Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory

Remnants of a separation

Status: Read from Aug 30 to Sept 11, 2017
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 386
Author: Aanchal Malhotra


Seventy years have passed since the partition, and a momentous event now recedes in memory. Generations have grown up outside the shadow of the communal killings and mass displacement that shaped the contemporary history of the subcontinent.

Despite being born into a family affected by the Divide, artist and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra too had thought little about the Partition – until she encountered objects that had once belonged to her ancestors in an Undivided India. A gaz, a ghara, a maang-tikka, a pocketknife, a peacock-shaped bracelet, and a set of kitchen utensils: these were what accompanied her great-grandparents as they fled their homes, and through them she learnt of their migration and life before the Divide. This led her to search for the belongings of other migrants to discover the stories hidden in them.

Remnants of a Separation is a unique attempt to revisit the Partition through sub objects carried across the border. These objects absorbed the memory of a time and place, remaining latent and undisturbed for generations. They now speak of their owners’ pasts and emerge as testaments to the struggle, sacrifice, pain and belonging an unparalleled moment in history.

A string of pearls gifted by a maharaja, carried from Dalhousie to Lahore, reveals the grandeur of a life that once was. A notebook of poems, brought from Lahore to Kalyan, shows one woman’s determination to pursue the written word despite the turmoil around her. A refugee certificate crated in Calcutta evokes in a daughter the feelings of displacement her father has experienced on leaving Mymemsingh, now in Bangaladesh.

Written as a crossover between history and anthropology, Remnants of a Separation tells stories from both sides of the border and is the product of years of painstaking and passionate research. It pieces together an alternative history of the Partition – the first and only one told through material memory that makes the event tangible even seven decades later, lest we forget.

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First I would like to thank the publisher HarperCollins Publishers India for sending me this book to read. I love to read historical fiction and non-fiction books. This book is a treasure of memories from the Undivided India.

Today we live in a free India, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis each stay in their own free country. But we never thought what is the price our ancestors had to pay for this. We don’t know what they had to go through during the partition. Who had ever dreamt of an Divided India. Yes, talks were going on, but who ever thought that this will become a reality.  For them it never mattered, if they were Hindu, Muslim or Sikh. All these people following different religion stayed in harmony. The cruel decision of dividing India happened quickly and hastily. Even the British was not ready for it. When the line was drawn on the Undivided India, it was not just geographically, but also a line was drawn in the lives of people dividing into pre and post independence phase. Neither Viceroy Mountbatten nor the leaders involved foresaw a mass movement of population across the borders following the geographical division. Families who had lived in a place for decades, who had ancestral property, suddenly after partition found themselves at the wrong side of the border. Suddenly they become a stranger to their very own birthplace.

This was the most horrible phase of Indian history. People were not just physically displaced, they were uprooted from their own homes. They had to leave in hurry, leaving everything behind and go to a new place as a refugee. Few families took this just as a mere vacation to go to a new place across border and come back after the riots died. But got stuck at the other side, never to able to return to their homeland. Their empty houses being claimed by the refugees at both sides.

This book is collection of 19 memories of those such families (which includes the authors grandparents as well), who stood witness to the Undivided India being partitioned, their mental trauma, the up rootedness, the heart wrenching horrible moments, which were locked away and never talked about. This book make us live those moments with the help of material memory. These materials or objects, few precious and few mundane, that survived the partition, were carried across the border hidden in the folds of the clothes or inside boxes in the hope to help them in the new land to start everything from scratch. These objects that were passed from one generation to other, makes those decade old memories tangible.  We are the last generation to have lived with people who witnessed the crumbling of India in the name of partition. The memories shared in this book are not just any story or history, it is an insight to the lives, the culture, the dialects of people in Undivided India. And how these things are getting erased. The objects carried across border act as a link, holding the memories of Undivided India, to past life and the present. This book with the help of objects, carried across the border, tries to keep those memories safely archived.

I have not rated this book because memories and emotions are not for rating. They are for remembering and feeling.

This book I would highly recommend to all the Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshi readers to understand the trauma of partition. And also because, it not only contain memories of families that moved to India after partition but also of families that moved to Pakistan and Bangladesh.

About the Author:

Aanchal malhotra

Aanchal Malhotra is an artist and oral historian working with memory and material culture. She received a BFA in Traditional Printmaking and Art History from the Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto, and an MFA in Studio Art from Concordia University, Montreal. Her work has been exhibited in Canada, the US, the UK and India.

She is the co-founder of the ‘Museum of Material Memory’, a digital repository of material culture from the Indian subcontinent, tracing family histories and social ethnography through heirlooms, collectibles and objects of antiquity.

She lives in New Delhi. You can visit her work at or instagram page.


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