Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra – The Book You have been Waiting for
2nd November, 2017
Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of a Separation narrates the history of partition through heirlooms, gifts smuggled across the borders and memories etched in minds. Long before partition, Muslims and Hindus co-existed as neighbours, friends or business partners until the Partition brought its axe down and created a huge rift. Friends became enemies; neighbours became betrayers (many exceptions of course which are narrated in several stories where humanness over rides communal sentiments) and the country (two countries? India and Pakistan?) was thrown in to disarray.
The Partition affected the rich and the poor with a hard blow – people were forced to give up all their belongings and move to a land that would be their new home because of the religion they were born into. Some stayed, but at their own risk. Once in an alien city, these brave people stood tall and built their lives from scratch; from nothingness. These stories are a celebration of the human spirit that does not accept defeat; the spirit that makes a person look at ‘fate’ straight in the eye and carry on with life.
I might say this is the book that I have been waiting for. I have been very curious about how life was before and after India gained independence. I have tried extracting stories from many of my family members of the older generation with no success whatsoever. Of course the partition affected the north of India more than the south, and I thought perhaps the impact on the south might have been mostly through speeches, political movements and pamphlets which accounts for the lack of enthusiasm to talk about the events. I was surprised that in many of the stories narrated in the book, the family members were hearing the stories from the mouths of the older generation (who witnessed the partition) for the first time when the author interviewed them. Perhaps the memories were too personal, or maybe they didn’t like to remember them. Whichever the case may be, the stories reach out to you and make you shed tears over the historical divide that defined Independence.
Not too long, not too short but relatable
I am picky about my non-fiction reads. So when I saw that the book spanned over 400 pages, I was not sanguine about the thought of completing it this year. I was amazed how the stories and memories of eighteen people sucked me in, crushed my heart and forced me to put the book down at intervals and weep like a child. The chapters are just the right length and do not bore you. Aanchal uses words from other languages intermittently which are later emphasized in English as well; so you get a regional feel as well as form a connection to the characters even if you don’t understand the words.
Another aspect of the book is how relatable the whole time period in which the stories (rather memories) are set is. Aanchal has beautifully illustrated this by giving importance to money and cost of commodities in those times. So when we hear of someone thinking twice about buying ice cream for Rs. 2 (which is such a petty amount today) and then we read about the salary of the working men or women, it is very easy to form a mental picture of the financial situation of the families before and after partition. This definitely shows what a keen and accurate storyteller Aanchal is. In addition to writing down the memories of those interviewed for the book, she gives us the overall picture of the household, job and salary of the people in the stories and social position of the family, thus forging a deep connection between her subject and the reader.
The train full of dead bodies
The train that arrives from the other side of the border is filled with dead bodies. This image is revisited through the memories of different individuals as a constant reminder of the consequences of the partition. This scene is a constant ghost in many chapters and makes you wonder if all the bloodshed for a divided land was worth it. As a reader, revisiting this tragic event through different memories made me appreciate Aanchal’s writing skills.
Women during partition
My personal favourites in the stories are Gifts from a Maharaja: The Pearls of Azra Haq and Stones from my Soil: The Maang –Tikka of Bhag Malhotra. Through this book, we see women serving different roles – serving the government, raising a family, becoming writers and so on. Girls and women faced different trials when riots broke out as a result of the partition. Girls were always in fear of being raped by riotous mobs and soldiers. When Prabhjot Kaur tells her story and adds “…Most girls carried mirchi powder or poison, just in case” , she makes the reader shudder.
A common thread that links all the stories is the sturdiness of human spirit. The Partition caused havoc and wrecked lives. But those affected never gave up. Azra Haq says “…Pakistan put us through unimaginable struggles, days that I didn’t think I’d see the end of, and ultimately taught us how to be truly independent”. Balraj Bahri (the author’s paternal grandfather) says “Independence forced us to flee, made us refugees, but Dilli forced us to stand up on our feet…We have built this city, and it has built us.”
Final Verdict :
Remnants of a Separation is a wonderful read and a favourite book of 2017. Though many readers may cringe at dog ears and pencil marks in books, I am proud to declare that I have underlined so many passages in the book and marked several pages. The book wrecked me and made me burst into ugly sobs at several places. Read it at the risk of endless tears and lumps in throat. Nevertheless, read it.
Title : Remnants of a Separation
Author : Aanchal Malhotra
Publisher : Harper Collins India
Language : English
Pages : 400
Rating : 5/5
Disclaimer : Much thanks to Bahrisons Booksellers for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.
Have you read books on Partition and the Independence movement? Recommendations?