#DesiBooksReview 4: Aanchal Malhotra on Literary Lineage

Aanchal Malhotra is an oral historian, writer, and novelist from New Delhi, India. Website.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 4

Literary Lineage: Excavating a Linguistic, Physical, and Emotional Vocabulary of Partition

[Excerpted with permission from In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition by Aanchal Malhotra | HarperCollins India | May 10, 2022. Copyright © 2022 Aanchal Malhotra.]


[excerpted from the Introduction]

Dan Bar-On, the Israeli psychologist and Holocaust, conflict, and peace researcher, asserts that ‘there are “historical truths” that explain “what happened” but there are also “narrative truths” that depict “how someone tells what happened”. It is through such “intergenerational transmission” that one generation’s story can influence and shape the stories of the next generation.’

The language used to transmit such stories, the language of remembering, extends to the descendants of Partition survivors. What is important to note is that this isn’t the language used to remember the experience of Partition, but the language used to remember the recollection of the experience of Partition. It is a language removed from the original experience, and this space created by removal is occupied by the ability to reflect. Each interview in this book contributes to the construction of a generational parlance, but what I was often intrigued to find was that the intensity with which descendants described inherited stories seemed as visceral as the way these would have been described to them. Their second-hand connections to these lived traumas and histories went well beyond a surface telling into something that had become intrinsically theirs. They interwove the strands of collected memory and lived reality to present a version which drew a direct line from their ancestors’ experience to theirs, articulating it through means linguistic and gestural, practical and emotional.


[excerpted from the first chapter]

‘PARTITION WAS JUST a word for us. It never meant anything, at least not to me.’

My father, Anuj, is matter-of-fact, always has been.

‘My parents never gave me any reason to ask anything. They never called it “the other side” or “sarhad paar”, or “uss taraf”, but just the name of the city or village they had come from. Partition was not a subject discussed at home, but if they did ever talk about the past, it was with bhuaji. This is how my sisters have collected stories: from her, woman to woman. But Partition has not shaped my life in any way, except that it brought my parents to achievements that would have otherwise been unachievable. They truly never gave us a reason to ask about it, though.’

He ends this sentence in a way that makes me think he has concluded our conversation, and goes back to removing the skins off a bowl of peanuts kept before him on the table, rubbing a few together between his palms. As I watch this, it strikes me that maybe I am looking for answers where there are none. Why does Partition affect me more than it does my father – both my parents, actually. Why should a decades-old event that impacted both their parents bypass their generation altogether and find its way to me, becoming almost an obsession? I don’t have the answer yet.

‘When you started your publishing house in 2002, you commissioned a fair bit on Partition,’ I remark.

From 1978 onwards, while he was still in school, my father began working with his father at our bookshop. In 2002, along with that, he began a niche publishing house called India Research Press, which published non-fiction, primarily academic works on politics, culture, history, and socio-economic and ecological issues affecting the subcontinent. In its early years, the press produced a staggeringly large number of books on the Partition of India.

‘Yes,’ he replies coolly, ‘because that’s the time my curiosity grew. All of a sudden, everyone around me was talking about Partition.’

‘Did something happen for them to be doing that?’

He shrugs. ‘It just so happened that the kind of books that came my way were on Partition, and it was something I enjoyed working on. As simple as that.’

But it really wasn’t as simple, and so I prod further. ‘The very first book you did…’

‘Lahore 1947, edited by Ahmad Salim. Stories and essays by all the wonderful Lahoris!’ My father recounts the details of the book with ease, his eyes twinkling. ‘There was an excerpt from Fikr Taunsvi’s journal; Alys Faiz wrote about her journey from Srinagar to Lahore; B.C. Sanyal wrote about leaving Lahore; Satish Gujral wrote about Lahore burning; there were pieces by Khushwant Singh, Pran Nevile, Amrita Pritam, Jahanara Shah Nawaz. We did a lot of research for this book. I mean, it was not the kind of research you do, mine was very cursory in comparison. But I did it so that I could understand the subject of Partition better … for the purpose of the book.’

I nod and make a note. Later, as I flip through the pages of the book, I realize that the dedication is written by him as the publisher. Fairly unusual, as this beloved task is generally assumed by the author or the editor of an anthology. But perhaps given that this was his very first book, my father felt compelled to write it. The words stare up at me, and I think about how matter-of-fact our conversation was, how I grasped at the ends of something, anything emotional. My thumb caresses the page as I whisper the dedication that perhaps reveals more than anything that he says ever will: ‘To the people of India and Pakistan, for whom, in search of hope, time has remained still and memories grown deeper – Anuj Bahri, Publisher.’

‘While working on this book, then, did you feel the need to know more about your own family?’

‘Well, that is how it started.’ His tone is softer now. ‘That’s why I began recording my father, that’s how the idea of the book came into being.’

The book.

In 2002, my father was forty years old, and my grandfather was seventy-four. The next year, 2003, would be my grandfather’s seventy-fifth birthday and the fiftieth anniversary of the bookshop. My father decided that a gift befitting the occasion would be a biography of my grandfather – from Malakwal to Delhi, college student to bookseller, refugee to entrepreneur – and so he began to ask him about his life.

‘I asked where they had come from, and he wouldn’t really indulge me. He would say “we had so-and-so canals of land” or “my father was a bank manager” but nothing deeper, and certainly nothing about the actual process of migration during Partition.’

I ask why my grandfather didn’t answer any of his questions.

‘I don’t know. These things take time. You see, like us, here, you have the patience to persist on while I continue to eat peanuts throughout our conversation,’ he laughs. ‘So my father would also do similar things when I tried to have a serious conversation, and then I would get irritated and…’ He trails off.

‘Do you think it was a way of deflection?’

‘Of course, completely. He answered to an extent, but then he brushed the topic aside. So, I decided that if he wouldn’t speak to me, maybe he would speak to someone else, and I requested my editor at the time, Debbie, to interview him. And sure enough, he began talking to her, filling tape after tape with details of his life before and after Partition. He talked to her, but not to me.’

As he says this, there is no sadness or bitterness to be found in his voice. It was what it was. When I ask him if this hurt him, he scoffs.

‘Not at all, it was understandable. Because they were unpleasant memories. If it were me, I wouldn’t want to give such memories to you…’

He clears his throat and continues, ‘So Debbie would record him on these little Dictaphone tapes, and at night I would listen, transcribe, write, and then in the morning I would give her a new set of questions to ask. I think she must have spoken to him for thirty or forty days.’

‘In fact, I actually remember reading what you wrote each morning,’ my mother, Rajni, chimes in.

The thought of collaborative manuscript writing makes me smile. ‘Where are the tapes?’

My parents begin discussing whether the tapes are in some old drawer at the bookshop, or could they possibly be somewhere at home, or if the transcripts are on the computer, or if an original draft of the biography is lying somewhere. I am anxious, I need to listen to these tapes. In the months before my grandfather died, I interviewed him extensively as well. He was reluctant at first, but he gave in eventually. He softened, he relented, offering his history to me without much fuss. It was not over thirty or forty days, but I think he provided a complete history. Now, I wonder, what more will I find out from these tapes, how much more complete can a complete history be? What all do I not know? How will I feel listening to his voice again? Meanwhile, my parents have arrived at the conclusion that no one knows where the tapes are, and I am torn between regret and relief. Perhaps they will turn up when we least expect them to.

‘So … uh, when you were listening to the tapes, could you envision their journey to India?’

‘I could connect the dots, yes,’ my father says. ‘The one scene I could see before my eyes was when the traders barged into the halted train at Mandi Bahauddin station and dragged my grandfather off, keeping him in Pakistan for the next six months so that he could train new employees in the running of the bank. He used to be its manager before Partition. In that scene, I could imagine my father repeating the words animatedly, “Daryay Lal, Daryay Lal, Daryay Lal kahan hai?” When you listen to him on the tapes, you can imagine him telling the story, sitting with his arms folded and eyes closed. “Well, you know” – he would start every answer this way. You get an idea of what his feelings are through the tapes. But he never once cried during the entire recording, he wasn’t emotional. Very matter-of-fact.’

A family trait, then.

‘Did they make you see your own family differently?’

‘No, it was just history – someone having lived their life and then recreating it through memory.’

‘But it did make you understand their adversity once in India,’ my mother says to my father, ‘Like how mataji had to sell her bangles so that he could buy the Khan Market shop, or all the odd jobs he was forced to do at the beginning just so they could survive. When I was reading the manuscript, I certainly thought about these things. I would get torn up reading what you wrote; I’d never thought about them before.’

‘It was the situation they were in, Rajni, it was the circumstance, and what they could do to make it better. What I do remember clearly from the tapes was the section about the food they cooked in the communal kitchen at the camp. How they would celebrate when there was more than one dish made, maybe a dal and vegetables on a special occasion.’

‘I don’t remember that section being very long in the book,’ I say, wrinkling my eyebrows.

‘It was condensed to a paragraph or two, but in the tapes, it was a long-drawn-out section. My father elaborated on this quite a bit: how every day his mother would speak to the family over food. It made emotional sense to me. That no matter what is available, the woman actually has a way of satisfying everybody in the family, how she elevates even that meager meal to the status of a feast. She convinces everybody that, “Look, this is what we have today, maybe tomorrow will be better. Not maybe, tomorrow will be better.” It’s always the woman, you must understand. A woman works very hard and has great power to keep the family together. Post-Partition, it was women who kept the family structure intact. It is an important part of womanhood; men just don’t have it.’

I bite my lip, wishing these parts had been in the book.

Bahrisons: Chronicle of a Bookshop was ultimately published as a rather slim book, one hundred and seven pages. It was presented to my grandfather on his seventy-fifth birthday in October 2003 at a big event on the lawns of the Ambassador hotel. Mrs Sheila Dixit, the chief minister of Delhi at the time, released the book. The night was alive with the songs of qawwali-wallahs, and my grandfather was incredibly pleased. A life had been deservingly commemorated. But my father tells me that the original manuscript was nearly four or five hundred pages and then they cut it down as per editorial suggestions. More general, more impersonal. When I ask him why, he is quick to admit that it was bad judgment, for it became very distanced. He didn’t think at the time that people would be drawn to such a personal biography or memoir.

‘In hindsight, I think I was wrong. It is these very personal, nuanced details that build the landscape of Partition. I should find those tapes and rewrite it. Maybe I can do it again. Maybe you can?’

My final question to my father is less a question and more a confirmation.

‘Do you have any regrets that your father chose not to speak to you about Partition, and spoke to Debbie instead?’ This question is more personal than any other, because I wonder now how I would feel if all the family members I had interviewed for my work over the years had preferred speaking to a scholar or a stranger.

‘No, he wouldn’t talk to me. How can I regret something I can’t help?’

‘You don’t speak to your children about these things, though,’ my mother offers, ‘because, well, I’ve never asked my parents anything about Lahore either…’

‘And, Aanchal,’ my father adds, ‘have you ever asked me about my childhood?’

‘Well, no…’ I reply in a small voice. Perhaps they have a point.

‘I think there is an intrigue about your grandparents that your parents don’t possess.’ My mother is thinking out loud. ‘I don’t know if we consider our roots to begin from our parents. We always want them to go further back into our ancestry – grandparents, great-grandparents…’

When I ask my parents what they say if someone asks where they are from, they both agree that where you are born is where you are from. By that standard, my father is from Delhi and my mother is from Toronto, even though his parents are from D.I. Khan and Malakwal, and hers are from Lahore and Amritsar. So why do I feel conflicted about where I am from? This is a vast question, and I am daunted by this sense of belonging to several places at once, places on this side and that side of the Radcliffe Line, places that I was born and grew up in, places my grandparents were born in and fled from. I feel as though I am casting a very large, very fragile net across the expanse of my ancestry, claiming several places as my own.

[Excerpted with permission from In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition by Aanchal Malhotra | HarperCollins India | May 10, 2022. Copyright © 2022 Aanchal Malhotra.]

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Aanchal Malhotra is an oral historian, writer, and novelist from New Delhi, India. Website.

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