The Sunday Magazine

The stories objects tell: What survivors of the Partition of India took with them

The Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947 was bloody and chaotic, sending 14 million people fleeing for their lives and leaving more than a million dead. New Delhi-based artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra interviewed survivors of partition, including her own relatives, about the physical objects they took with them and the stories those objects tell.
New Delhi-based artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra interviewed survivors of Partition, including her own relatives, about the physical objects they brought with them in 1947 and the stories those objects tell. (Hurst Publishers; Aashna Malhotra)

Aanchal Malhotra says it alarms her how many languages she's learned to say the word "things" in. 

For her book Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided, the artist and oral historian interviewed survivors of the Partition of India about the physical objects they took with them as they fled in both directions. 

Objects are catalysts for remembrance.- Aanchal Malhotra

In 1947, after independence from Britain, the creation of Pakistan, and an explosion of sectarian violence,14 million people were forced to leave their homes. More than a million died. 

At first, Malhotra told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright, asking people about what they took with them felt "petty and insignificant, when compared to the mammoth trauma they might have witnessed."

"But how can you possibly sit across from somebody and be so direct as to ask, 'Tell me about your most vulnerable, dramatic memory?'" she said.

"There's no way. But [I can say], 'You took this earring with you? Oh, wow.'"

She began the interviews for her master's thesis at Concordia University in Montreal, then turned them into a book.

The stories of the objects became an entry point for talking about a larger history — one that is often obscured by silence. 

Policemen in Calcutta use tear gas bombs during communal riots in the city. The riots lasted five days. At least 2,000 people were killed and over 4,000 injured. (Keystone/Getty Images)

"For a lot of people who witnessed partition, what they saw receded into a silence within them. My own family never talked about it. The problem with that is that silence gives rise to prejudice," she said. 

"Through the course of research for this book, a lot of things that are ingrained within me, I had to shed. Because to know stories, actual stories from both sides of the border, you have to unlearn as much as is possible."

Bhag Malhotra

Malhotra interviewed some of her own relatives, including her grandmother Bhag Malhotra, who came from what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province in Pakistan. 

One of the objects she brought with her was a small foldable knife that was given to her for self-protection. As sectarian tensions escalated, and riots broke out, young girls in her community were told to always carry chili pepper to fling in the eyes of an attacker — and to always carry a knife. 

Aanchal Malhotra's grandmother Bhag Malhotra holds up a picture of her as a young woman. (Aanchal Malhotra)

"She was told that every day, you just put it in your pocket. 'You never know when you might have to use it,'" Malhotra said. "That small pocket knife was brought into India with her because she just kept it in her pocket every day."

Decades later, her grandmother used the knife to cut aloe vera at the park. 

"All objects fall from grace at one point. It was just amazing that something that was supposed to protect her is now cutting an aloe vera plant," she said. 

Her grandmother also proudly showed her a hair ornament that was brought across the border. She has now converted it into a necklace. 

Bhag Malhotra's mother brought this hair ornament across the border with her in 1947. (Aanchal Malhotra)

"[Both the knife and ornament] were carried across the border and they are physical traces of home, but they are both given very different value," said Malhotra. 

Mian Faiz Rabbani

One of her favourite chapters in the book is the story of Mian Faiz Rabbani, who grew up in Jullundur and now lives in Lahore, Pakistan. 

"He was very emotional about where he came from, so much so that 25 years after partition, he went back to Jullundur to see his house," she said. 

When he knocked on the door, a Sikh man answered. Rabbani explained he lived there before Partition. 

"This Sikh gentleman says, "Come, come in. But first, we are going to eat breakfast,'" Malhotra said.

I really felt like sometimes, this border between India and Pakistan, it is possible to dissolve it completely.- Aanchal Malhotra

The house was so large that it had been divided between three or four families. The Sikh man took Rabbani to the area where his family used to live. 

"This very old woman, the matriarch of the family, says from inside, 'I want to see this man. Call this Pakistani man inside,'" said Malhotra. Rabbani went in and sat by her bed. 

"The first thing she says [was] 'Did you reach okay to Pakistan? We heard horrible stories about people getting into a lot of problems. For many years, Pakistanis have been coming to this area to find their homes, but no one ever came here. We were waiting.'"

As Rabbani shared this story with Malhotra, he was weeping. 

"When he told me that, I really felt like sometimes, this border between India and Pakistan, it is possible to dissolve it completely," she said. 

Twenty-five years after that trip, Rabbani's niece visited India and saw the house was being demolished. She met the Sikh man her uncle spoken with, and asked permission to take the nameplate from the house. It now sits on Rabbani's shelf.

Mian Faiz Rabbani received this nameplate from his old home 50 years after he was forced to leave it behind.

"When he's showing me the nameplate, now 60-something years after partition, he says, 'I used to feel such a vacuum in my heart for where Jullundur was, but now Jullundur is here.' It brought him such a sense of hope," Malhotra said. 

Museum of Material Memory

Malhotra and a friend have since started the Museum of Material Memory, where people can submit stories and pictures of objects from the Indian subcontinent.

Aanchal Malhotra is a New Delhi-based artist and oral historian, and the founder of the Museum of Material Memory. (Aashna Malhotra)

"It's not dictated by partition in any way. It's any object of age that one wants to write about — everything from bracelets and bangles to wooden chests," she said. 

She described it as a "online, digital, borderless" museum, and said she wants it to spark conversations between people who might not otherwise meet. 

"Objects are catalysts for remembrance. But they are also really great icebreakers," she said.

"So say you have this amazing bookcase that someone from Kerala has written about and someone from Kashmir reads the idea and says, oh, you know, I have the same thing in my house.

"That is not an Indian talking to a Sri Lankan talking to a Pakistani talking to an East Indian. It's just people — devoid of nationality, ethnicity, religion — talking about objects."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. 


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