The past has been surfacing frequently and unexpectedly these days.
It is March 2016. I return home from work to find my paternal grandmother, my dadi, hunched over the bed, sifting through a pile of metal. A plastic sheet has been spread over the mattress and her elusive coin collection, unseen by me but talked about frequently by my father, has been toppled onto the sheet. For as long as I can remember, this coin collection has lived discreetly inside a blue velvet pouch. Rupee, paisa, anna, taka, dhela – a veritable hoard amassed by her over the years. Mementos of monetary change in the subcontinent, some passed down from her mother and some her own. Today, they are strewn across the sheet and my grandmother’s long fingers pick at them erratically.
But this is not an unusual sight in our house, especially of late. My grandfather died a few weeks ago and the plastic sheet has been ceremoniously laid out many, many times since. As drawers and cupboards are gradually emptied, belongings are laid out- some his, some theirs- to be classified for keeping or discarding. Coupled with this sorting are memories, which inevitably tumble out alongside.
I stand at the door and watch her. Her eyebrows are knit together. Though I’m not surprised to find her this way, I am curious since this is the first time I’ve actually seen the collection.
“What are you doing?” I ask, visibly startling her.
“I was sorting through some things and I found this pouch. It had my old coins in it; purane zamane ke.” She is speaking to me, but her eyes have already returned to the pile. I come in and sit down on the cane chair next to her bed.
She is singling out the larger silver coins and laying them in a line, chronologically. From the front of the lineup, she picks one up and holds it to the light. Then she wipes it clean and places it in the middle of my outstretched palm. It is heavier than I expect, minted in solid silver, dulling at the edges, but still brilliant. ONE RUPEE INDIA 1947. The amount is written in English. I flip it over to find an effigy of the King, embossed in all his regal glory. George VI King Emperor, it reads proudly.
“Humne kya kya din nahi dekhe”, she says distantly.
As I study the coin, I think about what she means when she says this. What had she not seen in her day? My grandmother was born in 1932 in the North-West Frontier Province [now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province] in Pakistan, into an affluent family of landowners. Her father, the youngest of four brothers, passed away when she was a child, and her mother became a widow at the age of only 25. They were cheated out of their share of family property, leaving them in dire circumstances. In 1947, at the onset of the Partition, my great grandmother and her five children fled across the border and arrived in Delhi.
“In those days, one rupee was worth a lot of money.” My grandmother is sitting next to me, yet her voice seems to be born from elsewhere. “I remember this incident from when I was six or seven years old. We needed money for something important, and my mother had none. It had to be something important, or I wouldn’t have done it, I wouldn’t have asked. It was always me, when money was involved, I was always the one sent out.”
She pauses and runs her flattened palm across the sea of one-rupee coins.
“I can still see the scene play out before me. The ancestral house was large and each of the brothers had their separate quarters. I walked across the house to my cousin’s room and knocked on the door. She was much older than us and related by marriage; my eldest uncle’s daughter-in-law. She had had nothing to do with the division of family property and seemed kind enough. So there I was, knocking innocently, hoping that she would understand our plight. She opened the door and asked me what I wanted. ‘Five rupees’, I had said to her, ‘just five rupees, didi. We don’t have anything and this will last us for the whole month.’”
Suddenly, she stops narrating and looks at me, her moist eyes boring into mine and I realise that my grandmother has extracted perhaps the most heartbreaking memory from her past. Now from the pile, she separates five of the one rupee coins and stacks them on top of one another. Five rupees.
“That was what I asked for” she gestures. “And she said no. She didn’t help us, no one in that house did.” A small river trickles down her cheek and lands in a pool at the neck of her kameez.
“Humne kya kya din nahi dekhe”, she repeats slowly.
Her fist tightens around the five silver coins, claiming them. She brings her closed palm up to her chest and holds it against her heart, as though the presence of owning the currency now brings her delayed consolation.
As she weeps, coins still clutched tight, I sit with a void in my heart for a memory that is not mine. In this instance, I am just a listener, a passive contributor to the vulnerable act of the unfolding a painful past. Yet at the same time, it is her very vulnerability and the intimate nature of this experience that provokes within me an innate sense of guilt. And I think to myself, am I an intruder?
Although this incident has become crucial to my understanding of material memory and has left a deep impression, it is not my first experience with the concept, nor was it the inception of this project. For that, we must go back a few years to 2013 when I was in Delhi on a research sabbatical from my MFA at Concordia University, Montréal.
It was October and Mayank Austen Soofi – also known as The Delhi Walla – and I were on our way to my maternal grandparent’s haveli in North Delhi for a story he was writing on old houses in the city. Though I have presented a highly detailed account of the visit in the first chapter of this book, there are some key elements worth mentioning here.
That day, the conversations between my family and The Delhi Walla mostly revolved around the construction of the house, Vij Bhawan, and its neighbourhoods of Roop Nagar and Kamla Nagar. But somewhere in the midst of their discussion, a few objects of old were brought out from the recesses of closets and shelves, and into the limelight. According to my grandfather’s eldest brother, my grand-uncle, the patriarch of the Vij family, ‘if times of old must be discussed, then they must be done so in their entirety’, and the possessions of the family members were as much as a part of history as the house itself.
Each item placed before us was visibly aged and possessed a unique history, but there were two that ran parallel with the history of the family itself. A medium sized metallic vessel – a ghara – and a yardstick – a gaz. These had travelled from Lahore to Amritsar and then to Delhi just before the Partition. The ghara, belonging to my grandfather’s mother, and the gaz, belonging to his father, were by far, the oldest surviving items in that house, older than the patriarch himself. And when they were picked up, grazed, studied, remembered and situated in anecdotes of a time gone by, they proved to be the most effortless yet effective stimulus for extracting memory.
This was the first time the importance of material memory truly dawned on me – the ability of an object or a possession to retain memory and act as stimulus for recollection. But more curious than this unexpected revelation was the context in which it arrived. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Delhi – a city essentially thick with Punjabi migrants who flocked to it post-Partition from across the border – as well as being a descendant of said migrants on both sides of my family, this desire to study the Great Divide was never as strong in me as in that brief encounter with the ghara and gaz.
Excerpted with permission from Remnants Of A Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory, Aanchal Malhotra, HarperCollins India.
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