Objects of antiquity had always fascinated New Delhi-based multidisciplinary artist, writer and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra. But it was when she encountered her own family history — both sets of her grandparents having been refugees of the partition of India — that she began to train her gaze upon objects that they and other refugees had chosen to bring with them on their cross-border journeys.
To Malhotra, these objects transcended their basic utility to become powerful repositories of memories, thoughts and associations. She saw them as alternative modes of narrating the story of the partition, the objects being stories themselves as well as facilitating agency for story-telling, specifically of the circumstances of the partition. Her exploration of the idea culminated into her ongoing oral history archive project dealing with material memory — Remnants of a Separation.
Originally a Master of Fine Arts thesis that began in 2013 when Malhotra was studying at Concordia University, Montréal, what was a preoccupation with the idea turned into an exhibition, also titled “Remnants of A Separation”, at FoFa Gallery, Montréal, last autumn. It subsequently travelled to other galleries, institutions, and festivals.
Malhotra is currently working on a literary rendition of the project. It will be the first exploration of material memory of the partition as well as an examination of alternative ways of preserving and collating memory, in addition to how memory shifts and is transferred.
The research for her project spanned Delhi and Lahore. The project’s title, in fact, refers to the unique relationship that India and Pakistan historically share. “I feel that we are in this constant state of separation from each other; we have parted yet we have not entirely divorced from each other. There is still so much living between the two nations — and within that remnant, there is a space for us to thrive as people belonging to the subcontinent. What I am interested in collating are the objects, emotions and feelings that remain from such a division,” she says. Malhotra has also worked with an organisation called The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, which aims at archiving the nation’s lives and memories.
Malhotra began to think more deeply about objects from the partition when she came across items that her maternal grandfather and his brother had brought along while crossing the border. “One day, when we were talking about post-partition times and them arriving as refugees in Delhi, my grandfather’s eldest brother showed me a ‘gaz’ [yardstick] and ‘gharha’ [metal vessel]. He told me that those two dated to pre-partition times and belonged to his parents,” she says. His father had used the “gaz” to measure cloth in his shop in Lahore while his mother used the vessel to churn buttermilk.
While Malhotra was deeply aware of the partition as an elemental part of her family as well as national history, this was the first time she had heard someone categorise their life as pre-partition and post-partition, someone to whom this distinction came naturally — and it was these objects that became physical signifiers for that measurement of time. “I couldn’t get those two objects and what he said out of my mind. I recalled all those stories in which hear my grandparents would say, ‘We couldn’t bring anything, we arrived in the train, we were wandering.’ Yet, I thought, they must have brought something at one point,” she says.
She began contemplating further about what happened to those objects, how did they too migrate across borders, what the objects’ owners felt about them, and what memories the objects evoked years after the partition. “Memory is a very delicate thing. Whether we like it or not, it begins to fade and is subsequently fabricated, becoming fiction. It’s incredibly malleable. The thing about an object though is that it is physical and tangible, a unique reservoir that holds time within it. The memory in the object will change depending upon the person it belongs to but it will still nevertheless hold a memory within it,” she says.
These memory-reservoirs of objects therefore transmute into time-portals for their owners, enabling them to address and talk about the partition in a way that may have been difficult or even impossible to do so earlier.
Throughout her exhibition, Malhotra did intensive research about the objects that made their way across borders, and how people chose what to take or not take with them. “To a large extent, it depended on the family’s social standing. If you were aware that the partition was going to happen, you had more time to move your family, and there was a higher chance of bringing more of your belongings. On the other hand, if you had to leave in the middle of the night, not being particularly rich or elite, you had no choice but to leave everything behind,” she says.
What might have spurred the decision to carry specific objects was either extreme nostalgia or basic monetary motivation. Malhotra also points out that those moving across borders perceived it as a temporary matter, anticipating a return to their homes, objects and lives in a fortnight or so. “The things they left behind feeds into the fact that they thought that they would return. Some people did go back to retrieve their things following the partition,” she says.
Apart from objects holding monetary value, utility also played an instrumental role in determining the kind of objects taken. “There are certain things they had no choice but to carry — utensils, for example, which would have been of practical use during their journey,” she says.
Malhotra was nevertheless pleasantly surprised to find numerous books and collections of diverse objects such as rose-water and silver cigarette case. “The latter belonged to someone whose mother was — unusually enough — a moneylender; when they left, they took with them objects that incidentally belonged to others. It’s amazing how an object acquires a new citizenship and new state,” she says.
A meeting that had a deep impact on Malhotra in the course of the project was with a man who did not have any object from the partition, but what he conveyed would resound in her memory forever — an extremely devout notion of secularism. “I met him in Hauz Rani, Delhi, which is now a Muslim-dominated area, but it was very religiously intermingled before partition. Upon learning that I was Hindu, he asked me, ‘Why is there a belief that Muslims don’t belong in India? When a Hindu person is born, lives and dies in India, they cremate them and immerse their ashes in the Ganges. The ashes go wherever the river flows, even if it is outside India. Muslims are born, live, work and die in India; they are then buried here, becoming the very soil of India. How then can you say that they do not belong in India?’”
For Malhotra, this articulate thought was more than worthy of inclusion in her documentation of the partition memories and objects. “When I was leaving, he told me, ‘Don’t think that I was not of service to my nation; we all did it in our individual ways. My contribution was living in communal harmony with Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs and that was enough’.”
His words held a powerful message given the context of the partition as well as contemporary times. “The stories that I was encountering originated from a time of distinct religious unity — and we very much need these voices to be heard,” Malhotra says.
This is why Malhotra feels that the most significant impression she has taken from the project is an incredible need to record the stories of those who lived through the partition. There’s a shroud of silence over the event, she says, and those who survived the partition are eager to move on with their lives, yet it is increasingly crucial to excavate those stories. “If we don’t, we will lose a part of our history that will never be recorded, whether it is experience or wisdom or knowledge of habits, culture and traditions,” she says. “If we don’t take steps to record the histories of those people who have lived through a certain time, we can’t pass them to subsequent generations and that really is very sad.”
Malhotra describes herself as “a memory-keeper”, and the project embodies her greater desire to acknowledge and appreciate the significance of history in these fast-paced times. Through her intense meditations upon history, the partition, its survivors and their memories on Instagram and Tumblr, Malhotra hopes the younger generations will delve into their own histories and become reservoirs of memories of their ancestors and their stories.
Priyanka Sacheti is a writer based in New Delhi, India.