One of the undercurrents of the migration narrative is the story told by the objects of exodus, that economy of objects transformed by the trip itself—relics of a former life that are sold or hidden away; keepsakes that molder, heirlooms pored over ritually, a subtle history inherited. All of which raises the question: If forced to flee your country, what would you take with you?
In her book Remnants of Partition, Aanchal Malhotra unpacks the history of twenty-one objects—a cigarette case, a shawl, a military medal, to name a few—in order to tell the story of each owner’s path out of the convulsive 1947 Partition that separated Pakistan from India. The drawing of that border, hastily executed as the British Empire relinquished control of the subcontinent, set off a violent political rupture among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs that resulted in one million killed and fourteen million uprooted, a trauma that remains deeply embedded for many families in both countries. Following the publication of Remnants in 2019, Malhotra expanded the project online through the Museum of Material Memory, a crowdsourced “digital repository of material culture” where objects are shared and written about by the public in an effort to explore South Asian culture and history.
Born and raised in Delhi, Malhotra left India at seventeen to study printmaking in Canada—first in Toronto, then Montreal—a practice that incorporates photography, papermaking, and metal engraving, all of which she considers vital to the work that followed. “Visual-arts education is probably the most holistic way of understanding the world,” she says. “It’s an all-encompassing experience. I learned things about the humanities there. I learned how to be a person of the world when I studied engraving.”
In 2013, nearly burned out, Malhotra returned to Delhi at twenty-three for a sabbatical, expecting her graduate thesis to take shape organically. A journalist friend asked if he could interview her grandfather, who lived in the northern part of Delhi, in an ancestral house he shared with his brothers and their families, for a story on old houses—a simple enough theme. While giving Malhotra and the journalist a tour, one of the residents, her great-uncle, brought out a few artifacts as a way to talk about the history of the house and the city: photographs, bookends, the like. He showed them two objects in particular—a metal vessel and a yardstick, used to measure fabric in the old shops—that his family had brought over during Partition. “When he started talking about them,” Malhotra recalls, “he seemed transported, and to see him be transported so seamlessly—not just to his childhood, but to a country that was now on the other side of a militarized border—was beautiful. I had never seen that happen before. So that was my moment, because of these two mundane objects that had this quiet migratory history.”
Malhotra’s paternal grandparents had been refugees of Partition, spending years afterward in camps until finally settling in Delhi. But it wasn’t until that afternoon that she began to inquire more deeply about their experiences—mostly, she says, because of what she regards as a kind of learned indifference. “When I was growing up, I learned more about the Spanish Civil War and the Holocaust than I did about Partition. Textbooks basically lumped the entire event into two pages that said there was violence, there were riots, people lost everything, many died, x number of Hindus came, x number of Muslims went. I understand that you can’t put everything into a school textbook, but even so it was exceptionally reductive.”
Sensing a thesis, Malhotra began to seek out strangers with any link at all to Partition. “India is all about ‘I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone.’ And here I was, asking my grandparents if they knew anyone who’d come from Pakistan, if they’d carried anything. And that was the really bizarre question: What did you carry? Because sixty-six years had passed. If you carried something very valuable, like jewelry or money, you would remember it and you would treasure it and you would know the story of what happened. But what if you were in college and you carried only your books? Or what if you carried a small idol? Or what if you carried a prayer book? Or what if you carried a shawl? These mundane things that were like people’s companions on this journey—that’s what I wanted to find. So I began foraging.” She took rare steps to do so, navigating visa and travel restrictions in order to conduct research across the border in Pakistan, carrying over to England, where she interviewed citizens who’d lived (some born and raised) in India during the British raj, and who were forced to leave during Partition.
Utensils, bars of gold, a crocodile carcass, a sword: She discovered objects both sentimental and politically charged, ephemeral and weird and precious, all tethered to the pain and confusion and survival of one of the most extraordinary political schisms in modern history.
“There’s a big disparity between what people generally know about Partition and what people lived through,” she says. “And a lot of people who lived through that division still don’t understand what happened because, on one level, Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs did live together amicably. So to see it all unravel so quickly was terrifying for a lot of people, and they didn’t understand why they had to leave their homes, or what was happening. I don’t think that anyone expected this much violence to ensue in the way that it did, politicians included. I don’t think anyone expected this kind of unholy rush to emerge. But if you were Hindu in a Muslim-majority neighborhood, or vice versa, what would you do when you heard rumors of riots? You’d go to a safer neighborhood, and as those rumors persisted, you’d go farther, to a refugee camp, and then you would cross the border. So the whole thing was really unpredictable, which is why a lot of people are still so traumatized by it, because they really can’t reconcile what happened.”
Over the course of her research, many people across the subcontinent and throughout the Indian diaspora have reached out to Malhotra to share objects and heirlooms, far more than she could reasonably document on her own. Out of this abundance came the Museum of Material Memory, where individuals can share and connect as a way of building upon history.
“In South Asia, where the tradition of oral history is so strong it often outweighs the written archive, this was a way of building that archive. The website allows people to write stories about ancient objects in their houses—not necessarily about Partition but from any moment in South Asia’s history, and gives them the opportunity to look at something old, ask questions about it, learn of our family history and genealogy.” In doing so, she says, the project acts as a “generational equalizer.”
“In India and Pakistan, generations are really separating quite fast. There are the millennials, the parents, the grandparents, and there’s not that much conversation between us. So this is a way to attempt to connect generations. It also utilizes the object as a democratic space. If there is a story about a plate from Kashmir and someone from Sri Lanka reads it, and someone from Karachi reads it and says, Oh! I have the same plate in my house, then, you know, a Sri Lankan and an Indian and a Pakistani are speaking to one another connected by a plate!”
Seven years into this work, Malhotra remains committed to refracting both subject and theme—most recently through fiction, having completed a draft of her first novel, a family epic that spans five generations—from 1830 to 2017—and explores many of the ideas that have animated her documentarian work so far. “The Partition is a very heavy subject to work on,” she admits, “and to continually engage with it every day, one must learn to see past the narratives of political ideology and othering and shed many of the biases you may not even know you possess. I’m not going to say I’m completely successful at it, but I’m trying every day.”
— Paul Reyes