Book review In the language of memory: The legacy of separation from Anchal Malhotra

From Srishti Narain

The idea that separation should be studied from the perspective of the people who experienced it, unlike macro official narratives, is not new; it is in currency from the turn to oral history in the 1990s. Therefore, as you read young scholars who claim to be writing a “human history” of separation, the question that inevitably comes to mind is what they will tell us that we no longer know. Aanchal Malhotra tries to meet this challenge with a certain originality of approach. Her debut book Remnants of a Separation (2017) was, for example, a retelling of separation through “material memory” or memory that is stored and can be extracted from objects that people have carried with them across the border.

Similarly, her latest book, In the Language of Memory: The Legacy of Separation, explores the “inherited” or “generational” aspect of memory. Malhotra argues that Partition is not an event that has been frozen in the past, as the memories associated with it tend to be filtered to future generations who learn to identify with it. The focus of this book then was the wide range of interviews conducted with second, third and even fourth generation families affected by the separation. Malhotra is able to do this effortlessly, largely due to his own status as a third-generation member of the Partition family, who shares a strong and somewhat inexplicable attachment to him.

The concept of the book looks new and promising. It focuses on an entirely new and unexplored archive of generations who did not live through Partition but still have a sense of personal connection to it. One expects from this ambitious exercise in oral history the emergence of a whole new set of questions that would help rethink the title. But it does not take long for us to realize that such expectations will not be met.

At the very beginning, when he began to outline the boundaries of his research, Malhotra failed to clarify his position on the existing scholarship in the field, as a result of which one remains confused why this project is undertaken in the first place. The new study usually addresses a gap in the existing literature, but in Malhotra’s case there is hardly a sense of the specific shortcomings in our current understanding of Partition that led her to visit this vast archive of second-hand memories. Even when talking about the importance of generational division, she does not clarify the scope of her study – whether she intends to understand how different generations interact with the legacy of division, or to rethink division as a historical event through the eyes of different generations. As it does not seek to assert its questions through a critical commitment to existing science, Malchoth’s reading of Partition is a recycled version of what we already know: that it is a colossal tragedy of human work that has significant elements of loss, grief . , violence and trauma, but also exceptional cases of love, friendship, compassion and perseverance. In this respect, Malhotra’s work does not look any different from the works that preceded it.

The lack of serious conclusions in Malhotra’s work cannot be attributed to the weakness of the archive, as her fieldwork is meticulous, but rather a problem of the method. In this sense, this book is a perfect example of the boundaries of oral history: it is important to “preserve” the original voices of the Division, but the historian cannot stop collecting these artifacts of memory and reproducing them as they are, as Malhotra does. . The archive does not provide ready-made answers; it must be conceived by the historian. This is a task that Malhotra is not doing well. She could do much more to process the insights from her stories, instead of just enjoying collecting them and accepting that they speak for themselves.

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the book is that the central thesis it raises, that of the importance of generational division, has never been properly developed. In order to argue that Separation is still essential to the families affected by it, it must be established whether there are specific ways in which memories of Separation have come to determine the lives of future generations; and this must be distinguished from the general “feeling” of one’s ancestor, which is a very common emotion that may or may not become something greater. Maybe both are just ways to identify with Partition, but they have significantly different implications for the type of impact it has on future generations. But for Malhotra there is no such essential distinction; it takes for granted what it has to prove, relying on a minimum standard of proof.

One also gets an idea of ​​how freely the concept of inherited memory has been applied by interviews with people like Narayani Basu and Sam Dalrimple, whose only connection to Partition is their interest (both personal and scientific) in the life of a non-ancestral life. was a “victim” of the partition, but was simply involved in either administrative capacity (in Basu’s case, her great-grandfather VP Menon, as Mountbatten’s Commissioner for Political Reform, helped draft the final partition plan), or simply as someone who lived in the physical space of the Partition (Dalrimple’s grandfather Sir Hugh Fleetwood Hamilton-Dalrimple, who served as an aide to Sir Frank Messervi, the first commander-in-chief of the Pakistani army, and witnessed several important moments related to the Partition). It is not clear how their memories, which do not relate to the experience of suffering due to separation, can be taken to seriously demonstrate its impact between generations.

Malhotra’s book is one of many attempts to cite the stories of ordinary people who are missing from the official archives to reflect on the Separation. It should be appreciated for the fact that it describes a wide variety of stories told from different points of view, which capture the nuances of Partition very well. But this cannot seriously interfere in the history of the Division, as it does not contribute significantly to our understanding. The concept of hereditary memory, which is at the heart of this investigation, has been confused and underdeveloped, thus in practice becoming a pretext to talk about the division into largely familiar terms.

In the language of memory
Aanchal Malhotra
Harper Collins
756 pages, 799 rupees

(Srishti Narain holds a Master’s degree in Contemporary History from Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.