Partition of India: Objects that tell the story of a mass exodus

Updated 9th September 2017
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Partition of India: Objects that tell the story of a mass exodus
Written by Aanchal Malhotra, CNN
Aanchal Malhotra is a New Delhi-based artist, oral historian and author of "Remnants of a Separation: A History of the Partition through Material Memory." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
This month marks 70 years since the Partition of India, a momentous event now receding from view. In many Indian and Pakistani families like mine, "Partition" has become a word unspoken, shrouded in silence and sheathed with painful memories.
By focusing on the political events leading to the birth of India and Pakistan, the history books often fail to capture the experiences of individual refugees in what is believed to be one of the largest mass migrations in human history.
Generations have grown up in the shadow of the monumental displacement that changed the face of the subcontinent, even if it is present in their own families' stories. So, in 2013, I began a quest to uncover the everyday items that traveled with refugees in both directions -- and the powerful stories behind each one.

A personal connection

Having settled in Delhi, the families of all four of my grandparents can be traced to a land that now lies across the border. They originally hailed from places as far away as Dera Ismail Khan and Lahore, both in modern-day Pakistan.
Yet growing up, the word "Partition" was all but absent from my vocabulary. At least, it was until I encountered objects that had once belonged to my ancestors in an undivided India -- a pocketknife, a yardstick, a ghara (a type of metallic vessel), a peacock-shaped bracelet and a set of kitchen utensils.
These were the possessions that accompanied my great-grandparents as they fled their homes during the Partition in 1947. Through them, I learned of my own family's migration and life before the divide.
Being introduced to these mundane items made me realize the way in which objects can retain memories. Upon touching their old possessions, my grandparents -- and many others I have interviewed since -- drifted back to the time when they were in everyday use.
What I witnessed was how the physicality -- the texture, scent and surface -- of an object preserved and invoked memories from one of Indian subcontinent's most catastrophic events. Witnessing this, I asked myself: Could objects embody stories of family and friendship, harmony and violence, opulence and poverty? Could they be the only physical traces of life across an uncrossable border between the present and past?

Uncovering forgotten stories

Once an idea takes root in one's mind, it becomes difficult to retract. Soon I found myself visiting people who had crossed the border during Partition, and looking at the items that had gone with them.
This led me on my own journey. From my hometown, Delhi, I traveled to the crumbling city of Calcutta, the lush plains of Punjab, across the border into Lahore and, finally, to England.
Over a period of four years, I have unearthed objects that are precious, treasured and cared for. I also encountered objects that had been locked away behind glass in cupboards and vitrines, and items so mundane that had been ignored and forgotten, despite their age, beauty and serendipitous survival.
Among them are a string of exquisite Basra pearls and matching earrings owned by Azra Haq. In her early 20s at the time of the Partition, Haq was recovering from typhoid in Dalhousie when her family left in haste. They made their way through the mountainous terrain of Murree and finally settled in Lahore.
The family took few belongings with them. And much of what they had, like furniture and Persian rugs, was thrown from the truck to make space for stranded Muslims they encountered along the way. But Haq quietly tied the pearls and earrings within the folds of her baby-blue salwar kameez.
Decades later, she still holds them close to her heart as reminders of a life of opulence and grandeur she had once lived. Her English upbringing and middle-class life of garden parties were reduced to penury after the divide.

Painful memories, difficult journeys

For other migrants, like Sat Pal Kohli, the remnants of separation conjure even more troubling memories.
Born in Lahore in 1926 to a female moneylender, Kohli's house was one of ten Hindu homes in the predominantly Muslim neighborhood of Garhi Shahu. Due to the nature of his mother's work, the house was always filled with rings, bracelets and other precious items belonging to those unable to repay their debts.
As Partition riots broke out, the family was one of the first in the area to be targeted.
Speaking to me years later, Kohli recalled his mother scrambling around the house, packing bags and instructing him to find mortgaged items that were both precious and discreet enough to be hidden. Many of the items that accompanied Kohli and his mother to their adopted city of Delhi -- among them a silver soap dish and a cigarette case -- never belonged to them in the first place.
Experiences of civil unrest also linger in the memory of Partha Mitter, a Calcutta-born professor now living in the UK. Sitting with me in his Oxford home, he unwrapped a pile of books and handed me the oldest codex: "The Book of Everlasting Things."
Mitter described how a mob of men entered his family's home during the Great Calcutta Killings of 1946 -- a day of rioting and violence between Hindus and Muslims. The men made their way through the mansion, destroying whatever they could find.
This included his father's grand library. And when the intruders couldn't destroy the books fast enough, they filled the bathtubs with water and dumped them in, causing most to disintegrate into pulp.
After the mob left, the family collected what remained of their lives, including "The Book of Everlasting Things." Disfigured with water lines and tears, its every word is as readable as before. But for Mitter, it is forever imbued with the violence it witnessed.

A window to the past

The narratives bound within these objects, and many others, shine a light on incredible migratory journeys. Aside from the individuals themselves, they are also the only physical traces of a life before the divide.
The quantity and value of possessions that refugees could carry with them were often determined by the kind of life they had led, providing insight into the material culture of the time.
But memories of Partition are also especially pliable. Within them, the act of forgetting, either inevitably or purposefully, seems to play as much a part as remembering itself.
People often recall Partition as the darker side of independence -- the price we had to pay. Recounting it continues to be a difficult and sensitive act.
But as memories deteriorate, these items and the stories they tell remain intact.