Remnants of a Separation
A History of the Partition through material memory
I look at the objects surrounding me as I walk to the bookshelf to keep Aanchal Malhotra’s debut novel in its place after a fourth re-read. These objects I have collected over the years define me in another time and place. Postcards, polaroids, totes, air tickets, museum tickets, and more. Each thing holds a memory archive of its own in my home.
Aanchal traces the memories of such objects for those whose lives changed overnight over a line. A line that a stranger deemed fit for the conditions he had to work with. If you can sense it, it is the ever-famous Radcliffe Line.
The wee hours of India’s new sense of freedom came with stories of violence and lost friendships. “Remnants of a Separation” tracks those lives lived and lost. Each chapter takes you on a journey of a mundane object such as a ghara (pot) or a gaz (a measuring device). It is interesting to know about their origins and their current setting. These objects absorbed the memory of a time and place, remaining undisturbed for generations. So much so family members of the older generation who survived that awful partition were oblivious of their history (at times). Understandably, those who lived desired to forget the horrors.
These stories spoke to me as someone who has always romanticized India before and after it gained its independence. It lends a voice to their owner’s struggles, sacrifices, and pain. It weaved that sense of alienness yet belonging across the borders. Her dedication brings out this complexity:
‘For her, who taught me the importance of one’s soil
for him, who tried so hard to forget it.’
Many attempts have been made to document this particular archive of India. But Aanchal’s book is forever my favorite because of her impeccable storytelling.
The one thing that stands out to me is how different each individual’s perception of the event was. You experience love for a city and the inherent differences that have crept between Hindus and Muslims. You share the xenophobia Punjabis faced and their resilience to rebuild their lives. These memories remind the reader of the indomitable human spirit that never gives up.
It helps you understand the price at which we earned our freedom and who paid for it versus those in the power who took the decision. A reality that we still struggle with even today!
My book is filled with comments and underlined passages, so pages have started falling apart. Yet I revisit it every time to end up sobbing at a man’s request for a fistful of soil from his homeland.
This book is above and beyond our history books, where the partition account is reduced to a paragraph. You have to experience the grandeur of life that a string of pearls, carried from Dalhousie to Lahore, has to offer. A woman’s determination to pursue the written word in light of the turmoil around her brought within a notebook of poems from Lahore to Kalyan. You have to read through this shared experience across borders and generations. I will recommend the book a thousand times over.
PS. As I make my way to read her second book amidst rising communal hatred, I remember Nazmuddin Khan’s remnant of brotherhood and unity. An intangible object of our history. It was a beautiful memory of a man holding and serving an idea of India that seems now a distant dream for us.
P.PS. Recently, in a message to Aanchal, I mentioned that I am most grateful for her work — be it the Museum of Material Memory or this book. I desired to explain these stories’ effects to her one fine day. I hope this rambling of mine does some justice to it.
TLDR; pick up and read the book!