Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory

Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory

Stories of Partition told through the objects that the displaced persons carried across the border in 1947

OT Staff
May 20 , 2018
02 Min Read

Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation recounts individual oral histories of the Partition through the objects that the displaced persons carried across the border in 1947. While every person interviewed has their own struggles and stories, they’re unanimous over their disbelief at the events that transpired back then.

A ghara


The book begins with the accidental discoveries that led to the conception of the project, a ghara (metallic vessel) and a gaz (yardstick) found in the author’s grandfather’s house while chasing an entirely different story. For a descendant of migrants on both sides of her family, the epiphany, in retrospect, seems obvious, but her execution of the idea is breathtakingly poignant. The book doesn’t merely record material memories; the objects are vessels of time-travel that take their possessors back—at first reluctantly and then with a nostalgic fervour—to a period of their lives that has receded to the remotest recesses of their minds. The prose is exquisite and so rich in imagery that the fragile textures of these ageing souvenirs are almost palpable. The photographs retain the softness of age.

A khaas daan

Initially intended as material for her MFA dissertation, the author realised the story was incomplete as long as it was from one side of the border. She travelled to Pakistan to find people who had migrated the opposite way. Lahore replaced Delhi effortlessly in her heart—it felt like a “homecoming to a place I had never been to before”. One might assume most migrants would have snatched up just the bare necessities to take with them. But Aanchal discovers that objects of sentimental value often took precedence over essentials. For some, objects of everyday utility gradually acquired an unparalleled worth over the years. For Narjis Khatun in Lahore, a bronze khaas daan and a silver paan daan from her bridal trousseau represent the tehzeeb and opulence she left behind in Patiala. For Hansla Chowdhary, the phulkari in a bagh, made by her great-grandmother and brought to Delhi from Rawalpindi by her grandmother, speaks “the dialect of stitches, silken threads and customs” passed on between women in her family. For the poet Prabhjot Kaur, her diaries and poems unearth her nationalistic and romantic selves among others she has forgotten over the years. For the 94-year-old Englishman, John Grigor Taylor, photographs of his parents’ time in India serve as a window into an increasingly blurry “first home”.

In these tense conversations, Aanchal also discovers some intangibles carried across inadvertently. Like the Samanishahi dialect, which blends the coarseness of Hindi with the poetic softness of Urdu. A language that the author did not even know existed but somehow understood because of her own roots. In a way, this book then becomes a personal journey to an Undivided India for both, author and reader. A homecoming to a place we haven’t been to before.

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