HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksInterview, Aanchal Malhotra, Author, Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent...

Interview, Aanchal Malhotra, Author, Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided? – “You learn to take care of the sadness of others”

How do you feel about the award? As someone who describes herself as an oral historian, what is it like to be welcomed by another discipline?

It is an enormous honour to be recognized for the work, and particularly for it to find resonance in landscapes across the world from where it was written. As far as being welcomed by another discipline is concerned, perhaps this speaks to the malleability of Remnants as a project. When I began working on it, I too came from another discipline – visual art – and was able to carve a place for it within oral history.

The award committee has praised your book for its “potential to influence museum anthropology in its methodology, grace of narration, and participant-centred analysis”. To what extent would you attribute this to your academic training? Were there things you learnt on the job, through trial and error, just from being with your interviewees?

I have to admit that, when I began the fieldwork for Remnants in 2013, it was not with the intention of writing a book or even the knowledge that I would be aligning myself to a discipline known as oral history. My intention at the time was simply to document a family history – and later, collective history – that I knew very little about. All my formal training was as a traditional printmaker, so you could say that along with reading on methodologies that had been employed by researchers before me, a lot was learnt on the job.

Every meeting is unique, every conversation presents new challenges and realities, every memory suggests another perspective. With each interviewee, you gauge the threshold of your questioning. You discover biases you never knew you had, you unlearn and relearn, often with great difficulty. You cross borders, and encounter political opinions different from your own. You face hesitation and reticence, anger and confusion, tears and remorse. You understand that people live with wounds that are older than you are. You learn to take care of the sadness of others.

You realise very quickly that you must be an active listener, an empathetic conversationalist, a sensitive interviewer, a copious note-taker, a photographer, a transcriptionist, a researcher, a writer. The entire process, quite seamlessly, just took over my life.

The international edition published by C Hurst & Co

The committee has taken note of the “moral and ethical underpinnings” of your work with Partition survivors. Has the tenderness in your writing come from being the granddaughter of Partition survivors?

Yes, I think that certainly played a big role. But what also came quite naturally to me was a sense of responsibility to do justice to the testimonies that I was recording. I was careful to pay attention to the specific words that people were using, or the manner in which they were narrating, or when they switched between different languages. I also took detailed notes about non-verbal language – the movement of bodies, the contemplation before an answer, tears, sighs, and laughter. There were instances where my questions were met with silence or a refusal to return to a particular moment in time, and I have tried to faithfully record those in the text as well.

The book, which was published by C Hurst & Co globally, was published under a different title by HarperCollins India – Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory. What are the differences between these two editions?

There is no difference between the two editions, apart from the cover and the title of the book. It is common for books to have different titles in different markets, depending on what resonates with readers. Internationally, the word “Partition” is singularly associated with the partition of British India, hence the title Remnants of Partition for easier recognizability. But when I began the project, I called it Remnants of a Separation. I chose the word “separation” because it indicated a state of being that was not yet divorced. And I was not thinking of separation in terms of land – for India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as independent nations is an unalterable fact – but really of common people. “Separation” meant that there was hope still for us to come together as neighbours who shared history, and a hope for reconciliation.

400pp, ₹899; HarperCollins
400pp, ₹899; HarperCollins

When people think of Partition scholars today, they take your name in the same breath as Urvashi Butalia, and Ritu Menon, whom you’ve idolized? How do you process that?

I try not to think about this too often because, though I may be a peer to Butalia and Menon in this field now, it’s only because of their effort to establish oral history as an urgent source in understanding Partition that I can do this work at all. I know that I will always continue to learn and draw from their methodologies and writings.

Your second non-fiction book In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition released earlier this year. Your novel The Book of Everlasting Things, which also draws inspiration from the Partition, will be out in December. How do you take care of your mental health as you continue to engage deeply with the Partition for your writing?

It actually took me a long time to realise that it was impacting me at all. When you know that your interviewees are in the twilight of their lives, you end up recording as many interviews as you can, so as to preserve as much memory as you can. Very often in these interviews, people uttered things for the first time, and it felt like a huge privilege to be on the receiving end of these stories. I never said “No” to an interview, and even if someone told me something in passing, I would take out my phone to record them or make a note.

But week after week, month after month, then year after year, even when the interviews were long over, it was the voices that remained with me – in transcription, translation, and writing. It is difficult to continually think about these stories; there is a heaviness. And so recently, I have decided to stop interviewing for a while so that if I ever choose to return to the subject matter in the future, it will be with renewed clarity.

Chronologically, the body of my work extends outward from the nucleus of Partition – first, the survivor who has lived the event, then, the descendant who has inherited it, and now fiction, which draws on its legacy across time and geographies.

There is a lot more to your work than record-keeping. It is knowledge production. How do you view the political significance of this work, in terms of the people whose stories you choose to narrate, the kind of forums you participate in, who you collaborate with?

Partition was not a static event, it is a process very much ongoing – in geopolitics, memory-keeping, familial and collective history – and when the past begins to be diluted, wielded or distorted for any kind of political gain, I think it is the stories of those who were present that can set the record straight, as it were. But in the world that we live in today, perhaps even remembering has become a political act.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, journalist and educator who tweets @chintanwriting

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