Close Up of Aanchal Malhotra's Studio in Montreal
Aanchal Malhotra’s book ‘Remnants of a Separation’ started as a part of her MFA Thesis Project in collaboration with Concordia University (Montreal) and the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (Lahore office). It is a book about the history of Partition of India through material memory.
“When I began the project, it was not with the intention of working a book; it was not even with the intention of writing anything related to the Partition. It was simply to uncover and explore a certain perspective of looking at the subcontinent’s contemporary history that I seemed to have accidentally encountered,” she said.
In October 2013, she was introduced to two objects - a ghara and a gaz - that had been carried by her maternal family from Lahore a few years before the Partition. Ever since then, she could not shake the fact that objects (of age) had the unique ability to store and possess memory, even if it remained latent and undisturbed for years, and gradually, act as portals into another time and place.
Since the whole book is based on second-hand experiences and stories, it was interesting to understand her process of putting together the book. “The process of interview-gathering took at least a few hours per person. I would try not to do more than one interview a day because you don’t know what you will unearth during these conversations and how long it would last. One doesn’t want to cut someone short when they are recounting these parts of their life,” she said.
It would begin predictably slow and almost never right with the word Partition - but would build towards it and that too, using the object as a catalyst. At the onset, people didn’t quite understand why she was more interested in their objects of old, especially if they were very mundane and not obviously valuable. But gradually, each conversation became about surface, texture, colour, ownership and history of those belongings.
“The conversations attempted to ask these questions: Can you understand the story of a home from what remains of that home? Can you understand a journey of migration from what was carried during it? Can an old notebook hold feelings of both loss and hope? Can a piece of jewellery remain the last surviving trace of a life of grandeur? Can an heirloom utensil talk about the personal customs of a family? Can a photograph with friends talk about the bonds of kinship severed with the creation of a border?,” she said.
Her young age benefitted her a lot - many people she spoke to would often see her as a granddaughter, making it simpler to ease stories out of them gently. “That being said, remembering the Partition continues to be a traumatic and difficult activity, as the word has been cloaked in prejudice and silence for many years. It is impossible to ‘relive’ what refugees experienced in those days, impossible to image it, even, having not been present at the time. But all we - as second third-generation bearers of that memory - can do is to listen to it with love,” she added.
Being a printmaker by education, at the onset, she didn’t think that her family’s involvement in the book trade could have much to do with the project, but of course, where you come from informs the decisions you make, whether it be genealogy or family trade. “So maybe the fact that I grew up in a bookshop (named ‘Bahrisons’ which my grandfather owned) made the transition into writing feel seamless. This project that began purely as imagery of objects, transformed into written stories of those objects almost organically. Looking at the physicality of ‘things’ from another time demanded the stories that these ‘things’ crossed with, that they survived with, as it is important to see these objects of having survived time,” she added.
Book cover of ‘Remnants of a Separation’ for Harper Collins
The way the book has ultimately shaped up at Harper Collins respects the creative process of the project at large. It is written as a work which draws from the touch, smell, feel, tactility and texture of objects. “My editor welcomed this and allowed it to infuse the writing, right from the style to the layout of the book. I also think my prior studio practice as an artist influenced it tremendously, as the narrative is almost wholly sensorial,” she said.
In the four years the book has taken to come together, she spent the bulk of the first two years travelling in India, Pakistan and England, conducting primary research - collecting interviews and speaking to people who had witnessed the Partition. The second step of the process was transcribing these interviews, translating them into English from their various languages and then doing secondary reading.
When asked why aren’t there many other young historians like her around, she said, “The domain of writing history requires years of study, research, experience, originality of thought, and of course, intention. In India, we are modernizing and progressing at a very fast pace, and in the interim, this younger generation are losing certain attributes that make us of this land. Technology is both a boon and a bane, and is making us lose touch with our identities.”
Speaking of research, there are hardly any who would burn the midnight lamp, visit libraries and archives, pore over books, travel vicariously, read papers and go into the depth of a subject uncovering all the little details about it anymore. To that end, she feels, “Research is the first step to quench one’s curiosity about something. It remains integral to any form of academic or creative work. Even the creation of a painting requires research, perhaps in the way that an academic paper might. With this project, the intention was to absorb myself completely in the space and era of pre and immediately post Independence. I was not there, I did not experience the times, but what I did do is educate myself through secondary authentic sources.”
Installation of the MFA thesis show, Galerie FOFA, Montreal, 2015
You can pre-order Aanchal Malhotra's book ‘Remnants of a Separation’ here
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Image source: Aanchal Malhotra