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Revealing the pain of Partition through fact and fiction

Author and oral historian Aanchal Malhotra tells the human stories of a wrenching history
February 23, 2023
By David Silverberg

Two women sit and have a conversation with a tea cup in the foreground Aanchal Malhotra (right) interviewing Savitri Mirchandani in 2016. | Photo by Maya Mirchandani

In 2013, while on sabbatical from her graduate program in studio arts at Concordia, Aanchal Malhotra, MFA 15, went back to her hometown of New Delhi, India. It was a trip that would change the trajectory of her artistic career.

Then studying to be a traditional printmaker, Malhotra visited her maternal granduncle. In a rare moment of candor, he opened up to her about the partition of British India in August 1947. Partition — the arbitrary imposition of new borders by the departing British Raj and designation of Pakistan as the homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims — forced Hindus and Sikhs to migrate eastward to India, and Muslims westward to Pakistan, displacing approximately 14 million people and killing another million.

“There was usually silence about Partition, my family didn’t talk about it,” recalls Malhotra, 33, in a Zoom interview from New Delhi, where she now lives after moving there in 2016. But through objects he kept all these years — a vessel and a yardstick — her granduncle revealed how he spent his childhood in Lahore, Pakistan, where he would fly kites and ride his bicycle.

Inspired by that conversation, Malhotra embarked on a decade-long journey to interview generations of families impacted by Partition, compiling an emotional oral history through photographs and open-hearted interviews that formed the foundation of two published books: Remnants of a Partition (2019), and In the Language of Remembering (2022).

“There’s something about looking at objects as catalysts of remembrance,” Malhotra says. These resurfaced memories can do more than just bring catharsis to the witnesses of Partition, she adds. There’s something special about “excavating a story, witnessing it being uttered and, sometimes, for the first time, allowing it to fill the room and hope that its retelling can lead to a learning and prevent such acts from happening again.”

Now she’s shifted away from non-fiction to pen her first novel, which focuses on how Partition and the First World War impact two different families. In The Book of Everlasting Things, released in December 2022, Malhotra brings readers into late-1930s Lahore, where a perfumer’s apprentice and a calligrapher’s apprentice fall in love but are soon separated by the forces of Partition. Per the Associated Press review, “Malhotra tried her hand at longform fiction and succeeded with elegance. At all turns, The Book of Everlasting Things is deeply human, with careful attention paid to both factual and emotional accuracy.”

“It’s a slow-moving book, quiet and tender, that I want readers to really sink into — to really live within — just as I did while writing it,” says Malhotra, who plans on returning to Montreal in the spring for several book-launch events.

A woman with long brown hair wears a saree with a bookcase in the backgroun Aanchal Malhotra | Photo by Aashna Malhotra

‘A unique job, not without its own challenges’

Before fiction crossed her artistic radar, Malhotra was studying traditional printmaking and art history at Toronto’s Ontario College of Art and Design University. She then went on to graduate school to delve deeper into printmaking at Concordia, majoring in studio arts, and was soon enamoured by how wide-ranging her practice could be.

“It was Eric Simon, a professor I had, who helped me realize how writing can be visual, too, and that idea of multidisciplinary thinking let me explore whatever medium would best express the ideas I had.”

In the case of another major project she co-founded, that medium was a website. The Museum of Material Memory acts as a crowd-sourced digital hub for anyone to submit stories around the objects that connect them to the history of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries of the subcontinent.

Being an oral historian and a writer mining the past is fulfilling, says Malhotra, but also taxing. “It is a unique job, not without its own challenges, whose most important tenet is to be able to listen without asserting opinion or being coloured by bias, and then to realize that in some way, you will always continue to hold on to this sadness of others.”


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