The Art of Recording Memory: In Conversation With Aanchal Malhotra

Aanchal Malhotra is an artist, oral historian and writer based in New Delhi whose words retell history from a deeply personal and authentic perspective. Her work is largely focused on the Partition, vivid stories that she brings to the fore through discovering material objects that were carried across borders during the time. For our focus at Le Mill this month, we picked the creative who decodes history in written word.

Aanchal Malhotra, Author, Writer, India Partition, Partition Museum

Author and oral historian- Aanchal Malhotra


We sat down with Malhotra to chat about her work, what inspires her, her favourite books and what’s next for the author:

Was becoming an author always what you wanted? What drew you to writing?

As a child, I never imagined that I would become an author, despite the fact that my family ran a bookshop in Delhi. All I wanted to be was an artist, it was something I was good at, something that I actively pursued, and something I’m grateful my parents always encouraged me to be. At seventeen, I enrolled in the bachelor of fine arts (BFA) program at the Ontario College of Art & Design, Toronto as a printmaker. For four years, I studied traditional engraving, lithography, papermaking, book making, letterpress, and silkscreen printing. After this, I spent two years of my masters’ degree at Concordia University, Montréal, honing these skills further, working as a teaching assistant, and on commissions as a freelance printmaking.

Eventually, my practice began to become more and more minimalist, and this was the first time I seriously began using text in my work. Text as another vehicle to enter into a piece of visual art, text that accompanied an engraving or photograph, text as a blind emboss on paper. Language crawled into my work very slowly and sort of swallowed the visual image until it almost became an image. It was then, perhaps at the age of twenty-two or twenty-three that I seriously began to consider writing as a form of art that I could envision practicing.

Remnants of a Separation: A History of Partition through Material Memory, Aanchal Malhotra, Author, Writer, Books, Partition Museum, India Pakistan Partition

Aanchal's first book that brings together vivid stories of the Partition.


What made you write your first book? What was your favourite anecdote from it?

As a part of my masters’ thesis, I had interviewed Indians and Pakistanis about the objects they carried across the border during the 1947 Partition. I was interested in why and if these objects were still precious to them, whether they were actively celebrated or not for having survived the catastrophic days of Partition, and if they could be used as a catalyst to remember an undivided past. My focus for the thesis had been the actual object, but nothing I read in books or textbooks at school ever exemplified the vividness with which these first hand testimonies were recounted to me, not to mention how insightful, diverse, tolerant and meaningful they were, even six or seven decades on. I thought that my generation and those who come after me deserve a record of the memory of our ancestors – in their own voices – and hence was born my first book, Remnants of a Separation: A History of Partition through Material Memory. To be honest, there are too many memorable moments from the book to choose just one.

But I would say that it was a privilege to be able to listen to people’s memories of their time and understand how complicated Partition was to have lived through. It fractured peoples’ relationships with their own – friends, neighbours, even lovers – suddenly became the other, against the backdrop of fear and communal strife. Each of the stories in Remnants is special to me and lives with me daily.

Aanchal Malhotra, Author, Writer, India Partition, Museum of Material Memory, Partition Mueseum
A glimpse of the Museum of Material Memory.

How did the idea of The Museum of Material Memory come about?

The idea for the Museum was born from my personal research. While I was putting together Remnants, several people began writing in to know whether I would be willing to visit them to see their objects. It got me thinking about the ways that an organic archive could be built to preserve material history - one based on submissions, where people from across the subcontinent and its diaspora could submit stories about the objects that have existed in their families for generations, in order to celebrate the material history of the subcontinent, in a way that transcends the borders that exist between its countries.

I shared the idea with a school friend of mine, Navdha, who came on board and suggested that we extend the time period beyond Partition to include objects until the 1970s. This not only broadened our historical and geographic scope tremendously - by allowing communities that had not been impacted by Partition to be a part of this archive - but also expanded the periphery of knowledge that we were hoping these personal artefacts would provide. 

You have a very distinct style that mixes modernity with tradition. Can you tell us more about how you developed this aesthetic? Do you feel like your work also influences your personal style? How would you describe your personal style?

I don’t know if I’d consider myself particularly stylish. But my personal style has developed mostly out of the fact that I’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time speaking to the elderly in towns and villages across South Asia about their memories of Partition - many of these were women who carried with them a very distinct style from their youth with grace and elegance. Whether it is tying a starched cotton sari to perfection each day or how a dupatta is draped across one's head or the choice of jewellery, were elements that stood out to me in our interactions.

Quite often, the conversations would include things like an heirloom phulkari bagh, or a decades old hand embroidered shawl, or a piece of ajrak or ornately spun naale, which made me innately aware of the intention with which the adorned is elevated and celebrated in every part of the subcontinent. There is depth and meaning within a pattern or motif, histories of communities have been embedded within the use of a specific fabric or thread, and by simply paying attention to these sartorial nuances, I think I began to inculcate them in my own wardrobe.

Aanchal Malhotra, India Partition, Partition Museum, Author, Writer

Aanchal's personal style is all about sartorial nuances.


As a writer, how do you find your inspiration?

More than often, I end up writing about family. Not necessarily my family, though it has occupied a large place in my work, but the history of families in general, against the backdrop of the nation they live in. Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, diasporic, mixed families, against the subcontinental politics they navigate. And within that milieu specifically, I find inspiration in the intimate gestures that members of a family share. The sharing of language and food, the bequeathment of history, memory and heirlooms, the quieter acts that may otherwise go unnoticed. What is offered between generations and granted passage down the ancestry, is what inspires me. 

What are some pieces of clothing that you own and cherish?

I own a dussa shawl that once belonged to my paternal grandfather and was given to me after he passed. I cherish it deeply, though I’ve never worn it. I’ve also inherited many of the saris my grandmother used to wear to work in the 1950s, and love draping those whenever I can.

Aanchal Malhotra, Author, Writer, India Partition, Partition Museum, Museum of Material Memory
Bhag Malhotra, Aanchal's paternal grandmother.

We see many pictures of an older woman on your social media. Who is she, and what's her story?

It’s my paternal grandmother, Bhag Malhotra, I do write about her a lot. I grew up with her and she has come to define a lot of the ways I think about the past and what I choose to write about as well. I am particular to document some of her habits or ways of cooking or even language and song, for these are things that are now fading from the modern world. Along with my grandfather, her experiences of living through and surviving Partition really informed my understanding of the event. She came to Delhi from Dera Ismail Khan as a sixteen-year-old with her single mother and siblings, and they lived at Kingsway Refugee Camp for several years. She volunteered at the social service department of the camp, went to college in the evenings, and managed to support her family by eventually finding work in the Ministry of Rehabilitation. She is the embodiment of someone who worked tirelessly to stand on their own feet in an independent nation, despite the losses and challenges borne by her and her kin. 

Your social media is a portal into your creativity. Talk to us about the world you are trying to communicate through your social media.

I think social media helped me to understand quite early on that there was a hunger for cross-border stories, that was devoid of present-day political or national allegiances, but struck the chords of collective history and nostalgia. In that sense, it has helped to unmake the other, which in my case are those across the border, for I have tried to give them a face and a heart and a landscape that is not very different from our own. It is a tool I use to try to bridge the conversational gap between South Asians, irrespective of how deeply entrenched the physical borders between them may seem. Simply put, my social media is a world of stories from an undivided India.

What are you currently reading? If you had to name a favourite book, which would it be and why?

Right now, I’m dividing my time between Ghee Bowman’s The Indian Contingent: The forgotten Muslim Soldiers at Dunkirk and Anindita Ghose’s The Illuminated. I’m also very excited by the advanced reading copy of Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence by Shrayana Bhattacharya, which has just arrived in the mail today and will be out in bookshops in October 2021.

One of my favourite books is Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death. It was published in 1964 and recounts the last six weeks of her mother’s life. A highly personal and inward text about loss and bereavement, the inescapably terminal nature of life, and the relationship between a mother and a daughter. It is sad but evocative, and I return to it every now and then. 

What can you tell us about your forthcoming books, In The Language Of Remembering and The Book of Everlasting Things? The latter is a novel. How has writing fiction been different from your usual work?

In the Language of Remembering, which comes out in Spring 2022, is an anthology of oral history interviews with subsequent generations of Partition-affected families across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and their respective diaspora, to understand if and why the 1947 Partition continues to shape and inform the identity of multiple generations of South Asians today. It was a book many years in the making, and I hope it is reflective of the concept of secondhand or inherited memory when it comes to events like Partition.

My debut novel, The Book of Everlasting Things comes out in Winter 2022. Without revealing too much, I will say that at its heart, it is a love story that begins in Lahore in the years before Partition. The world of fiction was very daunting to navigate as a historian, there was a freedom and boundlessness that I was unfamiliar with employing beforehand. It has probably offered me the most growth, in terms of the sheer extent to which alternative, fictional worlds can be constructed and embodied.