• Naman Vakharia

A PEOPLE'S HISTORY: PARTITION AND MATERIAL MEMORY



It has been 75 years since the Partition, yet the trauma and pain reverberate and resonate in the politics of both India and Pakistan. This reverberation impacts many who live across the man-made border. The JSIA Bulletin speaks to Aanchal Malhotra, historian and writer, whose book titled “The Remnants of Separation” has a unique and fresh method to look at Partition from the lens of objects and material memory. Aanchal’s work ignites the need to look at the India and Pakistan conundrum with virtues of compassion and love. In this interview, we learn about various ideas, starting from Aanchal’s need for a clean desk to her perspectives on the future and past of the largest displacement of people in human history. Q. Maya Angelou always rented a hotel room to write, and Haruki Murakami would run every day. What is the one daily habit or ritual you swear by to start your writing or workday?

One thing that is consistent in all my days is that I cannot do without a cup of coffee on my table. But in terms of writing, it is helpful for me to read what I have written before. Because it requires a little bit of tunneling and effort to get back into the writing zone. I also read everything out loud; that is another thing I do. I read out everything; I do the voices and the accents just to get into the text. I find if you are reading and it sounds natural, then it will read naturally as well. I also make sure that my desk is clean. I am particular about neatness. If the desk is clean, my mind is clean. Q. When was the first time you heard the words “Partition” and “Pakistan”, and what kind of a thought process did you go through at that point in time, and how has it changed over the years?


It bears mention that all four of my grandparents’ families were affected by partition. Despite that, the first time I would have heard the word ‘Partition’ would have probably been in school. It was taught in a way that did not feel like mine. It did not feel like an event that belongs to me. It was introduced in the same tone as one would learn about the Crimean War or the Korean War. And the lesson at school made it sound like something so far away that could never possibly affect us. So, when I was learning about it in school, my first instinct was not to come home and ask my grandparents, “Were you affected by this?”. I needed to write it in an exam, that is it. And it is unfortunate because I essentially went 23 years without asking about partition.

First time I seriously considered the country of Pakistan was when I was in the 9th grade when my parents went there for some work. I never asked any questions about it. I just knew that they had gone to Karachi and Islamabad. I asked my parents what they felt about going across the border and whether they told people about it; they never considered it a big deal My attitude towards Partition and Pakistan was pretty nonchalant for a long time until I started to consider all the remnants that had always been in front of me but I had never questioned. For example, the dialect and accent that my grandparents spoke in were from across the border. They had no land or village here. So, when I think about ancestral land, I think about the land across the border. I feel deeply towards other people who have similar histories because it is a particular kind of loss. A loss that is not yours but is inherited now. My perception and also my hope on what India and Pakistan can be has changed naturally.


Q. You had the opportunity to visit Pakistan for your research and speak to people from the other side; at any point, did you question your loyalty and nationalism—two concepts which are socially engineered concerning the other side in both the countries—towards your nation?

The circumstances in which I visited Pakistan for the first time. The year was 2014, I was a grad student in Montreal. Prime Minister Modi had come to power that year.

The context of what you could ask and how you could feel was quite different from today, and I think to myself about what I said to the people and how I felt. And I do not think I could do it now because the atmosphere in the last seven years has changed so much.

I do not think I ever questioned my sense of loyalty or nationalism; for me, these concepts were vague as I had not been in India since 2007. I was living in Montreal, a French province. It was so far away from anything familiar. So, when I went to Pakistan, it honestly felt like coming to Delhi. The surroundings, language, people and food were mostly similar to the Punjabi populations that had settled in Delhi after Partition. It felt familiar. I never thought that I was disloyal by being there. But of course, this is how it is perceived.

Overt mentions of nationality came across when I was speaking to Pakistanis about the context of Partition. For Pakistan, Partition resulted in the creation of a nation-state. It was in this regard I felt the only kind of nationalistic tension. While my grandparents who had migrated to India spoke about the loss of land, Pakistanis often talked about the gaining of land and a country. But even so, both are able to feel a sense of displacement from their homeland.

Q. Vazira Zamindar, who teaches at Brown University, in her book titled “The Long Partition”, recalls the issue of bureaucratic definitions of what constitutes as a migrant, evacuee and displaced, and highlights the seminal point of consent/coercion of travel in relation to the exodus caused on both sides during the Partition. How does your work of using methods of oral history and material memory bridge the gap between bureaucratic definitions and the actual trauma?

History in South Asia, especially that of de-colonisation and post-Partition, is so complex, that to simplify it in any terminology almost means to diminish it. Similarly, language cannot be simplified, and we cannot divorce ourselves from language. However, the words that people use in the interviews may never do justice to the fullness of this situation, the intensity of their feelings, and the magnitude of their loss. But then we need to remember that language is not always verbal language. There is also gestural language, tonal language, and those are the things that oral history returns to the interview for. The arc of oral history includes so many different kinds of remembrance in so many languages that cannot be encapsulated in words sometimes.


I used objects as I could not access people’s language. They would be hesitant or reticent to delve into a traumatic past. But something extraordinary usually happened when I introduced their aged objects into the conversation, objects they had carried from across the border. I would say, ‘tell me about this cup? But this cup is so old. How is it still surviving, or who owned this cup?’ And all of a sudden, the focus of the conversation would turn to that cup. Somehow, the interviewee feels more open to talking about this third entity in our interview than talking directly about themselves. So, we talked through the object.

All the importance went on to the object, which meant that they started to build a landscape around the object—that “this object was in my house, this was who it belonged to, this is the model, and this is the language we spoke, this is the radio we had at home, this was the paper that came.” So, what they were doing was building the background of their lives, and then eventually, over time, we got to the word Partition. Which is still a sensitive and challenging word for people who witnessed it, and a reticence enters the conversation.


I think that oral history returns something quite essential to historical events—the human.

In school, Partition is an event of numbers, and there is no tangible image to associate with that number, so it does not mean anything to me as it is so vague. But what I learned in the course of my research, and I am not the first person to realise this, is that behind every one of those numbers is an actual story. And my grandparents had been reduced to numbers. How had that happened? So, oral history returns humanity to the event of Partition, and in my work, I try to write a human history of Partition.

Q. In your book, you mention that memory is malleable, and it fades or changes with time and lived experience. As a writer, how do you navigate this malleability?

It is different for different people, and in Remnants, I have questioned many aspects of memory; for instance, Mian Faiz Rabbani’s interview of his plaque and life in Jullundur, he says that “sab bahut door tha, everything was very far”, but when he visits Jullundur 25 years later he realises he was just a tiny person and everything seemed big. These are dimensional issues, but then memory changes as you grow older.

In many cases, the more they learnt about the Partition, their perception of their experience changed. My paternal grandmother came to India pretty safely, but I have gathered from my many conversations with her that her memory is impacted by the collective memory of that time. As everyone talked about the riots, killing, and life in refugee camps, fear settled into her memory because of what other people were saying. So, even though someone may not have seen someone being killed, everyone was talking about it at that time; it may seep into their memory. They may adopt it as a collective experience, which is quite common with Partition.

The veracity of memory does not interest or concern me so much. As an oral historian, I have to deal with the fallibility of memory, which is a given. You will not be able to prove everything; you just cannot. Sometimes you may be able to corroborate memory, through similar testimonies of people who migrated from similar areas or experienced similar events around the same time. But, there are some things you just cannot prove and have to take people’s word for it. There is no one truth. The truth of things is quite varied, and to prove memory does not interest me any longer. What is more important is to have a record of that specific unique truth to people, what people remember is what concerns me now.

Q. If you had the opportunity to use a time machine to go to either the future or the past—where and when would go, and how would that period or place aid your research?

I would shadow Sir Cyril Radcliffe in 1947 when he came to India. He had two assistants, I would be the third, I suppose. I am curious to know how he put the map together and sit in the meeting with him and understand why, how, and if the border changed at all.


Q. As an oral historian, you have to listen to the trauma and suffering of your interviewee. How do you engage in those conversations and get the relevant information you require?

The question is how can you make them trust you enough to want to speak about such a traumatic time. I do not think we ever start by talking about Partition, as it remains a brutal memory. But this is what moves me - 75 years since Partition, and the minute you utter the word, sand scatters. It is fragile, and the memory associated with it is fragile.

How can you expect someone who has never met you before to trust you and offer you their memory? They are giving you their memory and asking you to take care of it; thus, you have to offer some part of yourself to them, which could be time or a personal family story. And if I know someone is from Rawalpindi or Chak Hameed, I would do external reading about the area to ask specific questions about the place. Questions like, “At this time this event occurred, were you there; A school was turned into a camp, were you there?” This makes the other person think you care as the question is specific. It allows them to enter back into that landscape of that time.

Q. Do you see your work and other humane approaches to Partition impacting India-Pakistan relations in the future?

I do not know, really. I am just one person, and I do not know if one person can make any difference alone. Real change needs a sustained effort from multiple generations. I want to make a distinction between the relationships between nation-states and the relationships between common people of various countries. If you are lucky, then your work will impact the common people, as I know mine has started to. More and more younger people are curious about Partition. It has made them rethink nationality, loyalty, and statehood.

I do not think someone in power reading this book will immediately be inspired to fix the situation with Pakistan. If that happens, a big aim of my life will be fulfilled. But I realise that I am small and the effort to unlearn, untie, and unwork the barriers is vast. The process is slow, and a mental shift is required. Moreover, each stakeholder in India and Pakistan—people, armies, governments, and politicians— do not have a shared meeting point in their perspectives.

The opening of the Kartarpur Corridor is a good effort in the right direction. When people start to actually see how similar the landscape on both sides of the border is, how the language is similar, they will automatically start to reconsider the otherness they may have carried until then. When Indians and Pakistanis meet in a third country, there is immediate affection and warmth, yet we are unable to show the same feelings while at home. This conundrum is so bizarre.

Q. In the past, before oral history, methods were employed in the study or research of Partition fiction works of Saadat Hasan Manto or Khushwant Singh that captured the emotion, pain, and trauma of the victims of Partition. Do you think fiction writing can record emotion effectively compared to non-fiction works?

Urvashi Butalia, Kamala Bhasin, and Retu Menon, all wrote feminist oral histories of Partition at the same time in 1998. Before that, it was perhaps too early to broach the subject of Partition. People told me it is too soon to discuss it even after 66 years since Partition. If you have such a void of first-hand information, fiction, in that case, does fill the gap but look at the people who wrote that fiction—Manto, Khushwant Singh, Ismat Chugtai, Amrita Pritam, Bhisham Sahni, and Yash Pal these are the people who lived through Partition there is a certain sense of truth embedded in their work. There is a feeling of that time that is saturated within those words.


Anees Kidwai, who was working with Mrudula Sarabhai in camps in Delhi, who I like to say was the first oral historian talking to people and writing it down. She would assert that maybe a time would come later that the generation after her will ask about what she saw, which is what we are doing. Oral history is becoming more recognised today. However, it is not given the respect that it deserves.


About the interviewer: Naman Vakharia is a final year student pursuing bachelors in Global Affairs at OP Jindal Global University.

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