The inheritance of trauma

15 May,2022 09:38 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Jane Borges

Partition scholar and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra’s new book records the inherited memories of families, who’ve loved and lost their homelands, and how they continue to carry these stories with them

Swaran Lata, Bhag Malhotra née Gulyani, Dharam Gulyani at the Kingsway refugee camp. Pics Courtesy/Aanchal Malhotra



Aanchal Malhotra*s impetus to research the Partition came from a place of not knowing enough. "That*s the easy answer [to this]," she tells us over a video call from Delhi. "Perhaps, a more complicated explanation is why didn*t I know, or why wasn*t I propelled to ask questions about the Partition when I was younger." Malhotra*s paternal and maternal grandparents* history can be traced back to what is now Pakistan, and yet, she, for the longest time, felt untouched by their experience. The 32-year-old oral historian ties her own ignorance to a number of factors. "Our education system, for instance... When I was in school, we were not taught the partition of India in a way that it felt like it was personal. It was taught with a lot of distance, and as an appendage to the Indian Independence movement, which in itself felt so removed. Another thing is that my family isn*t very open... we don*t speak about things that mean a lot. I realised that if I don*t know enough, the generation after me will know even less, and this is how history becomes distilled, even distorted."

That journey led her to write Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory (2018), shortlisted for the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puruskar last year, where she explored the "notion of belonging through belongings". Her just released 600-page tome, In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition (HarperCollins India), goes beyond the material, to record the inherited memory of Partition, not just through those who witnessed and lived through it, but through the imaginings of subsequent generations, who as she puts it, experience "curiosity and confusion as to how it happened, bafflement and shock at the scale of violence and migration... eventually, perhaps sorrow and anger begin to take firm shape as long-term twin reactions".

Aanchal Malhotra sifting through family archives with her grandmother Bhag Malhotra

"The thing about the [experience of] Partition is that it has the ability to carry on; since it*s not so overt or in front of us every day, we don*t really give it the thought it deserves. This would be different for someone who grew up in Pakistan, where the aspect of creation of nationhood is so interwoven with Partition and the two-nation theory, that you are compelled to think about it often," she says. After Malhotra*s first book, a number of people, especially the second and third generation of families that had experienced Partition, wrote to her, wanting to know how to broach the subject with their families. "It takes a certain amount of effort to build a vocabulary of trauma and know how to ask the questions, because it*s not something we are encouraged to do. But at some point in our lives, we*d all want to know about our past or origins. That origin may perhaps be on the other side of the border, which you have no access to. All you are going to be left with are questions," says Malhotra, while sharing the motivation for her new work.

The book comprises essays that evolved from conversations Malhotra has had over the last decade. At the very outset, she requests the reader to "read slowly" to absorb the many lives and stories embedded within. "Weaving these narratives into a coherent form has been an emotionally demanding process, so I cannot imagine its reading to be an undemanding activity," she writes. Her chapters explore everything from family, fear, friendship, grief, identity, legacy, love to memory and loss. "I didn*t want to divide stories that would be based on something, which would be further divisive. Emotions have no nationality or religion. We all feel love and hope, and suffer from pain and loss. It felt like the most democratic way to represent the subcontinent with equality and dignity, without favouring one side over the other," says Malhotra, of why she constructed her chapters this way. She adds, "It*s very complicated to explain to people that a story that you know from your family [about the Partition] is based on your national allegiance to a certain land or religion, which means that the very opposite of that is quite possible on the other side of the border. The only way I knew to do that gently was to put stories next to one another. So, there is a story about a Sikh family that travelled from Mirpur [in present-day Pakistan-administered Kashmir] and lost everything. The very next story is of a Muslim family from Mirpur, telling me the completely opposite thing. We often know only one perspective. If we listen to the other one, we*ll learn something."

Aanchal*s grandparents Balaj Bahri Malhotra and Bhag met at the Kingsway refugee camp in 1948. "In 1955, when my grandparents got married, she was working as a junior clerk at the Ministry of Rehabilitation and it had been two years since he had established the Bahrisons bookshop in Khan Market. They lived in a small, allotted flat in north Delhi*s refugee colony of Hakikat Nagar, with my grandfather*s parents, elder brother and sister-in-law," she writes in the book.

There were biases that Malhotra had to contend with, especially when she was made privy to a first-hand account of a perpetrator, who was a family member - "My distant ancestor abducted and sold many women … a gruesome tale of horror," the person told Malhotra in an email. "A story like that had never come to me before. So how do you take care of a story where you are unprepared for what you are going to hear?" asks Malhotra. "The biggest question that I have been unable to answer in the last 10 years [of my research] is ‘who is responsible?*. We don*t have an answer, because everyone is responsible, and at the same time, no one is. But, if so many people had violence done to them, it also means that so many people were doing violence as well. We are comfortable with this nameless, faceless perpetrator. Because, the minute you give someone a face, you are forced to understand the reasons behind their perpetration of violence. I was also surprised at how wrathful I was when hearing this story [that*s because I was putting myself in the shoes of the young women]. But, in the end, it was important for me to be as transparent as possible."

Malhotra*s hope, however, is to also have people speak about the more positive experiences from the Partition. "We never speak of the rehabilitation that happened post the friendships and loves that were lost, and the neighbours who parted. In the book, I have tried to redefine the lenses through which we look at the event. We need to look at it in other ways, which hinge on human empathy," she says.

As an inheritor of the Partition, both through her family, as well as through the stories she has received, Malhotra says she feels like a palimpsest. "I feel very heavy because sometimes it can be difficult to carry people*s sadness, but that would be a very selfish answer. I should also say that I feel very privileged to be invited into people*s histories, and for them to trust me to tell a story that they may have never told before."

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