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India At 70: The Story Of Partition Through The Objects Refugees Carried Across The Border

"My search began in India and took me both across the border to Pakistan and across the seas to England."

15/08/2017 8:25 AM IST | Updated 15/08/2017 8:34 AM IST
REBECCA CONWAY via Getty Images
August 4, 2017: Shah Jahan Begum, 65, the wife of Partition survivor Saleem Hasan Siddiqui, poses with a miniature Koran his family saved during Partition at the home where he has lived since Partition in New Delhi.

A few days ago, I held in my hands a copy of my debut book for the first time. It's hardcover, yet impossibly light, the blue foil title, Remnants of a Separation, glistens off the page and as I dreamily look at it, a table full of people, including my publisher, editor and mother, look at me. "What is the one thing you've learnt from this work?" my mother asks, suddenly breaking me away from my reverie.

I think about this question for a few moments, acutely aware of the fact that over four years of primary and secondary research and the better half of my twenties have both been absorbed into the pages of this codex. "I think I have learnt to listen," I say slowly, "In the years it has taken me to write this book, I have understood the difference between hearing and listening. I have learnt the fervent intention one must have to record instances that are intangible, aged, traumatic, and most of all, ephemeral. I have learnt to be their keeper."

When I began the research for this project in 2013, it was never with the intention of writing a book. It was never with the intention of writing anything, actually. It was simply to explore further a facet of the Partition of India that I had accidentally unearthed through a mundane conversation about two old objects; a facet that had, as it were, been grossly under-researched: material memory. The history of objects that were carried across the border by refugees during their journeys of migration in 1947, and the value behind those objects now, both for those who carried them and for their subsequent generations.

My search began in India and took me both across the border to Pakistan and across the seas to England; it took me from Old Delhi submerged in lingering Mughal charm to Lahore that held on to its syncretic Punjab culture to an England that was completely unprepared for the Independence of the brightest jewel in its crown.

HarperCollins Publishers India

Through the stories of objects, I have attempted to re-tell the story of Independence and, subsequently, of Partition. At the onset, I thought such a story would remain just that. But countless conversations and interviews later, I can say with certainty that a story about the year 1947 is so much more than just that. It is a story about soil and family and sacrifice, it is about love and friendship, it is about circumstance and violence and the unthinkable, and it is also as much about longing and belonging as it is about uprootedness and migration. And what I hoped to do through my work is to tell a story about remembering.

No one ever spoke to me about Partition, despite all four of my grandparents being able to trace the lands of their birth to as far away as Dera Ismail Khan, and as close as Lahore. No one talked about fleeing from their homes or the camps they lived in when they came to India, not even about the odd jobs they did or what all they sold to continue their education. No one talked about what it felt like to never be reunited with the soil you were born on. No one talked until I found the objects whose histories were unknown to me. No one talked until I asked. So this leads me to wonder, what would have happened to that memory if I'd never asked, if I'd never prodded about the past where these objects were used everyday? Would that memory been suppressed further into silence, deeper into decline?

What would have happened to that memory if I'd never asked, if I'd never prodded about the past where these objects were used everyday?

A gaz, a ghara, a peacock-shaped bracelet, ordinary kitchen utensils, documents of family ancestry, a maang-tikka, a photograph of a deceased father, and a blunt foldable pocket knife—these were the only things my family migrated with; the only objects that would become sole survivors of life on the other side of the border, the only tangible link to home. By exploring the stories behind why these objects were taken—the conversations first hesitant and, gradually, more confident and generous—I have unearthed the story of my family's migration. The object has become a catalyst to extract memory, a portal into the past, a way to remember which focuses less on the violence that has become so entwined with the Divide and more on the way of life in Undivided India. The object can teach us about material culture, social ethnography, family customs and the notion of the precious.

After archiving the histories of over 80 objects belonging to my family and others, I have realised that memory might deteriorate as time accumulates over it, but the object remains unaltered. It has the ability to absorb the environment of a time and place now inaccessible to us because of national borders. A conversation about objects from a pre-partitioned era can bridge the generational gap in families; it is a subtle way to speak of an otherwise traumatic event. I have become the collector of such objects and their associated memories, an antiquarian or an archivist of sorts. I have found solace in textures, crevasses, cracks, folds and polish. The nuances of objects have become familiar attributes of an even more familiar landscape, and I have learnt to cultivate their physicality with ease.

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