How does one remember one’s past – a past marked by bloodshed and the burning down of one’s ancestral home, violent riots and carnage during one of the largest forced migrations of the 20th century?
The Partition of British India took place in 1947, ending over 89 years under the British Raj (1848 to 1947), dividing the subcontinent into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. In order to make an “impartial” decision, the task was handed over to the English barrister Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a man who had never even been to India, and who was given just five weeks to demarcate the boundary that would be known as the Radcliffe Line. Over a million people died and 15 million were displaced in the violence that ensued which included arson attacks, looting, and the rape, disfigurement and dismemberment of around 75,000 women.
Survivors of the Partition had to contend with the possibility that they would never be able to visit their homeland again. They had to start a new life in a new country, leaving all that was once familiar behind.
Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra’s grandfather was forced to migrate from Malakwal, Pakistan to Delhi as a refugee. His mother offered him her gold bangles to sell, which he did to buy the premises that today house the iconic Bahrisons Booksellers in New Delhi, established in 1953.
In her new book, In The Language of Remembering, Malhotra has documented the legacy of the Partition and the ways in which it continues to affect the children and even grandchildren of Partition survivors.
“There is no one way to tell a Partition story. Similarly, there is no one way to inherit it,” Malhotra told VICE of the ambitious project for which she conducted over 130 interviews from 2013 to 2021 with Partition survivors and their kin.
The children and grandchildren of survivors would sometimes sit in on interviews. At times, they knew a lot, filling in gaps when survivors forgot details either because of the passage of time or because the memories were too traumatic to relive.
“In these multi-generational conversations, a new kind of language of the past would emerge, a language I shared with my grandparents, too,” Malhotra said. “In those moments, I felt like there was finally a vocabulary for inter-generational memories which, in the context of South Asian families, is often hard because we don’t want to talk about things that are difficult. What I observed was a passage of memory.”
Malhotra realised that many questions emerged from such conversations. How are memories of Partition that have been suppressed for so long actually passed on? Do they even deserve to be passed on? How are they received by the subsequent generations? Are there more questions that emerge? Are these memories passed on in part and do the younger generations discover other parts later on?
“My mother once said quite prophetically that there was an intrigue about one’s grandparents that one’s parents didn’t possess; that we often didn’t consider our roots to begin from our parents, but wanted to go further back into our ancestry, to our grandparents and even great-grandparents. I sometimes think my grandparents find it unusual – my obsession with this tumultuous period of Partition – they always wonder why I keep asking them questions.”
Malhotra would soon discover that she was not alone in the pursuit of understanding the legacy of Partition. When she came out with her first book, Remnants of Partition which documented the material history of Partition through objects from the past published in 2017, she was surprised by the number of young people who reached out to her to make sense of their past, to understand it better.
“We are all interested in a history whose outcome we cannot change. In the present generation, due to the distance from the site of memory, there can be a certain romanticism and nostalgia attached to the past,” she said. “There is an aspect of longing from the ancestor that may translate into a feeling of helplessness in the descendants, bound by the confines of the border.”
The search for the perennially inaccessible, almost mythical village on the other side of the politically fraught border is an endless one. The process of getting a visa to Pakistan from India or vice versa remains a high mountain to climb, considering the sour political and military relations between the neighbours. However, Malhotra did manage to get a visa to Pakistan.
“In Pakistan, I visited the neighbourhood of Shah-Almi Gate, inside the walled city, where my maternal grandmother was from, once a Hindu and Sikh stronghold,” she said. “I knew for a fact that the neighbourhood had been completely burnt down in June 1947 and that nothing of their old life remained. There were no traces of Partition and yet my feet took me there.”
Malhotra recounted how her grandmother’s sister had told her that they had a four-storey house in the area. Even though she knew that nothing existed from that time, she still kept wandering the streets in search of a fragment of the past.
“The locals asked if I was from India and if I was searching for our old family home because it was so evident from my face,” she said. “Similarly, many of us know that our homes no longer exist, but there is a longing to be at one with the place.”
Does the concept of intergenerational or transgenerational trauma factor in the legacy of Partition too? What about the concept that trauma can be passed down the ages by genetics and behavioural traits? Malhotra said that she prefers the term “intergenerational memory” to “intergenerational trauma,” as far as Partition is considered because not everyone considers trauma to be their legacy.
“For many, their post-partition story is one of hope and resilience, and their descendants might have inherited those traits – how Partition survivors rebuilt their lives despite all the difficulties they went through,” she said. “So while there remains an enormity of trauma, I prefer not using it as a blanket term for all post-partition experiences.”
Malhotra mentioned the story of a woman whose mother packed corn kernels into her clothes so that she would have something to eat when she migrated to India, later hiding them under her train seat. Unfortunately, the corn was scattered all over the floor, which made an already difficult journey almost unbearable.
“Many interviewees made mention of the fact that their grandparents hoarded food or other items. There are also stories of grandchildren who have seen their grandparents sleep with knives under their pillows, perhaps stemming from a survival instinct developed during the days of Partition. In these circumstances, it is difficult to broach the subject of Partition, to provide it with a vocabulary and intergenerational understanding, for many survivors choose to practice silence,” said Malhotra.
One of the biggest fallouts of Partition, also manifests in the othering of certain communities. In certain instances, a Muslim family in India might be grateful for their Hindu neighbours who might have saved them from a rioting mob. In other cases, the hatred for the community that burned their house down takes root, spanning generations, and spilling over into active hatred and discriminatory beliefs.
How do you stand up against your grandparents who might have their reasons for detesting a community based on their brutal Partition experience?
“We also have stories of Partition survivors who have broken that pattern,” she said. “An interview about Partition can often be a complex, even contradictory, one in which stories of violence and brutality coexist with stories of harmony and peace. They might say Muslims were killing us, but our Muslim neighbours saved us. Or the Hindus who burnt our house were from a different village, not the ones we had grown up alongside.”
Malhotra says that the scars of Partition are passed down to younger generations. In one of her interviews in the book, Malhotra came across a young woman whose entire family is against Muslims because most of her family perished in the riots.
“She told me that the anger of 75 years ago cannot determine our relationships in the present or the future, and even though she may have inherited hate as an heirloom, stemming from the brutality that her family witnessed first-hand during the riots, she will not pass it on. It [has to] start somewhere – it starts with one person standing up against hate, which has been normalised.”