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‘Everyone who comes from Partition families is an inheritor of Partition’: Aanchal Malhotra

Conversations with descendants of people who lived through the 1947 Partition come together in author Aanchal Malhotra’s 'In The Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition'.

May 21, 2022 / 05:22 PM IST
Author Aanchal Malhotra (left) says that interviewing family members was often harder for her because they came with some resistance.

Author Aanchal Malhotra (left) says that interviewing family members was often harder for her because they came with some resistance.

In 2019, Aanchal Malhotra made a stunning debut with Remnants of a Separation that revisited the Partition through objects that the refugees carried with them across the border - the book was shortlisted for a number of literary awards. The oral historian and writer has now released the sequel, titled In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition.

For her second book, the Delhi-based author spent years interviewing In The Language of Remembering The Inheritance of Partition book coverdifferent generations of people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and their respective diaspora to examine the impact of the largest refugee crises in history had on them. Edited excerpts from a conversation with Malhotra:

Talk to us about the title of the book.

I was always clear that when you speak with someone about Partition, you are building a new language that did not exist before. We are just not given the vocabulary of talking about trauma or about historical events which are also personal legacies. We are unequipped to discuss it, so we often don’t.

With Partition specifically, you are actually putting the blocks for a new language to talk about this inherited loss. I make it clear that it isn’t the language with which people talk about Partition but with which they pass down Partition.

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As for the word inheritance, when I started working on my first book Remnants of a Separation, it became very clear that Partition was an invisible inheritance. When we think of inheritance, we think of heirlooms and objects we can hold but not things that fundamentally change us.

When we learn of Partition, something changes because all of a sudden, this colossal event becomes very personal and painful. It often becomes a latent or dormant inheritance. We have inherited the burden of Partition, not always the trauma. What are we to do with it, how are we to further pass it on? How do we even reconcile with it in our own heads because it changes the way we perceive our ancestors for better or worse. Everyone who comes from Partition families is an inheritor of Partition, whether they actively engage with it or not.

How did you get the interviewees to open up to you – a stranger – about such deeply personal and, often, painful stories?

Isn’t it always easier to talk to a stranger, someone who doesn’t share the burden of your past? For me, the hardest interviews to do were with my family because they came with resistance.

With strangers, too, it’s not always easy because you have to build that trust that you are not going to misuse their story. They may be telling it for the first time. The story doesn’t belong to them – it has been inherited. How does one tell an inherited story - with ownership because the story is in your family or is it yours because you have spent your emotions and energy in understanding it?

In the introduction, I mention that stories of descendants are not given that much seriousness. People often told me that Partition ends with the generation that witnessed it. This is a 750-page book – so that’s obviously not the case... You have to give the opportunity for people to feel that even their second-hand experience has value and they can feel seen.

Why do you think there is a sense of longing from people who have not even witnessed Partition for a homeland they have never seen?

It’s a very conflicting emotion to long for a place you have never seen. The first time I went to Lahore where two of my grandparents are from, I felt that city was mine because in my heart I wanted to embrace it, so I felt it embrace me as well.

There is longing because it is sort of like unrequited love. You long for a place you can never have and that makes the longing stronger because you know you may never see it. The internet has made it easier because you can see the visuals of the place and you can connect with people. But are we ever going to step on that soil with dignity? I don’t know.

Survivors and descendants are not longing for India or Pakistan. They are longing for Jhang, Mighiana, Rawalpindi, Lucknow… they are longing for cities and spaces which their ancestors inhabited and where generations of their families lived. It really means a lot to see your origin, even if nothing of that origin remains.

Aanchal Malhotra Aanchal Malhotra

Was your process of writing ever hampered by the weight of the responsibility on you to tell these stories with sensitivity?

It was definitely challenging. One thing I am always particular about is sticking to my interview. I am also careful about the translations from Punjabi or Hindi to English.

My process involves writing down the story and sending it back to the interviewees. Sometimes it’s one thing to say it and another to see it written down. I felt that in many interviews. People would be very comfortable talking and when they saw them written down, they may not have always like them to be there. Many interviews fell through because of this and that’s also okay. In the author’s note, I wrote that it was hard for me, so I cannot imagine it not being hard for them.

Ultimately, what do you think is the purpose of a book such as this?

If there is no action taken on a governmental level, then what are our options? Our options are for common people, writers, oral historians, musicians, and artists whose content depends on cross-border relations, to take the initiative. This may be a naïve way to say it because I don’t understand how politics works. I guess there is always profit in war, more so than there is in peace. So will India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ever be at a point where visas will be given to people and they will be able to travel freely to these countries? If and when that happens, and you see a Pakistani exactly like you, looking like you, sounding like you, a lot of barriers will break down by themselves. The minute you hear a story from the other side that sounds like yours, you will question why there is otherness towards that side. How do you begin that conversation? How do you navigate within the framework of such a tepid political system that is like a fortress? Writer Aatish Taseer says in his interview that when you see Indians and Pakistanis interact with each other, you wonder why this is not the norm.

I always hope that a book like this would make people think differently because it’s not about the past, it is very much about the present. People are talking about today and what may happen tomorrow and we still have the opportunity to shape our future the way we want. Maybe these stories will serve as some source of what we want the future to look like.
Deepali Singh is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist who writes on movies, shows, music, art, and food. Twitter: @DeepaliSingh05
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