Objects holding memories

Through the photographs of objects that individuals took with them when they left their homes at the time of Partition is a story Aanchal Malhotra is studying. Through the memories of Partition, individual perspectives, she has spoken and photographed objects owned by those who were not only directly affected, but also their next generation.

“The idea came to me through conversations with my grandparents, all four of whom migrated from what became Pakistan. Snapshots of their lives there, nuances of their being, language, traditions, their stories of migration and the silence that surrounds the Partition is what made me interested in the subject,” she tells Metrolife. She adds, “To study it through objects, however, is where my own interest comes. I am fascinated by material memory or how effortlessly an object seems to encompass and embody traces of our lives, memories and histories.”

The aim was to preserve the memories of those who had witnessed the Partition, but in a new way. In India, she got her sources and people through word of mouth. For incorporating memories from Pakistan (now) a research she conducted with The Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP)  helped her.

“This is the first study of Partition that looks at material memory. How we deposit parts of ourselves into the objects that surround us and how those objects can act as reservoirs to contain memories of times past. Memory fades, it becomes diluted, even fabricated. But an object is a tangible source and portal into the history of a time and people,” she explains.

She says that the challenge was to be able to locate and unearth objects that had survived the Partition, those that had accompanied refugees and obtained a new citizenship in 1947. She had been searching for these objects and the stories of people they belong to since 2013.

According to her, narration of history is always individualistic and she feels a social responsibility towards those whose story she is spreading.

“It is about preserving the oral histories of those who witnessed and survived the largest mass migration of people in the history of the world. ‘True' history as it is told to me by those who moved, I never thought of it as right or wrong history,” she says.

One of the most poignant objects that she has found and photographed is a Guru Granth Sahib that belonged to a family from Rawalpindi. At the time of Partition, the family was vacationing in Mashobra, Shimla and were unable to go back to their home that is now a part of Pakistan. The mother was deeply fond of the Guru Granth Sahib, which she read every day. As luck would have it, one of their neighbours from Rawalpindi carried the book across the border for them and returned it to the mother in Mashobra.

“So the Partition experience, though tainted with violence and immeasurable brutality, is also littered with acts of kindness and religious unity and secularism, this being one of them,” says Malhotra who will be giving a talk on February 6 at the Habitat Centre about ‘Remnants of a Separation’.

Also, all the photos have ‘stories’ (memories) attached to them. She says these photos will be our heritage as the generation that witnessed the Partition is dying, it is necessary to record and archive their memories and experiences.

“We come from a history of oral tradition and it is important for us to protect that history and continue to be interested in it,” she explains.

Malhotra works at Red Ink Literary Agency, though her education has been in the arts. She says that the project was one-of-a-kind exploration.

She has become so much more invested in history and culture- both of which she
explores in great detail on her blog — thehiatusproject.


“More than anything, I have realised that the subcontinent is a treasure, there is so much to know and learn and discover. The Partition might have been my starting point, but what I have gained in the process is this wealth of knowledge from those that I interacted with about not just the kind of land and people we are, but what we were like, how secular we were, what the overlooked nuances of our culture were and how much of it we are forgetting,” she recounts.

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