In her book, Aanchal Malhotra finds that material objects have tremendous value in invoking memories, many of which have been long suppressed in the busy-ness of daily living. Her story begins with the gaz (yardstick) and ghara (metal pot shaped like the earthenware matka) at her maternal grandparents' home, older than the family patriarch, her grand-uncle, brought by his parents
at the time of Partition. She writes: "This was the first time that the importance of material memory truly dawned on me- the ability of an object or a possession to retain memory and act as stimulus for recollection. But more curious than this unexpected revelation was the context in which it had arrived. Despite the fact that I was born and raised in Delhi- a city thick with Punjabi migrants who had flocked here after the Partition from across the border- as well as that I was a descendant of migrants on both sides of my family, this desire to study the Great Divide had never been as strong in me as in that brief encounter withe the ghara and the gaz." And yet, it is when her paternal grandmother tells her how, as a young child, she was sent by her mother to ask a relative for five rupees, and was refused, shedding tears at that memory of extremely hard times, that Aanchal sits with 'a void in my heart for a memory that is not mine. In this instance, I am just a listener, a passive contributor to the vulnerable act of unfolding a painful past...........am I an intruder?'
In nineteen chapters, in interviews with people from both sides of the border, as well as with an Englishman who was born and served in India, who considered it to be his first home, Aanchal evokes memories from material objects of various kinds. The chapter titles are evocative:
The Light of a House That Stands No More: The Stone Plaque of Mian Faiz Rabbani,
Hereditary Keepers pf the Raj: The Enduring Memories of John Grigor Taylor,
Utensils for Survival: The Kitchenware of Balraj Bahri,
Gifts from a Maharaja: The Pearls of Azra Haq,
The Dialect of Stitches and Secrets: The Bagh of Hansla Chowdhury,
Stones from My Soil: The Maang-Tikka of Bhag Malhotra
and several others.
Each individual, and his or her family members, help to weave a densely detailed tapestry of the Partition. All the stories of displacement, are, of course, painful, but one of the most extraordinary is one wherein the protagonist leaves his home fearing for his life, as a massacre has taken place there, and comes back to the same area as a refugee. He receives, ultimately, the documents for the land, but never the land itself. And yet he rebuilds his life and his home, and has served his country in his own way. "We, my family and I, have done it by staying here, staying true to this land. India is my country, regardless of my religion. I live in unity with its people; I don't create disorder of initiate violence. I respect it. And so I have served it all these years in my own way."
Each story is poignant, many are uplifting. The pain of displacement is immense. Displacement by a natural calamity,is, perhaps, more easily acceptable than man-made displacements. Involuntary uprooting is immensely painful. We must remember the pain of these displacements so that we do not replicate them.And yet, sometimes, in order to keep on living, to move on, forgetting the pain of the past is also necessary. This is described with great poignancy in the nineteenth chapter.
It is a labour of love by this young author. I can only imagine how painful it was for her to hear all these first-person accounts of one of the most traumatic event of India's history.
This is a book to cherish, to read and re-read.