By Srishti Narain
The idea that Partition needs to be studied from the perspective of the people who experienced it as opposed to macro official narratives is not something new; it has been in currency since the turn to oral history in the 1990s. Therefore, while reading young scholars who claim to write a ‘human history’ of Partition, the question that inevitably comes to mind is, what is it that they are going to tell us that we already don’t know. Aanchal Malhotra tries to meet this challenge with a certain originality of approach. Her debut book Remnants of a Separation (2017) was, for instance, a retelling of Partition through ‘material memory’ or the memory that gets stored in and can be extracted from the objects that people carried with them across the border.
Similarly, her latest book, In the Language of Remembering: The Inheritance of Partition, explores the ‘inherited’ or ‘generational’ aspect of memory. Malhotra argues that Partition is not an event that is frozen in the past, as its associated memories tend to filter down to subsequent generations who learn to identify with it. The highlight of this book then is the wide range of interviews conducted with the second, third, and even fourth generation of families affected by Partition. Malhotra is able to do this effortlessly in no small part because of her own status as a third-generation member of a Partition-family who shares a strong and somewhat inexplicable attachment with it.
The concept of the book seems novel and promising. It brings into focus an entirely new and unexplored archive of the generations that did not live through Partition but still have a sense of personal connection with it. One expects from this ambitious exercise in oral history the emergence of a whole new set of questions that would help in reimagining Partition. But it does not take long to realise that any such expectations would not be met.
At the very outset, as she begins to sketch the boundaries of her research, Malhotra fails to clarify her position vis-a-vis the existing scholarship in the field, as a result of which one is left confused about why this project is undertaken in the first place. New research generally addresses a gap in the existing literature, but in Malhotra’s case, there is barely a sense of the particular shortcomings in our current understanding of Partition that prompts her to visit this vast archive of secondhand memories. Even when talking about the inter-generational significance of Partition, she does not clarify the scope of her inquiry—whether it intends to find out how different generations interact with the legacy of Partition, or to rethink Partition as a historical event through the eyes of different generations. Because she does not attempt to assert her questions through a critical engagement with existing scholarship, Malhotra’s reading of Partition comes across as a recycled version of what we already know: that it was a colossal tragedy of human making that had significant elements of loss, grief, violence, and trauma but also exceptional instances of love, friendship, compassion and perseverance. In this respect, Malhotra’s work seems no different than the works that preceded it.
The lack of serious conclusions in Malhotra’s work cannot be attributed to a weakness of archive, for her fieldwork is meticulous, but is rather a problem of method. In this sense, this book is a perfect example of the limits of oral history: it is important to ‘preserve’ the original voices of Partition but a historian cannot stop at collecting these artefacts of memory and reproducing them as it is, as Malhotra does. The archive does not give readymade answers; it has to be rendered meaningful by the historian. This is a task which Malhotra does not carry out well. She could have done much more to process the insights from her stories instead of taking pleasure in just collecting them and assuming that they speak for themselves.
The most disappointing thing about the book perhaps is that the central thesis that it advances, that of the inter-generational significance of Partition, is never properly developed. In order to argue that Partition is still essential to the families that were affected by it, one needs to find out if there are concrete ways in which the memories of Partition have come to define the lives of subsequent generations; and this has to be distinguished from generally ‘feeling’ for one’s ancestor which is an altogether more common emotion that can or cannot translate into something bigger. Maybe both are just ways of identifying with Partition but have significantly different implications for the kind of influence it has on future generations. But for Malhotra, no such essential distinction exists; she takes for granted what she has to prove by relying on a minimum standard of evidence.
One also gets a sense of how loosely the concept of inherited memory has been applied from the interviews conducted with the likes of Narayani Basu and Sam Dalrymple whose only connection with Partition is their interest (both personal and scholarly) in the life of an ancestor who was not a ‘victim’ of Partition but was simply involved either in an administrative capacity (in the case of Basu, her great-grandfather VP Menon as political reforms commissioner to Mountbatten assisted in drafting the final plan for Partition), or just as someone who inhabited the physical space of Partition (Dalrymple’s grandfather Sir Hew Fleetwood Hamilton-Dalrymple who served as aide-de-camp to Sir Frank Messervy, first commander-in-chief of the Pakistan Army, and witnessed several important moments related to Partition). How their memories, which do not refer to any experience of having suffered due to Partition, can be taken to seriously demonstrate its inter-generational impact is beyond understanding.
Malhotra’s book is one of many attempts to bring the narratives of common people that are missing in official archives to reflect upon Partition. It has to be appreciated for the fact that it chronicles a wide variety of stories told from different standpoints, which capture the nuances of Partition very well. But it severely falls short of being a serious intervention in the history of Partition, as it does not significantly add to our understanding. The concept of inherited memory, which is at centre of this investigation, is mired in confusion and remains poorly developed, thus effectively becoming a pretext to talk about Partition in largely familiar terms.
In the Language of Remembering
Pp 756, Rs 799
(Srishti Narain is a student of MA modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University.)