She Chronicles Memories of Partition to Show the Humanity of the “Other Side”

While doing her Master’s in studio art from Concordia University, Montréal, Canada, Aanchal Malhotra took a break to return to her hometown, as she had “no idea what to do for her thesis.”

While in Delhi, where her family runs the 65-year-old Bahrisons chain of bookstores, she happened to come across two objects that a family had carried across the border during the Partition. Simply talking about those items transported their owner to a different time, recalls Aanchal, who wondered, “If one person has this reaction to the past, what about the others?”

And so began her personal exploration of memories. “I found it interesting how no one had ever studied migratory objects,” says the alumna of OCAD University, Toronto. “So I decided to do my thesis on objects of the Partition.”

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Aanchal at her studio in Montréal, Canada (Photo: Aashna Malhotra)

It was a one-woman show. Aanchal did the research, photography, interviews, translating and writing all by herself. “You have to become a kind of ethnographer for something like this,” says the 28-year-old. “You have to learn to deftly extract memories, which are sometimes painful. You have to learn to ask personal questions respectfully.”

Aanchal’s own family had crossed over to India during the Partition. And yet she admits she is one of the rare young breed who is showing an interest in this slice of history. “I was tired of being from the generation that is slowly forgetting the past,” she says, acknowledging that the study of history has so far mostly been dominated by older researchers.

“But this kind of work ages you beyond your years,” says the bright-eyed Aanchal, who – having travelled across India, and to Lahore and Karachi in the course of her research – feels she has seen a glimpse of the other side and come to the realization that we’re all the same.

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 Aanchal putting the final touches on her presentation at the Galérie FoFA, Concordia University, Montréal (Photo: Rajni Malhotra)

“I hope my work will be the starting point for cross-border conversations,” she says. “It may be a naïve way to look at it, but the truth is, we share a common history, and the people who remember the time of undivided India are not going to be around much longer.”

Aanchal began working on her thesis project, ‘Remnants of a Separation’, in 2013 under the guidance of Canadian photographer Raymonde April. She presented it in 2015 at Concordia University’s Galérie FoFA, having designed the viewing area as a 120-foot long, 10-foot wide gallery with a glass on one side to create a sense of “walking along a border and surveillance from the outside”.

Visual arts theses are usually light on text, but Aanchal’s was 25 pages long. “I wanted to provide a context,” says Aanchal, who also works as an editor in her family’s literary agency, Red Ink. Her thesis was expanded on and published as a book in 2017, and has been very positively received across the subcontinent.

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Aanchal signing copies of her book at Bahrisons (Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi)

Having grown up surrounded by books and authors, Aanchal has the knowledge of a librarian, and – unlike her grandfather, the founder of Bahrisons, who famously never read the books he sold, but simply understood his customers very well – she is monstrously well-read.

Deeply appreciative of literature such as Anuradha Roy’s Atlas of Impossible Longing, and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, Aanchal believes “all fiction is some sort of non-fiction”. “You’re creating a whole new world, putting together pieces of reality,” she says.

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The cover of Aanchal’s book Remnants of a Separation features a photo of her grandmother Bhag Malhotra wearing the maang tikka her own mother had carried with her from NWFP to Delhi in 1947

Meanwhile, her study of the objects of Partition continues online on ‘The Hiatus Project’. “The younger generation is only informed through text books. But we have to publish these personal stories of people, which make them more humane, especially the stories collected from the other side,” she says. “It’s our duty.”

First published in the June 2018 issue of eShe magazine