by Muskaan Grover
Growing up, I heard my paternal great-grandfather time and again reiterate stories from his life pre-partition, during partition, and what followed post-partition tracing our family’s roots to Gujranwala in the Punjab province of what is now Pakistan. We were sahukars (moneylenders) or so I was told, owning acres of land, living in a big haveli. I remember being told about people using the barter system even when money was in rotation, how our family was the first to own a bicycle in the village capturing the attention of all, how even though being Hindu-Punjabi’s, we had the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy Sikh scripture) at home with the daily religious rituals starting as early as 2 am.
When partition struck, the entire family, unbeknownst of what lay ahead for them, set out for Delhi, carrying with them a few clothes huddled in a bundle along with some cash and a lot of strength, willpower, and hope of building back all that was lost from scratch. On reaching the city they captured a flat left abandoned by a Muslim family near Inderlok, surviving mainly by selling Kohlapuri juttis on the sidewalks of Janpath and Connaught Place for years, eventually climbing up the social ladder and emerging to be pioneers in that trade.
It was the urge to make more sense of my family’s history, a hunger for some closure, a need to be a part of a collective, and to source more insights on ‘the other side’ that pushed me to pick up Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra a memoir of 21 lives who lived through partition, narrated with the use of material objects. Each memoir transported me into the room where the interview took place as an intruding observer, now privy to not only sweet, beautiful but also the gravest of memories that were perhaps locked in, not thought of, not talked about for the longest of times. These memories of belonging and longing made me feel uncomfortable, then comfortable to uncomfortable again with inexplicable polarised emotions coursing through my being.
Reading the book awakened me to recognize the emotionlessness in my great grandfathers’ narrations as though what he recalled wasn’t a life he once led- but a story, a piece of fiction distant from today’s reality. It made me cognizant of the curtain that was pulled over the gory details in an attempt to protect me, and uncurtaining them was not just an option anymore.
Objects act as catalysts. They are tangible doorways to the past, mirrors reflecting moments long forgotten, uncovering memories that were lost to time. They are like glasses, you think you don’t need them but when you put them on you can see even more clearly, the green dancing blobs are in fact leaves.
The objects in the book were a gateway to the partition era, an opening door to the memories of lives in undivided and then divided India of the individuals interviewed. A particular chapter ‘The Guru Granth Sahib of Sumitra Kapur’ reads of how post-partition Kapur’s family was able to visit their former home in Pakistan and were lucky enough to carry their Granth Sahib across the border to their new home. This chapter evoked in me a spiral of innumerable questions about my family’s Granth Sahib, about the fate it would have met, about what it would have been like only if my family would have been able to carry it with them, would I have valued it as much as I value the idea and the longing for it so on and so forth.
I am a hoarder, from train and museum tickets to anchoring scripts from college I keep them all tucked in my drawer, and naturally so, post this read I was rummaging around, pestering my family for a tangible object to overwhelm myself with. My mother gave a lot of attention and thought to my obsession. She pulled out a notebook from around 22 years back in which she had noted down a prayer her nani (maternal grandmother) used to recite, the same one she grew up reciting. A few days later, someone sent a voice recording of my mothers’ nani reciting the prayer, calling it serendipitous.
A question that kept hammering my head post my reading was to what extent can one rely on memory, the answer to which I found in Amit Verma’s podcast The Seen And The Unseen where Malhotra goes on to say “…sometimes you need to see things to believe in them, sometimes you need to believe in things to see them.”
For years at length, it has been the decisions by a handful of power-holding individuals taken to satiate their own interests that have been the hallmarks of war, clashes, chaotic insanity that affect the common man, uprooting their lives for them to never be the same again.
Raghu Karnad said in his book The Farthest Field: “People have two deaths: the first at the end of their lives, when they go away, and the second at the end of the memory of their lives when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits the world completely.”
It is only through books like Remnants and continuous conversations around history, both personal and political, that we understand how an artificial line ‘the border’ does not make us any different from each other. It is through communal belonging, that answers to questions that loom over us like dark clouds concerning who we were, what makes us, will always be present to overwhelm us and humble us like a bright sunny soulful day.