Writers on Reading. Part Four, Aanchal Malhotra
Remnants of a Separation is a collection of memoirs told through the history of personal objects. Written by Aanchal Malhotra, it is now part of an intricate tapestry (as she likes to call it) with stories of people who had to flee from their own land and begin a new life in another; the stories of migration during the partition. These stories are told through cherished heirlooms and simple objects that have now become symbolic of not just personal histories but also a nation’s collective past.
Remnants of a separation was also nominated for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and The Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay New India Foundation (NIF) Book Prize and The Hindu Literary Prize 2018.
Tell us about your earliest memories of reading.
I grew up in a bookshop called Bahrisons that my grandfather began in 1953 in Khan Market, Delhi, so books just were a part of my everyday landscape. It was and continues to be, this incredible place, where there is no vacant space on any of the walls because it’s covered with books entirely.
When I was young, I read everything from Agatha Christie to Sweet Valley High to Famous Five. I don’t think I thought so critically about reading as others might have, since books were always just there - within reach, on a table, by the bedside, in a shelf. But I do remember reading everything and a lot of it!
How did you develop a liking for history?
When I was 13 years old, we had this history teacher, Mrs. Parthasarthy, who refused to even look into the book she was teaching from. Everything was a story and she narrated incidents, dates and facts with ease. She made it enjoyable and intimate – the two things that teachers of history generally lack, especially at the school level. That was the beginning of my love for the subject, but I think it was cultivated and strengthened through self-education and intensive fieldwork only in the last five years or so.
History is fascinating and of course, stranger than actual fiction. Is there a book about any period in time that kept you engaged? Which book was that and why?
It would have to be The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. It is fiction, yes, but it was the first book where I became aware that an alternate history from the one I had otherwise known (in this case of World War II) could exist and could be so intimate. I remember reading it quite quickly the first time- it’s a short novel – and I thought for sure I had missed something. And then I read it again immediately after, but this time slowly and leisurely and that’s when it truly unfolded - the complexity of human emotion, ache and desire, existing in the backdrop of war.
I still go back to it from time to time to remind myself that every colossal capital ‘H’ History in the world is a conglomeration of several such personal, private, small ‘h’ histories.
Talking about certain memories is not an easy task especially when it involves talking to a relative stranger. While speaking to the interviewees, did you have to use any ice breakers? Were you nervous, or were they nervous? How did the conversation begin?
There are so many factors to consider while excavating traumatic memory but of utmost importance is trust. Your interviewee needs to trust you. Moreover, me, as a 20 something young woman, in asking these intimate and painful questions, was crossing not just the borders of geography and history, but also of age. All my interviewees were decades older than me, and that was a delicate detail to always bear in mind.
I started each conversation with very mundane subjects – showing interest in them, talking about their day, about their families, about my family, my interest in the Partition (everyone was always curious about this as I am quite young), and only after a little while had passed, did we mention the division of the subcontinent.
I learnt that there are many ways also to return ‘home’ as many of these people were doing amidst these interviews. Remembrance did not always begin at the beginning, but sometimes right in the middle, or because of an object or a word, or a certain song or even the weather. Each interview unfolded differently, and that I thought, was the beauty of memory.
Tell us about your writing routine or rituals.
My practice can be divided into three constituent parts, depending on the project I am working on: fieldwork, secondary research and writing.
Fieldwork can happen on any day at any time, depending on whether I am going to a site or doing an interview with someone. I always record the interview, or if I am at a site, record my thoughts of the place. I take photographs and videos, because these visual aids are incredibly helpful while writing. I also make a lot of voice notes. Everything that is recorded needs to be transcribed and translated, which is probably the most time-consuming part.
When it comes to secondary research, I’m a copious notebook-keeper – I have different ones for different subjects even within the same project, I underline and flag passages in books, and even print certain pages and put them up on my wall. I do this with maps quite a bit, particularly if I am trying to build an environment from the past.
Writing happens only at night from the hours of 11 pm – 3 am. I need silence when I write, and living at a T-junction in Delhi doesn’t help that. Also, when I write, I read everything out loud (I even do all the voices for different characters). My logic has always been that if it sounds natural, then it will read naturally as well.
The most important thing for me in my work, whether it’s a piece of history or a personal piece, is the research. I have to have exhausted all possible sources to find information before writing anything. Sometimes that’s not such a great thing, because one can (as I have many times) become obsessive about it, but most times, it makes your narrative far richer.
Tell us about your writing corner and what makes it special to you.
It’s a basic sheesham table and chair, with the balcony on its left and a footstool piled high with books on it’s right. I don’t know if it’s special per se – though sometimes I think that the luscious colour of sheesham makes me think better - but it’s one of the only spaces that presents me with a sense of possibility. Things are possible here.
Which story from the book was difficult to write?
Probably the chapter on my paternal grandfather. He had traveled by train from Malakwal, Mandi Bahauddin, district Gujrat with his mother and two younger siblings. His father was kept behind for several months. Though he eventually joined them, my grandfather entered independent India essentially as the patriarch, having to earn and feed the family.
He died the year I began writing and I felt so angry with him for having left us so abruptly. His voice became so difficult to listen to in the interview recordings, that I paused writing the chapter many times. Eventually, I ended up talking to a photograph of his I’d put up on the wall. We all have our ways of dealing with grief, and I think in this regard, I’m still finding mine.
Is there a family heirloom that holds a lot of significance for you? If yes, why.
This elegant brass surmedani that my grandmother bought from Chandni Chowk in 1948 - one year after she arrived in Delhi from Dera Ismail Khan and was living in Kingsway Camp, North Delhi. Surmewalas would sit in a line outside the Gurudwara Sis Ganj Sahib. The daani, the container, came separately with this long stick, the suramchi, and the surma itself would be packed in a small bag. Kajal was uncommon in those days, and most women darkened their eyes with surma to “strengthen them”.
Later in life, my grandmother began making the surma at home. She used to pierce an almond with a long needle, and holding it, would burn the top. As the almond burned, she would hold a spoon with the concave side down and collect the soot on its surface. Then she'd take her fingertips, dip them in the blackness and darken her eyes. The excess was stored in a surmedani.
My mother did the same thing for me when I was a child, my large almond-shaped eyes darkened with the soot from the almond itself. Though we have now graduated to kajal, my grandmother still uses surma. She applies it only on special occasions and it usually stains her waterline for a few days.
A quote from a recent book you read that changed you, moved you or made you think?
‘Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is to watch the year repeat its days’ from Glass, Irony and God by Anne Carson.
Had you been a fictional book character, which one would you be? Why?
Sometimes I feel like Jonathan from ‘Everything is Illuminated’. He is a collector of artifacts and oddities, and so am I. The only difference is that my collection is wrapped up in newspapers and boxes, and he places each item into a zip lock bag, labels it and staples it directly onto the wall.
The similarity between us though, is that we both keep things because we are afraid of forgetting.
Stuff on the Internet that puts you off?
Which is your favourite art account on Instagram?
@eastlondonprintmakers (I’m trained as a traditional printmaker)
Where on the Internet are you sure to find a quick 15 mins good read?
Aanchal sent us this photograph of her beautiful and enviably organised bookshelf.
Interviewed by Aparna Varma