Women’s Day 2023 Aanchal Malhotra: History-writing can no longer be male dominated
As India celebrates 75 years of its independence, writer Aanchal Malhotra continues to narrate history through her words. Basking in the success of her latest work — The Book of Everlasting Things — she shares what it takes to make the female voice heard in the past, present and future.
In a world where the word his-tory defines the past, author Aanchal Malhotra has unearthed tales of the Partition with her words. As the first Indian woman to record oral history and material memory of the Partition, this 33-year-old writer and co-founder of the Museum of Material Memory — a crowd-sourced digital repository tracing family histories and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and antiques from the Indian subcontinent — knows hows to stay sensitive and true to human emotions through her words.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q. As the first Indian woman of your generation to have recorded the oral histories and material culture of Partition, did you feel a sense of responsibility when you first sat down to write and narrate the personal tales? How do you deal with the thought of staying unbiased while doing justice to the readers’ expectations?
From the very first interview, I think the most overwhelming feeling was a sense of responsibility. Our conversations became a space where people often said things for the first time – by making use of the migratory object as a catalyst, they discussed what had happened to them and their families decades ago; they reminisced about lost friendships and loves, homes and landscapes; they mourned, ruminated and unburdened. I felt an innate sense of duty to take care of these emotions, to do justice to them and render them in the manner that they had been told to me. Also, the difference in age between me and my interviewees was not lost on me – through these stories, I was trying to bridge a gap between generations, understand through these varied experiences what impact an ancestor’s past had on a descendants’ present.
Q. From the Remnants of Separation/Partition to The Book of Everlasting Things, what’s the one challenge that has so far stayed a constant in your journey? Do you feel you can ever overcome it?
Perhaps it is the need to challenge my own self through my writing, whether it be through methodology or subject-matter, across the many years that a book takes from inception to completion. From my first book to my third, from non-fiction to fiction, I have attempted to approach the larger subject of Partition through a lens of newer investigation, to study it via a manifold of memory-keeping devices and elucidate how there is no singular way to remember this past. With each project, as I moved further away from the nucleus of Partition memory — first with survivors, then with descendants, and lastly with fiction — newer challenges were born that had to be overcome through creative means.
Q. What was that moment in your life when you saw yourself as a powerful voice, which was an influencer and could bring a positive change in the society, and made you feel like a changemaker?
It would have to be when I saw the impact of these stories on the generations who had not lived through Partition. At the 70th anniversary, there was a visible resurgence of interest in Partition literature and the excavation of its memories, which cannot entirely be attributed to me, but I do realize that Remnants of a Separation played a role in this, alongside books like Pakistani oral historian Anam Zakaria’s Footsteps of Partition and UK-based oral historian Kavita Puri’s Partition Voices. This work awakened a curiosity in children and grandchildren who were decades removed from the trauma, inspired them to begin approaching older family members, asking questions that surpassed the fortified borderland, looking for homes on the other side, trying to understand notions of identity, belonging and origin. I am of the firm belief that these eye-witness accounts of Partition and their generational interventions are what will help us to work towards reconciliation in the South-Asian region in the future, and I am proud to have contributed to the creation of this lived archive.
Q. It has been 75 years to Indian’s independence, and in today’s day and age you are a young woman trying to unearth the potent past that lies in history that was written most often with a male perspective. Do you feel a female perspective adds to your voice?
The image of the historian in public consciousness has long been male and older. But history writing and commentary can no longer be a male-dominated exercise, nor can the historian be typecast to a single age bracket. I cannot say if my being a woman or being younger helped in the fieldwork that I conducted, but with the consciousness that Partition was a gendered event, and that the history of women could not be written in the same manner as the history of men, I wanted my conversations to be more inclusive and intimate, sometimes about the things that could not be said in verbal language, and often about the lived realities, intimacies and inequalities of the personal, than the vague, broader generalities of the politics of the time.
Q. You’ve recently received the 2022 Council for Museum Anthropology (CMA) Book Award for your work, Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent Divided. How important are such awards in the journey of a female writer? Any specific one that you aim or aspire to win some day?
It was an exceptional honour, particularly for Remnants to find resonance in a landscape across the world, so far from where it is was written, which speaks to the universality of the human condition during moments of trauma. Though personally, I try to not let my work be affected by the nomination or winning of any award.
Author tweets @HennaRakheja
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