A Memory Keeper: Meet Oral Historian Aanchal Malhotra

Oral historian and lithograph artist Aanchal Malhotra is set to release her first book, Remnants Of A Separation, on the journey of people affected by the 1947 partition. Her book narrates the stories of those uprooted during the riots through material belongings they brought with them. Intrigued by her choice of subject, we met the 27-year-old memory-keeper for an insight into her work.


For how long now, has writing been a practice?


I began writing in 2014 and the first serious piece of writing I did was for the Friday Times, while I was still in Lahore conducting my field research.


How did you arrive at choosing this subject, Remnants of a Separation, for your research?


In 2013, while on a sabbatical from my MFA at Concordia University, Montreal, I had visited my grandfather’s house in North Delhi where his elder brother showed us two objects: a ghara (a metallic vessel) and a gaz (a tailoring yard stick) that his parents had brought with them when they came to Delhi from Amritsar just before the Partition. Though the objects were incredibly banal, old and hardly looked to be of any value, his behaviour around them changed completely. His demeanour softened and he almost became a young boy again as he narrated to us how their mother would churn lassi in the ghara and his father would use the gaz at work in his clothing shop.


That was the first time I realised that the power embedded within materials or objects from a certain time could be used as a catalyst for extracting memories of that time.


Who have been your initial inspirations?


Being a traditional printmaker by education and a writer, now by profession, my source of inspiration has always been two-fold art and literature. I am inspired by the work of artists like Sophie Calle, Nikhil Chopra, Gerhard Richter, and John Baldessari.


Would you like to talk about your bond with nostalgia and your personal relation with the subject, which I assume comes from your bond with your grandparents?


When I conduct field research (interviews with my grandparents and others of their generation), I find often myself feeling either sadness or pain or wistfulness for a period of time I have not seen, and so I wonder often about the transfer of memory and nostalgia. Can we feel emotions for experiences that don’t belong to us, can we be that subconsciously and collectively synced to one another?


The other aspect of collecting anecdotes from the past is that I am continually striving to understand and impart their relevance: Is the past still relevant to us who are second and third generations from partition displaced families? Can it still teach us something? Can we still understand about humanity, empathy, love, friendship, anger, and pain from the experiences of our forefathers?


A pair of rare Basra pearls that a woman from Jalandhar brought with her when she moved from Dalhousie during the riots. She was vacationing before her marriage in 1947. Aanchal met her in 2014 during her short tenure as a researcher with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan in Lahore. Courtesy: Aanchal’s Instagram @aanch_m

Tell us about the most memorable interview you’ve taken.


There are several, to be honest. There is a story of a Guru Granth Sahib, stranded in a home in Rawalpindi after the family had left for the summer vacations to Shimla and was unable to come back, as partition had left them on the other side of the border. Their neighbour, who had also moved from Rawalpindi to Delhi, found them in Shimla, barely weeks after the Partition and told them he would be travelling back to Rawalpindi to collect some of his belongings, having fled in haste from his home. He vowed to bring back what was most valuable to the family, their Guru Granth Sahib. He did, as it lay untouched in the same room the family had left it in, despite a Muslim family now living in their home. This speaks of the respect people had and retained for one another, even amidst violence.


There is a mortar and pestle that travelled hidden within the suitcase of a woman from Karachi to Bombay; a pair of tailoring scissors belonging to a female money lender from Lahore; a pair of rare Basra Pearls given to a 16-year-old girl by a Maharaja in Rajasthan; zari from Ludhiana; a pocket knife from Dera Ismail Khan; a lock from Multan… each of these objects and their stories of survival have moved and changed me.


The belongings that have managed to travel across borders seem to have gained a status of luxury; a luxury of its own kind, when compared to the belongings that were left behind during the partition. What do you think?


When people were fleeing their homes, belongings held little importance. The foremost concern was safety. Many thought that the riots would die down in a few months and then they would return to their homes. As a result, they ended up taking little, often either objects of high value like jewellery or money, or of everyday utility like utensils, or objects of extreme banality, even the first thing that they could get their hands on. Some had realised that the divide was irreversible so they kept objects of sentimental value like the lock from their home, the books from their library, and so on.


It was a need for survival. So eventually what was left behind was left behind, and as the years have passed, these abandoned objects have come to stand as Utopian symbols of a better life, a happier childhood, a simpler time. A small swing in one’s living room in Karachi, the room full of Persian carpets in Quetta, the collections of antique in one’s summer home in Dalhousie, a tattered scarf from Bombay… the physicality of all these objects have metamorphosed into memory.


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