Museum of Loss – Vipul Dutta

Remnants of a Separation: A History of Partition through Material Memory

by Aanchal Malhotra

Harper Collins India, 386 pp., 2017.


The Academy Award winning film The Reader (2008) based on the eponymous novel by Bernhard Schlink (1995) serves as a poignant reminder about the enduring relationship that objects share with grief, longing and loss. Set in post-War Germany, the film is centred on Nazi war crimes trials where the the protagonist, portrayed by Kate Winslet, is revealed as an SS Guard accused of letting several Jewish women burn to their death in a burning church. Also in the courtroom is David Kross who had had a brief affair with Winslet and is stunned upon discovering her past. Kross continues to keep up with Winslet during her incarceration by sending her audio-recorded books – relics of their past relationship where he often read to her. In the end, Winslet kills herself, driven by the guilt she felt after reading about the experience of one of the survivors (Lena Olin) of that fire who had, earlier, testified against the SS staff. Winslet leaves behind a tea-tin with some cash asking Kross to hand it over to Olin. As the movie grinds to its conclusion, Kross is seen travelling to New York to deliver the money to Olin who is unmoved with the gesture and suggests dispensing the money to a charity instead. Not the one to grant absolution to Winslet, Olin, nonetheless, decides to keep the tea-tin because it is similar to the one taken from her in the concentration camp. Olin places the tin next to a family photograph – almost as if she is piecing together the memories of her family from the blinding haze of the holocaust.

Aanchal Malhotra’s book Remnants of a Separation offers not one but nineteen such “tea-tins” to retrieve the subcontinent’s material memory from the days of Partition. Written as a set of several interviews conducted across India and Pakistan, Malhotra’s collection of testimonies are a treasure trove of memories evoked with the help of scrutinizing objects that the respondents held dear to them while moving across the border – ‘the initial moment in the formation of an archive’ (p. xiii). Conceived as a book that arose out of Malhotra’s larger digital museum of images, an initiative that she calls ‘The Hiatus Project’, it provides a riveting textual context to the stunning visual experience of scrolling down images that radiate glimpses of their journey across the border. Seventy years after Partition, Malhotra’s book elevates ‘objects’ from a more mundane existence to the status of being veritable artefacts of historical interest.

Literature on the Partition has increased in the last decade. Bulk of this scholarship—important monographs and papers based on new archival sources by the likes of Joya Chatterji, Yasmin Khan, Vazira FY Zamindar among others have upended prevailing interpretations of the event hitherto based on traditional, often party-centred sources, that revealed little about the intricacies of policies that propelled the vivisection of the subcontinent. More recently, books based primarily on oral testimonies and interviews (Urvashi Butalia) have sought to provide more grounded versions of the terrible personal suffering inflicted on countless people at the hands of reckless decision-making in the corridors of the Raj. They have set the record straight on the limits of academic scholarship to excavate human stories of conflict—not as an indictment of research, but to highlight the differences among the consumers of information which has been produced on the event.

While university presses and history monographs have furthered academic research on India’s contemporary history, including Partition, which only a few decades ago, would not have elicited serious attention from people within the history profession let alone publishers (many of whom thought, bizarrely, that post-1947events were outside the remit of history), literature on 1947 that has successfully employed alternative sources has managed to strike a bond with several readers, students, and those who experienced the horrors first-hand. It’s a success for not just direct stakeholders in the production of knowledge, but a tribute to people who occupied ring-side seats to historical events.

Malhotra’s book fits easily into the latter. Although this work is more than just a compendium of personal accounts. It resurrects an old debate on the primacy of sources in history-writing. Eschewing formal text-based archival data in favour of visual and material artefacts, Remnants is not the usual ‘subalternist’ take on history but a more important inter-generational account of the transformation of memories with the passage of time, and the role that personal objects play in teasing out and embedding memories in the everyday life of respondents. Remnants, therefore, occupies a remarkable inter-disciplinary space which draws, in equally rewarding parts, both from history, obviously, and, because she is dealing with people and their recollections through their material possessions—anthropology.

Of the many strengths of this book is its ability to seamlessly bind the two disciplines together without unnecessarily stating it repeatedly—the narrative makes it all too clear. It manages to capture personal insights through skill and sensitivity without appearing too intrusive. But its chief importance lies in highlighting the complexity of ‘material culture’ in history. By writing and delving into the multiple layers of memory, Malhotra has prized open the door to a new field of history-writing itself unconstrained by the limiting influence of sources that generations of historians have grown accustomed to studying.

Remnants is not the first book to examine material artefacts from a historical lens. Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and the National Gallery, wielded this craft with consummate skill and set the stage for a revival of public interest in forgotten histories. The distinguishing feature of Malhotra’s work is the careful scrutiny each set of objects receive from her, interwoven with the connected histories associated with those objects which render Partition memories ‘particularly pliable’. Each historical moment in the book, then, comes across as an ‘archeological site’ layered with ‘innumerable renditions’ of people’s experiences (p. 23).

These multiple versions form the bedrock on which Remnants is based. Evocation of memories through family networks (Chapter 1) where Malhotra’s family’s heirlooms, including precious vessels and a walking stick – inhabit the antique walls and traditions of their Delhi home where they migrated to after 1947 – reveal the power of kinship ties to get life back on track in a city miles away from their original home. Then there are locked memories in the warp and weft of old fabrics (Chapter 5) which come alive when the respondents unpack them from the dark recesses of their minds tracing not just the tender bonds of emotional inheritance of treasured family possessions but also revealing a bit about the famed textile heritage of the subcontinent and its tryst with Khadi (handspun cotton) long before it became a symbol of India’s anti-colonial resistance.

Malhotra also needs to be credited with historicising ‘mundane migratory objects’ (p. 25) away from the space of the museum. This endeavour is doubly challenging as artefacts outside the carefully preserved environment of the museum are rarely, if ever, deemed worthy of attention by people, especially so in India, where a robust public culture of appreciating history in museums and archives is fledgling. Secondly, public displays of history do not always reveal private and transient moments of crisis and movement. To write an intimate history of the Partition, it is imperative to excavate stories from objects that can highlight experiences of a life lived through the appurtenances of a culture prevalent during the mid-twentieth century when Partition seemed imminent.

Remnants charts the ‘manifold concept’ of memory — official, social and familial through an exciting discovery of the manner in which ‘proprietorship’gives way to an intense yet understandable ‘possessiveness’ (p. 26). In the act of reclaiming symbols of ownership like a stone plaque that adorns the house belonging to Faiz Rabbani (Chapter 7) in what is now Indian Punjab, there is a moment when the boundary between ‘Indian’ and ‘Pakistani’ blurs into insignificance as Rabbani is welcomed into his ancestral property by its Indian owners (p. 152), an oddly appropriate exception to the corrosive context of Partition property legislation that has plagued bilateral relations since 1947. It is perhaps the ‘serendipitous’ – a word the author uses often – survival of objects such as these that allow for a more reconciliatory approach towards letting people set anchor, albeit temporarily, in a more familiar sea of memories. War memorabilia, too, like other artefacts are close companions of history. Lt Gen Sharma’s war medals, his father’s and brother’s storied careers and the lasting institutional legacy of the Sharmas’ on the Indian Army have been assiduously pursued by Malhotra (Chapter 14). It is also a sensitive examination of the concept of ‘power’ and its role in ‘affirming nationhood’ straight from the man who witnessed its application from close quarters.

The book is a bold attempt to document a broad range of material data; on that count it is a resounding success because it crosses the divide between both countries by confronting the often lop-sided accounts of the Partition which have arisen due to the difficulties scholars face when trying to recover stories from the other side. There are also accounts from Bengal (Chapters 11, 19) in the book where the eastern border lay but much of it confirms the staggered nature of division and the sustained waves of migration that continued to take place long after the settlement of the dividing line in 1947 and mitigated, albeit to a limited degree, the massive disruption that occurred in the west. On the other hand, excavating histories from objects, pre-supposes the existence of a class or culture that scraped through 1947 with a far greater degree of resilience than others, many of whom didn’t live to see another day. Women, men and children who did not survive the horrors of 1947 or counted for little when the edifice of two new-nation states was being created have not left strong imprints in the archives, nor have they attracted considerable attention from scholars who might be looking to exhume accounts of a division that wrecked so many lives. Yet, their stories are important and an ‘archaeology’ of their experiences awaits a more tenacious scholarly pursuit. Remnants promises to open this field further beyond museums and laboratories where more private histories could potentially be uncovered through public artefacts.

Vipul Dutta teaches History at IIT Guwahati.