Remnants of a Separation: Revisiting Partition through objects migrants carried across the border

Aanchal Malhotra's new book, Remnants of a Separation (published by HarperCollins India) is a unique attempt to revisit the Partition through such objects carried across the border

Aanchal Malhotra August 15, 2017 15:12:10 IST
Remnants of a Separation: Revisiting Partition through objects migrants carried across the border

Editor's note: Seventy years have passed since the Partition, and a landmark event now recedes in memory. Generations have grown up untouched by the horrors of the communal killings and mass displacement that shaped the contemporary history of the subcontinent.

The Partition had meant little to artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra too — until she encountered objects that had once belonged to her family in an Undivided India. A gaz, a ghara, a maang-tikka, a pocketknife, a peacock-shaped bracelet, and a set of kitchen utensils: these were what accompanied her great-grandparents as they fled their homes, and through them she learnt of their migration and life before the Divide.

This further led her on a search for the belongings of other migrants to discover the stories hidden in them. Her new book, Remnants of a Separation (published by HarperCollins India) is a unique attempt to revisit the Partition through such objects carried across the border.

The following is an excerpt from a chapter titled 'The Guru Granth Sahib of Sumitra Kapur': 


...The mention of the popular hill station brought her to the summer of 1947.

‘I was around eighteen. It was May, our exams had gotten over and we were travelling to Shimla for a few months, away from the heat and humidity of Rawalpindi,’ she said. ‘Keep in mind, Partition had not yet happened and we thought we were just going for our summer holidays, so all we had brought were some nice clothes and light sweaters for the cool mountain air. My mother packed some jewellery to go with her more fancy outfits, but for the most part we had nothing of value.’

I hung on to her every word as she narrated her specific memory of the events of that year. In the course of writing this book, I had become privy to the experiences of many relating to the Partition, and each one had captivated me. Each story dug a little deeper towards the epicentre, each memory unearthed a new perspective. I had often imagined the Partition as a ball of yarn, held together tightly by the lives of the various people it affected, unravelling ever so slightly with the narration of each experience. Every act of violence, every village destroyed, every hasty departure and every life saved helped me make sense of the cataclysmic event.

‘For the most part, I suppose we were lucky,’ she spoke softly. ‘We made it out alive even before any of the violence began. But yes, we only had clothes with us. You see, we went there thinking we would spend a few months and return. In the meantime, the country was divided. And we were stranded in India — although at the time we thought it was only temporary. No one really believed that we would never be able to go back to Rawalpindi.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘We loved our city, our neighbourhood. We were born and brought up on that land, so what if it now had a new name? We just figured we would now live in this country called Pakistan. I remember our father saying over and over at the time, “Hum wapas jayenge, we will go back, of course we will. Let this violence die down and then we will return.” He said it with such conviction too — not a shred of doubt in his voice, which of course was reason enough for the rest of us not to worry. We did not mind living among Muslims, it made no difference to us. We had lived among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs our whole lives without ever acknowledging the difference. But going back…that was the only thing that made sense, for that was our home.’

Remnants of a Separation Revisiting Partition through objects migrants carried across the border

(L) Aanchal Malhotra; (R) cover of Remnants of a Separation. Images courtesy HarperCollins India

After a moment, she added, ‘You do understand what I’m trying to say, right? Home. Humari mitti, our land. That was the only place we knew as our own.’ I nodded. I did understand. The borders were meant to be open so that citizens could roam freely between countries, at least initially. The general understanding was that even if people found themselves in a country that did not recognise theirs as the majority religion, they could continue to stay if they so desired. It seemed the most natural thing. No one anticipated the onslaught of violence that followed, forcing people to change their citizenship so abruptly.

‘Home for us became Shimla, then. We stayed for a while with our sister and then moved to a rented flat,’ she said, stressing on the word ‘rented’. ‘My parents lived in that house until they died. They always said, “Sab kuch toh chhod aye, we left everything behind in Rawalpindi. We will not buy any more property. Neither do we feel the need, nor do we have the means.” The jewellery our mother had brought with her was sold, and with that money we completed our education. Otherwise, there was not really a source of income for us, except my sister who continued to work as a tutor. Although, I don’t think that mattered much; money was never too important for us as long as we were able to survive. We were all together, alive and educated. So, for the most part, the atmosphere in our house at the time was surprisingly positive despite all that was happening in the country.’

‘So how was it that you found out that the country had been partitioned?’ I asked.

‘Yes, yes, I will tell you. You see, we were in Mashobra in a compound privately owned by the maharaja, so we were safe. We did not experience the violence that the people of Shimla did. If riots broke out there, we were not witness to them, which is why I said we were lucky. We actually found out that the Partition had happened in the most mundane of ways. Every week, vendors would come from Shimla to Mashobra to sell their fresh fruits and vegetables. When they stopped at the estate that week, they informed us that the country had been divided! “Batwara ho gaya,” they told us casually. Imagine that, we didn’t even have a radio!’

I gave her a surprised smile and she giggled in return.

‘I know, it sounds strange to think of it this way now — such important news being delivered by the fruit and vegetable-walla. But that is how it was during those days. In fact, when Gandhi-ji was assassinated in 1948, we did not come to know of it until our postman told us: “Aaj ki khabar hai, it’s today’s news, Gandhi-ji has been assassinated!” The postmen often spread news like this since they went door to door.’

Her voice dropped to a whisper: ‘I remember running to my mother with the news, “Biji, biji, the postman said Gandhi-ji ko maar diya, they have killed him.” I had no idea who “they” were. All I knew was that on hearing the news, my mother’s eyes immediately welled up. I will never forget how sad she was that day.’

She fell silent, and my attention turned to the holy book sitting before her. With her fingers delicately grazing its frail pages, she spoke. ‘A neighbour of ours from Rawalpindi had also moved to India a few weeks before the Partition took place — to Dilli, I think. But in August 1947 he travelled to Shimla, looking for us. I can still picture him sitting in the majestic living room of the maharaja’s guest cottage, sipping chai from dainty cups. The kids had sat on the ground and the adults on the sofas, and with a note of steadfast determination he had said to my mother, “Biji, mein wapas ja raha hoon, I am going back to Rawalpindi. I must go. I had kept some money safe in the walls of my house before I left – ten thousand rupees, hidden even from my servants, and now I need that money to start a new life here. I must go back.” ‘In those days, ten thousand rupees was a lot of money, you see! The reason why he came to us all the way from Dilli was to know whether we wanted him to bring anything from our house in Rawalpindi. The gesture warmed her deeply, and she looked at him and said, “Babaji, only Babaji.” She wanted nothing else.’

Also read: The story of India's Partition is being told, one heartbreaking object at a time

With one dainty hand, she patted the Guru Granth Sahib before her. ‘He was a handsome man — broad-shouldered, tall, fair, really gora chitta and looked like a typical Pathan. In those days, everyone wore a turban, so it was hard to tell at times whether a man was Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. So, in September 1947, Roshan Lal Khanna changed his name to Roshan Din and travelled across the border to our birthplace. He went to his home, found his money still hidden in the wall and packed it safely in his luggage. Then he went to our house and found that a Muslim family now lived in it. Explaining the situation to them, he asked if there was any chance the holy book had survived the Partition. The family welcomed him in and led him to the back room that had once served as our prayer room. Before we left, we had locked the book — Guru Babaji, as my mother called it — in a small trunk, as we always did when we were leaving the house for a long period of time. Roshan Lal opened the door to the prayer room and found the trunk still locked, the room completely untouched by time or the communal violence outside. The family was happy to give him the book; they were very decent people. Along with that he took an old table clock — the antique kind that rang every half hour. “Bauji ki nishani,” he said, a memento for my father. It was made in America, and the year engraved on its back was 1874, I still remember. So he packed the small trunk and the clock in his suitcase and brought it back to us!’

‘How come that was the only thing she asked for? Was your family Sikh?’ I asked.

‘No beta, we were Hindu. But before the Partition, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim…how did it matter?’ she shrugged. ‘Everyone mixed with each other and visited the mandir, gurudwara and masjid without any problems. Those were our values, our sanskar. I also think that since my mother was an orphan, whoever took care of her as a child might have taken her to the gurudwara, so she really believed in the teachings of the faith. And her friend Behen Ram-ji was definitely a Sikhni, and my mother was quite influenced by her as well. Biji had always been in the habit of going to the gurudwara as well as reading the Guru Granth Sahib at home; she had been able to read the Gurmukhi language since childhood. So when Roshan Lal asked her what she wanted, this book was all she asked for. When he came back to Shimla to return the book, we asked him about the house and the neighbourhood – what had happened, what still survived and what all was lost.’

I looked at her expectantly.

‘I think what my father had wanted to hear was that things weren’t as bad, that what we had heard over the past few weeks from fruitwallas and postmen wasn’t true of Rawalpindi, that life had remained the same. He had longed to hear that somehow his Pindi was frozen in a pre-Partition time.’

‘But that wasn’t the case, was it?’

‘No. In fact, it was a miracle he was able to slip past the authorities and travel back unnoticed. He told us that all the old Hindu and Sikh families in the neighbourhood had disappeared completely. He told us about the new occupants of our home. Then he mentioned something that none of us had known, told to him by a man on the journey back to India. Earlier that year, parts of Rawalpindi, especially the areas around Tehsil Kahuta, had witnessed the worst kind of communal riots between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. What he described was horrifying, yet at the same time all of us were thankful to have been completely unaware of and unharmed by atrocities that had occurred so close to our home.’

A long silence enveloped the room, and hesitantly I broke it: ‘So did you ever miss your life in Pindi then?’

‘Oh yes, very often. What I missed was our standard of living. My father was a retired railway official and so we had quite a comfortable life. We often thought about our house and all the musical instruments there. And although we continued to play music in Shimla, it was not the same. I missed singing in the mandirs and gurudwaras. I missed that pedal harmonium. But still I was glad we continued to play because it was important to us. It not only took our minds off the fact that we could never go home, but also brought us all closer.’

She smiled. ‘My mother missed visiting the gurudwara in our neighbourhood in Rawalpindi. She soon got Babaji, which made it better, but it was still not the same, you know. Home is home.’

‘And how did the book come to you?’

‘When my mother died, the book actually went to my eldest sister — she lives in north Delhi — because they have a prayer room in their house. After a while she told me, “I don’t read it often but I know you are very fond of it so you should keep it.” It’s been many, many years that the book is with me now. I have been in the habit of reading Babaji since childhood. I have been seeing this book in my home since I was four or five years old. We didn’t get breakfast without praying to it first. It was routine: wake up, get ready, pay your respects and say your prayer, and only then would you get your breakfast and milk and go to school.’

‘Then perhaps it was just always meant to find a place in your home.’

‘Yes, I think so too. Old things, the remains of our life in Rawalpindi, they hold our history…’ she began, looking at the type, reading out the information about the book’s publication. It was all in the Gurmukhi script, but she read it effortlessly. Turning the pages, she exclaimed, ‘Oho! I thought this was the year of publication! But no, this is just the address of the publisher! It must be somewhere over eighty years old now because the pages — come here, look at them — they are so delicate, they have become thin and frail over the years. When you touch them, you can feel their age.’

Excerpted with permission of HarperCollins India from Aanchal Malhotra's Remnants of a Separation

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