Remnants of a Separation: A History of The Partition Through Material Memory by Aanchal Malhotra

Readers’ review by Rehan Asad| An unique approach to revisit the most important context of 20th century South Asian History, Indian partition

Introduction and background

The book titled “Remnants of a Separation” authored by Aanchal Malhotra and published by Harper Collins was released on 15/August/2017 at the completion of seventy years of Indian partition (Batwara). In last seventy years, the numerous books have been published on the event that created more than fourteen million homeless population and estimated death of approximately two million human souls. As born in Western Uttar Pradesh, I was brought up listening stories of partition from grandparents. The region was the part of United Provinces of Oudh and Agra in Colonial India that has the considerable support of league among the Muslims agrarian landowners. Some members of the Grandparents extended families had chosen the strange land on the other side of Radcliffe line. It was the illusion of chosen land created by the Jinnah among the elites landlords of United Province & Oudh that compelled them to leave their homelands. I had an opportunity during childhood days to interact with relatives from Karachi visiting their ancestor’s homeland far off in Uttarpradesh. During the Senior Secondary days in 1997, I had come across with my first non-fiction read up on partition “Freedom at Mid Night by Lary Collins & Dominique Lapierre (1975)” almost twenty years from now. Almost at same time, I was blessed to read the great Kushwant Singh masterpiece, “Train to Pakistan“, a fiction centered around the syncretic love story of Punjab in the backdrop of communal violence. From then onward, I tried to explore the context of partition by reading manuscripts and research articles as an inquisitive reader to explore it. As the topic filled with multiple historical reviews, & viewpoints, it seems to be contextual for third generation Indian and Pakistanis like me. During last month I got an opportunity to read the “Remnants of a separation: A history of the partition through material memory,” a book released on the eve of seventy years of Indian partition.

Reflections on the “Remnants of a separation”

The idea behind the book was commenced with the effort of a young researcher of Fine Arts who had chosen the stories moving around the artifacts and materials related to the context of Indian partition as the dissertation of her MFA (Masters in fine arts) programme at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. The author reflected in the introductory section, the significance of material memory crept in 2013 when the photojournalist and columnist Mayank Austen Soofi widely popular as Delhi Walla was exploring Vij Bhawan for his column. It was the gaz (feet) and ghara (metallic vessel), a pre-partitioned legacy of the Vij (Authors maternal grandparents) that appeared as prime stimuli of the research idea. The creativity lies in the author’s sense of integrating valuable artifacts (storehouse of the memories) carried by the immigrants on both sides of the Radcliffe lines during partition. The qualitative research is a standardized model for exploring anthropological and ethnographic context. Oral history collected by conducting in-depth interviews and artifacts used in congruence are tools of the qualitative research that has been used in this project. The titles of all nineteen chapter are connecting the link to memories and each of the chapters is meticulously selected case reflecting unique ethnic and social context about the event of the partition. Ingenuity lies in the exploration of beautiful memories by connecting with the tactile stimuli of materials and belongings of the past. Most of these memories were buried in the deep subconscious of these individuals behind the denial of the traumatic events that happened seventy years before. Other than citing standard references, and archives on Indian partition, the author embed herself as an explorative researcher to perceive the emotional context extracted from each interview. It gave us the deeper understanding of the geographical origins especially for the group of the population who left their native land under arduous circumstances. Each context presented in the book as chapters moved around the artifacts, heirlooms, objects as the connection with memories also provide the readers a broader historical context of the particular region/culture about the partition. I tried to reflect on some of those backgrounds that I perceived from my prerequisite understanding of Partition.

The rich narratives of Vij, Malhotra’s, and Bhag gave readers an understanding of shifting the level of acceptance especially in context with Punjabi immigrants within the layered social dynamics of 1950s Delhi. All three of them belonged to Author’s family but, as an explorative researcher when she interviewed them, a unique cultural context was extracted from their past. The Vij represented a thrifty urban Punjabis from Lahore who has been established themselves as the successful entrepreneurs from centuries. It was the bloody event of “Batwara” that cut the roots of this prosperous community from the native land. The ancestors of Bahris hails from the small historic town, Qadirabad located two hundred fourteen kilometers North-West of Lahore. They represented a middle-class zamindar section of the Punjabis who undertook modern education as the tool of better survival in changing colonial India. After leaving Malakwal, the nineteen years Balraj Bahri journey on the bumpy roads from the Kingsway camp up to the successful Bahri Sons booksellers is the reflection of hard work, and rectitude. Now the Bhag Malhotra who hails from the North-West Province, a land of tribal Pashtuns. Her reflection draws a vivid picture of the life of Punjabi Zamindars in Khyber Pakhtunwala. A beautiful haveli with separate apartments for the members of extended family. The separation in the quarters and living area for females. In those days, Purdah was not confined to any particular religion. It was a tradition practiced among the high socioeconomic class of rural North Indian society. The pearls of Azra Haq represent the class of bureaucratic white-collar pre-partitioned Punjabi Muslims that unfortunately lost the ground in the chosen land of Jinnah. The “Bagh” of Hansla represented the old culture where the daughters received homemade apparel from his mother. This sacred piece of cloth passed from generation to generation carrying clemence and efforts of ancestors interwoven with memories of each generation making it a priceless treasure. Mian Faiz Rabbani represented a sample of the agrarian tribe which formed the core of Muslim league & Unionist in Punjab Province. Finishing with Shams Manzil of Mian Faiz intermingled with memories of a stone plaque, the book moved to next unique context from Punjab. It’s a story of the family belonging to Ahlul Bait (the house of Prophet) from the small town Samana in the princely state of Patiala. The sanctity of the place was due to the direct descendants of the Prophet (Peace be Upon him), Sayyad Mashaad Ali buried here long before the advent of Ghurids & Mamluks in India. Nazeer Adhami from Hardoi, (Lucknow), Oudh and his memories of Aligarh Muslim Universities gave the readers an insight on elite Muslim Zamindars of United Provinces and their participation towards the league. Parting from the memories of Nazeer from Aligarh Muslim Universty, it moved to beautiful narrations of Nizamuddin Khan, a member of a working-class Muslim family of pre-partitioned Delhi. How beautiful his descriptions of syncretic Delhi before the partition? His reflective accounts of Gandhi Ji, Nehru & Jinnah was built over the years from his father side talks who was working at Viceroy house in Lutyens Delhi. Even circumstances forced them but, somehow managed to return to the land where their ancestors were buried. Now, one of the most interesting chapters for me came up during the read up. Here I was going to read the narratives coming directly from the tongue of an Emeritus Professor of art & culture history from the University of Sussex on his legacy, partition, and reaction of his family. Transcribed and written contextually, the chapter of Partha Mitter unfolded his more than one and half century old legacy represented as a sample of elite Bengali families that was the core of India first sociocultural and intellectual movement. In other terms what is defined in textbooks as a Bengal renaissance? From the great Tipen Mitter up to Partha Mitter, the family has produced legends who perceived the winds and tides of Colonial India. The legendary journalist, Maya Mirchandi Grandmother Savitri represented a context from the ancient land from where lies the roots of the historical names “Hind” and “Indus”. The family described an educated upper-middle-class Sindhis who lost their homeland due to the voluntary exodus of Urdu speaking community from United Provinces of Agra & Oudh, Bihar, Hyderabad ( Deccan), Rajasthan & Gujrat. The Dadi Leela version of three mothers, biological mother, linguistic mother and motherland (place of birth) articulate the significance of native language and birthplace in an individual life even in unfavorable circumstances. It’s an irony that even after seven decades of partition, the Urdu speaking community that immigrated with the dream of chosen land is still struggling to be absorbed in the Sindhi population & culture on the other side. Interestingly the subgroups within this broader linguistic identity titled as Muhajir (Oriental word for refugee) were identified with the places of their origin like Delhi Wale, Hyderabadi, Bihari, Lucknow wale and further smaller units of their native lands in United Provinces.

An outstanding distinctive research that explores the feelings, materials, context, and sociocultural background of the immigrants. The author’s inclusion of the verbatim transcription of the native’s words of Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and English extracted during interviews gave an additional uniqueness and sense of originality to the context. It’s interesting to find the shared Hindustani words like Taka, Anna, Lambardar, Khas Dan, Sarota, Deghcyian, and Hammam Dasta were commonly used in Punjab, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, and Sindh provinces of Colonial India. I had heard these words in common usage of my grandparents and parents, but in today changing trends it seems to be archival. The presentation of the native words in their original accent, e.g., Jullundar instead of Jalandhar, Kalai (Qalai), Kabar (Qabar) as common in Punjabi accent is the reflection of applying core values of qualitative research.  An Englishman, John Gregor Taylor chanting Hindi songs and missing the odor of Geeli Mitti of India, a Punjabi Arain articulating his context by an example “the demise of the sapling once uprooted from its soil” reminds me the three mothers of Leela Dadi from Mirchandani accounts. When humanity was tarnished by the savagery, you will find Hansla Chaudhry grandfather receiving the offer of Luyten Delhi mansion from his Muslim friend. Prof. Mitter father risked his own life for saving Muslims around his home at Bhowanipur, Calcutta. A Praman Matro (Identity Proof) of Sunil Kumar connecting the family with bygone days memories. There is much more to talk about but, word count binds my review. The research of the Aanchal Malhotra is an effort in a direction to touch core human values of such an important context of modern Indian history by erasing all the bias of region, religion, and culture. This unique account is an excellent add-on to the social and ethnic context of Indian partition. It will also serve as a resource for future academic researchers.

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