Remnants of a Separation - A Review




As I read through the book, chapter after chapter of poignant memoirs, juggling between the text and the endnotes or references section, I am overcome with such powerful emotions of longing and loss. I am witness to a series of nostalgia, suffering, migration, and pain of so many people through this 400-page book, author Aanchal Malhotra’s careful, sensitive and emotional archiving of oral histories around The Partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 through material memory. I belong to the third generation of those who lived during this Great Divide, an event that saw the largest mass migration in human history. And what meager knowledge I had of the partition through history books, this work of non-fiction added greatly to my perspectives, through its tales from real people who had to migrate- from there place of belonging, their homeland, to a land that was considered safe according to their and was assigned to them.


I wonder, is independence even worth celebrating, considering the cost that humanity had to pay for it. The days leading to the Partition saw humanity at its worst- it was terrifying what one was capable of doing – once neighbors, near and dear ones, friends, had become enemies motivated to even kill the ‘others’, the ones that didn’t belong to their religion. The riots, the brutal killings, the vandalizing of villages, the raping of women, the terrible atrocities that the people of that time saw- it’s unimaginable. The movies, the books we read, history depicts only a fraction of it all.


I first truly thought of the partition as a huge event in the history of the country when I watched Gadar, the Hindi movie starring Sunny Deol and Amisha Patel. It had a huge impact on me as a school going tween that I was. Then Khushwant Singh’s book, ‘The Train to Pakistan’, though I don’t remember much of it, had made me quite sad. It’s tragic, the events, with ‘hope’ being the only way to survival. Then in college, during my bachelors, I had stumbled upon Pakistani series, watching which did lighten the prejudice I had for the land and heightened my curiosity manifold. I felt for the first time ever, that they are no different, and our sensibilities are so same. That brought me to a Pak series ‘Daastan’, renamed as ‘Waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam’ for premiere in Zee Zindegi. It was a story of parting, during the time of independence, a family’s struggle for survival, and the dire consequences of the riots. It broke my heart. Literally broke my heart. The inhumanity that human is capable of shook me to the core. After the 5th episode of the 24-episode series, I remember crying for the most part of it, watching with bated breath, wishing for some happiness for the characters, yet continuing watching for the curiosity to know. It’s a fictional tales based on true events from that time. Such a happy family once, torn apart by the partition; such a happy childhood lost and abandoned for safety and survival. The hurried visit to Amritsar with Anjali in December, 2018, especially that 1 hour spent at the parade in Wagah border, watching Pakistan in the horizon, realizing Lahore is just 22kms from there, and seeing the birds fly from hither to thither effortlessly, without a second thought, was surreal. Remnants of a Separation had been in my TBR list for so many years.


So many people took just their basics and tried to escape the blood bath somehow. Leaving behind their entire life’s earnings, jewelry plastered behind a wall, or in the flooring of their homes. So many people lost their grandeur, stature, identity itself. The tragic event made them start from the very scratch, with just nothing. Survival was a priority. Author’s own grandparents started from scratch and build this well-known bookshop in Delhi- The Bahrisons – a haven for book lovers- in my to-go list. Many went back after years or decades to revisit their past- those lanes of childhood, their village, the bazaars, the house itself now inhabited by someone else’s family. Some grandchildren did this visit with their grandparents to understand their roots, create a stronger bond with them for so long as they live.


As I read the epilogue, I can’t even fathom the overwhelming need to share that the author might be feeling through the years that research for this book took place. The cross-border empathy that resulted from the dialogue through The Museum of Material Memory, is deeply moving. The youth of this generation want to connect to their roots, trace their lineage, visit the land of their ancestors, and the still living first generation of the partition.


“Burial, after all, binds you to a place.” A Hindu lady wanted her ashes to be immersed in the Indus, in Pakistan, her homeland which she had left behind, instead of the Ganges as is customary for the Hindus in India. A young man migrated to Pakistan all alone, as his entire family decided to stay back, visiting India once every few years. “Home. Where is home? Is it the India you lost or the Pakistan you gained?” The culture of Phulkari- the community of women weaving patterns in a fabric, for the to-be-bride’s wedding trousseau. “Who is really from Delhi? Everyone is a refugee here! We are too.” The stories of overcrowded camps for refugees in Delhi where many stayed after immediate migration from Pakistan. “The Partition: It was too old now, too set in its character, too ingrained in history. It had carved a place for itself, and there it lived. A tangible memory.”


The several dialects, nuances of the languages that were once spoken, now are almost extinct, since the native speakers, now away from their land, no longer find the urge to keep it alive by teaching it to their grandchildren. Acquiring the language is so difficult, without the land where it was initially spoken. Like ‘Hindustani’ is still spoken, a beautiful mix of Urdu and Hindi, with perhaps a slight bit of Punjabi. “Things born from a certain land belonged to that land alone.” Samanishahi is lost, a language spoken in a place called Samana. As is Pothwari, a sweet form of Punjabi, that was once spoken in the princely state of Mirpur.


That tale of a poet who conversed with her betrothed through poetry in newspapers, since they had vowed to marry in independent India only. It was my most favorite chapter of all. And that chapter about the house full of carpets. And of the years before partition- “that was an age of integrity; people spent hours talking to one another; we had community, kinship and kindness. The modern man has gained the world but lost his soul.” And yet, now friends turned foe in an instant- “Mob mentality- there is no justifiable explanation for it. Zindegi ke saare rishte ek pal mein bhool gaye.”  And how women bore the worst brunt of it all. Some fled hiding in fields, wells, some dragged away to marriage and other pleasures. Some committed jauhar- the mass communal suicide, some were shot by their family. Some gave birth on the way but had to leave their new born amidst the bloodshed. Stories of villages destroyed, of hasty departure, running for life, of pyres of massacred dead bodies. “Would one take care of oneself or their families or their children or just try and escape the firing?” Some anecdotes in the book, I can’t revisit again. It shows the sheer despair one might have felt, the intense helplessness, to have to decide to do away with one’s one flesh and blood, to save oneself. We never know, in the face of death, we would prefer to jump or push a loved one instead, regretting it our entire lives.


“Objects help to redeem time.”
Since memory is malleable, unreliable, and intangible, but when related with a tangible object, it holds ground. And it’s heritage, even the memories. To be cherished and treasured.

“It must be the most heartbreaking thing to force yourself to forget your own past.”

“Eventually, and inevitably, one does forget. A new self grows seamlessly and quietly over the old one.”

“Time swallows the past, life folds over it. Eventually. Seamlessly.”

“Forgetting is as important as remembering. We must clear some space, let in some light. Otherwise the world would be too weighted and overcast with longing.”

“We can bear the pain only by possessing something that belongs to that instant.” - Orhan Pamuk. The pain of leaving one’s everything behind in the mass exodus, the suffering and loss of near and dear ones- these material possessions work like therapy.

“If you uproot a sapling from its natural habitat and try to transplant it elsewhere, the chances of it growing and thriving are slim.”

“The place you come from molds you into the person you become. Remember that. You must never forget where you came from, because a part of that soil stays with you forever.”

Comments

  1. Awesome writing..I don't know anyone else who can describe a 400 page book in less than 500 words, without loosing the soul of the narration. Now am curious to read the entire book..

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  2. I have watched Dastan and also read Train to Pakistan. I can relate to the outlines of your potray. Those have imprinted an impression of suffocation, heartbraking devastation. I recollect the pages describing fully loaded trains reaching destination with zero lives.
    I find it as a challenge from the History of this land, ' try and breathe'.
    That book, as I remember was your recommendation. And I can't thank you enough for introducing me to the darkness of reality.
    As of this book, the review is soul soaking. I will definitely give it a go .
    As always you are awesome dear. You are as much rooted as versatile your ink is.

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