Book Review: In the Language of Remembering

Aanchal Malhotra examines how the subcontinent remembers Partition

This story was originally published in India Today.

In this monumental archive of Partition, Aanchal Malhotra turns from recounting the history of that rupture through objects and material memory, as she did in her previous book Remnants of a Separation, to reflecting on “the inheritance of Partition”, illuminated through the memories of three generations of Bangladeshis, Indians, and Pakistanis.

Seventy-five years after the division of the subcontinent, Malhotra belongs, very consciously, to a generation that is able to look back and speak about Partition with the clarity of distance, though not without its own inherited pain. She listens, if not unflinchingly then with immense empathy, to Partition survivors, their children and grandchildren, weaving their stories seamlessly over some 600-odd pages in an inviting, immersive style.

With great respect for the reader, In the Language of Remembrance is well-organized into thematic chapters (fun fact, these chapters are also alphabetically named) that follow different strands of memory, from “Beginning” to “The Quotidian”. Malhotra’s object in these chapters is not necessarily Partition itself, but the memory of it, the way in which an aspect of history is narrated. So the “Beginning” refers not to the demarcation of two states (that moment is captured poignantly elsewhere in the book), but to “that moment when someone first learns that their family was affected by Partition, that moment of transference, of transmission. When a personal relationship with a collective history is established.”

While the book is suffused with such novel approaches and analytical insights, Malhotra never lets her framework overwhelm details, facts and memories. Nor does she—as Svetlana Alexievich did in her ground-breaking, multivalent oral history Secondhand Time—allow the stories to take over while extricating herself from the text. Instead, she brings the reader with her into the drawing rooms and Zoom calls where she conducted her interviews.

Malhotra own motivations and family history largely enrich the book; other prominent families are mentioned besides her own, but on the whole In the Language… attempts to embrace as many kinds of Partition narratives as possible, whether by delving into the specific histories of various ethnic minorities, or by unravelling stories that defy straightforward narration. Some of these are stranger than fiction, while others will be uncannily familiar to many South Asians. As Malhotra notes, “one story of Partition almost always leads to another.”

In different ways, these stories mourn two kinds of loss. The first is a sense of rooted belonging, a continuity of land and community. And the second is the loss of fluidity, characteristic of a pre-Partition India, where people travelled for work and love, unencumbered by borders. Over the last 75 years, people have put down new roots in the subcontinent and abroad. But the act of remembrance, Malhotra shows, may offer a way to transcend or soften the many lingering borders.

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