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“You need to be patient, and you need to listen”

Interview: Aanchal Malhotra is a multidisciplinary artist, writer and oral historian

“You need to be patient, and you need to listen”

Aanchal Malhotra is a multidisciplinary artist, writer and oral historian with a BFA in Printmaking and Art History from OCAD University, Toronto, and an MFA in Studio Art from Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. She received the prestigious University Medal in Printmaking for her thesis entitled ‘Altering Perspective’ in her BFA, while her MFA thesis project ‘Remnants of a Separation: A History of the partition through Material Memory’ under the guidance of photographer Raymonde April, resulted in a book that pierces through personal histories across the divide.

Malhotra is the third generation of the Bahrisons Booksellers family of Khan Market fame. She’s worked with Red Ink Literary Agency, and as a curator to Sumant Batra at Chitrashala – the Museum of Indian Graphic Art in Kumaon, India.

The News on Sunday caught up with her at the Karachi Literature Festival 2018 to talk about her family background, research, her recent book, and why partition is still relevant today. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): When did the reality of partition 1947 dawn on you as an unprecedented episode in the history of the subcontinent?

I realised then that objects have the ability to absorb places in them and the ability to transport us to those places. The first thought is not that these objects also carry the burden of memory.

Aanchal Malhotra (AM): Of all the memories of my childhood the most distinct is that of books. Books were all around me yet I never thought of inquiring how we became book dealers, or what exactly went into becoming a book empire. I just took everything for granted. When I was young, I didn’t even know if India and Pakistan were separate or that they’d been united in the past; or, for that matter, if anyone in the family had immigrated from across the divide because, as a child, you don’t quite concern yourself with such matters, which can be problematic. It never crossed my mind. I was born in Delhi, had a regular childhood, and as a creative child the only thing I had great interest in was Art. I have been lucky that my parents did not only allow me but also supported me in every single decision I had to take in the creative field, which is rare in case of South Asian parents.

Even as a young adult, when I was 16 or 17 years of age, Pakistan was not even in the periphery of my mind. I cannot recall my parents or grandparents talk about it, and, if they did at all, it was never a conscious attempt. For instance, they might mention the vegetables they used to grow back then or a recipe of food but they never actually gave an account of the societal or ethnographic recollections – things I would ask them about much later.

The project on partition began as a thesis project when I went on sabbatical during the MFA Program at Concordia, Canada.

TNS: What triggered your interest in partition and ‘material memory’, in the first place?

AM: It started with my maternal family who had a ghara (a clay pot) and a guz (iron yardstick for measuring cloth). I went on sabbatical from MFA because I had no ideas to work on for my thesis. When I came back to Delhi, a friend of mine who was writing an article on houses of Delhi requested me for a visit to my old family house in the northern part of the city called Roopnagar near Delhi University. This is where my mother had grown up – it was a joint-family setup where my nana (maternal grandfather) and his siblings had lived in separate compartments with their families. The house was intact with marble chips floor et al, except for a few cosmetic changes.

My friend began to talk to the family there about the house and about how Roopnagar was part of the rehabilitation scheme for refugees who came in after partition. While the conversation was on, my nana’s elder brother left the room and came back in with pictures, books, bookends and some dusty artefacts exclaiming that these were antiques, older than him that we could look at if we so desired. He singled out a ghara and a guz explaining that he’d carried them to Amritsar from Lahore.

Here was an octogenarian talking about things, that were almost mundane, that I had not seen before but once he started talking about them, he related them to Lahore and to his childhood. Suddenly, he transformed into a jovial young man who laughed out loud like a true-grit Punjabi. There’s a time-shift that had taken place because while touching those things he’s reminiscing about the time that has gone by.

I realised then that objects have the ability to absorb places in them and the ability to transport us to those places. The first thought is not that these objects also carry the burden of memory. We call it a burden because, in this case, it’s a burden of a trauma. I started to think that if one person is affected by it, how many others must also be affected by it.

I began with the strangers, asking around. It was difficult talking to my grandparents especially when I had lived with them and known them in a certain capacity because I didn’t know what I would get to hear. We’d lived with our paternal grandparents and our perception was that grandparents are like god. When you’d heard what partition did to people, you’re weary of how it will affect your relationship with them. For instance, my dada (paternal grandfather) was very angry about partition. He was merely 19-years-old at the time and was thrown out of his house. He couldn’t do anything to save his city, Mandi Bahauddin. He came to India as a pauper, and when he uttered the word ‘refugee’, he literally spat it out. When I asked him what he was like in his youth, he replied “angry and hot-headed”. He always thought there was no point in thinking about partition because that wouldn’t change anything. For a number of weeks after interviewing him, I realised how sad he was.

My dadi (paternal grandmother) came from Dera Ismail Khan. She had different memories. If you had a house in the capital in those days, it was like a refugee camp – everybody would land up there. My dadi’s mother (my great grandmother) came to live with her eldest daughter who was already married in Delhi. When she heard somebody say this woman has come with five children to stay and we can’t feed her, she decided to go back to D I Khan, being a single mother and fiercely independent at that. On August 16, 1947, she got on to the platform of Old Delhi Railway Station to go back to NWFP. She said if she had to die, she’d rather die on her own soil. If you ask my dadi even today as to where her house is, she would reply: “Muryali, D I Khan”. Her house is in Delhi, but her home is not.

TNS: How did you go about finding people and objects that could relate to your project?

AM: Finding people was not difficult, finding objects of interest was tough – and I wish, I had known an organised way of going about that – because when I started this project, 66 years had already passed on after partition. You would remember bringing your jewellery, for instance, but things as mundane, as everyday as utensils, pens, books, etc., no one remembers. On top of it, no one understands the importance of such things as key migratory objects. My basic questions would be: Did you bring anything with you? Do you know of anyone who carried anything with him?

Bahrisons [Booksellers] had some very old customers. When anyone old would walk into the bookshop, the staff would inquire where he’d come from, and if he’d witnessed the batwaara (division) or if he’d carried anything from there. My maasi (maternal aunt) would literally walk around the Defence Colony looking for older people. Gradually, as people came to learn about the project, it became easier but in the beginning it was foraging for things of value, making people understand why I wanted to look at furniture, photographs, etc.

I must admit that people were not readily forthcoming in the beginning. They couldn’t understand why a young woman was trying to uncover things they had swept under the carpet for so many years. Some people have a natural talent for extracting information. I guess I am one of them but I had to give myself time. You need to be patient, and you need to listen. Being a researcher, you have to be present there wholly. You can’t afford to lose yourself in the historical narrative. Later on, when I listened to the interviews while transcribing them, I realised what I had heard.

TNS: How did you carry out research in Pakistan?

AM: The project started in 2013, and by 2014 I realised I had conducted enough interviews in Delhi and a bunch of other places in India. And, one day, almost randomly, it occurred to me that the research was not complete. In September 2014, I came to Pakistan with the purpose of expanding my research, and to have both sides of the divide form the narrative. I must admit that I stood richer upon coming here because the narratives I gathered here were much different.

I began by applying for a short-term alliance with The Citizens Archive of Pakistan. They put me in touch with people who during their interviews had listed things they had brought with them. Research was a lot easier here because I did not have to scramble for information all over the place. People were willing to talk because they had been briefed beforehand. However, I had to limit the scope of my research to the Punjab alone because I only had a visa for Lahore. The fact that I am Punjabi gives me the license to talk about the Punjabi culture openly.

I realise that there are a lot of shortcomings and limitations in my research like, for instance, I do not know anything about Gujarat and Rajasthan, or about Bengal or Sindh albeit there is a story in both Bengal and Sindh. In case of Bengal, I was a bit hesitant because I do not have ownership over that history. Now I feel it doesn’t matter and that one can always inform oneself. As long as you are informed you can write about almost anything, and my information comes from academic as well as oral sources.

TNS: What has been the purpose of founding the Museum of Digital Memory?

AM: Some people had expansive stories to tell (that I could write about) while others had only bits of memories. So the former were an obvious choice. I wanted to include as diverse a range of objects as I could, and diverse areas from where people migrated whether they were from the Punjab only because each area even within the Punjab is different. I also wanted to create a balance between Indian/Pakistani, male and female components. Two days ago, somebody in Lahore showed me a 15-and-a-half-feet long crocodile carcass they’d carried from across the border.

In the third phase of writing the book, the project was known well and many people had started writing to me about what they owned. I couldn’t travel to all those places to meet people, especially if they happened to be in Pakistan, Bangladesh and/or Nepal, so I thought it would be great to have an online repository where people could post stories related to the material culture. So, I started a digital repository called the Museum of Digital Memory. What I have tried to achieve through this is to give a sense of ownership to families over things that are important to them. And I realise that in the subcontinent our sense of value typically comes from an external source, especially when an object is not inherently or obviously valuable. Wouldn’t it be great if our children and grandchildren could look at these things that their grandparents carried with them, and learn about their history, I thought?

Museum of Digital Repository is a submission-based archive, which is not just about partition. It extends way beyond that to things of age that we have in our house that we’d like to know more about. We are also bridging the generational gap here with family heirlooms and collectibles.

We just published a story about a doll cabinet, which was fascinating. A woman wrote to us that in the early 1940s young Bengali brides would be accompanied by doll cabinets, and in the late 1950s these dolls were bartered with new stainless steel utensils. This woman went the other way and bought the dolls back from the steel utensil man. Stories such as these are interesting because they are personal histories, and can collectively tell us about their communities.

My friend, Navdha, and I started the Museum in 2017, encouraging people to write about these objects and archive them. The response has been good but we have to constantly push people to write. We are also sourcing things on the Internet via Facebook, Instagram, etc. You have to teach people how to weave a narrative, and how to put collective history in that narrative to conduct research about a particular place. I think these are great tools you can give out to people.

Aasim Akhtar

aasim akhtar
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad.

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