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Materials, Memories and Closure

An Evening with Aanchal Malhotra


Arslan Athar


Delhi-based author and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra was in conversation with Hassan Tahir Latif at The Peepul Press (Lahore) on February 12; the event was held in collaboration with Indus Conclave.


Aanchal Malhotra is arguably one of India’s biggest contemporary writers. Her work on Partition, material memory, and inherited memory have been phenomenal and moving to read. Her recent work, a novel called The Book of Everlasting Things, which is based in Lahore, marries the trauma of Partition, the wounds the event inflicted, and the inheritance of Partition into a narrative like no other. So, naturally, when Aanchal made her journey to Lahore for this year’s Faiz Festival, I was very excited to not only meet her, but to speak with her about everything she’s worked on.


In her conversations at both the Faiz Festival, and at The Peepul Press, she talked about “closure”. What she said has been stuck in my mind since I heard it. Aanchal talked about how the novel, in particular, was a way for her to feel a connection with a city her grandparents belonged to. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t feel a connection to Lahore, on the contrary she remarked how the city never felt alien to her. So then, the question naturally followed—was the act of writing about Partition, both in nonfiction and fiction, an act of gaining closure?


Aanchal and Hassan in conversation (photo courtesy Dunya Digital)

She paused at this question. Closure is something we’ve learned is heavy, from our lived experiences and from pop culture too. This is something her pause denoted.


“Is closure for my grandparents who left Lahore even something I can claim?”


It was this seemingly simple reply that fully captured the tension that my generation feels. The grandchildren of Partition have inherited a difficult legacy. You have the Partition generation who lived through the event, and then you have their children, the first ‘azaad’ generation; they carry with them the burden of ‘settling down’ and establishing themselves. And then there’s us, trying to figure out the complicated web of emotions, stories, and memories.


The legacy of Partition still flows in our conversations. A simple question of “aap log kahan se ho?” (where are you from?) often becomes a long answer. The legacy of Partition also carries forth in the food we eat and how we eat it. As someone of ‘mixed’ background, I’ve seen how ingredients like karri patta and naaryal are seen as alien to my Punjabi half, but are kitchen staples for my Deccani half. These are stories and experiences we share among family and friends.


This continued conversation of culture and belonging, what was and what is now, makes one think that an open wound exists in our conscience. Closure would then seem to be the only way to heal. But, as Aanchal so eloquently put it, as the inheritors of 1947, we have no place to claim closure.


The harsh reality is that life moved on. The physical places that held and hold so much meaning in family tradition may not exist or may not look the same. The cities and villages that were left behind have been transformed and morphed, often at the hands of people who also left behind a home of their own somewhere else. Thinking back to Aanchal’s first book about material memory, The Remnants of a Separation, people carried a piece of their original homes and lives with them when they crossed borders. The underlying tension and hope being that maybe they could recreate the home of their heart in a new place.


Photo courtesy Hassan Tahir Latif

Part of inheriting this legacy comes with the belief that we as a newer generation can heal wounds. This pressure, so to speak, also has to be seen within the political context of Indo-Pak relations and the current rift between the two neighbours.


So then, what is the solution? Is there even one? Aanchal is quick to offer one.


She illuminates her solution through a story of her walking through Shah Almi trying to find one of her grandparent’s home—a mission that was impossible given that she already knew it had been burned down. Yet, she went there to look. She remarked how it felt like she was looking for evidence and confirmation that she too exists in this city. Aanchal would finally walk away from this search, but shared how she felt afterwards.


Aanchal emphasised how we exist in the myriad of stories we hold within us. Physical places may not exist anymore, either literally or in the way our memory remembers them. So, we must find meaning in the stories that we inherit, we must find meaning in the bits of history we treasure, and we must find meaning in passing those down so that the legacy never dies. Closure is difficult to attain, but the memories and stories we inherit are a part of who we are and always will be—they tell the story and we must carry that with pride!



 



Arslan Athar is a writer based out of Lahore. He loves to explore identity, gender, and morality in his stories. He was a 2021 South Asia Speaks fellow, and got to work with Pakistani author, Fatima Bhutto, on his novel manuscript.

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