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Review of Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra

About the book

Remnants of a Separation is a unique attempt to revisit the Partition through objects that refugees carried with them across the border. These belongings absorbed the memory of a time and place, remaining latent and undisturbed for generations. They now speak of their owner's pasts as they emerge as testaments to the struggle, sacrifice, pain, and belonging at an unparalleled moment in history. A string of pearls gifted by a maharaja, carried from Dalhousie to Lahore, reveals the grandeur of a life that once was. A notebook of poems, brought from Lahore to Kalyan, shows one woman's determination to pursue the written word despite the turmoil around her. A refugee certificate created in Calcutta evokes in a daughter the feelings of displacement her father had experienced upon leaving Mymensingh zila, now in Bangladesh. Written as a crossover between history and anthropology, Remnants of a Separation is the product of years of passionate research. It is an alternative history of the Partition - the first and only one told through material memory that makes the event tangible even seven decades later.

My thoughts

“Yeh ghar toh hum batware k samay chhod aaye. Lekin iski yaadein zaroor hain”

Dinner plate of great grandmother, her husband's pen with its rusted nib, tattered books of a lost aunt with its moth-eaten edges bearing mute testimony to an era that has faded into oblivion. Antiquities took refuge in the dark corners of the house, gathering dust. If materials had hearts, they must be very scared that may be the very next moment they will be tossed away. A nuisance, taking up much-needed space in an already congested house, perhaps the humans living there looking for the next opportunity to show the objects the door.

What is a thing, if it has got no story within? How do you attach a price tag? A paper plane my friend gave me in class 2 is dearer to me than a crystal showpiece. A miniature bike model with the broken stand that my teacher gifted me, a chocolate wrapper, and a movie ticket hidden in my purse, I am a hoarder of things that bring memories of sunshine days flooding my mind.

“It hides in the folds of clothes, among old records, inside boxes of inherited jewellery ... it seeps into our years, it remains quiet, accumulating the past like layers of dust...”

Understanding Partition and its aftermath

'Sarhad k uspaar',

who are those people living there? Do they eat what I eat? Do their mothers sing the same lullabies as mine does? Independence, freedom from 200 years of atrocities under the Crown, finally breathing air in a place that’s your own, ruled and governed by my own countrymen.

Partition and independence are like two sides of a coin, if you want one, you inevitably accept the other. I grew up in Bengal, listening to the stories of partition and aftermaths of the 1972 war, horrors of persecution, leaving homes that took years of blood, sweat, and tears to build, escaping like ghosts in the dead of night, with just the struggling moon beam's misty light acting as a beacon.

In wars, women bear the worst burnt. During partition, an undeclared war, women saw the monstrosity of the same ... people whom they perhaps looked up to as their saviors or brothers... raped, humiliated, forcefully converted them, and traded their, bodies on both sides of the border. Their traumas and the heart-wrenching stories of orphaned children hung in the air. A part of me is always intrigued to know what has happened on the other side of the boundary.

Although well-documented partition history often focuses on events, rather than talking about the sorrowful stories of the people who were forced to cross either side of the border, it's often devoid of brutal narratives.

Oral historian, Aanchal Malhotra in her book, “Remnants of Separation”, shared the tales of octogenarians, who saw how their homes and villages changed overnight. They hold onto their brass plates, delicate pearl jewelries, heirloom maangtika, with sepia memories of lost people and places.

“Kuchch nahi laaye the.”

That was the repetitive answer of tattered souls who somehow saved their lives while crossing the border.

Malhotra begins sharing her encounter with partition tales involving her family and confesses how difficult it was at times to relate with emotions, other than being empathetic. As a generation born in the 90s and later, during peaceful and relatively prosperous days, the idea of partition and its effects is limited to textbooks. In all honesty, we cannot comprehend the loss endured by the people during partition. Ties severed, homes lost, and families broken forever, sum up the damage that has been done.

Initially, it started as her thesis paper, but subsequently, the author went on narrating untold stories - the human-nature she showed in describing the tales of lost dialect, agony, peppered with notes of happiness and laughter. The lives lived before partition seemed so distant, as if talking about a sweet vision.

As I was reading the book, I found how similar it is with the tales of the western frontier. Even though separated by thousands of kilometres the stories of Punjab are exactly same like that of Bengal. Divided by language, people on both sides left their hearth and home with a hope to return “once things get settled”. The sheer idea that they can never ever see all those places again never struck even in their wildest imagination.

“Lahore is lost forever.”

The book talks about so much loss and pain that often I had to close the leaves narrating human miseries, and take a deep breath.

While discussing this book with my friend, we saw the similarity of culture, gifting utensils during wedding and emotional value attached with it.

The book filled with stories of Preet Singh, Azra Haq, Narjis Khatun, makes you question the futility of partition. Did the leaders really think of the grim fallout of this catastrophic move. It makes me contemplate as to how life would have been if partition had never happened.

Splitting up this country happened on the grounds of religion -- the idea that it's safer for Muslims to have their own nation and keep India a Hindu-state with no place for others. The violence and massacre that followed are merely termed as “communal riots”. But it goes much beyond religious conflict.

As I read this book, a similar pattern popped up before my mind's eye. The Hindus generally belonged to the upper crust of the society, the bankers, landowners, while the Muslims were mostly peasants and sharecroppers. Hence the violence wasn’t just about religion, but also about class difference. The inequality in wealth distribution and oppression brought out the violent side. The uncertainty fuelled by partition killed the conscience.

Although I loved reading this book and found reading this important, to see the history from a different perspective, I still see the “elite” nature. The circumstances or the consequences of a woman from a family having connection with Maharajas will be very different from the one from a farmer’s family, though both were forced to cross the border, willy-nilly.

Aanchal Malhotra has done a brilliant work in capturing history and weaving her own emotions, realising and recognising the lack of understanding and insensitivity of the present generation.

To buy this book click here.

About the Author

Aanchal Malhotra (b.1990) is an oral historian and writer from New Delhi, India. She is the co-founder of the Museum of Material Memory, a crowd-sourced digital repository tracing family histories and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and antiques from the Indian subcontinent.

Malhotra writes extensively on the 1947 Partition and its related topics. Her first book, published in South Asia as Remnants of a Separation (2017) and internationally as Remnants of Partition (2019), was shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, British Academy’s Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, Hindu Lit for Life Non Fiction Prize, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize and the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize. Her second book, In the Language of Remembering (2022), traces the long-term, cross-border, generational legacy of Partition. Malhotra's forthcoming work is a debut novel titled The Book of Everlasting Things (Dec 2022).

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