should remind us of the long history we share with those across the border, and the wounds that still remain on both sides. While it may be easy to paint Partition with the broad strokes of violence and othering, there is a danger in telling this kind of single, homogenous story, for the interviews with survivors reveal a far more nuanced, detailed, complicated, even contradictory landscape and legacy, that can aid us in unmaking the other and break through the confines of largely jingoistic state histories.
Do you connect with the stories of Partition on a personal level? If yes, how do you and your family relate to them?
The stories of Partition were not really told to me in childhood, but in adult life, they have wholly shaped my understanding of family and community history and migration. It was perhaps with my work – and questions that accompanied it – that this history finally emerged at a personal life, at times gently, reluctantly, and other times, more urgently. Many times, I feel it continues to shape my grandparents’ memories, habits, and their ways of being and living.
There is an incident that my aunt narrated to me once, which I write about in my second book, In the Language of Remembering, where she said that my paternal grandmother almost never spoke about her life that had been left behind in Dera Ismail Khan, except when she was with her family, and they spoke in the Derawali language. But in 1999, when the first bus service Sada-e-Sarhad, Call of the Frontier, was launched between India and Pakistan in an effort by both governments to improve relationships, the pair watched the first passenger journeys in March on TV. This is an excerpt from our conversation, that perhaps encapsulates this feeling of living with the memories of being partitioned from one’s land –
‘The first passenger got off the bus and walked over to the border. And when he stepped over onto the other side, he got down on his knees and touched his head to the ground. He must have migrated from that side in 1947 and this was the first time he was able to return to his soil. Suddenly, I realized that mummy was crying. She was watching the news very intently and there were tears flowing down her face. I remember asking her what happened, and through her tears she had said, “Mein kadey jawaangi apni dharti? When will I be able to visit my land?” That was the first time I realized that there was so much in her heart that had not been expressed.’
We are in awe of your unique approach to tracing stories about the 1947 partition through ordinary objects in Remnants of a Separation. Similarly, do the historical objects once owned by the refugees find an important place in your work, In the Language of Remembering? Could you tell us a little about the new book?
While Remnants was a collection of interviews with survivors of Partition, In The Language is a collection of interviews with descendants of Partition-impacted families – children, grandchildren, sometimes even great-grandchildren – to see the ways in which the memory of Partition has been disseminated within family and community. They include chapters divided thematically on subjects like Belonging, Hope, Friendship, Grief, Love, Pain, Separation and Reunion, The Other, etc. But there are a number of stories in the book, especially in the chapter titled, Material Memory, that use the aid of objects to evoke the past – a Curfew Pass dated August 30th, 1947; a chequebook from the Imperial Bank of India in Srinagar, where the last set of cheques were dated October to November 1947; photo albums retrieved after a Partition witness has already passed; letters sent back and forth between family members discussing the politics of the time. There are also stories of objects lost and retrieved – a set of gold bangles in Noakhali, and family treasure unearthed decades and generations later in Dasuha village, Faisalabad – and some stories of things buried and left behind – a box that held a razor, a pair of gold earrings, a bottle cap, a love letter, a couplet by Ghalib, a ticket stub, and a pen, belonging to a young man who buried it in the backyard of his home while leaving Gawalmandi, Lahore.
Can you tell us about the significance of these historical items in your personal life? Is there any antique piece or heirloom you own that is close to your heart?
Over the past decade, I have come to treasure objects of age, both precious and mundane. They have become items of great affection, and each time I visit a new home or conduct an interview, the objects – centre-pieces of our conversation, really – are treated with reverence by me. I think this aspect really developed after I began working with migratory objects, because I saw first-hand, how an artefact could absorb a time, a place, a landscape often inaccessible and return it to owner. How through our conversations, they would excavate memory in the smell of old books or the patina of once-glistening utensils, in the folds of a shawl or the imperfections of handmade jewellery. I wrote in Remnants how “the memory buried within ‘things’ sometimes is greater than what we are able to recollect as the years pass. Memory dilutes, but the object remains unaltered. It allows one to study the history within it, and for generations to live off that history and perhaps understand genealogy better.”
I value several of the objects that have been bequeathed to me over the years by members of my family, not only for their beauty and technical virtuosity, but also because they were once used, worn, or bought by people I wish I had had the chance to know better. I have a beautiful meenakari bangle that once belonged to my maternal grandmother, who I never met but have heard was a stunning, incredibly fashionable woman; and a hand-winding Tressa wristwatch that belonged to my grandfather’s sister who named me, and in the years after Partition, worked at the Kingsway refugee camp and was instrumental in introducing my paternal grandparents.
We often inherit priceless sarees from our grandmothers in our culture. And you have expressed your love for these beautiful heirloom sarees on many occasions. How do they play an integral role in your artistic expression?
I consider myself quite privileged to have access to the material history of my ancestors, particularly things like textiles, garments, and jewellery, which literally can feel like one is adorning history. I have inherited a number of saris from my paternal grandmother that she wore to work at the Ministry of Rehabilitation in the 1950s and 60s. They are mostly lightweight cotton, crepe, or chiffon, and still drape beautifully. I remember seeing photographs of her wearing some of these at work, with sweaters underneath in the winter and sleeveless blouses in the summer. Sometimes I am able to preserve (reinforcing the borders or fall with cloth) and wear it as a sari, but on several instances, I have had suit kameezes made out of them, which is just as lovely.
How do you think these heirloom sarees encourage a sustainable lifestyle, and how are these a reflection of your personality and attitude towards life?
We now understand slow fashion as investing in pieces that will survive the times, thereby reducing the quality of clothes we buy. In my family, this has been happening for decades, where even my mother owns suits stitched at her wedding from her mother’s old saris no longer in use. Coupled with this is the fact that hand-me-downs were a very big thing in my childhood, where I wore outfits that my elder cousins had passed down to me, and I would further pass down to my sister. So I became very naturally acquainted with the concept of repurposing clothes and its economic viability, but I also think that there is something quite remarkable about wearing an ancestors’ clothes, where each generation can add memory, meaning, and sartorial individualism to the garment.
Both mine and my sisters’ wardrobes include several pieces repurposed from heirloom saris that are too fragile to be worn as they are. Sometimes, we are only able to preserve the borders or the zari embroidery is all that makes its way from an old garment to a new one, but over the years, we have repurposed old saris to create new kurtas, shirts, shararas, and dupattas, which we hope to further pass down.
As an oral historian, could you share a story with us about your research on textiles and other historical materials?
One of the most beautiful textiles I came across during the fieldwork for Remnants was a phulkari bagh, which had been carried from Rawalpindi to Delhi in 1947. The base fabric was made with raw cotton, called khaddar or khadi, and often starched to give the textile a stiffer feel. Phulkari, the handiwork on the piece, is a traditional embroidery technique from the Punjab region, and is done with pure silk threads, which makes the textile quite warm. The word itself – phulkari – can be broken down into phul, meaning a flower, and kari meaning craft. I’ve been told that the earliest mention of the word phulkari can be found in the love story of Heer–Ranjha, written by Waris Shah, where Heer wears many outfits with such embroidery.
Phulkari pieces were considered auspicious items of clothing, ancient in their form and sacred in the time it took to create them. Often, the women – of the family, of the community – would get together to weave such a piece for the trousseau of a young bride, or at the birth of a child. The owner of the piece told me that while the women would stitch the fabric, they would sing special songs, and that energy would subliminally flow into the work. In her words – ‘Phulkari became a language of the women, decorative and beautiful, and every stitch appeared on the fabric as a rendition of that private dialect.’
But the particular piece she showed me was not made by a group of women, but single handedly by her great-grandmother over the course of 3-4 years, and was presented to her daughter [my interviewee’s grandmother] at her wedding in 1931. Embroidered in shades of red, orange and, mustard, it became a treasured heirloom, and during Partition, as the family fled from Rawalpindi to Delhi on a train, with no place in her suitcase to keep the bagh, the woman wore the thick, warm textile through the August heat, unable to leave it behind.
‘Wearing it means keeping it close to my body, my heart,’ my interviewee said as we concluded our conversation, ‘Sometimes it feels as if I am living in history [and] can trace the direct lineage of my family through this one fabric. I am a part of all the women who wore this bagh before me.’
Interviewer and Writer PRERNA MALHOTRA
Layout and Graphic Design VEDHIKA HV
Editor RHEA GUPTE
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