Aanchal Malhotra – Weaving Ties Across The Border

  • 01 Sep - 07 Sep, 2018
  • Rabia Mushtaq
  • Interview

The diligent researcher-turned-author-and-oral historian is only a book old, but her words enclosed in a tome have transcended borders, moving readers with its heartfelt prose. MAG got in touch with the wordsmith to talk about her inspirations and aspirations as a writer.

Being an author requires one to be empathetic and creative at the same time. Do you think you were destined to be one?

I never thought I would become an author, let alone write anything. I come from a family of booksellers, so I have been on the other side of things. But at the same time, it is simply because I was raised in a culture of reading, that it is hard to deny the fact that words have always been my companions. So whether I was destined for it or not, I cannot say, but as of now, writing is the truest way to put forth ideas that affect me. 

I spend a lot of time re-visiting the audio recordings of the people I am writing about. Whether it’s listening or transcribing, their voices – the tone, the lilting, the language, the animation and even the silence – make me feel more connected to my work.

Your book, Remnants of a Separation, is still one of the most talked about reads. How has the reception been for you?

It’s been overwhelming, to say the least. I never thought that the book would be accepted and read so widely. But more than anything, it’s very rewarding to see the unspoken and unheard voices of those who I interviewed being talked about and discussed.

The book was your thesis at the Concordia University, Montréal, which went on to become the first and only study of the material remains of the Partition of India in 1947. Is that why you turned it into a book?

As I mentioned before, there was no intention of writing or turning this research into a book, initially. The thesis at Concordia University was also visual and was displayed on the walls of a gallery as photographs of these objects and accompanying short panels of text – as I was in a visual arts program. But the writing for this book came out as a need to share the anecdotes I was hearing. These were things that I’d never read about in books or academic texts, people’s stories, as it were. They were stories of violence and trauma, of course, but also of lament, displacement and helplessness, and also stories of courage, sacrifice and friendship. The magnanimous umbrella term of partition seemed to be made up of so many versions of the same event and it was those versions that I wanted to highlight through a written text that could be accessible to all people.

You met numerous people throughout the subcontinent when collecting material memories. Whose story moved you the most and why?

I think different parts of people’s stories have stayed with me. Some of them are about objects and partition and others are just about life in undivided India: 

Nazmuddin Khan’s story about why his family chose not to leave for Pakistan in 1947. He tells me that when Muslims die, they are buried in the ground of India, into the soil, and their bodies decompose and over time, they become the soil, they become India. So how can anyone say that such a person does not belong here?

Sumitra Kapur’s story about how her mother’s Guru Granth sahib from Rawalpindi was carried across the border one month after partition by a neighbour who went back to Pakistan to dig up the gold he had buried in the floors of his house. She tells me humorously that because they were living in the mostly vacant hills of Mashobra, news of partition was given to them by the local fruit-sellers and postmen, since they had no radio or access to newspapers! 

The examples are abundant, but it is important to say that each interview and story has taught me something new. And it is only by weaving all these together, that we can come up with even a surface understanding of the vast and colossal first-hand memories that exist from that time. 

When talking about the partition, many tend to focus on the adverse effects of the event, even though there were a lot of positive stories too. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, it’s true. There are several stories about harmony and friendship. People of several religions helped one another; my own grandmother was protected by Muslims who managed to get her family across the Sindh River in the North West Frontier Province. Without them, she claims, they might not have made it across. 

The truth is that partition broke apart friendships, relationships, even families… it altered the very fabric of our contemporary history, but it also gave rise to incredible acts of kindness and courage. I wish that rather than being intellectually imprisoned by stories of jingoism and memories of communal hatred for years, these were the kinds of stories both, Indians and Pakistanis sought out and propagated.

How optimistic should one be regarding the relations between both, Pakistan and India?

When asked this question, I always narrate an anecdote, one that has taken a few years to reach this point. Nazeer Adhami sahab, on whom there is a chapter in the book, welcomed me back into his home in Lahore when I visited Pakistan this year. Our first meeting – where I had conducted the interview for the book – had just been him, his wife, Najma ji, and I. But this time, three generations of the family were present.

Adhami sahab said, ‘Yahan Pakistan yeh apno ko dhoondhne aayi hain, (she has come to Pakistan to find her own, like we used to go to India to find our own).’

It is through conversations like these that I have understood that it is possible to slowly and gradually obscure this border. There might never come a day when the Radcliffe Line no longer separates India and Pakistan, but through gentle, continuous and engaging conversations, one day, this border might not feel so definite. The ‘other’ might not feel like the other any more. •