The inheritance of Partition
Shortlisted in 2019 for Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided
Aanchal Malhotra is an oral historian and writer from New Delhi, India. She is the co-founder of the Museum of Material Memory, and writes extensively on the 1947 Partition and its related topics. Her first book, Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided, was shortlisted for the British Academy Book Prize in 2019. Her second book, In the Language of Remembering, focuses on the long lasting, generational impact of Partition.
The year 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of the withdrawal of the British Empire from undivided India in August 1947, leading to the drawing of the Radcliffe Line between the now independent nations of India and Pakistan (which was further bifurcated into East and West, with East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh in 1971). This partition line resulted in the largest mass-migration of refugees across a man-made border, forcing Hindus and Sikhs to migrate to India and Muslims to Pakistan. Official numbers reported the displacement of approximately 14 million people and the death of a million more.
The origin of all four of my grandparents can be traced back to what is now Pakistan, and nearly a decade ago, I began speaking with eye-witnesses to know what had happened during Partition. Like many South Asians, I had inherited a history that had defined the generation of my ancestors, but for too long the politics of partitioning a subcontinent had overshadowed the individuality of the survivors, and their experiences went mostly unrecorded. In an effort to preserve the memories of a homeland left behind using the aid of migratory objects that refugees had carried with them across the border, my first book Remnants of a Separation, was published in South Asia to mark the 70th anniversary of Partition, and internationally as Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided (2019).
In the years after the book’s publication, there felt a resurgence of interest in Partition stories, particularly amongst generations untouched by its trauma. During this time, I began creating an archive of second-hand or ‘post-memory’ views of Partition, interviewing children, grandchildren and sometimes even great-grandchildren of survivors, to understand if one could feel a link to a tragedy they had not witnessed. There were numerous testimony projects working to preserve eyewitness memory, but hardly any that shed light on the descendants of Partition survivors. Yet it was important for this archive to grow as well, to understand the ways in which the consequences of Partition were disseminated and manifested. What interested me further was the passage of memory between generations – how and why were stories of an aged trauma transmitted and received? Were they offered with intention, or needed to be exhumed? Had they always been present and gone unnoticed? Did they cause pain in their retelling – both to the ancestor and the descendant? Was there any point at all in resuscitating this part of the past? This notion of historical inheritance became the heart of my second book, In the Language of Remembering (2022).
The various experiences of survivors and descendants need to be heard and recognized, acknowledged and honoured – not only by their own countrymen but also their neighbours.
Through this research, what came to light quite naturally was that the memory of Partition was bound to nation-state and post-Partition identities defined by which side of the border people found themselves on. For India, Partition had meant a loss of land; for Pakistan, it was the gaining of nationhood; and for Bangladesh, the year of their independence, 1971, held far more significance in popular memory than 1947. Since Partition, generations of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have grown up largely in isolation from one another with little opportunity for interaction, their understanding of ‘the other side’ perpetuated by state-controlled histories, popular media and the many wars fought since independence. But as my conversations touched on the history they had once shared, and the cultural and linguistic similarities that still persisted, the ghostly outline of an unpartitioned land began to take shape. Propelled by the creation of this man-made, highly militarised border, many descendants told stories about the violence their families had witnessed in 1947 and thereafter, and the anger, confusion or bitterness that still remained. But many more touched on the pain and longing that had become silent companions, on the relationships that were severed due to violent migrations, and the often unattainable desire of one day visiting the land of their ancestors – the land across the border. Through these conversations, the very word ‘Partition’ came to feel like history, memory, burden, wound, war, all at once.
For seventy-five years, we South Asians have endlessly concerned ourselves with the geopolitical consequences of this historical event, and not nearly enough with how it has registered – through remembering or forgetting – in public memory and consciousness. Partition has defined the lives of entire generations, yet we have no memorials to it, and neither do the nations impacted by it – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh – collectively observe one single day dedicated to its memory. The physical and psychological impact of Partition does not end with the generation that witnessed it – it extends into the present – but it is a subject hardly discussed outside of academia.
An interviewee once spoke to me about Truth and Reconciliation, emphasising how it is impossible to attain any sense of reconciliation without some measure of truth. But in this context, when even truth is manifold, often contradictory, and established by allegiance to nation, perhaps reconciliation must begin with the acceptance of multiple truths. The various experiences of survivors and descendants need to be heard and recognized, acknowledged and honoured – not only by their own countrymen but also their neighbours. Listening to others is perhaps the first step to building empathy towards them. And if my conversations across the subcontinent have revealed anything, it is to remember that we originated from a shared history, and we once experienced a shared pain, and thereby carry through our generations a shared loss. Knowledge of this shared past can change how we live in the present and what we hope for the future.