Memories of the time

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 16 September 2017

In conversation with Aanchal Malhotra, author of a book on refugees from India and Pakistan who escaped with one or two belongings reminding them of their homeland

What if you had to leave your home overnight and escape to safety carrying minimal stuff? What would you take with you?

Aanchal Malhotra, whose Daadi (paternal grandmother) escaped to this side during the Partition, took out her coin collection — belonging to British India — after her husband passed away. With Malhotra watching her, Daadi said, ‘Humne kya kya din nahi dekhe’.

Malhotra went on to meet people from both India and Pakistan to talk about their memories and the belongings they escaped with. The stories have been compiled in a HarperCollins book titled Remnants of a Separation — A History of the Partition Through Material Memory. Excerpts...

Interesting title. It says ‘Separation’. Are you voicing the sentiments of those who were displaced from their homeland and who hope to be back someday?
That is certainly one way to look at it: the line that separates this side from that, a person from their homeland and childhood. Several people that I interviewed spoke about this separation from land and soil, from family and friends, from the place and home of their birth.

But another way to understand the word separation is to look at the relationship between India and Pakistan. The word divorce seems too exact, too harsh and severe, as there is so much that remained untangled between the two nations.

This book tries to look at those untangled threads through things that were taken across the border by refugees during the Partition in 1947. It looks at objects — both private and public — that have absorbed within them the memory of the time and exist as testaments to one of the most momentous events in the subcontinent’s contemporary history.
While doing the interviews, you were upset about being intrusive and digging up all the grief and pain. What was the feedback you received when your subjects read their stories and those of others?
It’s true, asking the questions was hard sometimes, but even harder was relaying a memory that one might have buried deep within them. Many a times, my subjects would have tears in their eyes, at other times we would sit in prolonged silence as my recorder recorded only our breaths.
But what I have seen with my own grandfather and several other people, was that eventually, the wall came down and the memories were told and recorded and there seemed to be a definite lightness to them after that. The book had become a repository for many people, and because over the last four years, they have become my family, I feel pride in presenting their stories to the world.
Will you be working on the second edition of the book since you had to leave out some stories?
I did leave out some stories, but I don’t know whether there will be a second edition of the book yet. I am working on a digital museum called the ‘Museum of Material Memory’ ( — it was launched last week) with a friend, Navdha Malhotra.

Our premise is to open this platform up to a submission-based museum so that people from across the subcontinent can send in stories about the objects of age that hold importance for them. Our hope is to build a diverse digital repository of material culture of the Indian subcontinent that traces family history and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity.

It is often said ‘Punjabis in Dilli are refugees’. Will we be able to get rid of the ‘refugee’ tag at some point?
I can only speak for my own family…the origin of all four of my grandparents’ families can be traced to the other side. My paternal grandfather who began Bahrisons Bookshop, was allotted land in Khan Market, a refugee market set up in 1951. For years I heard the term ‘refugee market’ and ‘refugee family’ from him, but I believe that he truly rose above that title during his life in Delhi.

On the other hand, my maternal side has many stories to tell about the status of the Punjabi refugees that came from the other side. My grandfather’s eldest brother recounts how their father began a jewellery store with his friends in Chandni Chowk. Having come to Delhi from Lahore via Amritsar, the family remembers how the surrounding Hindu shop-owners around them would often say, ‘Hum phoonk maar ke nikaal denge tumhe (we will blow your shop away).

But I don’t think this refugee tag exists for the Punjabis in Delhi any longer. If the city has built the post-Partition Punjabi into a model of entrepreneurship and resilience, then the Punjabi has also built the city just as much. The refugee tag has long been absorbed into the years.

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