In an almost unmemorable conversation with my best friend, I found out that his mother’s maiden surname was the same as mine. Of course, my first question was to inquire where his mother’s family was from. Pakistan he said, but they have lived in Delhi all their life. I had a strange feeling – finding someone who I could possibly have known intimately, who was perhaps in some way related to my history, but had been ripped apart by a traumatic past.
It came up so effortlessly in a conversation that none of us bothered to think about it, till I started reading In The Language of Remembering and realised that what had at the time seemed like a passing remark had actually risen from a rather long history of memory-making that began the moment millions of people crossed borders that were created almost overnight.
The eternal search for an elusive home
Aanchal Malhotra, a historian who works mainly with oral histories, traverses a lot in this book of interviews trying to capture memories of the Partition. There are absolutely no boundaries in here – which is ironic, since the creation of one gave birth to it. She begins by contextualising herself; her own grandparents had come from DI Khan, a city that is now in Pakistan. They then spent time in Kingsway Camp, a refugee settlement in Delhi, before getting married and eventually setting up the Bahrisons Bookshop in Khan Market.
But Malhotra does not focus only on the stories that came out of the Partition – instead, her goal seems to be to understand why it took so long for people to start talking about it and its impact on generations later on. Her interviewees are not just people who lived through the partition but also people who found out much later in life that their family had forever remained rootless in search for that elusive home.
Malhotra makes a simple point that undergirds the entire book – conversations around the Partition still remain quite sparse in households that were directly impacted by it, and yet the longer lasting impact can be felt in more ways than one. Especially the concept of having an “ancestral village”, which becomes an inaccessible category of identification.
I have lived all my life in Chandigarh – a city that became representative of modern India. Honestly, I know no other home. But my paternal grandfather came from Narowal, a place now in Pakistan, and ultimately settled in Amritsar with the rest of his family. My grandmother was born in Gangtok but her father too came from what is now Pakistan. My maternal grandmother spent her pre-marital life in a house that was abandoned by a Muslim family in Batala (a small town near Amritsar).
The echoes of the Partition ring out every time someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I have never directly witnessed the violence but the question always gets to me, as it does to the different interviewees in the book. You can answer where you reside, you can describe your ethnic roots, but to ground yourself in one place and narrow down your cultural existence to a landmark is extremely difficult. In Punjabi you call this your “pind”, but the Partition ripped Punjab and also diluted the “pind” to a meagre indication of where your family migrated to post the partition.
The strength of silence
Another important strength of the book is that of silence. In her introduction Malhotra underscores the fact that her chapter on silence is the shortest, and that perhaps that is a reference to how there is a desire to tell these stories, it’s just that no one has ever asked. But silence remains a spectre throughout the book, pervading the conversations with things that are left unsaid, and also through the questions she asked continuously, “When did you first hear about the Partition?”
This question points to a long history of silence, where grandparents refused to pass down their trauma to the generations below. So many of Malhotra’s interviewees said that their ancestors chose to move on, because the act of speaking would make the memory...material.
To remember is to acknowledge the existence of pain and, as I poorly paraphrase the author’s grandmother, it is to also make it effervescent. Therefore, silence does not mean that people have the knowledge but don’t know how to talk about it, but that even when given the tools, they would rather not recall the pain.
Ordinary people, extraordinary stories
The book is steeped in the ordinary. There are no great tales of freedom fighters destabilising governments, or long tribulations on the partition feeling like a tryst with destiny. Instead, what Malhotra witnessed through her interview was the quiet pain of remembering a home that you can never access. Many of the stories she has written about are of people who had to leave their homes, with the hope that one day they would be able to come back and reclaim their spaces.
That never happened, and this has left an indelible mark on many generations to come. The book is structured around the different expressions of memory that Malhotra found were common in a certain kind of story. For instance, she has chapters named “Grief”, “Friendship” and even “Hope”, and some of them have overlapping stories since it is hard to reduce each story to a single essence. The convoluted process of remembrance also means that stories can be seen from various different perspectives even by the same people.
As I read the book, I struggled hard to find the words to write about it later. Not only because of the effortlessness of its prose, but also because the book pointedly asks all its questions of every reader as well. It took me three days to finish the book, but every day I came back to my father with more questions about my own family.
I am unfortunately a decade too late – both my paternal grandparents have passed away, carrying with them perhaps the stories of my family’s history. The beauty of oral history is that recording it is a dual process – Malhotra finds out more facets about her own family as she conducts the interviews, and so does the interviewee. But there is a third person closely involved, the reader.
In the few days I spent engaging with the book, everyone around me was burdened with questions. This is not because I did not know the impact of the Partition or that I was a product of it, but mostly because I had never actively considered the fact that it still remained relevant to my own life.
What is a home?
“Piche se hum Pakistan se hai” (we come from Pakistan), is a common refrain among Punjabi Khatri families. It is normal to introduce yourself with that, to go back so far just to define the roots of your own identity. Which is why it makes this book so relevant. It creates identity in spaces of both stasis and fluidity. Here is an entire mass of people who had to identify with a land that they had just been thrown into, but for generations to come they would always refer to their home as being on the other side of the border. That does not make them any less Indian or any more Pakistani, because for them home has existed with or without the border. It is just the material indicators of identification that have become rooted in the nation state you belong to.
In the discourse around the anti-CAA protests where the invocation of the Partition became a common motif, this book remains a blatant reminder that the connections between South Asian communities are more intertwined – beyond the scope of the limited definitional criterions of citizenship laws.
In the Language of Remembering will be a rupture for the incumbent – dealing with the issues of polarisation with care and diligence. It tells a story of Partition beyond the painful and gory horrors that people witnessed – one that’s also about the process of moving on, of acceptance, of living in the continuous process of articulating identities that span two cultures that have been marked as drastically opposite – and opposed – to each other but are still conflated in the very spaces that initially divided the two.
In the Language of Remembering : The Inheritance of Partition, Aanchal Malhotra, HarperCollins India.