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Roundabout: Mementos of migration

Memory fights forgetting in myriad ways as heirlooms pass from hand to hand.

columns Updated: Sep 16, 2018 14:09 IST
Remanants of Separation,Aanchal Malhotra,India Pakistan Partition
Remnants of a Separation

‘Ask me quickly before I forget!’ This is what an ageing grandmother tells her granddaughter who takes upon herself to record migrant tales of the great divide of 1947 and the objects that travelled with them across the Radcliffe Line which marked the creation of Pakistan and the division of India.

The grandmother is Bhag Malhotra and the granddaughter, Aanchal Malhotra, has penned a touching book of what the migrants managed to carry with them across borders.

Partition literature is ever growing and this volume looks back at 1947 through material memory. Memories are made of a zillion things, including sight, sound, taste, touch and so on, and a migrant’s memories are perhaps the most poignant.

Even those who choose to migrate carry with them nostalgia about things left behind. However, if the migration is against will, then the loss is greater. A little Syrian orphan girl in an orphanage is unable to sleep until she draws a chalk image of her mother on the floor, takes off her shoes and nestles in it. A literary expression of memory is that while warming the insides, they also tear apart a person.

This is just what Aanchal, an artist and oral historian, succeeds in doing through a myriad objects that went with the people who fled their homes carrying with them just an object or two to relate to the lost land.

One of the most evocative memories of the 19 picked up from both sides of the border is that of granny Bhag’s Maang Teeka — a jewel for the head that she brought with her and treasured for the next seven decades and more. It was a large pendant that Bhag’s mother had received at her wedding and something that she managed to bring with her.

A large handmade pendant of gold set with rubies and fringed with dangling dull turquoise and pearls. For 70 years, it was kept in a tiny box kept in her cupboard beneath the layers of clothes. She wore it once round her neck when she got married and the second time hung it on the head for Aanchal to click a picture of the heirloom.

The author of the book ‘Remnants of a Separation’ moves from her family mementos of a metal bowl and a rod to measure cloth, which belonged to her grandfather, to other such material memories which she gathered on both sides of the border.

Thus she talks of a pair of pearl danglers, which Azra Huq, who was born in Ludhiana and grew up in Jalandhar, treasures still in Lahore. These were a gift from the Bikaner Maharani. Nargis Khatun’s family brought with her a small mortar and pestle known as Khas Daan. This was used for grinding herbs for the paan. Nazeer Adhami has three pictures of himself with his team mates of the Aftab Hockey Club in the Aligarh Muslim University and says, “I treasure the memories of hockey fields that I left behind”.

Thus we move from one keepsake to another that remains a witness to the times gone by and connects the people to the way they were. Aanchal, who is also the co-founder of digital Material Memory Museum, welcomes contributions from people who fled their land with a keepsake or two.

The young writer exploring the world of material culture says, “Material memory works in mysterious ways. We surround ourselves by things and put parts of ourselves in it”. In the case of Partition, it becomes a way of understanding the turbulent personal and collective histories of the times.

nirudutt@gmail.com

First Published: Sep 16, 2018 14:05 IST