“We can bear the pain only by possessing something that belongs to that instant.” (Orhan Pamuk. Museum of Innocence)
Partition, the cataclysmic event still reverberating in those who survived it and those who came after. The descendants may not know the details, but they know there was a calamity of generational proportions, a holocaust displacing millions. A dark period when evil and brutality rampaged across a treasured land, soaking the soil with blood, pain and suffering.
Aanchal Malhotra, with her background in fine arts, her eye for shape, form, and layers of feeling, comes to a sudden realisation of how objects are infused with history, when her great-uncle brings out a gharda (a rounded pot) and a gaz (yardstick), which are from Lahore, ‘pre-Partition’. The words echoing with a haunting quality. Carrying heart-break and division. Batwara– separation. A world lost in time. “Then as he began to stroke the surfaces of the two objects from his past something changed in him. …It seemed as though he was physically there in front of us, but at the same time he was not. Within those objects he had found a pathway into the past and had wandered along it all the way back to Lahore…”
In this absorbing and poignant book, Aanchal Malhotra sets out to recover the history of Partition, through individuals and their ‘pre-Partition’ objects: whatever they had managed to snatch, grab, and hold on to in the terror-stricken moments of escape, through the arduous and dangerous journey to the other land. Much was abandoned along the way. “The (Radcliffe) Line might as well have been drawn in blood and littered with the possessions of those who crossed it – a piece of cloth here, utensils scattered there, jewellery, riches and money strewn across the sand.”
Revelations streaked with pain and loss, buried in silence for decades, slowly emerge into the present. To be received with the sensitivity and respect which they deserve and which Malhotra accords them. Bringing to the stories her own emotional engagement and sense of the dignity due to the interviewees. Occasionally evoking feelings of guilt in her, at asking questions which raise harrowing, private memories, till the wife of one of the interviewees turns to her and swivels the focus outwards, asserting if she doesn’t gather this material, “how will you know about your past?”
“Your past,” meaning Our collective past. The generations born post-Partition. Remnants of Partition speaks to the need of post-Partition generations, whether on the sub-continent or in the Diaspora. I’ve noticed in London the increasing number of people, including many from the younger generation, attending events to do with Indian, Punjabi or Sikh history; the passion for uncovering the past and recording it, and perhaps most importantly, coming to some understanding of family and social history. It’s no accident that someone like Davinder Toor began collecting ancient Sikh, Islamic and Indian artefacts over twenty years ago, and Anita Anand’s book, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary was such a huge success.
The stories in Remnants of Partition, expressively written with an almost poetic feel, add up to far more than personal memories and cherished belongings. “…dozens of interviews later, what has emerged is a way of life in an inclusive and interwoven Undivided India. The longer I sat with those who had lived through the exodus, the more convinced I became that a story from the days of the Partition was about so much more than the Partition itself. It was about soil and rain, fields and clouds, families and their traditions and customs; it was about love and relationships, children and the sound of their crying; it was about landscape and language, music, art, literature and poetry.”
For those of us living with the unknowingness, unpredictability, and the massive collateral damage of Brexit-ing England, Remnants of Partition evokes many resonances. We now know a little about being blindly trapped in a political situation, not knowing what may or may not happen, at the mercy of politicians who’re patently not up to the job. And so it was in June 1947. When Viceroy Mountbatten was asked by The Times of India whether he foresaw a mass transfer of population his answer was breathtakingly delinquent: “Personally, I don’t see it, … Some measures of transfer will come about in a natural way…perhaps governments will transfer populations.” What appalling negligence and disregard for the lives, homes, and safety of millions of people.
Twenty-one chapters, twenty-one objects, take us into Indian, Pakistani, Bengali and English homes, and by extension into the lives of those who lived before Partition, in Undivided India, giving us glimpses into a distant past. I was beguiled by the widow who’d gallop long distances through hilly terrain, to visit her married daughter, often changing two or three horses on the way, and the person who says “Peace. I remember peace.”
The Sword of Ajit Kaur Kapoor, which also includes the story of Satwant Kaur, gives us more than we want to know, more than will ever be comfortable for us. When Ajit Kaur’s house is bombarded from the air, the heavily pregnant Ajit Kaur and her husband run for their lives, following other refugees, though no-one knew which way was India. Ajit and Satwant Kaur tell of lost family members and horrors seen on their desperate trek. “By the second day, some people were abducted from the caravan itself, some were killed and some succumbed to starvation and thirst. There was no food or water. When I felt really faint, I began licking the mud on the ground…” says Ajit Kaur. A further revelation makes the narrator’s blood, and mine, go cold. Many children were abandoned on the way through the forest, and some buried. The buried weren’t always dead. “…children who were two or three years old. They dug holes in the ground – graves really – and buried them there, right there and then.” Unthinkable acts, making me immediately recoil and want to condemn. I have to tell myself it’s easy to be moralistic, easy to judge from the distance of over seventy years, from my comfortable existence – I’m forced to consider, that in the midst of death and danger, what extremes people had been pushed to, they could commit such unspeakable acts. Complex questions which aren’t going to go away any time soon.
There are stories of humanity and bravery. The muslim mother who saves her son’s Hindu friend, by boldly confronting a mob and telling them they’d have to kill her first. In The Poems of Prabhjot Kaur, her grandfather, the largest landowner in a remote village with a mixed population, brought out his land deeds and urged others to bring out theirs. “Then, in a large bonfire, they torched every last proof of what land belonged to whom and, by extension, to what religion. Saare kagaz jaladiye uss din, they burnt all the papers that day, and erased all the differences between them. The Muslims of the village would usually wear black turbans, and soon every man, regardless of religion, began wearing a black turban. …if they were united, no external force could eradicate the love.”
As I read chapter 6, The Bhag of Hansla Chowdhury, I was suddenly reminded I have a Bhag of my own, sitting in a suitcase in the garage. It had been part of my mother’s trousseau. The realisation that here in England, I have my own pre-Partition heirloom, gives me a tangible sense of connection. A new layer of meaning and value becomes attached to it, and I cherish it more.
In The Pearls of Azra Haq, for the first time, Malhotra finds herself gripped by feelings she can’t name and a tear trails down her face, as Azra Haq describes the efforts to extract people who had been taken, “… women especially, who had been abducted by force – dragged out of their villages, raped, abused, used. And the saddest thing was that many of these women refused to go back to their families across the border for fear of no longer being accepted.” Malhotra notes that in the end it had become a gendered Partition, women’s bodies had been abused and massacred in the same way as the landscape of Hindustan. Making women into “misfits” who belonged nowhere. Men could have India or Pakistan, but abducted women were outcast in both. She writes, “I had come to sit in the presence of a string of lightweight pearls and was leaving with a weight heavier than I could bear.”
The insane tragedy of the Partition was that it separated people who shared history, culture, folk-tales and friendships. The cities Lahore and Jullunder (now Jalandhar) feature in so many of the personal stories, they become like characters themselves.
“LAHORE,” THE WORD ESCAPED his lips, as ephemeral as the dreams in which it was the main character. Sitting in the evening light of Delhi, the talk is of a city across the border.” Lahore, ‘the Paris of the East,’ as someone once told me. One of the oldest cities in the world, situated on the river Ravi, a garden city, “centre of culture and amity,” as one of the interviewees recalls. In A Heart of Mortgaged Silver, the professor quotes Syed Asghar Wajahat’s famous words, “Jis Lahore nai dekhya, o jamyai nai.” One who has not seen Lahore has not been born. Malhotra herself falls under the spell of Lahore. Finding its streets to be full of the same history as her beloved Delhi, its monuments and old bazaars coming from the same civilisation. Through the stories she’s heard from people who’d had to leave Lahore, she begins to feel she has “…slipped through the cracks of time, existing alternatively in the Lahore of an Undivided India. That I could belong to it and it could belong to me became more and more apparent with every layer the city allowed me to peel off. Strange as it may be to think this way, it had felt like an appropriate homecoming to a place I had never been before.”
“Jullunder was his weakness. Everything was forgiven if you were from there. My nana would even send his car to Jullunder Autos in his adopted city of Multan.” Wrote Noor Qadir to Malhotra about his maternal grandfather. Going on to recount how both sets of his grandparents had migrated to Pakistan from Jullunder, and never got Jullunder out of their blood, still filled with longing for their old life and city. His grandfather, unable to believe his beloved hometown hadn’t been included in the new Pakistan, changed the suffix to his name and forever afterwards called himself Pirzada Abd-e-Saeed Jullundhuri.
The passage with which the book ends, from The Worldly Trunk of Uma Sondhi Ahmad brings Lahore, Jullunder and the Partition into a bitter-sweet meeting. Uma, who now lives in India, describes a visit back to Lahore in the 1950s, and visiting a shop to buy toiletries with her sister-in-law. When the shopkeeper learnt Uma was from the Punjab, “He stopped everything he was doing and asked me, “Thussi Punjabi ho? You are Punjabi?” Immediately telling everyone in the store not to take any money for whatever they were buying, and calling them his sisters, he leaned in and asked Uma, “Where are you from?”
“Jullunder,” I said.
“… he became absolutely motionless. His eyes welled up and he looked at me and said, “Bhenji,sister, could you not have brought a handful of soil from our homeland? Thussi mutthi-bhar mitti na ley aande?” He was longing for the land of his birth, all he wanted was a fistful of soil from it, some ghar ki mitti. It was so full of pathos, so full of poignancy. That day I realised that the aftermath of brutally partitioning an entire subcontinent could be reduced to just that one statement. A fistful of soil, mutthi-bhar mitti. Till today, how many people, on both sides of the border, have been pining for just that?”