India at 70: Generational dialogue key to healing wounds of partition, says author

Sanjay Kumar
Tue, 2017-08-15 03:00

NEW DELHI: India’s partition in 1947 came so suddenly that many had to take whatever they could lay their hands on within a few minutes.
The objects they chose to carry with them across the border into unknown territory remain an integral part of their past and their memories of their birthplaces.
In her book “Remnants of a Separation,” Aanchal Malhotra’s dialogue with her grandparents reveals a world that she was not aware of, despite living in the same house for many years.
She never knew that they brought a small piece of precious jewelry, an earthen pot, a pocket knife, a peacock-shaped bracelet and a set of kitchen utensils from Dera Ismail Khan in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province (KPK). These objects became a medium to learn about their migration and their life before partition.
“Remnants of a Separation” is a unique attempt to revisit partition via objects carried across the border.
They absorbed the memory of a time and place, remaining undisturbed for generations. They now speak of their owners’ pasts, and emerge as testaments to the struggle, sacrifice, pain and belonging at an unparalleled moment in history.
Malhotra, 27, is not a trained historian but an artist. She feels that breaking the silence is important to start the healing process in both India and Pakistan.
Her rediscovery of her own past began in 2013, when she was introduced to two objects that her family had brought from across the border.
She wanted to photograph them for her academic thesis, which she was supposed to submit for her degree in traditional printmaking and art history at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto.
She gained a new image of her grandparents when she saw them lost in the objects they were holding in their hands.
“The way they were talking and touching them, it was as if they were back in their home in Lahore,” Malhotra said.
“I’d never seen such things happening before me. It was very surprising and very serious. I thought it’s worth exploring the objects that people brought from across the border.”
For her, there was a new subject to explore: The silence that her elders were holding on to. She realized objects were not merely inanimate, but a lively history and a treasure chest of memories hidden from the world.
That one experience made Malhotra understand the importance of experience and memory. It taught her that you can find memories in very unlikely objects such as a shawl, a pen or a work of art. By exploring these seemingly mundane things, one can learn something about oneself.
The challenge was how to start a conversation with her elders about partition, which they were very sensitive about and did not want to talk about. It took her time to establish trust, but once that was done the ice was broken and emotions started flooding out. They would talk about their garden in Pakistan, their schools and old friends, among many other things.
Malhotra’s search for memory took her to Lahore, where she discovered the same attachment with the past. She says Indians who experienced partition are under no illusion that there can ever be an undivided India again, but many would like to visit their former homes; this feeling exists on both sides.
She discovered during here research in India and Pakistan that the new generation in both countries is oblivious to its past, and to its grandparents’ many emotions and memories.
She says the new generation was surprised and shocked by stories from elders that had never been heard before, as if you do not really know someone you have known your whole life.
It is difficult and emotional to start a conversation about partition with someone who was a victim of it.
Malhotra feels that the elders have made a mistake by not sharing their experiences with the new generation. The silence has created a gap that is now filled with prejudices.
She feels a sense of urgency and responsibility to narrate memories that the world needs to know about. She feels that memory needs to be nurtured with the same care one nurtures a child.
She discovered during her research that the older generation does not harbor any malice toward those from other faiths, whether Muslim, Sikh or Hindu. It is the subsequent generation that harbors malice because partition was not talked about.
Healing is impossible without dialogue, and people who experienced partition understand that it was forced on them by circumstance. If the new generation starts talking with its elders, it could be a cathartic process collectively.
• Reuters

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