If you had to pick one object from everything you possess, and only a few moments to decide what to take before being separated from a life you have always known – What would you take? From your endless possessions of wealth, utility and sentimentality, what would you leave behind.
Aanchal Malhotra’s project ‘Remnants Of A Separation’ answers these questions while unearthing stories of Partition through the objects people chose to carry across the border. “The object can be used as a catalyst to extract memory, especially if it is a memory attached to traumatic experiences that one either doesn’t want to remember or has forgotten as the years have accumulated over it,” says 27-year-old Malhotra while explaining the way the project works.
In 2013, Malhotra saw how a metallic ghara (vessel) and a gaz (yardstick) inherited by her grandfather invoked in him a sense of longing. These had been brought over from Lahore to Amritsar a few years before India’s partition – it was a longing for a place that for him became inaccessible with the drawing of national borders.
“When he held both these items, caressed their surfaces, he was absolutely transported back to where he could see them being used in everyday life. I didn’t know before that objects and belongings had the ability to store such powerful and visceral memory within them,” Malhotra elucidates.
Malhotra soon began travelling across India, Pakistan and England, collecting first-hand accounts of objects and their associated memories with Partition. Through this journey of oral archiving, Malhotra has seen that people forget what they brought back with them or just cannot seem to locate it. More often than not these things, that can bring alive a home across national borders, are books, knives, pens, shawls, utensils – objects of seemingly mundane utility.
“So many people have forced themselves to forget parts of their own history; its evident that many of them are speaking about these things for the first time - their voice low, their tone often hesitant. But it’s only by talking about trauma that we can begin to alleviate the pain it causes us, and there had no been no conversation around the word ‘Partition’ up until now in the public sphere,” says Malhotra, explaining the determination that keeps her archiving these stories despite the challenges.
Remnants Of A Separation was first exhibited at the FoFA Gallery, in Montréal, in the fall of 2015. Since then it has travelled to various galleries, institutions and literary festivals, and has been featured in various national and international publications. Presently, Malhotra has archived stories behind 80 such personal objects. She is in the process of creating a complete digital archive of them and the Partition stories that people from across the globe send to her.
Remnants Of A Separation provides us an alternative narrative of Partition. It attempts to dig out the smaller, quieter histories of everyday people lost between the histories of Nation and State. These are histories of friendship, courage and sacrifice committed in a time of gross violence. “It is these stories of ordinary citizens that will be our hope for the future, teaching us that, despite borders Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis bear more similarities than differences,” says Malhotra. And perhaps realising this very truth is the only way to destroy the misconceived hostility for all our neighbours across borders.
Following are a few heartfelt Partition stories from ‘Remnants Of A Separation’
I. A Family Heirloom Becomes The Only Memory Of A Lost Home
“...this piece of jewellery was the only thing that remained of her land…”
Like many Indian women Bhag Malhotra has a piece of jewellery; a maang-tikka that has been passed down to her by her mother on her wedding day. But unlike most other heirlooms this one has seen the division of a nation. Looking at the jewel that originates from a land she has never been back to since their migration, Bhag Malhotra reminisces, “I remember my mother; telling me how she had tied the maang-tikka within the folds of her clothes for fear of being robbed on the way from Dheer Ismail Khan, now in Pakistan to Delhi. It was precious; it would have brought us a hefty sum even at that time. But I don’t think she could have ever parted with it. This is the only thing that reminded her of that house in Muryali, of her in-laws, of the bonds of marriage. Though they had rejected her after she had become a widow, I don’t think she had the heart to sever those ties. There was a sanctity to those relationships she wasn’t ready to abandon. And in a way this piece of jewellery was the only thing that remained of her land as well; the stones were from its soil. It was born there, just like her.”
II. Books Carried Across The Border; A Reminder Of Secular Harmony
“I had forgotten these quiet acts of courage in a time when courage seemed to have all but dissipated.”
Fayyaz M Faza remembers the legacy of secularism that seems to have been lost and forgotten after they crossed the border. Re-living that by-gone era he says, “So many years have passed and we have forgotten the things that we never should have. The things that bind us to each other, things highlighting the sameness rather than the differences between us, things that once united us. I had forgotten the strength it took to stand up for one another, just like my father did by printing these books propagating secularism. I had forgotten how heartbroken he was to leave the land he called home. I had forgotten how determined he had been to begin his press again once we settled in Lahore and how despite every hurdle, he carried each and every book he had ever published in Ludhiana. I had forgotten what he and these books had once stood for. I had forgotten these quiet acts of courage in a time when courage seemed to have all but dissipated.”
III. A Pair Of Scissors; A Testimony Of A Shared Home Between Divided Nations
“Dada le, potaa bapre, a product bought by the grandfather can still be used by the grandson!”
A female money- lender who migrated from Lahore to Delhi, brought with her all the items that had been mortgaged in her care, small and discreet enough to be slipped into pockets or folds of clothes. These items of value were a silver cigarette case, a silver soap dish and a silver glass. The only thing that belonged to her among the items she carried was an ordinary steel tailoring scissor which she used everyday. An item of mere every-day utility. It had the word ‘Meerut’ now in Uttar Pradesh; India, carved on it. Moreover it’s no less than an antique. It belonged to a North India based company had been manufacturing scissors and knives for over 3 centuries, the first pair of which was made almost 360 years ago! Sitting in the back room of his South Delhi home, the son of the moneylender who now owns the pair of scissors says laughingly, “Dada le, potaa barpe, a product bought by the grandfather can still be used by the grandson!”
IV. The Family Plaque That United A Man With His Homeland
“...touching this stone again after nearly six decades, whatever the Divide had managed to destroy within me came back to life.”
When Mian Faiz Rabbani, who crossed the border from Jalandhar to Lahore during Partition, was presented with a piece of his childhood; a family plaque that his niece had managed to procure on her visit to Jullundur, he beamingly said, “On touching this stone again after nearly six decades, whatever the Divide had managed to destroy within me came back to life. It didn’t matter anymore how far Jullundur was, or how many borders I would have to cross to get there; it didn’t matter because Jullundur was already here with me, in this house, contained in this rectangular stone plaque. Woh ghar, woh bachpan, woh aangan, woh garmiyan, woh sardiyan, bauji, ammi-jaan, the celebrations and the crowds of refugees – the plaque had absorbed the memories of everything.”
V. The Guru Granth Sahib That Was Returned From The Other Side Of The Border
“Some things are sacred and and those things must never be disturbed or disrespected.”
When a Hindu family from Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan were stranded in Shimla in the summer of 1947, one of their neighbours, who was going back to their homeland to retrieve some of his own valuables, asked the family, “Mein aapke liye kuch laa sakta hoon?, Can I bring anything of yours back?” The mother in the family smiled and said, “Babaji, sirf babaji” referring to her precious Guru Granth Sahib; the holy book of the Sikh community.
And so the neighbour Roshan Lal Khanna changed his name to Roshan Din; a name with a Muslim suffix and travelled across the border. After finding the gold bricks he had left behind at his house he knocked on the door of the house next door and asked if there was any chance that a holy book had survived the violent riots. The Muslim family that was living in the abandoned home, smiled and welcome him in. They led him to the prayer room in the house, which they had left untouched. “Some things are sacred,” one of them said to Khanna, “and those things must never be disturbed or disrespected.”
Baba ji; the Guru Granth Sahib was brought back to independent India and returned to its rightful owners. This book that has been passed down the generation now lives in Delhi where its musical verses bring solace to Sumitra Kapur, whose mother had first asked for it to be brought back to her.
VI. The Man Who Carried A Hockey Team Photograph Across The Border
“...he took along on his journey from India to Pakistan neither money nor clothes but three large, framed photographs…”
Nazeer Adhamai, who was studying at Aligarh Muslim University when Partition took place. Choosing to complete his education there before crossing the border in 1953, he took along with him three large, framed photographs from his alma mater ‒ of him and teammates from the Hockey Club; his most beloved memory of a time and place he would not be able to return to.
“Ab sirf yehi toh yaadgar hain, After all the years these are my most memorable belongings,” he says nostalgically from his home in Lahore. “Before I left, I took them off my common room wall and packed them in that single suitcase. Kapde-vagera laye ya nahi laye, woh nahi yaad, par yeh bhool nahi sakte the, whether I brought clothes or not I don’t remember but there was no chance I could have left these photographs behind.”
Aanchal Malhotra is a multi-disciplinary artist and oral historian.
Her book, also titled “Remnants Of A Separation, tells stories of Partition through material memory and will be released later this year.
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